Neal Foulds will be penning a fortnightly column on Sporting Life
Neal Foulds will be penning a fortnightly column on Sporting Life

Neal Foulds snooker column: The Eurosport and ITV pundit looks ahead to the English Open

In my first column of the season ahead of the Northern Ireland Open, I said that snooker was back. After a brilliant final in Belfast, I think we can all agree that snooker is most definitely back.

The Northern Ireland Open is such a good event and it always seems to deliver fantastic snooker and memorable finals. This latest one was no different with hometown hero Mark Allen beating John Higgins 9-8 in a dramatic match in front of a Belfast crowd that finally got to see their man deliver on home soil.

The passion for snooker in that part of the world really shines through and all the players want to do well there. It’s no coincidence that Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan have enjoyed plenty of success at the event in the last few years and after a long break since the British Open, this felt like a really good way to get the season up and running again.

Allen winning his home event was what the game needed. It generated plenty of interest and aside from such an absorbing final, it was clear to see what winning meant to him and the people of Belfast. He’s such an in-and-out player, but when Allen is playing well, he’s a top one who scores so heavily that he can be almost impossible to stop.

Last season he won the Champion of Champions and then hardly won a match thereafter, changing his cue and dealing with some well-documented personal issues. He’s clearly got a lot going on off the table, but if he can play good snooker, it might just help the other stuff work itself out.

Mark Allen shares a memorable moment with his family
Mark Allen after winning the Northern Ireland Open final

My fear is that like last year, he goes quiet again after winning a big title. I hope that doesn’t happen because he’s a terrific player who has grown up a lot. He was a fiery character in his early days, but he’s very approachable now. He’ll want to show that he can continue to contend for major titles, and as we know, the one glaring omission on his CV is the World Championship. He reached the semi-finals at the Crucible way back in 2009, but he’s struggled in Sheffield since and it’s the one event he’s desperate to enjoy a big run at.

Don't question Higgins' greatness

As for Higgins, it’s hard to say anything but positive things about the Scot, who in the last year has won the Players Championship, finished runner-up at the Masters and reached another final in Belfast. Even at 46 years of age, he’s still challenging for major titles and is clearly determined to keep pushing on. His new approach to healthy eating and exercise is all about trying to extend his wonderful career that bit further and all credit to him for that.

The final with Allen really was a classic, but it was one that turned on a missed black from Higgins when he was 8-6 up and controlling the match. Had that black gone in, I don’t think there would have been any way back for Allen who was being outplayed at that stage. When you’ve achieved as much as Higgins has in the game, I think you can sense big moments and big shots, and Higgins knew that black was very much match ball. His grimace when it rattled in the jaws illustrated the significance of the moment.

It’s a funny thing, because Higgins turned down a much easier red earlier in the match when most of the other players on tour would have taken it on. He went on to win the frame, so was vindicated, and in respect to the black he missed, I think he knew that if he potted it, he would have almost been home. With all the reds out in the open, it was a brave shot, but I don’t think anyone can blame him for taking it on.

Even in defeat, Higgins reminded us of what a truly great player he is and I do think he’s in that bracket with O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis. Going through the eras, you had Davis and then Hendry, followed by O’Sullivan who is probably the greatest of them all. But Higgins has won everything there is to win, including four world titles, and even at the Masters where he’s never really been in love with the venue and the vocal London support who are usually against him, he’s won twice.

John Higgins with the Players Championship trophy
John Higgins with the Players Championship trophy

Higgins is still capable of playing snooker that can blow anyone away and his Players Championship success last term was something very special. The standard he produced to demolish the likes of Kyren Wilson and Mark Selby was extraordinary and I think he’ll have another good season.

With the English Open coming up next week, it will be interesting to see how Higgins and Allen fare, with the same comments applying to Trump and O’Sullivan.

Trump with work to do but Ronnie and Robertson ready to fire

Trump will be defending a lot of titles in the next few months, but I’m not sure he’s firing on all cylinders yet, and his whitewash of Gao Yang apart, I think Belfast showed that he has a little way to go in order to get back to his brilliant best. The English Open isn’t all about him, that's for sure.

O’Sullivan looked sharp and seemed in good spirits in Northern Ireland. He ended up losing a fascinating match with Yan Bingtao on a deciding frame when, for once, he missed a crucial pot playing left-handed. I can’t remember that happening too many times before, but he could have easily won that match.

Of course, O’Sullivan hasn’t qualified for the Champions of Champions by winning an event in the last season – something that is a rarity in itself. Nevertheless, his ranking will get him into the prestigious tournament that he generally performs so well at, courtesy of the five finals he reached since Allen won last year.

Ronnie O'Sullivan is in a cautious mood ahead of the Crucible
Can Ronnie O'Sullivan resume winning ways next week?

With that in mind, I suspect O'Sullivan will be keen to prove a few people wrong and would love to turn up to the Champions of Champions with victory at the English Open under his belt. I wouldn’t rule it out.

Finally, I must mention Neil Robertson who looks to me like he could be on the verge of one of his hot streaks again. He impressed me in a couple of matches in Belfast and I noted that he tweeted about how well he has played in qualifying for a couple of events recently.

I’m keeping my eye on him and while he might have to contend with playing on the outside tables in some of the early rounds, I think the decent break he has enjoyed of late and the fact that he got married over the summer might have done him good. There aren’t too many better players in the world when Robertson is on song and he’ll be winning again soon.

More from Neal Foulds

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