Only two players have had their names etched on the Alex Higgins Trophy since the introduction of the Northern Ireland Open to snooker’s world ranking tournament schedule in 2016 – Mark King and Mark Williams.
In light of his recent form, there was a palpable sense of optimism pervading the opulent Waterfront Hall that a homegrown hero with the same Christian name could add his name to that exclusive roll of honour this year – but it is not to be.
As it turned out the hopes of local hero Mark Allen were convincingly extinguished at the first hurdle by Niu Zhuang – another of an exciting and seemingly never-ending production line of young Chinese talent.
The 24-year-old impressed his captive audience with carefully crafted breaks of 122 and 71 and belied the fact that at 90th he lies 83 places behind his illustrious opponent in the world rankings by producing a composed polished performance to win 4-1.
His success offers evidence of the depth of talent among a new rising generation of young snooker stars as Allen, despite an 88 break and some spectacular pots, was unable to build up the necessary momentum to progress.
Given that the Antrim cueman was playing his first-round match on a Monday afternoon, a healthy, enthusiastic and partisan support had filed into the Waterfront to provide their backing.
The decked seating overlooking the main arena creates a natural amphitheatre as an engrossed knowledgeable crowd lapped up the opportunity to see the sport’s most talented exponents at close quarters.
Unfortunately for Allen’s fans it was more a case groans of audible groans of frustration than cheers – the voice of the referee, the click of the balls and periodic bouts of appreciative applause the only things to break the respectful silence.
A good year – but NI Open run eludes Allen
Northern Ireland of course boasts an enviable snooker heritage passed on from the likes of former world champions Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor – and although Allen has been mixing it with snooker’s elite for some years now he was catapulted further into the public consciousness by winning one of the sport’s coveted ‘big three’ titles, the Masters, in January.
The 32-year-old was less than one year old the last time one of his fellow countrymen collected a ‘Triple Crown’ major title – Taylor beating compatriot Higgins 9-8 in a memorable Masters decider back in 1987.
Allen followed up his Masters triumph with a century-laden success at the International Championship in China at the start of November – a win double which netted the world number seven a cool combined total prize money of £325,000 from those two tournaments alone.
But despite reaching the quarter-finals in 2016, by his own admission, the four-time ranking tournament winner has underachieved at his ‘home’ event, conceding that the weight of expectation can be a difficult burden to bear.
“I didn’t feel I made many mistakes and I thought I played some good snooker but I put too much pressure on myself to do well at this tournament when I should just be trying to play snooker,” admitted Allen.
“At most events you just play for yourself but here I really want to try and win for the fans. I missed a black off its spot and at this level you just can’t do that. Maybe if I’m still around in 20 years’ time it will happen for me!
“I gave it my best but I’m very very disappointed to go out of my home tournament. My form is really good and my game in general is in good shape though so I’m going to the UK Championship with plenty of positives.”
Before pressure played a part in Allen’s shock demise, defending champion and reigning world title holder Mark Williams took centre stage and effectively dealt with a ‘burden’ of his own – in the form of English opponent Alfie Burden.
The ‘Welsh Potting Machine’, as he’s known, has been malfunctioning somewhat since his success at The Crucible Theatre in May but aided by two breaks of 91, Williams accounted for his rival despite struggling to find his best scoring form in the early stages.
So frustrated was the Welshman at one stage that he offered his cue to a member of the audience in the expectation that he may do better.
Outspoken O’Sullivan pulls in the crowds
Only perennial fans’ favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan could expect to challenge Allen as top billing in the crowd-pulling stakes this week – the five-time former world champion’s profile being such that he can always count on significant support wherever he plays.
The mercurial English player will be highly fancied to go far in this tournament on the back of his dramatic 10-9 victory over Kyren Wilson in the Champion of Champions final in Coventry on Sunday – provided that he can overcome the potential banana skin of the quick-fire best-of-seven frame format which has helped provide more than its fair share of upsets at the event in recent years.
As a personality whose fame transcends the sport and with a disposition to speak his mind, O’Sullivan’s star quality consistently makes him ‘box office’ material for promoters.
Never far from the headlines, he requested the removal of press photographers who were not using tripods at the 2017 NI Open and was also critical of what he believed was a lack of atmosphere at the Waterfront, which replaced the Titanic Exhibition Centre as the home of the Belfast-based tournament after just one year.
In an age when most leading sportspeople are under the influence of media training and ‘on message’, it is refreshing that the post-match press conferences at snooker events often provide the outspoken or ‘off the cuff’ remarks which make the most newsworthy headlines.
Australian Neil Robertson was critical of the practice facilities available at the 128-player tournament last year, while Judd Trump was fined for conceding a frame while he had enough points to win – splattering the reds with his cue and then refusing to attend the media conference afterwards.
O’Sullivan makes no secret of his dislike of the multi-table format – there are eight matches taking place simultaneously in Belfast this week – with three tables situated in the main auditorium.
He caused controversy last month by criticising the choice of the K2 Leisure Centre in Crawley as the venue for last month’s English Open – the first of the Home Nations series which boasts an added incentive of £1m for any player who can secure all four titles.
Stuart Bingham was the only player still in the running for the lucrative bonus prize coming into the NI Open, however a 4-2 defeat to Peter Lines on Monday night ended the ex-world champion’s hopes.
Strong line-up despite packed calendar
Despite a packed professional calendar, 15 of the world’s top 16 have gathered this week as the leading players target the £70,000 top prize.
As soon as one tournament ends another begins – that’s how it is for the global snooker tour now, in this case leaving players, fans, coaches, media and officials alike little time to digest O’Sullivan’s Ricoh Arena victory before the ‘travelling circus’ rolled into Belfast.
It’s a demanding schedule, the competitions come thick and fast, but at least the players will be afforded a week-long sabbatical after the conclusion of this event to fine-tune their games ahead of the forthcoming UK Championship in York.
It’s all a far cry from the days of the Northern Ireland Trophy, which ran from 2005 to 2008 at the same venue, when it was only one of around half a dozen on World Snooker’s global roster.
Top stars ‘readily recognisable’
The sport may not command the same popularity as in its heyday in the 1980s but on the evidence of this tournament its fans are still flocking to see their heroes perform on the green baize, the sport’s profile aided by its continuing ready availability on terrestrial television which means the names of its top players still trip readily off the tongue.
Coaches, sports psychologists and even fitness trainers now pepper the players’ lounges as the games’ leading lights try to finesse their technique and be in the best possible frame of mind to perform under pressure – but the spectacle has remained much the same.
Among the other stars present is the legendary Jimmy White, still plying his trade, but these days mixing his playing duties with his role as a television pundit.
The first two Northern Ireland Opens threw up notable stories as King ended his 25-year wait for a ranking title and Williams preceded his World Championship win by clinching the crown after considering withdrawing from the tournament because of his wife being ill. Both matches went to final frame deciders.
We await the next chapter with interest as the drama unfolds…