Mark Allen has won the Northern Ireland Open, after going the 17-frame distance with John Higgins. The pair shared an incredible day of snooker, with the hometown favourite coming back from 8-6 down to win three straight frames and clinch the title. Allen started his tournament with a maximum in qualifying, and ends it lifting the Alex Higgins Trophy in the city of his birth, Belfast.
The afternoon session had ended tantalisingly poised at 4-4. The four-time world champion Higgins had to battle back from 4-2 down, after going behind with a nervy display that was a world away from his semi-final dominance of Yan Bingtao. Allen looked set to lead going into the evening session, but he broke down on 53 and let Higgins back into the game.
Earlier in the session, Higgins had logged a third-frame 123 break that he nearly turned into a 141, but the Scotsman struggled on the blue. His greatest moment came when he clenched session parity, with a stunning 55 break that Ronnie O’Sullivan dubbed the best he had ever seen during punditry for Eurosport.
The Belfast man came roaring out of the blocks in front of his home crowd in the evening session. His long-game was simply superb, as he scooped the first frame. Higgins fought back in the tenth, but the eleventh belonged to Allen, who took out the frame with an 85. The pair were locked in a pitched battle for supremacy now.
An Allen miss on a long red in the bottom left saw the pendulum swing once more, and Higgins was not going to turn down the opportunity to level things. The players went into the interval at 6-6, with the tantalising prospect of a best-of-five for the Alex Higgins trophy to close the Northern Ireland Open.
The thirteenth frame saw Higgins take the lead for the first time in this final. Allen conceded after he left Higgins with an open red. The hometown hero would have needed snookers had the Scotsman potted it, so Allen decided discretion was the better part of valor on this occasion.
He would barely get a look in during the next frame, as John Higgins played some wonderful snooker. His cue ball control saw him win the respect of the Belfast crowd, and evoke the memory of a certain Hurricane that once swept through these parts. A 136 break from the ‘The Wizard of Whishaw’ turned the contest in his favour. Higgins was within a frame of the title, and Allen had it all to do at 8-6.
The 35-year-old played good, patient snooker in the fifteenth frame, content to put Higgins in difficult positions on the table early on. A rest shot on a red set Allen up nicely for a 20 break to take the frame, and give himself a chance of forcing a decider. The omens, however, were against him. All six previous Northern Ireland Open finals had been settled 9-7.
The six-final run would be broken though, with a nail-biting frame finally ending with Allen drawing level. A superb three-cushion shot from Higgins was the stand-out moment, finding a red that looked impossible to hit. But it was not enough to take the Alex Higgins trophy, as this match got the decider it richly deserved.
The crowd roared their local boy home in the final frame, with the referee actually alerting security to a particularly rowdy group. But far from put off, Allen was bolstered by the incredible Belfast atmosphere as he took the final frame in style. Higgins deserves immense credit for playing his part, and joining Allen in gifting us with seventeen frames of wonderful snooker.