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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation