Phil Haigh ✍️
The Northern Ireland Open has become one of the highlights of the snooker calendar, with defending champion Mark Allen saying it has an identity that other Home Nations can’t boast, while Judd Trump placed it in the top three tournaments on tour for atmosphere.
The event joined the calendar in 2016, when Mark King memorably won his first ranking title on an emotional night at the Titanic Exhibition Centre.
That was the only year the tournament was held there and, other than the pandemic hit 2020 edition, it has found a brilliant home at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.
Of the four editions held there, Mark Williams won the first, Trump claimed two and Allen picked up the title last year in arguably an even more emotional evening than King’s long-awaited first title.
The Pistol has won plenty else in the game but had his home event very near the top of his to-do list in snooker and his epic 9-8 comeback victory over John Higgins, in front of a crowd restored to full force shortly after pandemic restrictions, was an unforgettable occasion.
‘The noise that went around the arena when I potted the brown to win is something I will never forget and still gives me goosebumps. I’d love to try to replicate that again this year,’ Allen told WST.
‘Obviously the (2018) Masters final – that’s one of the majors. But to win in front of my home crowd, and come from behind against one of the all-time greats, I would definitely put that as my best moment in snooker so far.’
Speaking after that final last year, the Pistol said: ‘I have tried to play it down all week, but I know what this means to me, and I know what it means to the people here, so to win this trophy is a special moment that I will never forget.’
Obviously playing in front of the Northern Irish crowd means a huge amount to the Belfast man, but it is also a standout event for many others on tour and the Waterfront is one to look forward to each year.
The other Home Nations events have had something of nomadic lives so far, with the English, Scottish and Welsh all moving homes from last season this time around.
The Welsh Open is the most historic of the four tournaments, but Allen believes believes Northern Ireland is creating an identity and special vibe that is proving hard to match.
‘The other players seem to love Belfast, love the venue and the tournament is getting its own identity now whereas some of the other Home Nations events don’t quite have that yet’ he said. ‘Everyone is looking forward to getting back there.’
Judd Trump, who remarkably won three back-to-back Northern Ireland Opens, beating Ronnie O’Sullivan 9-7 in all three finals, has hailed the Waterfront’s atmosphere as in the top three on the circuit.
The Ace was speaking at last year’s event, and having just played in the incredible Hong Kong Masters his opinion may have changed, but he was full of praise for Northern Ireland when he was last there.
‘The passion of the fans here, you can just feel it,’ he said. ‘That rubs off on me and any support like that really gives me that extra incentive to do well and entertain.
‘The atmosphere here is in the top three of all the events that we play in.
‘Especially when you get down to that one table set-up, whether that’s against Ronnie or whoever else.
‘It’s amazing in that arena, especially when it’s full.’
The 2022 Northern Ireland Open begins on Sunday 16 October with a packed first day which sees Allen, Trump and O’Sullivan all in action.
The defending champion plays Chang Bingyu, Trump takes on Rod Lawler and the Rocket meets Lucas Kleckers.
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