Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Other Sports No. 1: Ronnie and the Normal Shoes

'May you live in interesting times,' goes the old Chinese curse, and as we seem to be... thought I'd break the Old Batsman Fourth Wall and for this (hopefully briefish) interregnum until the crimson rambler is once again singing across the cricket fields of England, put up a few yarns about other sports that have occurred along the way... The first involves the incomparable Ronnie O'Sullivan...


We were working on a magazine for Sky. It had the glorious frequency of six issues per year, which allowed for plenty of downtime (rigorously filled with editorial planning meetings and other good deeds, natch). One of the regular office debates was about what counted as a sport and what didn't.

I had a glib line about it not being one if you could do it your normal shoes, which nonetheless excluded two sports that I've always loved, snooker and darts. Snooker especially, with its langueur, its epic scale, its midnight finishes, that wash of light across the immaculate baize... It seemed to understand something that cricket understood - how and where deep pulses of drama accumulate through hours of play. And it drew its champions from the masses, players that could offer the strange charisma of one tiny quirk amplified by the TV cameras.

Anyhow, the snooker was on its way back from its precipitous 1990s fall. Barry Hearn was in charge again and had Ronnie O'Sullivan, the Rocket, knocking in impossible shots with a wild intensity and threatening to quit every ten minutes.

Now Ronnie was available for a phone interview, which our editor, Ryan, had said he would do.

 "I'm going to ask him about the normal shoes..."

'Oh no... Don't do that..." I said, but people were already laughing at the thought.

"Anyway," he said, "I've got something else for you. Haile Gebreslassie..."

Gebreslassie was a runner, a great one, currently at his palatial home in Ethiopia and also available for a phoner.

Ryan rang Ronnie, and after a while, in a loud voice, said: "there's a bloke in our office says it's not a sport if you can do it in your normal shoes..."

"Tell him he's an idiot," Ronnie said.

"Actually he's about to speak to Haile Gebreslassie..."

Ronnie perked up at this news. He was well known as a good club runner, and had posted some impressive times at various races in the Essex area. He'd even credited it with improving his game.

"Haile likes snooker," he said. "He's seen me play..."

Just before I rang Haile, Ryan said, "Make sure you ask him about Ronnie..."

I was an admirer of Gabreslassie myself, and so placed the call with some trepidation. When I got through, the line to Ethiopia was terrible and I could barely hear anything he said. The only way I could tell he'd finished his answers was because he laughed loudly at the end of each one.

"So Haile," I shouted. "I hear you're a fan of snooker..."

 Silence.

"Snooker?" I yelled again.

Faint laugh.

"And you've seen Ronnie O'Sullivan, the World Champion, play?"

Silence, barely audible laugh.

"Snooker..." I said, more desperately. "Played on a green table..."

Haile laughed faintly and hung up.

Somehow, Ronnie O'Sullivan seemed to have taken his revenge for the normal shoes idea.

Next time: Gazza, Glenn Hoddle and the Eurostar at Waterloo...

NB: will obv. still post on cricket as often as possible, unless I sell the piece to a mag/website...

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Ha! The interview was a Readers Questions format and allowed us to ask the sort of questions you wouldn't normally ask. I classed you as a 'reader'.
The reason I decided to do it was because Ronnie was from the same part of the world and we both grew up playing in the same snooker halls.
I once saw him at Wanstead Snooker Hall (which is now an M&S Simply Food) when he was probably around 12. It was mesmerising.
Also you never quite knew what you were going to get from him, so I thought that would be good way of an introduction. It turned out to be one of my favourite interviews from that time. We covered all sorts of stuff including his decision to invest in a lingerie shop in Soho...

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