Snooker: O'Sullivan's mix of talent and turmoil

Alleged drug abuse is the latest blot on the reputation of one of snooker's most colourful players. Guy Hodgson on a volatile career
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The Independent Online
RONNIE O'SULLIVAN was frank. He always is. Delve into a history that most would prefer to remain hidden and he exposes it with an almost evangelical zeal. "I was a prat," he said, referring to the time he hit a press officer. "Totally out of order. I was like a time bomb waiting to go off."

A time bomb, no metaphor sums up O'Sullivan better. He either explodes into effortless brilliance on a snooker table, or is so careless you want to shake responsibility into him. His character, too, is a combustible mix, either delightful or, on occasions, boorish. You can almost hear the ticking.

Today another potential blot is poised to land on an already besmirched reputation. O'Sullivan is alleged to have failed a preliminary drugs test, something that will be established only if the B sample also shows traces of cannabis. A fine and a possible suspension await the 22 year old if the allegations are proved true.

It is the latest of a lengthening line of incidents that has dogged a career that has lurched from brilliance to controversy. Cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug, but its use is against the law of the land and is outlawed by the World Professional Billiard and Snooker Association. To use it is to run the risk of detection in random tests. To be, in O'Sullivan's words, a prat.

This is not unfamiliar territory for O'Sullivan. His first brush with authority was laughably childish, being reprimanded for throwing a bread roll which hit an official at a junior event. He was 11 then and even when he turned professional five years later the "crimes" were petty assertions of rebelliousness: inappropriate scruffiness at an official reception in Malta, being reported to the WPBSA for urinating on a wall and using profane language in Plymouth.

Away from the table, however, the signs of inner turmoil were more alarming. He smashed a neon light demonstrating his driving skills in a car park and he was banned for speeding at 133mph on the M3 in February 1995.

All irresponsible, stupid even, but causing no harm to others. It was only when he arrived at The Crucible for the Embassy World Championship two years ago that the hurt spread. He was unforgiveably disrespectful to a fellow professional, Alain Robidoux, when he began playing with his wrong hand in the first round, saying: "I can play better left-handed than he can right."

Typically, he was later filled with remorse. "It wasn't me saying those things," he said and he probably felt it was not the real Ronnie either who attacked press officer Michael Ganley over what was a trivial argument of who should be in the press room. For that he was fined pounds 20,000 and given a two-year suspended ban.

If that paints a picture of a brat then personal experience would argue otherwise. Six years ago, I remember his running breathless into Ilford Snooker Centre to make a contribution to an article about the sport even though he had earlier said he could not make the appointment. Most sportsmen can barely be bothered to answer the telephone, never mind put themselves out for journalists.

Even last month he was happy to disrupt his practice at the British Open. "Sure, mate. Want to do it now?" Then he disarmingly revealed that it was his mother who had dragged some sense into him after the Michael Ganley incident. "She threw me out of the house," he said in mock indignation.

"She wasn't happy with my attitude. I became lazy and fat and couldn't be bothered to do anything. She did it because she knew I couldn't hack it. I was back in two weeks and told her there would be a new me. She told me: `Don't just say it, do it'."

People who know him better say the impression you get depends on O'Sullivan's mood. Sometimes he can be sullen and difficult, but there are mitigating reasons. The family ties pull strongly within him, which makes his dislocated adolescence more of a personal tragedy.

It was his father, also christened Ronald, who was the biggest influence on the young O'Sullivan, buying him his first snooker table at eight and taking him to the local Essex club where, initially, he was given a 30- point start. Within six months the prodigy was giving adults points and thoroughly thrashing them.

He was a talented footballer, too. At 13 he was offered a trial with Tottenham Hotspur, but declined to concentrate on a sport where he was rapidly becoming a phenomenon. At 10 he made his first century break; at 12 he won his first pro-am; at 15 years 97 days he became the youngest player to compile a 147-break in competition; at 16 he won 74 of his first 76 professional matches in the Blackpool qualifying school.

It was at Blackpool, just as his career was taking off, that the seeds of his problems were sown. His father, regarded in snooker circles as a rough diamond with a generous spirit and wallet, was the one person who could always keep young Ronnie in line and on the day following his qualification for the World Championship, O'Sullivan Snr was given a life sentence for murder.

Suddenly, the main prop in the youngster's life had been removed and it was with some wonder that everyone watched him progress, seemingly untouched, winning his first ranking tournament, the UK Championship, in 1993. Inside, however, the doubts, the tension, the pressure borne of overwhelming expectation, were swirling malevolently.

When his mother, Maria, who had taken over the family's pornography business, was also jailed for seven months for tax irregularities, and, as the relative of a celebrity, received intimidatory treatment from the inmates of Holloway, something snapped. His behaviour plummeted as "incidents" escalated. Potting balls seemed unimportant and he talked of giving up the game, an astonishing sentiment for someone still in his teens.

It was only when his mother was released and evicted him from the family home that he came away from the abyss, losing three stones and undergoing a strenuous fitness regime. "I am easily led," he said, "but if I do go out for a beer with my friends at least I'm in good condition to recover now."

The evidence was strong. O'Sullivan won four titles last season and rose from seventh to third in the world rankings. A typically fitful appearance in the World Championship semi-finals a fortnight ago where he lost to the eventual winner, John Higgins, also suggested that he was a moving down the path towards the full flowering of his talent. Erratically, but moving none the less.

Now that progress is threatened by these latest allegations. If proved true, the least O'Sullivan can expect is a hefty fine and the docking of ranking points although the WPBSA, given his past record, will also have to consider a suspension. Yet again, O'Sullivan is in need of guidance, either from his manager, Ian Doyle, or from his parents.

"I still keep in touch with my father," O'Sullivan said recently, "he can still find ways to give me a kick up the backside over the phone."

No matter whether the allegations are true, you can guarantee contact will have been made this week between Leicester Prison and the player's home in Essex.

It is to be hoped frank words were exchanged there, too.