Snooker: Mark Allen back in right frame of mind
Mark Allen has faced down his problems and emerged a more positive person, as he tells John O'Brien
YOU find him at the end of a long corridor, in a small room behind a big black door, off a street in Ballymena. A table sits in the middle, of pristine green baize, ironed to within an inch of its life. As he skips around it, George Best, in glorious Technicolor, and a tearful Alex Higgins stare down from the wall, local icons who were in their pomp long before he was born, ghosts he could never hope to escape even if he was of a mind to.
Stories from another time. Mark Allen looks around him now and sees the wreckage and the decay. Snooker dying a death in front of his eyes. When he moved here 14 months ago, his old room in Antrim was turned into a gambling den. He's not bitter about that. It just reflected the reality of a troubled sport living through hard times. Not gone like the Belfast shipyards yet, but heading in that direction.
He casts his eye around Northern Ireland and wonders where the rising stars are, blitzing their way through the ranks like he did a decade ago. Maybe they're all wielding golf clubs now. Dreaming of sunshine and dollar bills. How nice it would be, he thinks, to have a gaggle of young, aspiring pros beating a path to his door every day, pushing him hard in practice, keeping him sharp and focused.
Joe Swail lives nearby, but Swail spends much of his time in Manchester now and isn't around a lot anymore. He has mates, top amateurs, who help out, but they have jobs to look after and families to run. So some days he'll just ferret about on his own, breaking up the tedium with a cup of tea and a natter with the lads outside, throwing a few darts until the urge returns to spend a couple of more hours on the table.
But listen. He's not complaining. Mark Allen isn't in a bad place right now. He thinks back 12 months and winces. Didn't want to pick up a cue back then let alone look at a snooker table. It wasn't anything personal against the game. When you wake up in the morning and feel lethargic about facing the day there's no sport with sufficient glamour or wealth that can make it a more appealing prospect.
So the little things don't bother him anymore. He could move to England if he wanted top facilities and ace practice partners, but he tried that before and didn't like it. Wrecked his head, in fact. He missed home too much and, in the greater scheme of things, peace of mind had to come first. "There's not many players around here," he says, "but I don't mind that. I've dealt with that in my head. It is what it is. You just get on with it."
In two hours of conversation, it is a phrase Allen repeatedly returns to. 'Dealing with things in my head'. He is just 25, engaged to be married, has a daughter he loves dearly, is hugely talented at what he does and yet, for reasons he is still trying to understand, he has to work hard to appreciate the things he has, an internal struggle he has only recently felt comfortable talking about.
Funny thing, the mind. And so utterly complex. A couple of years back he read an article in a local newspaper comparing him to Rory McIlroy. The hook for the piece was the fact that they were both beginning that season ranked No 11 in their respective sports. Beyond that, Allen couldn't see much of a link. The barely recognisable snooker player and the rising starlet criss-crossing the planet, earning millions and global fame.
He remembers the first time they met, in a Belfast nightclub, McIlroy out with his mates, as if he was just another kid enjoying a normal night out. They shared a beer, had a long conversation and Allen couldn't help admiring the sense of perspective the golfer had on things. "I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes," McIlroy says on his Twitter page and that, more or less, Allen figures, is what he does too.
Sometimes he found perspective hard to come by, though. Not that he was arrogant or getting ahead of himself. It was just too easy to wonder why he was No 11 in the world and yet not driving an expensive sportscar or enjoying the lavish wealth bestowed on golfers and footballers. Too easy to get sucked into that dark, ungrateful place where you felt the game owed you more than the other way round.
"Eventually you realise people in other sports are No 11 in the world but they don't get what you get. I think of it another way now. I'm No 11 in the world. There are only 10 people on the planet better than me. And I'm fortunate to get paid for what I'm doing. That's something I've remembered over the past while. When I was going through bad times, I forgot that. I'm trying to be a bit more positive in myself, not just at the table, but in everyday life."
It is just under a year since Allen first spoke publicly about his ongoing battle against depression. At the time his career was plunging downhill, his head a jumble of doubts and dark thoughts. He had stopped practising and lost his competitive edge. In March, he'd gone to the airport for the first stage of a long journey to China and found he couldn't board the plane. He called his coach Terry Griffiths, explained his feelings and went home to his sanctuary to be alone.
At that point he knew he needed help. Admitting to himself he had a problem was the first step. Talking about it was the next release. Friends and family have been his greatest support and, through therapy, he has worked his way to a point where the underlying causes remain elusive but he can watch out for the tell-tale signs that he might be close to slipping under again.
"Sometimes talking to the doctor I look back and see signs and think how did I not see that? Silly things. Like I'd organise a game of golf and not turn up. I'd just sit at home on my own, blocking things out, not committing to doing anything. Not spending time with anyone or speaking to my friends. The same people who helped me through it. Stupid really. You think to yourself, 'if only I'd done it sooner', but it happened the way it did."
He supposes the trigger was always there, just waiting for the perfect storm to release it. His father introduced him to snooker when he was 11 and, for a few years, he enjoyed the innocence of it, rising seamlessly to the top in Ireland, never thinking about turning professional or anything beyond the simple joy of playing. But, inevitably, that's where he was headed and in 2005 he arrived in England to take his first faltering steps as a pro.
He met Reanne Evans, an accomplished snooker player herself, at a tournament that year and, within two years, she had given birth to Lauren. For Allen, just turned 19, it was a momentous, life-changing event. He remembers the moment Reanne told him she was pregnant. He'd just scraped by Scott McKenzie in a qualifying match for the Grand Prix and had that match swung the other way, he knows, he'd have fallen off the tour and faced a long, uncertain road back.
Lauren lives with her mother near Birmingham now and it is a source of regret for Allen that he doesn't get to see his daughter very often. He produced one of the defining images of last year's World Championships when, having sealed a crucial first-round victory against Matthew Stevens, he approached Lauren, seated in the front row, and caught her in an emotional embrace.
Even now he's not exactly sure why he did so or what turbulent emotions were swirling around in his head. "It was strange," he says. "Everybody saw that and assumed everything was rosy. Reanne there with Lauren in the front row. It was just a great moment for me and Lauren and I suppose for the viewers too. But the day after Lauren was gone again. I didn't see her for a few months. That's what people didn't see on television."
A year on, things are different. If not entirely in his circumstances, then in how he chooses to frame them. He stays calm and positive. He supposes too that the bumps and potholes you meet along the road help you grow up faster and toughen you for the challenges that lie ahead.
And he figures that, all told, a well-publicised feud with World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn is small beer by comparison. After beating Adrian Gunnell in the UK Championships last month, Allen launched a verbal tirade at Hearn over the shortening of games and dramatically called on him to resign. In response, Allen was reprimanded for using a swear word during his press conference and branded a "silly little boy" by Hearn.
He didn't mind Hearn's rather condescending remark and saw their falling-out for what it was: more than a storm in a teacup, perhaps, but some distance short of a national crisis. The UK Championships was the first BBC televised tournament of the season and offered a good platform to voice strong opinions which, by Allen's reckoning, are shared by many of the world's top players.
He'll concede certain points: that the game is far better off now than in the days before Hearn took control and that, long term, snooker will profit, but he can't help wondering what cherished traditions will be shed along the way. He sees a calendar being stuffed with low-key tournaments, players told to be grateful for such tiny morsels, racking up huge expenses that those at the bottom can never hope to reclaim. And nobody, he thinks, least of all the chairman, should be above criticism.
"Barry explained to me that the UK games were shortened because the BBC made an ultimatum. Either you shorten it or we won't show it. That's unfortunate for snooker but I understand it. The BBC call the shots. But you had Ronnie O'Sullivan, the biggest name in snooker, playing Judd Trump, another big name, in the second round and, at 5-5, the BBC stopped coverage. So what's the point in bending over backwards for the BBC if they still don't show the finish?
"I asked him about the World Championship and he said it wouldn't be touched. But he did say it won't be touched this year. Which obviously leaves it open. He can't promise it won't be touched in the future. He goes, 'if I can I won't touch it'. But at the end of the day, the BBC call the shots."
They met in Sheffield just before Christmas and talked amicably for an hour without, Allen reckons, finding much common ground. No matter, really. He saw much in Hearn, the stereotypical brash cockney, that while hard to warm to, was easy to respect. "I asked him about his threat to take legal action and he says, 'I'm not going to sue you because, put it this way, you don't have enough money'. It was a bit condescending but it was funny. That's Barry to a tee."
All in all, he thinks, a robust and healthy exchange of views. Now they can move on. If anything, the publicity was good for the sport and the game will roll on regardless. He's in too good a place right now for little things to get him down anyway. He got engaged to Kyla on Christmas Day, he's hoping to spend more time with Lauren this year and he's on good terms with his game again, gearing up for the Masters at the Alexandra Palace this week, eager to drive on.
He asks himself tough questions now. Six years a pro and yet he's barely scraping the rim of the world's top 10 and only once, at last month's UK Championships, has he reached the final of a ranking event. Not good enough, he knows. He's past that self-pitying stage where he would bust a gut in practice and feel the world was against him when it still failed to produce the desired results. You work your ass off and still there are no guarantees. He knows that now. You can only truly succeed when you are comfortable with the notion of failure.
"A lot of people think I should've done better in the game," he says. "I'm one of them. It might be a bit arrogant to think it but I've underachieved. In my head I'm much better than what I've shown. I still say to this day I've done nothing in the game. I've shown glimpses but everybody shows glimpses. I know I'm lucky to be still where I am after not putting the work in last year. I won't make that mistake again. If I drop out of the top 16, it'll be because I wasn't good enough. Not because I didn't put the work in."
Two weeks ago, he posted a message on his Facebook page. "Not going to let anything get to me this year," it said. "Going to be super positive." New year, new resolve.
Sunday Indo Sport