Today, the Times and Sunday magazine publishes this interview and it’s both disturbing and heatbreaking …
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The Interview: Ronnie O’Sullivan
“I cracked, smashed my cue, broke my hand, cried, I was so weak”
November 13 2016, 12:01am,
The Sunday Times
It’s the World Snooker Championship in April 2016, the biggest tournament in the calendar, but Ronnie O’Sullivan, the greatest snooker player of all time, is in his dressing room, crying. His cue lies on the floor in pieces.
He had just won his first-round match and he’d won it with relative ease. But as soon as it was over, he had stormed out of the Crucible arena without explanation. When the time came for his obligatory post-match interviews, he was a no-show.
“I’ve not spoken about this before,” he says when we meet several months later at the Romford snooker club where he practises, “but I’ve got nothing to hide. I was having a breakdown. At the end of that match, I couldn’t shake hands with that guy. I couldn’t even look at the crowd. I couldn’t face anybody.
“I’d had the worst 18 months I’d had in a long time. Not because of snooker, but through personal circumstances. I was in a very difficult position, all to do with money.”
In February, O’Sullivan tweeted that he’d been conned out of £125,000 by a bankrupt businessman, but that, he says, was just the start of it.
“And it all came to a head at the World Championship. That’s how it is. It’s the biggest tournament you can play and it doesn’t matter who you are, you start to feel the pressure. And I cracked.”
“I got back to my dressing room, smashed my cue and punched a wall. I thought I’d broken my hand. It was my way of saying, ‘I’m out.’ Because I was out. I broke down, crying. I was just so weak. My two friends who were in the dressing room with me said I wasn’t going out to speak to the press.”
O’Sullivan was scared of the repercussions. “That’s the fear that’s put into the game. If you don’t fulfil your obligations, they say, we’re going to make an example of you.” But his friends insisted. Instead, they spirited him out of the Crucible, out of Sheffield and away.
Since bursting onto the professional stage as a precocious 16-year-old, O’Sullivan has always been the man to beat. He is Ronnie the Rocket, a genius at the table, fast like Hurricane Higgins but precise like Stephen Hendry. He is the game’s superstar. Its saviour. Box-office gold.
He has struggled with the expectation that goes with it, though. His life has always been about coping — coping with the pressure of his career and a string of personal traumas. And sometimes he doesn’t cope. Sometimes he teeters on the brink of madness.
To understand why, we must go back to 1992, the year he turned professional and the year his father was found guilty of murder. Ronnie Sr had been his mentor — relentless, like Emmanuel Agassi or Earl Dennison Woods. “If I won something and thought I was the bee’s knees, my dad would say, ‘Forget it, that’s history. It’s over. To be a champion, you need to win the next one.’ ”
Throughout his childhood, Ronnie Sr drove the car while Ronnie Jr ran behind it. Three miles a day, come rain, come more rain. “I hated it,” says O’Sullivan. “I never wanted to do it, but he made me. I think he knew that if I didn’t have that strict discipline instilled in me as a youngster, I could easily have gone off the rails.”
All the same, he says his childhood was a happy one. His parents met at Butlins — his father was a chef, his Sicilian-born mother, Maria, a chalet maid — and Ronnie’s early years were spent in relative poverty on an estate in the East End. But then his father, whom he has described as a cross between Del Boy, Joe Pesci and Ray Winstone, got into adult entertainment. He built up a string of sex shops in Soho and the family business became lucrative. It allowed them to move from Ilford to the plusher part of Chigwell. It also meant there was space for a snooker room at the bottom of the garden, which his father built for him when he was just seven.
“It didn’t mean nothing to me then, but when I think about it now it was quite a colourful childhood,” he says. “Our garage was always filled up with boxes of magazines and videos. I think I sold my first adult film when I was 10. It was just a business.”
When he wasn’t helping out, he was practising under the keen eye of his father. And then, one day, his father was gone, sent down for stabbing Charlie Kray’s driver to death after an argument in a Chelsea nightclub.
“At the time, I thought it was totally crazy,” he says. “An 18-year sentence and it was just an accident. It was a fight between two people. There was no premeditation at all.” Not long after that, his mother also went to prison for tax evasion. O’Sullivan and his eight-year-old sister, Danielle, had lost their stable childhood.
The effect on O’Sullivan was profound. For the next two decades, he searched for a means of escape. First, he took the most obvious route with drugs and alcohol. He would clean up in time for tournaments and relapse as soon as they were over.
When he is in the zone, playing savant-like, he is unbeatable. He has 28 ranking titles to his name, second only to Hendry. Even so, he is the first to admit that his career has been hampered by outside intrusions. “I’ve probably lost a total of seven years from my career just from being all over the shop,” he says. “I was in hot water almost every tournament.”
In 1996, he was found guilty of assault after an official at the Crucible asked his guest to leave the press room. The same year, he upset a Canadian opponent by playing (and winning) left-handed. In 1998, he was stripped of his Irish Masters title after testing positive for cannabis. He almost forfeited a match in 2005 for putting a towel over his head while his opponent was at the table. He’s been sanctioned for walking out of tournaments, playing in his socks and making lewd comments at press conferences during tournaments.
“Look, there’s no smoke without fire,” he says after we’ve run through his rap sheet. “For a long time, I didn’t know how to restrain myself from something that I knew was going to cause controversy. And I didn’t care about the consequences.”
Throughout all of this, he also experimented with Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. In 2003, he had to deny reports that he had become a Muslim. He also joined various support groups — anything with an “Anonymous” at the end. And the search wasn’t entirely fruitless. He found love at Narcotics Anonymous and for a while he was happy. But after eight years and two children, that relationship ended in 2008. After a “sapping and drawn-out” custody battle in which O’Sullivan sought and won greater access to his young son and daughter, he made a big decision. He would escape altogether. He would quit snooker.
“I’ve made my decision,” he told the BBC on the eve of winning the World Championship in 2012. “This might — might — be my last time here.”
For the next year, he returned to the discipline he had hated as a child. He fell in love with running, the anonymity of it, the way it released endorphins. By the end of the year, he was training every other day, winning county-level races. When he wasn’t running, he was volunteering on a smallholding farm in Epping Forest, looking after pigs. “I have been doing about three days a week,” he said at the time. “It has been kind of the complete opposite to what I was going through the last couple of years in snooker. I didn’t want stress.”
Of course, he couldn’t stay away for ever. He returned to the World Championship the following year and won it again with virtually no preparation. The break had done him good — or so it seemed, until that night at the same tournament earlier this year.
Today, it is difficult to imagine O’Sullivan smashing up his dressing room. The 40-year-old is relaxed, happy even. He chats with the candid honesty of a man who has spent a lot of time in therapy, which of course he has. But that day in April, his mindset was altogether more fragile.
After his friends whisked him out of his dressing room, he checked in at the Nightingale Hospital, a private mental-health facility in central London. For the first three days, he refused any drugs that would make him feel drowsy. He had to be back in Sheffield that weekend for his next match.
He slept for three days straight, only to wake on the Thursday still feeling exhausted. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t summon the energy to leave his room for a cigarette. That was when the doctor put her foot down.
“You’ve got thoughts going round and round,” she said. “We need to slow that down.”
Eventually, O’Sullivan capitulated. He took the anti-anxiety drugs the doctor had been trying to prescribe, and began to feel better. The cycle of negativity was broken. The following day, he was on a train back to Sheffield. On Saturday, he lost a deciding frame to Barry Hawkins. It was the first time in 11 meetings that Hawkins had come out on top. But this time, O’Sullivan made it to the post-match press conference.
What is obvious is that O’Sullivan is not best left to brood, which is a problem because there is plenty of time to brood when you’re playing snooker. He needs to be occupied. He’s tried drugs, drink, running, religion and pigs. For the last year, it has been writing. For O’Sullivan is now a crime writer. Or at least he’s been working closely with a crime writer to produce his first novel.
They say that everyone’s first novel is semi-autobiographical, and Framed, a “gritty whodunnit set in the dog-eat-dog underworld of 1980s Soho”, is no exception. Frankie, the hero, runs a snooker club. When his brother is accused of murder, he sets out to prove his innocence.
“I can’t get away from the fact that my dad was in prison, and that I’ve had my ups and downs,” he says. “So a lot of what’s in the book relates to me. The setting is my setting. I grew up in Essex, but Soho was like a second home. I remember when I was about 10, we went on a school trip up Soho and we were walking past one of those shops with the streamers in the doorway. I put my head in and said, ‘All right, Tony, how you doing?’ ”
“Whenever I was on holidays, my dad would take me with him and he’d drop me off at the Ambassador club on Dean Street. After I’d practised, we’d wander around for a couple of hours. He had several sex shops around Wimpole Street, Walker’s Court, Dean Street and Old Compton Street.”
The novel’s setting is autobiographical, but so is Frankie’s suspicion of authority. It’s telling that the most unpleasant villain of the piece is not the evil crime boss or any of his sadistic henchmen. It’s a weasel of a detective called Snaresby, identifiable by the excess of bad aftershave he wears.
Even before his father went to prison, O’Sullivan had been brought up to be suspicious of the police. “He instilled in me that it was us against them,” he says. “In the early days, they’d raid the shops and try to make life difficult for him. [O’Sullivan Sr was always skirting close to the boundaries of the Obscene Publications Act — when he was ordered to put “modesty stars” on certain photographs, he put them on the model’s knees and elbows.]
“Some people got an easy ride and got left alone, but not him. Why do some people get stung and not others? Who knows why? Then, when he went away, I got dragged along with the idea that it was me and him against the system.”
When his mother also went to prison, his distrust of authority only increased. “I thought, fair do’s with dad, you do the crime, you do the time. But then they took mum, and everyone was saying they wouldn’t because Danielle was only eight, but they did anyway. And that was really hard to take.”
At the age of 17, O’Sullivan and his friends were arrested for abduction. “I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but apparently I had kidnapped some woman,” he says. “We were completely innocent, but I spent a night in a police cell. Of course, it made the papers and you had to read right to the end to get to the phrase ‘wrongly accused’. That was when I really became convinced that it was us against the Establishment.”
Soho, where my dad had sex shops, was like a second home. And I can’t get away from the fact that he went to prison
The novel has clearly been therapeutic for O’Sullivan. And that’s the whole key to understanding why snooker’s most gifted player is also famous for being its bad boy. Snooker is all about the pressure and how you handle it. As he puts it: “It’s not an endorphin sport. It’s about controlling your emotions. A thought goes in and you go, ‘Shh!’ Then another. Then another. When you get back on the table, the only reason you pot is because you left your emotions in your seat.”
In a 2007 semi-final against Mark Selby, a notoriously cautious, attritional player, O’Sullivan resorted to counting the minute, raised dots on the handle of a spoon whenever he was off the table. He couldn’t watch his opponent, but he couldn’t look away either. “By letting them know that this guy’s pissing you off, you give off a scent that you’re not up for it,” he says. “So I counted the dots instead. I could have sat there until three in the morning if I had to. Because there were 108 dots and, if I miscounted, I had to go back to the beginning. And if I did count 108 dots, I could still say, ‘Hold on, there might have been 109. I’d better start again.’ ”
If you took the snooker table away, this would be a textbook example of insanity. “It was total madness,” he agrees, laughing. “I know that.”
Six months on from his breakdown in Sheffield, O’Sullivan is still working with the renowned sports psychologist Steve Peters, the man he credits with helping him cope with the pressure of the game. But nothing he has said during our afternoon together suggests he ever enjoys it.
When I ask if he would encourage his nine-year-old son, a third Ronnie, to play, he reels at the idea. Football, yes. Snooker, no way. In fact, he wouldn’t encourage anyone’s children to play.
I’ve probably lost seven years just from being all over the shop. I was in hot water almost every tournament
“Any other sport you like, I tell them. Football. Tennis. Golf. Stay away from this game. Because somewhere down the line you’re going to wake up one day and think, ‘F*** me.’ Stuck in a room on your own, six days a week, five hours a day, not really speaking to anyone. It ain’t very healthy for your development as a person.”
Is there anything he enjoys about snooker? “The one thing I’m happy about in this job is that I can choose the hours I work. I’m my own boss. And I suppose it’s allowed me to travel and get away from where I live. But that’s it.”
In which case, why doesn’t he chuck it all in for good? “Well, I suppose I could,” he says. “Kind of. I could live well within my means. But I’ve still got two young children, still got a girlfriend [he became engaged to the actress Laila Rouass in 2013], still got people who want to be looked after.”
And, of course, he still likes to win the game it sounds as if he hates. “Yeah, it’s a complete paradox. If you look at the practice and you look at the travelling and you look at the times you’re just sitting in a hotel smoking when you don’t want to be smoking, thinking, ‘Oh, I could be home now, in the forest, doing a run’ — but you’re in China, with jet lag, walking round like a zombie for six days, you get pissed off and you think, ‘What am I doing?’
“But then you have those moments when it clicks. You get on the table and it goes and you just think, ‘I am flying. This is what I do.’ ”