Snooker’s biggest star is now a traveller, raconteur, intensely political and pushing at fresh boundaries – and he’s happier for what he is finding
I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but maybe there will be an I’m a Celebrity in me soon,” says Ronnie O’Sullivan with a breezy cheeriness at odds with the drab January day outside the industrial estate in Essex where he practises. “I’ve spent so many years saying no to everything, but if the price is right and it’s a nice trip …” His voice trails off, but it quickly becomes clear that the prospect of chomping down on sheep’s testicles wouldn’t put him off. “I had bull’s cock in China,” he continues. “It was quite nice. Best thing on the plate. And I’d be all right psychologically too, as Steve Peters would help. It’s a few weeks in the jungle, you’re having a laugh. Some people in this country are living on food stamp, they don’t know where their next meal’s coming from.”
Welcome to Ronnie 2.0: traveller, raconteur, intensely political and pushing at fresh boundaries – and liking what he is finding. They say that life begins at 40. O’Sullivan is living proof. “I was just unhappy before,” he admits. “But I didn’t know anything else beyond potting balls. I was scared to break out”. But now, aged 41, he is doing so with a vengeance.
Last year he was on the road for four months straight, travelling to China to coach and play the odd game of snooker, and to the US to film Rocket Ronnie’s American Hustle, a four-episode travelogue in which he discovers the history of pool, which will be shown on British TV this month. He’s also doing punditry for Eurosport, and has even taken up boxing. “Just with a few old boys,” he says. “No one takes it too seriously. I wouldn’t get in there with a psychopath. I just do it for the fitness.”
However, before his opening round match against Liang Wenbo in the Masters on Sunday he has a confession. “I took Christmas off which I never normally do,” he says. “I spent 10 days in bed, watching TV, some darts, loads of Netflix. I had a great time. Just chilled out. I haven’t really done a lot of practice but I will try my nuts off against Liang and if I win I’ll have four more days to prepare and maybe my game will come.”
O’Sullivan, the defending Masters champion, knows he will be roared on by the sell-out 2,000 crowd at Alexandra Palace. And it is clear that he hugely appreciates being regarded as a working-class hero. But increasingly, he finds that he wants to do more: he wants to speak out at what he feels are the widening injustices in society.
“I just think: ‘How bad is it when the world is brought to its knees and not one person got punished for it?’ There’s no jobs. No jobs in this country or America. There’s a lot of people on food stamps over there. Meanwhile, the boss of Walmart gets a $20m salary or whatever it is. It’s just wrong. There’s too much of a divide. People can’t afford to fill their fridge, never mind buy their son a pair of trainers. It’s sad. People just want, want, want, take, take, take.
“We are all human beings, we all have a purpose in life, we all want to enjoy this time on the planet, there is enough in the world for everyone in the world to have the basic needs without feeling under depression. I believe a lot of our illnesses and struggles and suicides and drug addictions and whatever is brought on by hopelessness.”
O’Sullivan is warming to his theme now. “I come from a working class background. My parents worked hard and got up the ladder. In the 80s you could do that. But since they took away the unions and people power, people are fucked, basically. They have nowhere to go. The more you crush someone, the less hope they’ve got. They become numbed-down and they give up. People give up, that’s what happens. You kill them so much that they think ‘Fuck this, we can’t win.’”
O’Sullivan talks about how much he admires Ed Miliband and talks fondly of going up with him to visit his Doncaster constituency and hanging about with “proper, working-class people”.
“I can’t relate to a bunch of bankers sitting there, fucking drinking wine and splashing money like it’s going out of fashion,” he confesses. “It’s obscene, it makes me feel sick. I don’t like being around that kind of behaviour. It makes me feel disgusted.”
He sees similar injustices going on in the game of snooker. For despite there being more tournaments, those who get knocked out in the early rounds now struggle to make any sort of living. “I’m not going to support a system that doesn’t benefit the bottom-ranked players,” he says. “There’s no trickle down. All the top players get everything and those at the bottom are in poverty, keeping them in debt.
“Snooker, unfortunately, isn’t like golf, football and tennis where the bottom players can be sustained. In snooker, a lot of players can’t afford a pair of trainers for their kid, they can’t afford to buy the train ticket for a tournament. They can’t afford the hotel room. They are waiting for someone to lose and then ask for your hotel room. How is that right? How can that be right for a good snooker player who has devoted all his life? Then you see board members flying business class, drinking red wine, schmoozing, wearing nice suits, saying they are doing wonderful things for the game and it’s never been in a better place.”
O’Sullivan cites the case of the Irish player Fergal O’Brien, a tournament winner who he says he is struggling to stay on the tour. He believes a player ranked 32 in the world would be on £30,000 a year, after paying tax and their expenses. “It’s not bad but those between 33-128 in the world are not making a good living.”
O’Sullivan clearly has little time for World Snooker but says he won’t antagonise “the people who run things” because “they are looking for any little excuse to throw the book at you.” To make sure he does not have to deal with them directly, O’Sullivan now employs someone to handle all his dealings with the game’s governing body. “I’ve told them you are not allowed to email me. You have to go through someone else and we will keep it professional and keep that distance. I ain’t going to accept the bullshit. I can’t help it – if I smell something I say it’s bullshit.”
“I know how they try to bring certain people down, but they will never take my soul. They will never take my spirit. I just won’t have it. My favourite film was Braveheart and as a character he signalled everything to me, which was freedom. We all should have freedom and that’s what I believe in and no one is going to take my freedom.”
When young players tell him they want to become snooker players, how does he respond? “I tell them no every time,” he replies, shaking his head. “If my son – who turns 10 in June – chooses to play snooker, I’ve told him he won’t get support. That’s the deal. If you want to be in motor racing or tennis, or you want to be a doctor or lawyer or want to go and study, whatever, you get my support. But anything with snooker, I’m going to have to tell you that you are on your own.”
O’Sullivan recently watched the documentary I am Bolt, and expresses his deep admiration for Tiger Woods in our interview. But when asked whether he is in their bracket, as a naturally gifted sporting genius, he hesitates. “I just do my best,” he replies. “I know I can perform to a high level and when I don’t, I’m prepared to tough it out more than I was before. I love to compete.”
As our hour talking comes to an end O’Sullivan is still chewing the fat, despite having been up until 2.30am the previous night playing in an Ireland versus England legends exhibition match and having had to get up at 6am to get the flight back from County Kildare. He seems in a good place.
“Snooker’s the bit I don’t really like,” he admits. “But since doing all this other stuff, I started coming out of myself. I’m a lot happier. I thought, ‘I want to be happy now. I want to have a laugh. I don’t want the grind, the treadmill.’ And I’m having an absolute ball.”