Mike Rowbottom: Famous by brief association with O'Sullivan's hair

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A funny thing happened to me on the way back from Dublin this week. Well, it was probably more odd more than funny. And it didn't exactly happen directly to me. I was coming back from Dublin though.

Anyway, this thing that happened.

As I sat reading before my flight was called, I noticed several of the people opposite starting to work very hard at Not Staring. (You know the sort of thing. It's the stillness that gives it away.) For a moment, I wondered if they were Not Staring at me. (Sad I know, but I'm trying to give an honest account.) Then I turned to my right and saw the back of a man's head which rang a faint bell somewhere in my own.

The hairstyle suggested that much time – and perhaps even money – had been devoted to creating an impression of someone who had been pulled through a hedge backwards. From behind, in fact, the person on the next seat looked like Just William after he had been dragged from a neighbour's orchard, and so I knew even before he turned round that it was Ronnie O'Sullivan.

I had noticed the world snooker champion's new barnet a few days earlier when I saw him playing one of his earlier televised matches at the Irish Masters. "What's he done to his hair?" I asked my wife. Pointlessly, as it happened, because she was not party to any special information about it.

Now here I was, inches away from the hair in question, but forbidden by all natural laws to ... well, to stare.

There is a particular tension created when a famous person sits among non-famous people who know them but are determined not to impose. I remember once going into a pub with Roger Black and becoming briefly famous-by-proxy as the whole bar stiffened up to the point where they could have been extras "drinking" in the Queen Vic. I felt then how stifling it must be to have roomfuls of people think they know you even though they had never met you.

Encountering famous people is far easier for all concerned if they are either doing what makes them famous – for example, playing snooker or running the 400 metres – or the meeting is fleeting.

I can recall without embarrassment, for instance, the memory of driving through Epping Forest and seeing Rod Stewart pass me in an open-top sports car – a blur of bleach in red.

In a way, driving sports cars was a part of what Stewart was famous for anyway, which made it even easier. It would have been more awkward if I had come across him searching for the cheese counter in Waitrose.

Where such close encounters become worse than awkward is when none of the parties involved can get away easily. Five years ago, preparing to fly from Munich airport, I found myself seated amid the constituent parts of The Prodigy, including the singer Keith Flint – "Wildman Keith Prodge", in tabloid parlance.

His repetition of a single David Bowie lyric – "He gave me a dangerous smile" – had the plaintive, deranged quality of one of Ophelia's greatest hits. It so unnerved the steward that he summoned a German police squad armed with sub-machine guns to escort Mr Firestarter off the plane. But that is another story. And one which, now I think about it, I have already told.

So, to return to O'Sullivan.

After his annus mirabilis of last year, when millions of TV viewers saw him earn the world title his extravagant talents deserved, there could have been no real question in his mind, or that of his girlfriend, that he would be recognised. The weathered jeans and shambolic stewardship of two shoeboxes could only have confirmed to those others present that they were indeed in the presence of the man they call "The Rocket".

(Whether anyone really does call him The Rocket, or whether he is only referred to as The Rocket by people who say other people call him The Rocket is a question I intend to leave for now. And for later.)

"That was Ronnie O'Sullivan," one man said quietly to his girlfriend after the mercurial one had passed him en route to the gate. He stared fervently at the affable figure now shuffling forwards with the masses and clearly struggling to remember where he had put his boarding card.

But – and this is the curious and crucial bit – the world-famous snooker player was not prevented from so doing by any unseemly demands for autographs or recollections. It was all rather dignified. The particular tension held, and no one appeared to transgress into naffness.

Inevitably I suffered for my restraint once I got home. "Dad! I don't believe you didn't get his autograph!" I tried explaining, but it didn't seem to do any good.