O’Sullivan’s cue to learn from sporting elite

Snooker’s enigma ought to make hay while the sun shines.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a difficult man to please.

Despite cruising to the most impressive world title triumph of his career, O’Sullivan’s favourite moment during his fortnight in Sheffield appeared to come when a member of the audience broke wind during his semi-final win over Judd Trump. 

Such has been the defending champion’s outward malaise and comprehensive route to the title, the BBC have struggled to sell snooker’s crown jewel this year.

Perhaps it will become the Englishman’s magic trick. Each year he will walk away from the sport only to emerge seemingly unprepared and undercooked each April to lift snooker’s most coveted prize.

On the other hand, perhaps the enigmatic cueman has potted his last ball on the world stage. He may cite boredom or deeper psychological problems for his exit but as sporting legacy goes, it is hard not to think that the 37-year-old is going out with so much more in his locker.

It is difficult to understand the driving force behind O’Sullivan’s threats.

If he thinks exiting now will give his snooker epitaph an added allure and mystery, he ought to reconsider fast; Memories of the sporting media and fans alike are spitefully short.

Sporting history is littered with sporting icons who have seen their bodies pack in long before their desire to compete at the highest level. It seems unnatural for O’Sullivan to walk away from a sport he can still dominate.

He only needs to look over his shoulder at the punditry box for an example of how fragile periods of dominance can be- even in a sport where there are fewer physiological factors in a competitor’s decline.

Stephen Hendry, who has been enjoying his first year away from the tables at the Crucible since his retirement last year, won seven world titles before his 31st birthday. Despite seeming set for years of further supremacy, he never won snooker’s top prize again.

After another 13 years of seemingly hacking round the circuit searching for enjoyment and consistency, the Scotsman retired, safe in the knowledge that he had squeezed everything he could out of his career.

O’Sullivan seems yet to suffer this decline or gain this clarity or certainty.

Bjorn Borg is the oft cited example of a sportsman to have retired too early, and returned after years of regret, only to find he could no longer contend with the sport he left behind.  

But he is by no means alone.

As recently as last week, O’Sullivan could have taken time out from his quarter-final romp against Stuart Bingham to appreciate the significance of Barcelona’s 3-0 Champions League reversal at the hands of Bayern Munich.

 What he might have noted, apart from the eye-watering size of Munich’s victory, was the reluctance of the Spanish giants to select a front-line team with the talismanic Lionel Messi left on the bench for the whole of the second leg.

The Catalans- chasing their third Champions League triumph in five years- had nothing to play for domestically, having all but sewn up their league triumph, yet coach Tito Vilanova seemingly decided to throw in the towel before the second leg started.

The selection, and resulting performance, smacked of petulance and the decision to forego the chance of chasing down Munich’s 4-0 lead from the first leg was bewildering.

As it so happens, there would have been little Messi could have done to change the outcome of the game but it was illuminating that the Spanish team- perhaps coming to terms with the end of their own period of dominance- elected not to seek a final encore.  

It is hard not to see a similar petulance in O’Sullivan’s work. He plays his sport with an amazing sense of carefree abandon, yet expects to enjoy every moment of his experience. Perhaps he is simply an adulation junkie and will return for another hit next year, but if he follows through on his threats to pack away his cue and take a rest, it will have to rank as one of the most mind-boggling retirement decisions in sporting history. 

Ronnie O’Sullivan celebrates his world title triumph. Photograph: Getty Images

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle