Ronnie O’Sullivan is an emotional character who provokes extreme reactions. Some seem to think he is a living deity, others a nuisance who should be drummed out of snooker.
The interesting thing about his new autobiography, Running, is that it will probably confirm and entrench your pre-existing view of the five times world champion. If you think he is a sensitive, misunderstood soul in need of a hug and cup of tea or if you think he is a millionaire sportsman whining on about the bad choices he has made, there will be much here to bring you succour.
But life isn’t black and white. Like snooker, it is played in colour. The truth is O’Sullivan is no one person. Like anyone, he is a mass of contradictions. More than most, his story is worth telling.
And Running is an interesting read. Simon Hattenstone, the ghost writer, has done a good job of getting the rhythm of O’Sullivan’s voice and the book rattles along at a fair old pace, like O’Sullivan on one of his runs (I read it in an afternoon).
[But I’m going to pause here for a rant: this book is littered with factual errors. There’s one in the first paragraph. Years are wrong, players names – Graeme Dott, Shaun Murphy, Joe Perry, Patsy Fagan – are spelled wrong. At times results are wrong. This isn’t Ronnie’s fault. He’s a snooker player, not a statistician. But the publishers should have had it properly checked. This is a common fault with snooker books and it undermines their credibility with snooker fans. Those from outside the sport may not notice but that’s besides the point. How hard is it really to find out that it’s Joe and not Jo Perry?]
The ties of family feature largely in Running and O’Sullivan’s father comes across as a domineering, controlling figure who moulded his son into a champion but with emotional consequences, exacerbated when the pair were separated due to Ronnie senior being sent to jail for murder.
For years it was felt O’Sullivan’s various problems would be solved when his father was released but by the time that day came too much had changed: "My vision of how things would work out was rose-tinted.” In fact, he had to stop his father coming to snooker tournaments.
But despite much heartache there has also been great success, although O’Sullivan does not dwell on much of it. His passion outside snooker is, as the book title suggests, running and it is this which seems to have saved him from going seriously off the rails.
The determined boy his father encouraged and cajoled into working hard to be the best at snooker has become a man obsessed by challenging himself at a far more physically demanding activity, leaving drink, drugs and boredom behind.
He pushed himself hard, lost four stone in weight and became touchingly delighted that a race win merited a mention in Athletics Weekly – this from someone who has been on the back pages of national newspapers for his snooker.
“Running,” he says, “gave me a sense of professionalism and purpose. It made me want to get out of my bed in the morning; it made me want to take care of my appearance; it made me have a bit of respect for myself and that all helped my snooker.”
The other great constant of recent years has been Dr. Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist who has helped O’Sullivan’s mental focus – “he’s a bit of a genius,” says Ronnie. “When I worked with Steve, for the first time I was really getting my emotions under control.”
Those emotions have led to some memorable lapses in professionalism, such as his 2006 UK Championship walk-out when, as he puts it, “my head was up my arse.”
At the time he admits he had been “wound up” by associates: “It did cross my mind to get to the final and just not turn up. I thought that would be the ultimate thing to piss the authorities off.”
He didn’t seem to have considered the paying public in this masterplan, which thankfully he didn’t enact.
O’Sullivan is well aware of his status in the game: “It is weird that nobody has come along with the personality and talent to kick me into touch. It’s the personality thing that’s the biggest factor. Snooker players are all boring bastards basically.”
However, when he claims World Snooker “moved every goalpost to get me back” he is deluded. They didn’t move any goalposts. He signed the same contract as all the other players – the contract he hadn’t read or understood, which he has acknowledged was costly to him both financially and professionally.
O’Sullivan, wisely, does not spend much time on the characters or games of his rivals but he singles out John Higgins, Ding Junhui, Neil Robertson and Judd Trump as the players on the tour now who he rates highest, although he questions at times whether Trump can play his best under pressure.
He gives Mark Selby a few back-handed compliments but his nickname for him – ‘The Torturer’ – tells you what he thinks about the way he plays.
He lists Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry – ‘the best ever’ – as his three snooker heroes and expresses regret for his ill advised verbal assault on Hendry before their 2002 Crucible semi-final.
O’Sullivan concedes he can be difficult company and ill disciplined. In 2004, he was coached by Ray Reardon, the very model of discipline, and got his head down to win a second world title.
At the following season’s UK Championship Reardon was so appalled by O’Sullivan’s behaviour in a match that he up and left the venue and that was the end of their association.
Yet at other times in the book the charming, good natured Ronnie comes very much to the fore, such as in his account of his time working on a farm and indeed when he talks about his children.
He went through a long, costly legal process just to see them and is right to point out the difficulties for fathers in British law, just as he is to point out the deficiencies in the old WPBSA.
O’Sullivan is also right about the slightly odd, eccentric nature of the snooker circuit but it was hard to have sympathy when he starts to complain about having to go to China to shake a few sponsors’ hands and pick up £25,000 for his trouble.
It was also ridiculous of him to concoct a conspiracy theory that World Snooker – bearing in mind almost every mention of Barry Hearn is complimentary – changed the cloth before the 2013 world final to try and stop him winning it.
O’Sullivan does not fit the profile of conspiracy theorists who are typically underachievers, grubbing around in the dark corners of the internet trying to find someone to blame – anyone but themselves – for their lack of success. The ‘hidden hand’ theory is seductive: it’s not my fault, it’s someone mysteriously controlling everything. Except it isn’t. The cloth was changed because it was damaged. O’Sullivan made a world final record six centuries on it.
But perhaps the odd maddening claim proves the point: Ronnie O’Sullivan is many things to many people and, it seems, many things to himself.
He can’t be tamed and his moods and actions can’t be predicted. Though this often leads to controversy, sport is enlivened by maverick characters. It would be boring if everyone was the same, spouting bland PR drivel day in, day out.
The truth is, Ronnie is snooker’s only modern superstar and he has inspired legions of people around the world to both play and watch.
As Phil Yates said recently on LBC radio: “The good O’Sullivan has done on the table far outweighs the bad he has sometimes done off it.”
Furthermore, with his 38th birthday coming up, O’Sullivan has proved himself to be a survivor. His running has kept him fit. His snooker is still at times sublime.
What of the future? He says he is looking at media work and “might have a go at writing a novel.”
But I suspect snooker was still figure larger than anything else.
O’Sullivan’s tumultuous life seemed at times to be veering wildly towards disaster but he has found an equilibrium and it appears his career, like him, has a long time left to run.
Running, published by Orion Books, is out now.