Neal Foulds is back to discuss a busy period in the snooker calendar and give his view on that spat between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Allen.
With five weeks of snooker between now and Christmas, it’s fair to say it’s going to be a busy time for everyone involved with the sport, but before looking ahead, I must reflect on the Champion of Champions and pay tribute to Mark Allen for his brilliant victory last week.
I wrote in my last column that he was one of the players I was expecting big things from this year and I’m really pleased he delivered and got back to winning ways. He’s been such a consistent player for a number of years now and I always felt it was only a matter of time before he turned all those performances into some silverware.
A few may have wondered if Allen had lost that winning knack, but he’s one of the few players, that when putting it all together, is almost impossible to stop. He’s like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump in that sense and he’s definitely in that category for me. He’s such a heavy scorer when he’s playing at his best and there are very few in the game like him or who can handle him.
The big challenge for Allen now is not to rest on his laurels; he needs to put his foot down and look to win again, starting with the Northern Ireland Open next week. It’s always a big event for the Northern Irishman, but not always one he’s done particularly well in when it’s been staged in Belfast, and he ought to fancy his chances next week with the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd taken away this year.
Stephen Hendry and I had the argument last week about the World Championship and whether Allen could become world champion one day. Stephen thinks he won’t, but I think he could. He’s got something about him and I would never write him off.
I remember Joe Johnson winning at Sheffield and he only scraped through the first week before hitting top form in the second week. It was the same with Stuart Bingham who had flu in the first week back in 2015, but played brilliantly in the second week and was at his best at the back-end of the tournament. I think for Allen to win in Sheffield, it would have to be like that: get through the early rounds by hook or by crook and then find his best game in the second week.
The World Championship is a long old slog and I can recall plenty of players looking a million dollars in the first week before falling away as the tournament wears on. Stephen Maguire did that a few years ago and Neil Robertson looked unbeatable in 2018 until John Higgins got the better of him in the quarter-finals.
Before moving on from Allen, I can’t not mention his disagreement with O’Sullivan in their quarter-final last week. I know the incident got a lot of attention on social media and the first thing to say is that it was unfortunate the way it happened and I suspect both players will regret that.
I know people think I’m quick to defend O’Sullivan because we work together on Eurosport, but while I’m not sure he handled the situation as well as he could, I don’t think he made the story up either. I remember watching and noticing that Allen was stood up while O’Sullivan was weighing up a safety shot, clearly eager to get on with game and not break his rhythm having played so well in the match.
I thought at the time, ‘Ronnie’s not going to like that’ but I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t intentional on Allen’s part, he just wanted to get on with the game and would have assumed O’Sullivan wouldn’t need to take much thought over some simple safety shots. From there it just spiralled as O’Sullivan opted to take longer and longer over his safety shots, hoping Allen would get the message, while Allen just wanted to be up and get on with the match.
In the end, O’Sullivan got frustrated with it all and let it show when, in hindsight, he might have been better having a quiet word with Allen at the end of the frame when ITV had gone for a commercial break. It was unfortunate, but it certainly wasn’t intentional on Allen’s part and I’m sure O’Sullivan might think he could have handled it differently, looking back.
Another thing to add is that this is now the third time this has happened since the Covid-19 pandemic began and spectators weren’t allowed into venues. I wonder whether that is affecting the players, in that having so much silence and no distractions – as oppose to fans shuffling in their seats, coughing or having their mobile phones go off – has made the players more sensitive to things that would never have bothered them before.
What we must not forget is that these players are playing for their livelihoods, important ranking points, and the Champion of Champions is a massive tournament which brings lots of pressure. Sometimes people do let their frustrations show, but I was pleased to hear that O’Sullivan had been in touch with Allen soon after to clear the air, and that both are keen to move on from the incident.
These two have always had the utmost respect for each other and I don’t think that will change. I know O’Sullivan is always making the headlines, but both he and Allen are two of the most well-liked players on the tour – they get on with everybody – and I’m sure there won’t be any hard feelings between the two.
Away from the drama, I actually think O’Sullivan is just starting to show a few signs that he isn’t too far away from finding his best game again. He hasn’t done very much since winning the World Championship, but I think he’ll be looking at the upcoming Triple Crown events and will want to play well in those, while he’ll be aware he needs to pick up some ranking points to qualify for the World Grand Prix just before Christmas.
Judging O’Sullivan’s form isn’t always easy because he’s very good at looking brilliant, but losing at the Champion of Champions will have hurt him and I think it’s only a matter of time before he goes close in a big event.
He’s had a quiet time of it so far this season, but that might not be a bad thing as we enter such a busy period of snooker and I just wonder if the likes of Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby can sustain the form they have shown so far this term, particularly given the demands they have had to endure by spending so much of their time in the bio-secure bubble in Milton Keynes.
Selby and Robertson have been two of the best players so far this season, but both were beaten in qualifying for the German Masters this week and Trump looked a little jaded when losing heavily to Allen last Saturday.
I know snooker is not a physical game but the players are not machines and playing in this environment takes a lot out of them mentally. Burn out could definitely be a factor over the next few weeks and we might see a slight changing of the guard as those who are just that little bit fresher come to the fore.
It happened last year when a seemingly-unstoppable Trump appeared to run out of steam and got dumped out of the UK Championship by Nigel Bond and Ding Junhui then came from nowhere to win the tournament. Stuart Bingham did a similar thing at the Masters while O’Sullivan hadn’t won a ranking event last season prior to winning the World Championship, either. Maybe this week’s German Masters qualifying results were an early indication that we might be in for something similar again.
If that is the case, I could certainly see O’Sullivan contending over the coming weeks and John Higgins is definitely playing well again too. I thought he might have been going through the motions a little bit a few years ago, but he’s got that sparkle back and the Scottish lads practicing together has really helped him.
Conditions in Milton Keynes have been absolutely perfect so far, proving really conducive to good snooker, and I definitely think that’s why we’ve seen so many high-quality matches and big breaks of late. The cream has been able to rise to the top and Higgins – who made another 147 maximum break recently – certainly falls into that category.
If the players have a busy period coming up, so do I and the rest of the teams at ITV and Eurosport. The ITV events are always done so well, they really put their stamp on them, and I thought the venue looked fantastic for the Champion of Champions.
It’s the same with Eurosport and I’m thrilled that it has now been confirmed that we will be covering every day of the UK Championship. It’s the first time the first round has been televised which will be great fun and ensure we don’t miss any giant-killing acts along the way.
It will obviously mean that we are all very busy but we understand just how lucky we are to be working and it’s a great credit to everyone in the sport that things have been able to keep going.
I don’t know what will happen next year, but I think what we’re all hoping for now is to see fans back in the venues sometime soon, watching snooker again. They bring so much to the occasion and even having just a few hundred in the Crucible for the World Championship final made such a difference.
The production teams have done such a good job to bring the snooker to life for the fans watching at home. I hadn’t even realised until last week that the applause you hear at home doesn’t actually play out in the arena at the ITV Events. The players can make a century and they will be walking back to their chairs in silence while those watching at home are listening to loud cheering and applause.
It all adds to the viewer experience and I think snooker and horse racing have been streets ahead of other sports in bringing the action to life for those watching at home. That said, we really miss having spectators come in and watch the snooker and the sooner we can all get back to normal, the better.