Sport

Robbie McGuigan ready to live the pro snooker player’s dream after European title win

The Antrim teenager won five consecutive deciders to join club-mates Mark Allen and Jordan Brown on World Snooker’s Main Tour

Robbie McGuigan
Robbie McGuigan McGuigan has had a taste of professional ranking competition over the last four years at the Northern Ireland Open (TAI_CHENGZHE)

ROBBIE McGuigan had never not believed. Now, in the dying embers of his teenage years, was the time to take the biggest step of a competitive snooker career already into its second decade.

Within those years, the Antrim youngster had shown the early promise, kicked on in underage competition, then proved himself the best amateur in Ireland and taken the beatings that will come when you are trying to prove you can mix it with the best.

One middle-distance red to the yellow pocket would do it. A 90-percenter, maybe more for a player with such big ambitions.

Bang in the centre of the pocket it goes! The yell and double fist-pump were part relief and part pure joy. He was a European champion. Much more importantly, though, he had in his hand a ticket for World Snooker’s Main Tour for the next two years…and maybe beyond.

A handshake with his beaten opponent, Craig Steadman, was followed by emotional embraces with Raymond Fry, Declan Lavery (both practice partners and fellow Antrim men) and Stephen Brady, who were all seated in the front row of the auditorium at the Hotel Hills Congress & Termal Resort in Sarajevo.

They had travelled to Bosnia & Herzegovina with their own ambitions, but after seeing them ended early had stayed – along with Paul Lindsay, Joel Connolly and Fergal Quinn – to cheer McGuigan over the line.

Getting over that line proved far from straight-forward, as is only to be expected with so much at stake. Every match he played from the last 32 onwards was won in a deciding frame, a measure of the mental resilience he will take into the pro game.

‘’I don’t think I’d have won without those guys being there to be honest,’’ he admits.

‘’It means everything. A lot of my travelling to tournaments has been done on my own and it’s just not the same. You know people at those tournaments but everybody is in their own bubble and focused on themselves.

‘’Even in Sarajevo, most players went home when they were put out of the tournament, but having friends there to share my best moment with me makes so much difference.’’

The support back home was equally as fervent. Family, friends and followers of the local game had been glued all week to the live streams from GOGOSPORT, posting well-wishing messages along the way.

At Daly’s Snooker Room in Derry, players taking part in the latest ranking event on the Northern Ireland Billiards & Snooker Association calendar, practically ground to a halt as the final reached its nail-biting conclusion.

Amongst them was Patrick Wallace, himself a former Main Tour pro, World Championship quarter-finalist and eight-times Northern Ireland amateur champion.

‘’The fact we were more interested in Robbie’s game than our own is a measure of the regard in which he is held on the circuit,’ says Wallace.

‘’Everybody recognises his talent and has been rooting for him to get there. He certainly deserves it because he works so hard at his game.

‘’Although the standard on tour is incredibly high nowadays, Robbie has a great chance of progressing well as a pro and hopefully he can get that little bit of luck that everybody needs and push on towards the top 64 over the next two years.

‘’The lower-ranked players on tour are now guaranteed £20,000 in prize money no matter what, so that will be a huge help, as will having Mark (Allen) and Jordan (Brown) there.’’

Ironically, just before McGuigan left for Sarajevo he had lost his number one amateur ranking to Wallace after dominating the scene post-Covid. It was a surprise to many, including Wallace himself.

‘’I was very pleasantly surprised that he has got there at this moment because his results on the local circuit this season haven’t been as good as in previous years, when he was almost untouchable, but to do it the way he has, and by winning five deciding frames in a row, shows that his game is in a good place and also that he has serious mental toughness.’’

THAT downturn in results on the local scene since winning the first NIBSA event of the 2023-24 season is addressed in a simple and matter-of-fact way by the man himself.

‘’To be honest I struggle a bit with the conditions now in some of the local events and think that maybe I was putting too much energy into them,’’ says McGuigan.

‘’I came into this season off one of the best seasons anybody had had with NIBSA but in a way it seemed like a lot of effort for little reward

‘’I then won the first event of the season, played great at the Northern Ireland Open in October and had a good win over Fergal O’Brien at the UK Championships in November.

‘’I never doubted myself or thought my game was going backwards.’’

That Northern Ireland Open experience at the Waterfront, his fourth in consecutive years, has been key in McGuigan’s development, allowing him a brief flirtation with what, from now, will be the norm.

Last year, he won his opening match there impressively, beating Hammad Miah 4-1, and was then agonisingly close to taking the biggest scalp of his career to date and moving into the last 32.

After building a 3-1 lead in his best-of-seven against former World Championship semi-finalist and world number 25 Anthony McGill, McGuigan looked nailed on to wrap up victory in frame five, with the Scot needing three snookers with just the colours remaining. McGill got them, won the frame and went on to win the match.

Moments like those can make or break a player, but giving another glimpse of his mental fortitude and his sense of working towards specific career goals, it wasn’t the setback for him that many thought it might be.

‘’The whole Northern Ireland Open experience has been brilliant for me, especially last year.

‘’I played really well and was obviously disappointed to lose to Anthony the way I did, but I would honestly be harder on myself for losing games that really matter in the context of my career, like in the World Amateurs.

‘’The extra prize money would have been handy and beating a big name and getting another game in front of a home crowd would have been nice too, but I moved on pretty quickly.’’

HE did move on. To Sarajevo in early March, taking with him two darts to aim at the bullseye of Main Tour qualification.

The U21s route was his best chance as it was less competitive and he’d reached the semi-finals the previous year.

After qualifying from the group stages to the knock-outs, he won three more matches, two of them in deciding frames – including a 4-3 win over local rival Connolly in the quarter-final – to reach the semis, only to find Poland’s Antoni Kowalski too good.

‘’It’s funny the way things work out,’’ he admits.

‘’Everybody, myself included, would have said winning the U21s was my best chance of getting a Main Tour ticket this season.

‘’I really fancied the U21s but the fact that I did it the hard way by winning the main event probably gives me even more satisfaction

‘’I didn’t get down after losing in the U21s. I stayed positive throughout and kept my mental focus, played all of those deciders like they were first frames rather than the last.’’

As his first shot at the big-time beckons, one thing McGuigan will never be stuck for is guidance.

The Antrim Sports Club, formerly the Fountain Snooker Club, is the environment in which he has honed his skills. It has been the hottest of snooker hotbeds since the turn of the century, producing five Northern Ireland champions with 12 titles between them – Brown (4), McGuigan (3), Allen (2), Lavery (2) and Colin Bingham (1).

Sure how can you go wrong when you can pick your Northern Ireland champion to practice with and learn from?

The club has been a constant in McGuigan’s life from a young age. Whether it was looking after the tables for a few extra pounds, competitive practice, solo routines or coaching sessions with Marty Brammeld, he has more than served his time there.

‘’The support I’ve had from everybody within the club has been great for me down through the years.

‘’A lot of the lads from the town have obviously been behind Mark and Jordan for a long time and are giving me the same levels of support that they got. It’s important to have that on top of the support of my family.’’

Allen and Brown have subsequently progressed to establish themselves as Main Tour pros and ranking event winners and have already been a huge influence on McGuigan’s career, not only as practice partners but also sounding boards.

In the immediate aftermath of McGuigan’s win in Sarajevo, world number three Allen posted on X: ‘Get in there @Robbiemcg147 the European Men’s Amateur champion and now Northern Ireland’s newest professional. So happy for you given all the work you put in. I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that this was coming. Welcome to the @WeAreWST tour’.

Having that backing from Allen, who has played a big part in nurturing his career from a young age, can only hasten McGuigan’s bedding-in process on the Main Tour.

‘’Mark and Jordan have always been a great help for me,’’ he says.

‘’First and foremost they are great players and practising with them has really brought me on.

‘’They have also had different career paths and different experiences in the game. Jordan has obviously had to grind a bit more than Mark to get to where he is but it says plenty about him.

‘’So I can take a bit from both of them. Even though they are well into their 30s they are still improving and still looking to improve and I can relate to that mindset.’’

OBSERVING and taking lessons from those going before him, re-assures McGuigan that time is firmly on his side in his quest to reach the top and ultimately to win professional tournaments.

‘’It’s just the start of a journey for me really. I’m not thinking in a negative way at all. I’m always positive. But I know the nature of this game is there will be setbacks.

‘’But when the two years are up, no matter how I have played or how results have been, I will still be young, and even then I know I will still have loads of improvement in front of me if I want it, which I do.

‘’The only thing that matters to me is where I think my game is. I firmly believe that if you think you can’t improve beyond a certain age then you probably won’t.

‘’But if you keep looking for improvement it can be found. It’s all about having that belief. I know I have it and I will keep striving for more.’’

He has banked eight GCSEs from his five years at Antrim Grammar School and no shortage of life experience from his travels abroad for competition, just in case he has to ever step back into the real world, but for the next two years, and hopefully beyond, Robbie McGuigan will carry his steely determination to succeed everywhere and just live the dream.