Almanac Snooker: On Ronnie O’Sullivan
Ronnie O’Sullivan has never been shy of attracting publicity and it sometimes appears he doesn’t mind whether it’s positive or negative.
But actually, he does mind. A lot. Barry Hearn, the man who runs global snooker has just told O’Sullivan to “grow up”, following his recent behaviour at press conferences and media assignments, where he has answered questions with monosyllabic replies, a robotic voice or even offered a rendition of the Oasis hit “Wonderwall”.
Yet, for anybody who has followed the man and the player through his rise to the summit, these kerfuffles and spats are merely part of the story. Let’s try to delve a little deeper into one of the most intriguing sporting stars of his generation.
As the Beatles once sang: “Let me take you back…”
The words flooded out in a rapid stream of consciousness.
“A film about me and my family? Hmm, what a great idea. Let’s see, if Al Pacino was 30 years younger, he could be me….yeah, it’s all packed into the script, isn’t it? It would be like the Sopranos, only for real.”
For a few minutes, the mood had lightened and Ronnie O’Sullivan was laughing spontaneously, displaying a semblance of the joie de vivre, which he brings to the normally sedate world of snooker. But, soon enough, following my suggestion that Guy Ritchie or Ron Howard should start preparing a biopic, he was back on the metaphysical couch, talking about addiction, unstable relationships, the fickle nature of fame and all the other factors which make his existence a tortuous path.
Forget about the Two Ronnies. With this star of the green baize, there are at least a dozen different personalities vying for attention. One minute, he was celebrating – a few seconds later, he was engaged in chastisement, then he delivered a quick smile as the prelude to his assertion Prozac kept him sane.
That was many years ago: another time, another place altogether and yet I’ve never met another sports star like O’Sullivan before he had even turned professional and followed him on the debris-strewn road to becoming king of the world.
All the cliches on his cv: the gangster father who served a lengthy prison sentence for murder; the mother with an Italian heritage who spoiled him rotten, the early pictures of the diminutive prodigy in the Ilford Recorder….they were overshadowed by one simple fact: and that was that Ronnie O’Sullivan is one of the nicest, warmest human beings I’ve ever met.
And honest as well. Snooker has provided an outlet for the Englishman, but it has been a febrile journey between Scylla and Charybdis on his way to five world titles, the most sensational 147 break in the game’s history, and his emergence as a nonpareil in 1992.
He will once again be the centre of attention when the action commences at the 2017 World Snooker Championship in Sheffield next weekend, and although Mark Selby will be defending his title, most eyes, as always, will be on O’Sullivan.
He has already courted criticism on his attitude off the table before a ball has even been struck in anger. No doubt, there will be more angst in the build-up to the Crucible event. It seems to go with the territory. But it shouldn’t be allowed to define O’Sullivan.
I first bumped into him at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool a quarter of a century ago when he was just 16 and practising relentlessly in near darkness with the pallor of a cast member from the Twilight trilogy.
Elsewhere on the premises, there were tea dances, cream florins and palm court orchestras. In O’Sullivan’s realm, he seemed dedicated, determined and driven by a relentless desire to dazzle in the dark. I wasn’t told until after our chat – which had been set up by an intermediary, Terry Smith – that his father, Ronnie, Snr, was in prison, and the youngster was inwardly churning up, his heart on speed dial.
Even at that stage, the traumatised teenager was a mess of contradictions; guarded, candid, opinionated, reserved and funny and fragile in the same mix. He asked me what I thought about my compatriot, Stephen Hendry, who was on his way to rewriting the snooker chronicles with about as much expression on his face as his posterior, and I engaged in a diplomatic exercise.
The thing about O’Sullivan is that, even now at 41, he wears a variety of masks and can flit between a multitude of different identities. I remember interviewing him 20 years ago and he was didn’t attempt to conceal the fact he was no choirboy, let alone the Angel Gabriel.
But, oblivious to the controversies which have bedevilled him, O’Sullivan is one of the precious few personalities with the capacity to thrill both snooker’s aficionados and agnostics alike. He once remarked he had a million friends and he could fit them into a phone box. But he is a compelling character study, contradictory and charismatic in a way which explains why his story could light up the Crucible Theatre whether we are talking about snooker cues or dramatic prompts.
And utterly unique. As he revealed: “When my mum kicked me out of the house [in 1996], I had completely lost touch with reality, and I had no concept what was going on at that stage: it was as if I was another person watching this stranger make a total b***ocks of things.”
“I’d sleep, smoke, eat, sleep, smoke, eat, sleep, smoke, eat and on and on it went for months on end. I would phone up a taxi driver and say: ‘I want you to go to McDonald’s and get me three hamburgers, two portions of large fries, a mega chocolate milkshake, nine McNuggets, four ketchups, three barbecue sauces….and a large Diet Coke.
“God alone knows why I bothered with the Diet Coke, but I was turning into Elvis. My weight had ballooned up to 16 stone, 17 stone, I had no discipline, no control, and I just couldn’t say no.
“Then, one night, I met David Beckham at a club and I had my eyes opened as to how much of a whale I had become. As we left the place, I heard this lass tell her mate: ‘Look, there’s Beckham.
“Her pal responded: ‘Which one: the fat one or the skinny one!”
“And I thought: “Good God, I must be fat.’ And I was. I was very big, I was enormous and that remark was the boot up the backside that I required.”
If that had been the catalyst for O’Sullivan to embrace an orthodox lifestyle, it would be a pretty routine rites-of-passage story. But, on the contrary, in the last two decades, he has earned bouquets and brickbats between the wonderful breaks, the scandals, the tedious confessions of how much he hates snooker and then his recantation and redemption when somebody offers him the sniff of an opening with a difficult red from the balk cushion.
Even now, in his fifth decade, he sometimes looks as if he is ready to walk off the arena after attempting a cut too far. The demons will never be totally exorcised with this character. But he is human in the best way. And he does a lot of sterling work behind the scenes which goes unrecorded.
In the circumstances, it is commendable he has emerged from his visits to the Priory with such a balanced view of life.
As he added during our conversation on a quickfire visit to Edinburgh: “Human beings don’t really know what other people are going through. One of the first people I met at The Priory was a woman called Rose, who was a 55-year-old alcoholic and I liked her. I called her Supergran, because I thought she was as tough as old boots, but I learned she died after her kidneys packed up.
“I met another man at The Priory. The first time I saw this guy, I thought it was a wind-up. He was a millionaire, 30 years of age, a good-looking lad. He had so much money that the place was like a hotel for his own convenience whenever he needed to detox. At first, I thought he was having a laugh, but, six weeks later, he was dead. It was kidney failure again, the booze had taken its toll. There was a funeral 40 or 50 years before it should have happened, but it does drive home the message.”
Ronnie O’Sullivan has been through the mill and seems to have found a degree of stability even if he and media chores go together like Jeremy Clarkson and electric cars.
Having carried snooker on his shoulders for so long, he deserves to be feted and he genuinely believes he can win another two or three world titles and emulate or even surpass Hendry.
It might be a tall order, but one hopes he achieves it, not least because of the sheer visceral excitement and dramatic derring-do which embodies this master potter at the table.
And, let’s face it, who would you rather watch if you had the choice between O’Sullivan, the Rocket in full flight, all outrageous cuts, dangerous screws and blistering breaks, or most of his metronomic rivals?