Mark Allen is the 2018 Masters Snooker Champion, after defeating Kyron Wilson to lift one of snookers Major Trophies for the first time. The Masters, which takes place every twelve months at the Alexandra Palace in London, is an invitational event which pitches the top sixteen placers in the world against each other, and is considered one of the Sports ‘Triple Crown’, alongside the World Championships and the UK Championships. Allen’s inaugural Triple Crown win comes forty years after fellow Northern Ireland snooker legend Alex Higgins won the same tournament, and will go down as one of Northern Ireland’s most notable recent sporting successes. With that in mind, Way out West look at some of Northern Ireland’s sporting highlights from over the years.
As well as Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor was another iconic snooker player to come from Northern Ireland before Mark Allen. The Coalisland man has been a famous voice in the BBC commentary box for years now, but is most famous for his 1985 World Championship win over Steve Davis. The match was viewed by a peak audience of 18.5 million, and by the time Taylor potted the final black to win the deciding frame it was 12.23am.
1985 was a successful year all round for Northern Ireland sport, as only a few months earlier, at the Loftus Road football ground in London, Barry McGuigan defeated Eusebio Pedroza to win the WBA world featherweight title. At the same time, the much adored, and now missed, Joey Dunlop was the TT Formula One Motorcycling Champion. At a time when The Troubles were causing tragedies across Northern Ireland, sporting triumphs were a rare and welcome cause for celebration.
Another brilliant spell of sporting success came twenty five years later, and what's even more amazing is that it came within the realms of one sport. Northern Ireland had not produced a Major Golf Champion since Fred Daly in 1947, but in 2010 Graeme McDowell won the US Open at Pebble Beach. Remarkably, within just over twelve months there would be two more Major Champions from the country, as Rory McIlroy won the US Open the following year, and a month later Darren Clarke lifted The Open Championship.
Football has of course provided plenty of joy to Northern Ireland fans, both very recently and as far back as the 1960's. It’s often said that it was a footballing tragedy that George Best never played at a World Cup, but it was undoubtedly a proud time for Northern Ireland sport when the country boasted one of the best players on the planet. 1968 was perhaps the golden age of Best’s career, when he won the European Cup with Manchester United and was named European Footballer of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year. (Way out West takes a look at Best's legacy here.)
For success in the Northern Ireland shirt, a standout moment for those that can remember it will always be Gerry Armstrong's goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup. For younger fans, David Healey provided some memorable moments, including his winning goal against England, and a remarkable Hat Trick against Spain, both at Windsor Park, in 2005 and 2006 respectively. And of course there were plenty of memories made in France at Euro 2016.
In other sports, Ulster Rugby has always been a mainstay in Northern Ireland Sport, from as far back as 1999, when they became the first Irish province to win the Heineken Cup; while in terms of world class talent, few Sports people from this country have climbed as high in their chosen field as AP McCoy, who rode over 4,300 winners in his jockeying career. Boxing has never been far away from our sporting landscape, with recent champions and inspirations including Carl Frampton amongst others.
Great Northern Ireland sporting moments have also come in the form of local rivalries. In 2003 Tyrone and Armagh met in the GAA All Ireland Football Final. Armagh were the current All Ireland Champions, but it was Tyrone who came out on top, with perhaps the greatest Ulster GAA footballer of all time, Peter Canavan, leading the way with five points.
However, in the case of most national sporting successes, victories will be remembered as something that brought people together. For this reason, as much as for his own personal satisfaction, Mark Allen will be proud to add himself to the list.