Snooker loopy How sport erupted into civil war
O’sullivan’s toxic row with supremo Hearn has left the sport in turmoil, writes Jim White in York
Snooker is embroiled in a gathering civil war. In the sedate surroundings of the York Barbican, as the UK Championship reaches its finishing stages, fissure and dissent stalk the tables. Never mind a break, the sport is being threatened with a breakaway.
Ronnie O’sullivan, the presiding genius of the baize, is the man behind a new Champions Leaguestyle competition, featuring an elite of top players. Significantly, he insists his new tournament would be independent of World Snooker, the sport’s governing body. After his quarter-final victory over Martin O’donnell yesterday, he claimed he had already been approached by promoters and sponsors keen to be involved and that he had the backing of John Higgins, the former world No1. He also added that he was not prepared to engage in any discussion with the chairman of World Snooker, Barry Hearn.
“There’s no point,” O’sullivan insisted. “I know what he’ll say.”
The root cause of “The Rocket’s” revolution is the contract signed by the 128 leading players which requires them to participate in an increasing number of tournaments. Although they are able to sit out any they wish, to do so can influence their ranking position.
Now 43, the world No3 feels the growing spread of competitions, particularly across the Far East, will lead to a dilution of quality. He claims exhaustion caused by the relentless rhythm of the calendar is the reason behind Higgins’s decision to sit out this season.
“This has never been about money, it’s about the way it is structured,” he said. “Look at the way golf is run. It allows top players breathing space, rather than dashing from one tournament to another. We don’t want players burned out; penalised for picking and choosing.”
Hearn yesterday responded with characteristic verbal panache.
“Enough is enough from Ronnie. I know Ronnie doesn’t like rules, but there are rules and he’ll have to follow them,” he said. “His breakaway tour is too ludicrous to be contemplated. Not one of 127 others would contemplate doing anything with Ronnie O’sullivan, because Ronnie O’sullivan’s agenda is for Ronnie O’sullivan.”
While it might be a simple matter to discipline O’sullivan, to ban him from participation, Hearn’s problem was writ large all around the Barbican. Everywhere in the building, the posters announcing the tournament were decorated with his face. In the memorabilia stand the T-shirts were exclusively Rocket-fuelled. In the auditorium, as two quarterfinals took place simultaneously, there was not a spare seat in the vicinity of the table on which O’sullivan was playing. The adjacent table, featuring Joe Perry and Tom Ford, was played in front of rows of empty seats. O’sullivan
remains the game’s biggest and most saleable asset. He is the man the fans had come to see.
“The guy’s a genius,” admitted Hearn. “But geniuses are not the same people as you and I: they don’t have the same rationale. I am trying to reason with Ronnie but he’s making it harder and harder. We’ve all seen the bloke in the corner of the pub putting the world to rights. There’s a big difference between doing that and doing something about it. Talk is cheap.”
Hearn was dismissive about whether the five-time world champion had the resolve to see his idea through. Particularly as two of the players rumoured to be sympathetic to O’sullivan’s breakaway are the Chinese pair, Yu Delu and Cao Yupeng, both recently given lengthy bans by World Snooker after admitting being involved in match fixing.
“Ronnie is famous for doing the odd U-turn,” said Hearn. “He has in the past retired more often than
Frank Sinatra. Now he’s about to do an eight-man breakaway tour featuring two players who’ve just been banned for up to 12 years.”
Whatever it might lack in credibility, however, Hearn is well aware that the issue needs to be addressed quickly.
“It is damaging for the game for people to read about a breakaway. It’s a word that tips you away from the sport. I will be talking to Ronnie about that. My door is always open if he wants to talk over a cup of tea.” Not that O’sullivan seemed keen on the invitation.
“I always knew what Barry was going to say. It’s only me, I am the only one who is moaning,” he said. “He’s saying I am self-indulgent. That is not the case. I am doing it for the players. I’m trying to help everyone be the best they can be.”
In a sport renowned for its genteel conventions, even as O’sullivan looks poised to retain his UK Championship title, in York the gloves are off.