Snooker: Unbearable baring of a soul sounds alarm bells

They say that in three-and-a- half minutes, the time that elapsed while Peter "Pedestrian" Ebdon contemplated one shot late on Wednesday night, an average adult loses 22 brain cells. In the case of spectators at the Crucible, they most probably also lost the will to live.

They say that in three-and-a- half minutes, the time that elapsed while Peter "Pedestrian" Ebdon contemplated one shot late on Wednesday night, an average adult loses 22 brain cells. In the case of spectators at the Crucible, they most probably also lost the will to live.

As for his opponent, Ronnie O'Sullivan, there were times when it was difficult to decide whether he would depart accompanied by the guys in white coats or by coma specialists. As he slumped in his chair while the Boycott of the Baize considered his angles, the latter looked more likely.

In reality, though, such behaviour was in keeping with the demeanour of a man who had descended once more into the vaults of self-torment. It was not so much "Rocket" Ronnie as Rambling, self-recriminating Ronnie after Ebdon had secured a 13-11 win, a triumph achieved after the reigning champion had leads of 8-2 and 10-6.

Ebdon has been maligned for his speed of play, but it's all relative. It's like moaning about the railways and going misty-eyed and imagining that trains used to run better under BR. Ebdon is expeditious compared with the likes of Terry Griffiths and Cliff Thorburn a generation ago.

However, if Ebdon wasn't responsible for Wednesday's events, he may be considered the catalyst for the fragmentation of O'Sullivan, whose exhibition of self-harm, the scratch marks across his forehead and the hand over the face while Ebdon played, had the psychologists, amateur and professional, swarming to probe the inner man. Talk about being shrink-wrapped.

In the aftermath of that quarter-final defeat the 29-year-old Essex man bared his soul for three minutes and seven seconds, and in the midst of it all declared his intention to take a year out, possibly to quit altogether. At that point, the suits of snooker would have been awash with cold sweat. What the game does not need as it comes to terms with the end of the tobacco road is the loss of its most charismatic attraction.

Was it actually a valedictory speech, though? One suspects not. Ray Reardon, his mentor, placed such a threat into perspective when he declared: "I don't think he'll take a year off. I'll take him to the golf course and get rid of all those little things going round in his head. Ronnie lives for the game, and I think a lot of his problems stem from his dad being in prison."

There can be little doubt that O'Sullivan's troubles can be traced back to the night his father knifed a man in a club fight and was sentenced to life for murder 12 years ago, with the judge's recommendation that he should serve 18 years because of the "racial overtones" of the case - though O'Sullivan Jnr vehemently denies that his father is a racist. Recently, an appeal was launched against the loss of parole. Its lack of success hit the whole family hard. Who knows just what effect that setback has had on this snooker icon, who, as his friend Steve Davis will testify, can be one of the most gregarious and amusing competitors on the circuit when the mood takes him.

Too often, it doesn't. Over the years, many have tried to elevate him from the murky waters of his depression; the psychiatrists, The Priory (where he is reported to be returning for treatment), the Samaritans, Mike Brearley. Yes, the Mike Brearley, the ex-England cricket captain and now psychotherapist.

O'Sullivan's depression became profound before the 2001 World Championship, a year after he had been treated in The Priory. "Things reached rock bottom," he says in his autobiography, Ronnie. A doctor prescribed pills that boosted his serotonin level, warning him that it was too low and that a further descent would be "suicidal". O'Sullivan confesses: "Well, yes, I did want to kill myself. All that was stopping me was that I didn't have the bottle."

He phoned the Samaritans. The woman who answered asked him if he'd ever thought about giving up snooker. Yes, he had, O'Sullivan replied, "for the last eight years". He proceeded to win that year's World Championship.

Today, he talks of switching sports, and would relish some kind of golf career - "When I'm 50, I want to be on the professionals' Seniors Tour," he says, and not in jest, either - while the UK's largest volunteering charity, Community Service Volunteers, has suggested that he does indeed take a "gap year", and channels his energies into working with homeless people, young offenders, disabled people, the elderly and those battling drug abuse.

Maybe he will. The likelihood, though, is that he will, after his treatment at The Priory, be back at the table next year, the one that has been his preoccupation since childhood. His sport desperately hopes so. As the wording says on the crumpled packet: O'Sullivan's loss can seriously damage snooker's health.

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