AS A VETERAN of Ronnie O’Sullivan press conferences I am well aware of the five times world champion’s capacity to engage, confound, madden, charm, enrage and entertain – in equal measure, often in the space of the same sentence.
O’Sullivan is that rare person. He seems to have been born almost without the in-built self-editing switch that most of us flick to get through the day without putting our foot in it.
And long may that continue. Because as he demonstrated in a Guardian interview today, O’Sullivan is still box office and still cutting through the safe, controlled world of the sporting interview, an increasingly redundant exercise because so many sports people are now too scared to say anything of any substance.
This was O’Sullivan speaking from the heart, as he always does. Had the reporter gone to see him the next day he may have said the exact opposite, but he still would have meant it. Such are the shifting moods and emotions of snooker’s most popular star.
The increasingly puritanical Twitter jumps all over any comments anyone makes if they are even slightly controversial but, for me, I’d rather a sportsman spoke their mind, even if I disagree with them, than have their ‘thoughts’ fed through some PR machine, coming out the other side blandly dulled.
This is the world of sport right now. There is such big money riding on televised events that sponsors and administrations are desperate for sportsmen and women not to rock the boat.
But you can’t spin Ronnie O’Sullivan. He simply won’t have it.
Players of course have to be mindful of their professional responsibilities and of the way they represent their sport. But they should also be free to give opinions about their sport and themselves.
The majority, O’Sullivan included, manage this balance most of the time. When they cross the line, officialdom steps in but the idea World Snooker is trying to stifle the players is nonsense: the governing body would love more media coverage, and not just for O’Sullivan.
The challenge is to get a newspaper like the Guardian to give such space to another top player as the fight for column inches amid the endless football merry-go-round continues.
As for O’Sullivan’s specific comments about the World Championship, it comes down to a question of motivation. He’s never been one to chase records but has recently found himself breaking some, and getting close to breaking others.
Had he won the world title last year he’d be going to Sheffield next month on six, with a chance to equal Stephen Hendry’s modern day record and break it next year. As it is, having to win three more, or even two, now seems like a tall order for someone who turns 40 this year.
And, approaching 40, it would frankly be a tragedy if he didn’t have other things in his life to stimulate him aside from snooker. His children are growing up and there is much to watch them do. He has enjoyed his time with Eurosport and sees the media as part of his future.
O’Sullivan’s assertion that top players are struggling for money won’t meet with much sympathy but I think he can cope without sympathy. He’s had a remarkable life and his snooker career has several more years to run if he wants it to.
And when he gets to the Crucible next month, he will surely feel the pull of competition, the thrill of the chase for another world title. Along the way he’ll probably say a few things that upset the apple cart.
Let’s hope so. Snooker would be a lot duller without him – on and off table.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.