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World Snooker Championships: How It Feels To Get Whipped By 'Rocket' Ronnie O'Sullivan

by Justyn Barnes
20 April 2013 10 Comments

The Rocket is back and playing as well as he has in years at The Crucible. With his semi-final against Matthew Stevens set to resume today, I remember a time when he hammered me on the green baize...

I don’t play snooker nowadays. I Find it too painful. Don’t watch it on telly much either, except when the World Championship rolls around each April. But back in the mid-Nineties, I was a professional snooker player. No, I really was.

In a career spanning two years (1994-96), I reached the lofty heights of 302 in the world rankings. My greatest achievement was holding the highest break in the 1995 European Open qualifiers (120 – I missed the final pink). There was a generous £3,600 prize on offer too – generous, considering just five people witnessed my break, including my opponent and the referee. And I would have hit the jackpot if Tony Drago hadn’t hit 130-plus to nick it in the last qualifying round.

Oh, by the way, that century break put me 3-0 up in my match. I lost 5-3. This sort of thing happened to me a lot.

Since my much-lamented, or to be more accurate, unnoticed, retirement from the game, the Crucible line-up has always featured players I used to encounter on the circuit – a few of whom I played against, one or two I even beat.

My route into the professional game was unusual. Whereas any self-respecting budding snooker star spends his early teens bunking off school and zipping around the country playing pro-ams every weekend, I had a government-assisted place at a private school. My parents sacrificed a lot to pay the subsidised fees so sacking off my education was not an option.

I still maintained ambitions to be a sportsman though and had shown some promise at football, cricket and then golf. While I drifted out of each of these sports one by one, snooker remained a constant background interest. I was intoxicated by the seedy glamour of the sport – the click of balls in smoky snooker halls, the chance to make easy cash in late-night tournaments and money matches (well, that was the theory… ). My heroes were the flair players, the rebels – namely Alex Higgins and Jimmy White. I was a middle class boy from the suburbs, but I wanted to be just like them.

I’ll never forget the Higgins-White semi-final in the 1982 “Embassy”, as the world championship used to be known. White, the hollow-cheeked teenage urchin from Tooting, cigarette clamped artfully between thumb and forefinger, potting balls with loose-limbed ease whenever his turn came. And an apparently sozzled Higgins, the “People’s Champion” twitching his way to the craziest break of all-time, a 69 clearance in the penultimate frame, on his way to winning his second and last world title.

I concluded that if I kept going for another five years, I could maybe break into the top 100 and qualify for a major tournament. But even if did, I’d still be skint. Potless. Even though it broke my heart to do so, I knew I had to quit.

In 1985, with his game in decline, Higgins came to our club to play an exhibition. Aged 14, I was first on to play him that night. Higgins arrived an hour late and while the 200-strong audience waited and I bricked it, he lingered at the bar knocking back three straight double vodkas. By the time he sauntered to the table, I was in bits. Our frame was rubbish – I scored a total of 27 points despite getting numerous chances.

A few vodkas later, Alex offered the referee out. He missed sitters, he played shots that defied the laws of physics. He refused to personalise autographs. He was drunk, obnoxious and utterly mesmerising. I was besotted.

With no obvious sporting career beckoning, I bumbled off to Loughborough University to study geography and, more importantly, fend off the spectre of having to get a proper job. In my second year, I moved to digs which had a snooker club at the end of the road. I only had about six lectures a week, so I could play more than I ever had before. Soon I was beating a few decent amateurs and the occasional pro in the monthly ‘One-Dayer’ tournaments at Willie Thorne’s Snooker Centre in nearby Leicester.

On graduating in 1992, I delighted my parents by announcing that I was going to pursue a career in professional snooker. My plan, such as it was, was to play for two years as an amateur on the pro-am circuit, do odd jobs to support myself, then turn pro.

After decades as a virtual closed shop, the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association had opened up the world ranking circuit to anyone willing and able to stump up the membership and tournament entry fees. All very democratic and X Factor, and it meant that people like me, with amateur records slimmer than Cheryl Cole, could pay our money and have a go. It also meant a huge, unwieldy professional circuit and three months of qualifying matches at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool every summer to weed out the geniuses from the Jedward. In Ronnie O’Sullivan’s first professional season, 1992-93, he had to win ten matches just to qualify for the final stages of each tournament. He won his first 38 matches as a pro, still a record, and 74 of his first 76. Which was nice.

People laugh when O’Sullivan claims he was a better player at 17 than he is now, but he really was a machine back then. A very talented pro I practiced with, used to play Ronnie on his table at his house in Chigwell occasionally. Ronnie had the pockets cut tighter than tournament tables to make it more interesting for him.

Oh, by the way, that century break put me 3-0 up in my match. I lost 5-3. This sort of thing happened to me a lot.

“How did you go on?” I asked my friend after one such visit.

“I had a century break… and lost 18-1. Ronnie made 11 tons.”

Not long after his stellar debut season, I was drawn to play Ronnie in a pro-am at Ilford Snooker Centre. I loved watching him play up close at these events – his Rolls-Royce cue action, his breakbuilding, his cue-ball control. He was an artist. But having paid 30 quid to enter, I could have done without drawing him in the first round myself.

On the upside, we’d been drawn to play on a dodgy table in the back room. Could be a leveller, I told myself. And, hey, don’t be intimidated – he’s only 17.

I set up the balls and waited for his arrival. A couple of minutes later, he walked in and shook my outstretched hand.

“Good game, Ronnie,” I said.

“My mate told me you called my mum a c***”, he replied.

Hmm, hadn’t expected that. I spluttered that I hadn’t in fact said anything to anyone about his mum. He smiled, I was duly intimidated and we got started.

The dreadful table conditions dragged his standard of play down, but not enough to prevent a 3–0 whitewash. In the last frame, I did take him to a respotted black. On winning the coin toss, I put him in, as you do because it’s a tricky to get the black safe when striking the cue-ball from the ‘D’ nine-feet away. I walked away from the table thinking I had a chance to get back into the match, turning my head just in time to see him cut the the black into the corner pocket. A one in 50 shot… unless you’re a genius.

He was dangerous off the table too back then. At another pro-am in Witham, he persuaded my mate (the same one who lost 18-1) to let him drive us around the industrial estate in his Fiesta as practice for his forthcoming driving test. Minutes later, as he screeched round a 90-degree corner at 50 mph, we were screaming at him to stop the car. He thought it was hilarious.

A few vodkas later, Alex offered the referee out. He missed sitters, he played shots that defied the laws of physics. He refused to personalise autographs. He was drunk, obnoxious and utterly mesmerising. I was besotted.

And that’s about as close to the life of snooker star as I ever got. While O’Sullivan was soon wowing fans and on his way to winning three world titles, I joined a few hundred other contenders/hopefuls/dreamers (there were 500-plus pros active on the world ranking circuit back then) playing endless qualifying matches in front of a handful of people (if you were lucky) in grey cubicles at the Norbreck Castle battery farm, staying in a £10 per night B&B, and generally being skint.

I entered the World Championship twice, and won three matches, losing 5-1 in the fourth qualifying round in 1995/96 to Scott Bigham (no, me neither… ). I was just six wins away from a Crucible appearance. So close.

I concluded that if I kept going for another five years, I could maybe break into the top 100 and qualify for a major tournament. But even if did, I’d still be skint. Potless. Even though it broke my heart to do so, I knew I had to quit.

One player whose dazzling pro career began as mine disintegrated, and who should have been playing at the Crucible this year, was the late Paul Hunter. “The Beckham of the Baize”, his life was tragically cut short by cancer before his 28th birthday. What I remember most about Paul is that I never saw him in the practice room at the Norbreck except just before his matches. I heard that he spent most nights out drinking and pulling girls. He still won loads of matches because he was that talented.

Many years later, I was at a poker event talking to Hunter’s manager Brandon Parker. By then I was a freelance writer and Brandon had recently arranged a phone interview with Paul for me. Paul and his mate Matthew Stevens (who I once played a few practice frames against at the Norbreck), by then both ranked in the top 16, were standing nearby. They came over and said hello.

“We were just talking,” said Paul. “You used to be a snooker player, didn’t you?”

I was properly chuffed. It seemed like another lifetime, but, yes, I had been a professional snooker player. A crap one, maybe, but Paul Hunter knew I was a player and that’ll do for me.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Richard 11:03 pm, 24-Apr-2011

Mr Barnes, I would like to compliment you on a fine article. Thank you. See you at the world series of poker next month?

Mike osullivan 11:34 am, 25-Apr-2011

Great article! Get in touch I'm sure I can add to it. Thanks, Mike

daniel 4:28 pm, 25-Apr-2011

great article mate.

Toby 9:21 am, 26-Apr-2011

The Norbreck Castle!!! That brings back some bad memories. I think it could be the most soul destroying place on the planet. Great article.

Martin Quirk 8:48 pm, 4-Jul-2011

I played the Sue Thompson, the Women's World 8 ball Champion during a charity fund-raiser challenge that she was doing at a local pub a few years ago. I took along my own cue and paid my few quid and joined the queue with everyone else waiting to play her. I watched as she beat every challenger easily. When it came to my turn, I beat her. The pub erupted. But the best part was that I said that the table was now 'mine' (winner stays on) and if she wanted to play me then she had to make her donation like everyone else. She took it well and played along. Then I beat her again!! I quit while I was ahead and have the certificate to prove it. Lovely woman, great sport and, obviously, a brilliant pool player ... just not as good as me.

steve 9:02 pm, 4-Jul-2011

good stuff!

geoff 12:06 pm, 7-Jul-2011

snookers loss is our gain...

Dan Alland 12:03 pm, 4-May-2012

Loved this!

Phil Hardy 12:47 pm, 4-May-2012

Enjoyed this article and the Ronnie annecdotes.

Ryan 1:43 pm, 4-May-2012

I know nothing about snooker, however I really enjoyed this piece.

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