By his own admission, the pressure of home expectation has weighed heavily on the shoulders of Mark Allen in the last two years at the Northern Ireland Open.
The Antrim man’s desire to perform well at the only tournament on the World Snooker tour to be held in his native land has twice ended in disappointment.
After a second-round exit in 2017 Allen fell at the first hurdle a year later.
An opening 4-1 win over Sam Craigie in Belfast on Tuesday has got the world number seven’s campaign off to a better start this time however – with a new approach and a fresh mental attitude credited with playing a significant part.
“I’m taking a totally different approach to this event this year. I’m trying to treat it like any other tournament – I’m even staying in a hotel even though I only live 20 minutes away,” explained Allen.
“I’ve been getting away from any issues around tickets and doing as few pre-tournament interviews as possible just to try and take the pressure off myself.
“I’m just happy to be in the next round. I feel I played a little bit better than I did the last two years and handled the situation better.
“I felt edgy again but I was ready for that as I knew that would be the case. I tried not to get involved with the crowd and just concentrate on my game.”
NI Open title ‘on my radar’
An in-form Allen has reached the semi-finals of four of his last six tournaments but believes he has not reaped the rewards his play has deserved.
“I feel I am playing better than semi-finals. I don’t want to be a player who just gets to the latter stages. I want to be winning.
“Since this tournament started in 2016 it has definitely been on my radar. I’m from Northern Ireland and a proud Northern Irishman so I want to do it for the fans – but first and foremost for myself. This is a good start but there’s a long way to go.”
‘Old pals’ act’ serving Allen well
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery and in the case of Allen he has taken a leaf out of the book of world number one, reigning world champion and defending NI Open champion Judd Trump in an attempt to replicate some of the success the Englishman has achieved over the past 12 months.
Trump believes the constant of having his brother Jack travelling with him has been a major factor in his upturn in fortunes and Allen has adopted a similar approach – no longer relying on coaching, but instead bringing his best friend Kyle Kirkwood with him to keep him relaxed and help with the long hours of practice and travel.
“I’m trying to get away from the technical, coaching aspect of things and am bringing Kyle with me for a year to see how it goes,” explained Allen, who will play Jamie O’Neill in round two on Wednesday night.
“I’m just trying a different approach, a more relaxed approach and we are having lots of fun and enjoying ourselves, as well as knuckling down on the table. I’m 33 years of age now and I’ve known Kyle for 30 of those years.
“He lifts the balls out of the pockets, a bit like Jack does for Judd, and I find I am much more relaxed around the circuit, having someone to eat with and socialise with. It helps me focus better mentally and chill out more.”
Trump survives scare after three centuries
Earlier in the day Trump survived a huge scare to progress to the second round 4-3 at the expense of world number 113 James Cahill.
The Blackpool player has earned a reputation as something of a giantkiller, having claimed the scalps of star players Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, John Higgins, Ding Junhui – and most famously Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of this year’s World Championship – one of the greatest upsets in snooker history.
In a remarkable match, Trump began the defence of the crown he won last year by beating O’Sullivan in the final in imperious fashion, reeling off three successive centuries to race into a 3-0 lead – before being pegged back to 3-3, then just edging the deciding frame.
Trump’s triumph at the Waterfront Hall last November ended a 13-month drought without a ranking event win and set him on his way to a world title success six months later – as it had also done with 2017 NI Open winner Mark Williams.
“I felt I was unlucky to be 3-3 – I felt like I was always in control and that I was going to win the game,” said Trump after his match.
“I know how good James is. I’ve seen him beat some great players and he seems to be someone who needs to be on the big stage to play at his best. He’s proved that again – he came back well and I think we will see a lot more of him in the future.”
On Tuesday evening last year’s runner-up O’Sullivan recovered from 2-1 down to overcome Oliver Lines 4-2.
Bingham’s maximum 147
The second day of competition was also marked by a maximum 147 break from ex-world champion Stuart Bingham, the sixth of his career, as he defeated Lu Ning 4-3.
“My over-riding feeling is one of relief as this is the first match I have ever won here. I held myself together in the end and got over the line,” said Bingham.
“I got off to a flying start in the first frame and by the time my break reached 40 odd I knew I had to go into the pack one more time and the balls broke lovely. At that stage I knew I had to give it [the maximum] a go.
“Judd was knocking in centuries for fun on the adjacent table so I had to steal a bit of his thunder,” joked the world number 12.
The winner of the tournament on Sunday collects £70,000 and The Alex Higgins Trophy.