Cooney and Black

O’Sullivan aside, most of these Crucible guys seem to have no more personality than the wind turbines that clutter our landscape. Could it be that the ridiculously successful Barry Hearn is to blame?

Ronnie O'Sullivan


RONNIE O’SULLIVAN was in his socks rather than his cups last week – apparently confirming to the snooker authorities that he possesses the essential prerequisites for a bona fide tearaway.

After being reprimanded in the first round of the World Snooker Championships for the positively heinous act of playing a frame minus his shoes, he was admonished again, this time for an obscene hand gesture.

The “criminality” was minimal enough to be missed by many people at the Crucible, but not by an observant referee called Olivier Marteel (methinks, football could do with such an eagle-eyed arbiter).

Now, O’Sullivan apparently has been warned that just one more transgression could cost him a frame in his subsequent quarter-final.

Let’s appraise matters so far: do you imagine that this constitutes a tournament dripping with incident, mischief and controversy? Er, not that I had noticed from my vantage point in the old armchair.

Unfortunately, I missed the most recent kerfuffle. By the time The Rocket was discomfiting the referee, I had made my own, rather less inflammatory, gesture by invading the Land of Nod. I’d been bored out of my brains.

It makes me wonder about not only this blue riband event but the highly sanitised world of snooker. In my opinion, with only the odd exception, the competitors seem decent young lads whom your grandmother would gladly welcome for afternoon tea and scones in her front parlour.

Their attire is immaculate, their shoes (when they’re wearing them, of course) are highly polished. Normally, with the exception of the occasionally delinquent O’Sullivan, these chaps say, do and possibly even think the most appropriate things. Most of them play to an exceptionally high level.

But there’s an ingredient missing and it happens to be a vitally important one: personality. Where, oh, where has it gone? Many of these guys might have been film extras in I, Robot.

O’Sullivan and a couple of others aside, most seem to have no more personality than the wind turbines that clutter our landscapes. As far as I’m concerned, studying wind turbines for any length of time is an efficient way to counteract insomnia.

The trouble is that the ragamuffins of yore have disappeared into the ground or the ether, and their replacements have been sanitised beyond belief. And for much of this, I must take issue with someone I’ve known – and admired – for many years: the irrepressible and ridiculously successful entrepreneur, promoter and manager, Barry Hearn.

Bazza – I trust he’ll forgive the vernacular – is delightful and amusing company. He is a “doing person” who certainly has a penchant for manufacturing a pound note.

Five years ago, he was charged with revitalising the “moribund” professional game. This he has done; certain tournaments now carry his authoritative stamp; prize money has swollen to more than £7million from £3million.

But if there is a flaw in this influential man, it’s that he wants players to inhabit a bubble of perfection. He favours sober, sensible citizens who take a safety-first approach to life. It’s almost as if he’s allergic to aggravation.

He doesn’t seem to be keen on understanding the spontaneous and idiosyncratic nature of life’s characters. Or, for that matter, the hypnotic effect they have on the paying public.

Once, I visited him at his Matchroom headquarters. At one point in the interview, he smiled the smile of ultimate self-satisfaction and said: “Here, in this building, it’s Toblerone.”

And that, really, sums up Hearn in so many ways. He likes everything to be a honey, almond and nuggat confection of Swiss chocolate. To my mind, you need the occasional Mars or Snickers bar thrown into the mix, just to provide variety.

When I covered the World Championships in the early Eighties, it was impossible to move for characters or impending bedlam. Snooker was a veritable schools for embryonic scoundrels. There was the irrepressible Alex Higgins, the scamp-like Jimmy White and the lady-killing Tony Knowles. Then there was Big Bill Werbernuik – he convinced the authorities that he needed to drink a pint of lager per frame just to control a tremor.

Higgins was the main attraction, of course. You liked him, or your hated him. It was impossible to ignore him. I tried to interview him one night, but his manager told me he had retired to bed at 9p.m. to watch a video. It was the appropriately named Death Wish.

Six hours later, I met Higgins in a nightclub. Two large vodkas while watching Charles Bronson total the Manhattan muggers had persuaded him to spiral out of control, and now here he was wide-eyed and legless – with a major match looming.

He rejected my application for an interview, but not before tantalising me by claiming that he would one day write a book that would make Valley of the Dolls read like a fairy story. Those were indeed the days, my friends.

At that time, as Higgins was sliding back down fame’s totem pole, he was acknowledging with some cynicism the inexorable rise of Steve Davies. The latter had just set out on an incredible journey that would take him to six world titles. He was the first of the robotic men, so mechanised and arguably dull that he was given the rather insulting sobriquet of Interesting.

Just a few years ago, I was interviewing Davies for a BBC Radio Scotland programme. I could not believe the metamorphosis. He was brilliantly candid, extremely funny, and I left him wondering what the world would have enjoyed had that talent been harnessed. Barry Hearn was his manager and mentor.

Snooker cannot be all about brilliant break building and canny safety play. The practitioners have a duty to entertain the public, to invite them, if only briefly, into their worlds. Scotland’s Anthony McGill at least knows the importance of a smile.

The wheels of sport require oiling. Laughter, a touch of mischief, even controversy provides that necessary lubrication. Without the force of personality, snooker might be in danger of going back down that slippery slope.

PICTURE COURTESY OF: DerHexer. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International | Wikimedia Commons

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