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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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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