For many, this was the first chance to witness O’Sullivan’s unique brand of snooker genius which, once seen, is never forgotten.
He was still 17 and he beat a peak Stephen Hendry10-6 in the final. A whole world of possibility lay before him but it transpired to be a world full of pain as well as joy
O’Sullivan was a brash kid, naturally talented but also with advantages over other juniors. He had a full sized table at his home and his father would arrange for leading amateurs and some professionals to come and play him.
Young Ronnie practised hard and quickly became the best junior in the country. He turned professional at 16 and won his first 38 matches. In that first season he qualified for the final stages of the UK Championship but was beaten 9-8 by a maverick of a different generation, Cliff Wilson.
He nearly lost to Nigel Gilbert the following year, 1993, but came through 9-8 and beat Ken Doherty, Steve Davis and Darren Morgan to reach the final.
Hendry himself was only 24 but it was still a clash of generations. Hendry had been the game-changing exponent of all out attacking snooker which O’Sullivan and others were now employing to great effect. The stage was set at Preston Guild Hall for an intriguing battle.
There were three centuries in an exciting opening session – two for O’Sullivan and one for Hendry – as O’Sullivan, showing no signs of nerves or any awe for his celebrated opponent, opened a 6-2 lead.
In fact, he had lost 6-2 to Hendry in the semi-finals of the Dubai Classic earlier that season and felt that he had shown him too much respect, played the reputation rather than the man. Such experiences were to be learned from.
O’Sullivan had been groomed to be a winner in his own right and duly closed out a 10-6 victory.
It’s briefly tempting to ponder what would have happened had it been – as it was up to the previous year – a two day final, in which overnight uncertainty may have played its part. But it’s also pointless. Nobody could deny that a major star had arrived in style.
Hendry put it best: “Ronnie plays the game like I used to. He’s fearless and frightened of no one.”
O’Sullivan’s reaction was: “After getting a taste of this I want more.”
In fact, just a year later he was threatening retirement after losing to Ken Doherty in the quarter-finals.
O’Sullivan had taken the trophy to Gartree prison where his father was a year into his life sentence for murder. The UK win was a source of pride for both men but the separation triggered in O’Sullivan a battle with his own sense of certainty about the world: things could go wrong and they frequently did.
He repeated a 10-6 win over Hendry in the 1997 UK final but again the storm clouds were gathering.
I was a WPBSA lackey in 1998 and was charged with overseeing the launch for the UK Championship in Bournemouth. O’Sullivan came along as defending champion and behaved quite appallingly.
It was obvious he was edging dangerously close to some sort of psychological cliff and indeed withdrew from the tournament shortly before his first match.
These were years in which he enjoyed success but struggled to control his emotional problems. In 2000 in checked into the Priory Clinic, which did help him achieve an equilibrium. In the immediate aftermath he was back to the nice, unassuming lad he had always been deep down.
And he was still producing some spellbinding snooker. O’Sullivan won his first world title in 2001 and at the end of that year was in York, the new home for the UK Championship, where he produced some of the best snooker I’ve seen from him.
He was 8-4 down to Peter Ebdon, a well established rival, in the quarter-finals but swept back to win 9-8 and came into the pressroom determined to rub it in, saying “You look into Peter’s eyes and he looks like a psycho. He plays like an amateur. He’s got no class.”
And then, after the semi-finals, we predictably heard the polar opposite side of O’Sullivan, saying of the vanquished Mark Williams, “He’s a class act. I don’t fancy having to play him for the next five years. I hope he retires to Spain and spends all his time on the beach. I’ll even pay his expenses.”
In the final, O’Sullivan ran through Ken Doherty 10-1 in just two hours, 17 minutes, a devastating display. It was his third UK title. He won a fourth in 2007, overwhelming Stephen Maguire 10-2.
The key moment in this campaign had come the previous evening in the semi-finals against Mark Selby, who brought his toughness and tenacity to bear to take it the distance.
Needing to concentrate, O’Sullivan sat in his chair counting the bumps on a spoon. When he got his chance in the decider he made a 147 to win it.
This was another glorious chapter in the book of his life and career which had already had more plot twists than the average page-turner.
The previous year he had literally walked out of the tournament, trailing Hendry 4-1 in the quarter-finals. Some had sympathy, others contempt. O’Sullivan was by now used to both.
Throughout the drama, controversy and spells of brilliance, he remained as articulate and fascinating as he had been as a worldy-wise 17 year-old in 1993.
“It’s fine being the best player at 17 but I want to be the best player when I’m 21, when I’m the finished article,” he said after winning the title back then.
This year he was the best player at the Crucible at the age of 36 when he won his fourth world title. Aside from one PTC he hasn’t played professionally since and says he has no plans to do so this season. Perhaps he will never play again.
It’s certainly true that not everyone will miss him but his contribution to snooker in the 19 years since that first triumph is incalculable. As the game has expanded to horizons well beyond the shores of the UK, it is O’Sullivan more than any other player who has led people to the sport.