This time from the Telegrapgh
Snooker’s two greatest talents, two men who have given sports fans some of the greatest thrills and most gutting disappointments of our lifetimes. Between them they have survived cancer, a dad imprisoned for murder, endless disciplinary controversies, divorce, booze, bankruptcy, and even having to play Stephen Hendry. Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan sat down together with Telegraph Sport in a King’s Cross snooker club, and this is what they had to say about life, the green baize, and everything…
O’Sullivan: I loved his flair, the way he played the game. All the other players, they were all cueing up [O’Sullivan mimes a doddery, arthritic caution] like this, but Jimmy had style. Alex Higgins too, they had that charm about them. I think Ayrton Senna said like “it was pure racing”. When Jimmy and Alex played, it was pure snooker. And I think other people sort of destroyed that organic feeling, you know? They try and coach it out of themselves in some sort of way, become like robots. Jimmy brought rock ’n’ roll to snooker.
White: I’d heard about him when he was a young kid but I hadn’t seen him. I played him at Norbreck Castle when he was a teenager: I won the first game and lost the next five. I was, you know, a sort of on-the-road person then and I wasn’t really playing. But I knew at the time it was great for snooker, a breath of fresh air, and the game needed an amazing talent like that. He took the attacking stuff from me and he watched Steve Davis for the brilliant defence and combined them for the full package. But then with his own talent he produced this magical way of there being nothing on the table and then clearing the balls up. He took the game to a new level.
O‘Sullivan: Talking about combining, Stephen Hendry had that quality like he was half-robot, half-human, I call him a hybrid. [White laughs]. You need that to be a prolific winner, but if the sport only had that sort of player would it be as entertaining? Probably not. But Jimmy, Jimmy would just turn up in his suit, bring excitement to a room, a whole place. He’s unique.
[White has now pulled a large wad of money of his pocket and is jokingly passing it to O’Sullivan by way of payment for the testimonial.]
White: We are similar sort of people. We like to go out, have a good time.
O’Sullivan: I showed him the ropes, you know.
White: He gives me 21 at that game now. I don’t go out all that much any more, I enjoy the normal things in life, but we have a bit of fun occasionally. When you’re on the road, you’d have quite a few people with you, and they wouldn’t perhaps be able to enjoy themselves like we do. So we treat people. Me and Ronnie always seem to pick up most of the bills.
[Stories of White “on the road” are of course legendary, from popping out to the shops and coming back a fortnight later; to taking his dead brother to the pub; to epic benders at Ronnie Wood’s house with a white-gloved Keith Richards serving the drinks as White and O’Sullivan played a snooker match. Between them they made nine centuries in 11 frames: perhaps they should let Keef do the refreshments at The Crucible.
I ask White if he ever feels under pressure from an adoring public to be the life and soul, but he interprets the question in a way I wasn’t anticipating].
White: Listen, I could have won the World Championship. Obviously if I had the chance to do it all again I would do things differently. But then would I have still wanted to play? Being realistic it is very difficult for me to win the tournament now but my game’s not gone. I still enjoy it. What I should have done is prepared better.
O’Sullivan: I would have changed a few things too. There was a period from about 19 to 25 when I just got absolutely hammered. I smoked myself to death. Skunked myself to death. And that was a coping mechanism for me. Because I think my dad going away when I was 16 kind of hit me but didn’t really hit me. And it took time for that to sink in. Once it did, well by then I needed a release. And I found the release in the wrong things basically. If I had found the release in doing triathlons I would have been Olympic champion by now probably. Once I get stuck into something I take it to its limits. And I think that’s what I did with drinking and smoking dope for a while. And them six years, if I could change them I would.
White: Talent, it can become a trap. Back in the day, when there weren’t so many good players, you’d have a good time and then you’d do a couple of days practice during a tournament but that’d be it. You’d get it back together, and you probably had the natural talent to get into the semis or something. But that’s no way to be in sport. And sometimes you’d win, and you might be laughing with your mates, thinking: ‘Oh, I have won that and the only practice I have done is in the tournament.’ And you get big-headed. You think you’re better than you are. But the game’s bigger than anyone.
White: Ronnie asked me to do Eurosport about 18 months ago and I thought ‘I really don’t want to do that’. But it has been fantastic. I watched more snooker in the last 18 months than I have done in 40 years.
O’Sullivan: I could never watch a game of snooker before. After half an hour I’d be like: ‘Oh no. I’ve got to go.’
White: Yeah! And now we’re like, ‘Here, this is good.’ And not gambling. When I was gambling I could watch it, but I’m not gambling now and we’re like on the edge of our seat. In that studio, watching it, really enjoying it. And a couple of special things have happened. A friend of Ronnie’s – I know him, I get on with him and I get on with most people but I don’t really have many friends, more associates. Yeah so this kid called Anthony Hamilton won his first tournament last year [the German Masters] and it was such a great thing. And then we had Mark King, who was sort of a journeyman, and he went and won one. So there’s been a lot happening. Being there live was good, wasn’t it?
O‘Sullivan: Yeah it was. We get really into it.
White: Before Hamilton won in Germany, he’d got to the semi in the Northern Ireland Open, he was hitting the balls great, about to win the frame he needed, and we were going ‘this is effing brilliant’. And then he lost the match in the worst way.
O‘Sullivan: Yeah, he like touched the white. Feathered it. It was so bad. And if he’d went out and hanged himself you’d have gone: ‘Yeah, I get it.’
O’Sullivan: For a snooker player, you know, I get it. You’d want to check on him that night. Make sure he’s all right. Anyway, he come in afterwards and he said: ‘You know two weeks ago I didn’t even have enough money to enter the tournament.’ And this is like one of my mates, we grew up practising together. And he’s the most beautiful guy. And you don’t get to know this about a person but he just come in and told us, we were sitting there like ‘Jesus Christ!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t even want to ask my mum and dad for the money.’
White: Ronnie turned to him and said: ‘Mate, I would have lent you five grand.’ But that was just off the camera because Ronnie was talking to him as a mate. It was quite an emotional thing. And I said: ‘Aw what a —-ing nice guy!’ and the producers were like: ‘You can’t swear! Stop it!’ And then Hamilton went on to win the next tournament.
O‘Sullivan: Yeah, he won his first tournament a couple of weeks later and we were there. [After that white ball] you don’t know how to console him, you don’t know what to say, and then the next month he is wining the German Open. He is a journeyman but he is a class act. His mum and dad were there.
White: And he was cueing beautiful. Like a top four player. So we’ve enjoyed that. And it’s been good doing the TV with Eurosport. I got such a buzz being there. People come to you for advice.
O’Sullivan: Yeah people come to me, to Jimmy. Liang Wenbo comes to me, we’re both geeing the players up.
White: See your pal Wenbo, he’s another one that could win anything but he has never produced. He’s a brilliant story, Chinese player that has come over. He lives in Essex and he is a good friend of Ronnie’s. He’s getting the advice of Ronnie nearly each round, you know what I mean. Ronnie is saying to him to chill out.
O’Sullivan: I am giving him the diluted version of what I have been getting from [his psychiatrist] Steve Peters. And I know it works so I pass it on: you need to switch off your emotions, because you cannot control your form. All you can control is your mind. You have to realise that you might play the whole match rubbish but you can still control your own mind. So I tell him that.
White: Some of these players now, they might have played for five years and not won a tournament and that’s no life at all. Having to play 12 months a year.
O’Sullivan: It can be lonely for some people, the circuit. But not for us, because we have a life [away from the sport].
White: It’s like the golfers all used to travel together but now they get proper money they all have private jets so they just travel on their own if they can’t stand each other. With us we’re all stuck together …
O’Sullivan: Yeah, stuck on a minibus.
White: Well not quite that but you’re at a service station waving through the window going ‘Hello mate’ but really you’re thinking: ‘Oh just eff off.’
O‘Sullivan: A lot of sportsmen when they are not doing their sport they lose their identity. You can play golf, tennis, but unless you’ve had it off and won the Euro Lottery you cannot retire as a snooker player or a dart player. They need to do a bit of commentary, a bit of punditry. But I think it’s important to try and pre-empt that stage so that you, you know … I don’t want to let snooker kill me. I want to use snooker so I can get from 40 to 65. I wanted snooker to be everything that I wanted to do, but then what else do I do with my time? I think I will always play snooker, but I think there will come a point where no matter how good you think you are you, are not going to get the buzz if you are not …
O’Sullivan: Yeah, producing.
White: So you are weaning yourself off.
White: I think that’s smart. You have to look at people that’s gone before you.
O’Sullivan: You cannot think: ‘Oh this is not going to happen to me.’ You have to forget that mindset, because you’re not invincible. Because we are all human. We all need purpose in life.”
Watch the English Open live on Eurosport and Quest with studio analysis from Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White. Also available via the Eurosport Player.