Belfast Telegraph

Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker brilliance a joy to behold

By James Lawton

Why do we want Ronnie O'Sullivan to soldier on through another year of angst? Why do we argue with those who say that he should make up his mind about either playing snooker or hiding away down on the farm and then give us all a bit of peace?

For the same reason we prayed that George Best would escape his shadows. Because he is worth the trouble and if there was any vague doubt about this he simply shot the hell out of it at the old potting arena of the Crucible.

No doubt he has issues and sometimes when he discusses them he can threaten to impinge on eternity. But life can be like this, of course. It can get complicated, even seem impossible at times, which is why when O'Sullivan appears with his heart set on business, the kind for which he was born, there is always going to be a new charge of electricity in the air.

After one whole night on the tiles, Best sped through a training session with impossible brilliance and his team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton said that he expected parts of his body to be exhibited one day as freaks of nature for the benefit of scientific research.

There is something of this in the talent of O'Sullivan. Quick-fire, ambidextrous, he makes nonsense of the usual geometric possibilities. He has the authority of a gunfighter determined not to linger about his work.

If O'Sullivan had spoken entirely with his cue these last few days he would still surely have touched the rarest and most thrilling of all emotion in sport. It is the reaction to sublime skill, that soaring sense that you are witnessing powers that may always be unique.

Being O'Sullivan, he was always going to make it more complicated than this. There were demons to revisit yet again and all the doubts which have besieged a talent which in less complex ownership would surely have some time ago smashed every record known to snooker.

Yet if O'Sullivan ran through the usual litany of denial of anything like a serene future after the astounding feat of retaining the world title after a year of exile, much of it spent on a pig farm, he also pulled off another remarkable achievement. The endless speculations of a sporting Hamlet acquired a sharper edge. To be, in this case a world champion successfully defending his title for a second time next year with unprecedented panache, seemed less a hope than an imperative.

His friend Jimmy White put it most eloquently when he said O'Sullivan's profession of love for the game was music to his ears, confirming as it did his belief that if snooker needs O'Sullivan it is in no less measure than he needs the game.

In fact, apart from producing a game so poised, so hot, it frequently burst into flames, the Essex Exocet injected some new weight into his musings after overcoming the excellent challenge of debutant finalist Barry Hawkins, who scored two of a record eight century breaks in a Crucible match.

O'Sullivan's opening philosophical salvo was familiar enough. He said, "I can't say that I will be back next year. I'm going to enjoy the moment and see how I feel in January."

But then, after paying tribute to the help of leading sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, he also said, "Everyone knows I'm up and down like a whore's drawers and you have to face your demons here, that is why it is such a hard tournament to win. Now I have even more respect for Stephen Hendry with his seven titles and Steve Davis with his six – but they were different.

"I'm trying to be more of a machine but I'm not a machine. I'm more like Alex Higgins. But I do have my little place in history."

At the age of 37, and with five world titles, O'Sullivan's niche in snooker is one which you have to believe he is capable of expanding quite spectacularly. His mention of Higgins was both apt and poignant.

It was a reminder of a lunch with Higgins at that time when he was the O'Sullivan of his day, a man capable of the most coruscating brilliance, which he demonstrated with two world titles separated by 10 years, but who was frequently confused about the point of his existence.

The lunch was extremely long and moist and when it was over, in the early evening, he announced he was off to a practice session. It was the afterthought of a man who would die alone and penniless back in Belfast, and after whose funeral the great Hendry reported his sadness that so few of his snooker contemporaries had made the effort to attend.

It is a fate that Ronnie O'Sullivan, if only subliminally, has maybe already rejected. There has, after all, been still more spectacular evidence of quite how much he has to protect.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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