By Fin Ruane
This weekend sees the snooker season continue with PTC3 at the SWSA in Gloucester. Of particular interest, however, is that it also sees the first appearance of world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan on a snooker table since he lifted his fourth world title last May.
Plenty has been written and said about ‘The Rocket’ not only since his win at the Crucible, but throughout his snooker career O’Sullivan has dominated the headlines in the snooker world. His gifted natural talent, his incredible achievements coupled with his occasional erratic behaviour and off-the-wall comments have all helped to make O’Sullivan into the box office snooker star he is today.
We all know what Ronnie is like as a player and we’ve watched and listened to all the interviews but, away from the table and the snooker, who is the person behind the enigma that is Ronnie O’Sullivan?
I first met Ronnie in Ilford Snooker Club in late 1988. Here was a club bustling with so many great amateur players, among them Irishmen Ken Doherty and Stephen Murphy, all desperate to join the professional ranks of the snooker tour. I went into the club one Saturday afternoon and playing on the middle of the three tables in the bar area was a young kid. There he was casually potting ball after ball whilst his opponent struggled to keep up respotting the colours. I asked the owner Ron Shore who this guy was. “Oh that’s young Ronnie,” was his response, “he’s a nice player.”
Over the four years that I lived in Essex I got to know Ronnie, his father Ronnie Snr and his family. As I’ve mentioned on SnookerHQ before I have great time for his father Ronnie Snr – he did a lot for myself and the boys, never leaving us stuck for anything. Ronnie Snr always accompanied his son to the club in Ilford and the majority of times he joined in on a game of cards while Ronnie Jnr played his snooker. After a while Ronnie Snr had a table installed in the family home in the plush Chigwell area of Essex for Ronnie to hone his talents further. Practice partners came and went, some with their egos severely bruised while others with a notable scalp to their name. Ken and Stephen were regular visitors to the house to practice on the table. I loved going along with them, not just because we were picked up by Ronnie Snr in his Mercedes but we were always invited to stay for dinner and fed well by Ronnie’s mother!
He began to socialise too. Myself and a lot of the snooker lads played football on a Wednesday night in Green Lane in Dagenham followed by a few pints. I remember saying once after playing against him that if the snooker didn’t work out he would have no problem getting a trial for his beloved Gunners such was the skill he possessed with a football.
I moved back to Dublin in 1992 and didn’t run into Ronnie again until the
following year when I travelled to Thailand for the Asian Open. He had by that time established himself on the pro tour and was beginning to challenge the game’s elite for the major honours. He surprised me when I met him in the press room at the venue by remembering my name, we shook hands and rambled on for a while on all kinds of topics. Little did I know that later that year Ronnie would become the youngest winner of a ranking event by winning the UK Championship at 17 years of age.
I continued to travel with Ken until 1999 and throughout those years I saw a lot of O’Sullivan. At times I would stand and watch in amazement and appreciation at what he would do on a snooker table and I remember being at the Crucible throughout Ken’s world title win in 1997, sitting in the pressroom the evening he made his outstanding maximum break against Mick Price. It was possibly the finest five minutes and 20 seconds of snooker you are ever likely to see.
Other times I found myself disgusted at his behaviour, like the previous year at the Crucible when he assaulted one of the nicest people in the game, Mike Ganley, who at the time was a press officer for World Snooker. Sometimes, he also let himself down with his manners and attitude towards his fellow professionals but only in recent years we have learned about the troubles in his private and personal life. It does not excuse him for his antics but he has worked hard to become a better person and I believe he is more content now in his life than he has ever been.
His attitude both on and off the table over the 17 days at the Crucible a few months ago is testament to the work he has put into his life with psychologist Dr. Steve Peters. He is at the peak of his game now and, after taking an extended break from the game since his triumph in May amid rumours of impending retirement just like his great rival Stephen Hendry, was there really ever any doubt that he would return to the game he loves so much?
After several years I met up again with Ronnie at the recent Jimmy White testimonial in London and again I was delighted that he remembered me. He also had his dad Ronnie Snr with him and it was great to reminisce with them both about the old days in Ilford and their home in Chigwell. He has matured greatly both as a person and a player over the last couple of seasons and I along with his many fans hope he continues to play for a few seasons yet.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is no doubt the box-office star of snooker. The way the game has continued to grow both in Europe and overseas it needs O’Sullivan as its talisman and face to bring in continued sponsorship and revenue.
Whatever happens in the future snooker career of O’Sullivan there is no denying that he is the most naturally gifted snooker player the game has ever seen. Right-handed or left-handed he possesses a talent most players can only dream about.
Ronald Antonio O’Sullivan. Love him or hate him, the enigma makes his return to the green baize this weekend!
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.