The full conversation is available in Phil’s and Nick Metcalfe’s Talking Snooker podcast episode 14
Ronnie O’Sullivan has had some harsh words for Milton Keynes, the home of snooker during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Barry Hearn insists that his comments only prove how much he still loves to play snooker.
The Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes has been the venue for the vast majority of events on the World Snooker Tour this season, played behind closed doors with players staying in the adjoining hotel.
It has been an ideal venue for operating under the restrictions of the pandemic and, while it has proved monotonous for players and a far cry from the jet-setting lifestyle they are used to, there have been few complaints over conditions, access or the hotel facilities.
The Rocket is not a fan, though, and made his feelings clear at last week’s Tour Championship which was played at Celtic Manor in Newport.
When asked if it was nice to be in Wales, O’Sullivan told ITV: ‘Yeah, well it’s a lot better than Milton Keynes.
‘Category A prison that Milton Keynes. I’ve seen enough of those over the years.
‘I’ve spent far too long there and that’s a sad gaff. I didn’t enjoy that towards the end so it’s nice to come to a nice resort where the food’s good and you can actually see some greenery and some trees.
‘It’s just a nice place. Milton Keynes is not the best place but it’s served it’s purpose and done what it done but it can send you a bit crazy after a while.’
Despite not loving the situation in MK, O’Sullivan has barely missed an event all season, competing in the majority of tournaments since he lifted his sixth World Championship title in August.
World Snooker Tour chairman Hearn feels this is illustration of the passion the Rocket still has for the game and, far from being annoyed by his criticism of MK, can fully understand it.
‘I think he’s been magnificent, the number of tournaments he’s played,’ Hearn told the Talking Snooker podcast. ‘I know he moans about Milton Keynes but you can’t blame him for that.
‘You’ve seen Ronnie’s normal lifestyle, it doesn’t revolve around Milton Keynes!
‘He’s paying the price for a sport he loves, that’s the message I get. The more he moans about Milton Keynes, the more I know he loves snooker. He wouldn’t put up with it for a second unless he was there for a reason.
‘The boy loves the game. He likes to have a moan up. Good luck to him. I’m a fan.’
O’Sullivan lost in the final of the Tour Championship to Neil Robertson on Sunday night, his fifth ranking event final loss this season as he still searches for his first title since the Crucible.
Hearn believes this is more evidence of how much Ronnie loves playing the game as he keeps striving for more success despite the set-backs.
The chairman has also praised how magnanimous O’Sullivan is in defeat in big finals, although was happy to remind him that it has been happening on a regular basis.
‘He’s had a lot of practice this year!’ Hearn said of the Rocket’s admirable losing speeches.
‘That’s the thing people don’t understand about the animal that is Ronnie O’Sullivan. He likes money, of course he does, he likes to win, but there’s something bigger, he likes to play snooker.
‘He’s lost a load of finals but I don’t think he’s driven home going, “balls, I’ve lost another one” I think he’s thinking “I’ve got to get a bit better,” he’s still thinking like that and that’s a magnificent compliment to the player that O’Sullivan is.
‘He’s not satisfied to lose but he’s magnanimous in defeat and I find that reassuring that his ultimate goal is to win.
‘At the same time, I said to him a few years ago that he’ll be in the top 16 for as long as he wants because he’s got that much ability. Even if he had 30% less ability it’s still going to be enough. He’s got ability that you can’t teach.
‘He’s going to be there as long as he wants to be there and, although he criticises things, he wants to be there or he wouldn’t turn up at all in the first place.’
Hearn and O’Sullivan have had plenty of run-ins over the years and Ronnie may attempt to wind up his old sparring partner in the future but Barry insists it won’t work.
The veteran promoter does not get upset by the Rocket’s musings, and just looks at the positives of the publicity they bring.
‘Alex Higgins used to upset me, I don’t get upset at all anymore with anybody, in any mode of my life. What can they do to me? Nothing,’ said Barry.
‘They’re entitled to their opinions, number one. I’d like it to be done in a nice and proper way, sometimes Ronnie stretches that a bit, but he’s Ronnie O’Sullivan, he’s earned the right to have his own opinion.
‘Most of it is crap! But at the end of the day it doesn”t make any difference because it’s his crap and I’m a fan of Ronnie O’Sullivan.
‘I would put up with a lot of things from Ronnie because I want to watch him play, he adds so much to the value of every tournament and he makes me excited to watch snooker played at the level of the Gods.
‘Does he upset me? Not in the slightest.
‘If he breaks the rules to a ridiculous extent he will be disciplined like everybody else, but he doesn’t. He’s quite smart, he goes borderline, doesn’t really push it that much.
‘He’ll have a little pop at me and I think to myself, “that’s another headline, that’s another bit of publicity for snooker.”‘
As for how much longer Hearn expects the current world champion to be around in snooker, he will allow him to stay for as long as he wants.
Even if the six-time world champ declines to the point he drops off tour, Hearn will be rustling up a tour card for him, just as he has done for the Rocket’s old mate Jimmy White.
‘He’s got an invitational tour card for the rest of his natural life, no question,’ said Barry.
‘Anyone who criticises that doesn’t understand what you owe people and what they’ve contributed to your enjoyment over the years. So not a problem at all.’
Well, Barry Hearn loves it of course. The more snooker is in the news, the better, unless it’s about match fixing or cheating of course.