July 13, 2008
World snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan thought his personal troubles were over but he tells Emma Smithof a new heartache
You’re worth £5.8m. You’re at the top of your game and you’ve just won the most prestigious trophy in your profession. You have a devoted girlfriend and two young children and it seems to everyone around you that things are finally coming together. So why, just a few weeks later, are you holed up in a two-bedroom flat, gazing at a 14in TV screen, taking your washing round to your mum’s and generally feeling more than a bit sorry for yourself? The answer? Relationship problems.
We’re used to break-ups among the rich and famous. Each week brings a new tale of marital meltdown. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Ronnie O’Sullivan’s eight-year relationship appeared to have ground to a halt less than a month after he won his third world snooker championship title in May (in the modern era only Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry have won more) and pocketed £250,000 in winnings.
Meeting at Narcotics Anonymous didn’t exactly bode well for a long-term partnership, but O’Sullivan and Jo Langley had stuck by each other through difficult times. O’Sullivan credited his girlfriend with helping him to finally overcome his problems with the three “Ds” (drink, drugs, depression). They kept themselves to themselves, mixing with friends and family in Essex, close to where Ronnie grew up, declining to let OK! magazine into their country home and vowing never to sell the rights to their wedding.
O’Sullivan had turned his back on former cronies, who “always wanted women, always wanted drink, always wanted parties”, and with the birth of Lily in 2006 and Ronnie last year, it looked as if the couple were getting ready quietly to tie the knot and live as happily ever after as most ordinary, down-to-earth couples might hope to.
What went wrong? Perched awkwardly on a wooden chair in the Romford snooker club where he is treated indulgently, but far from starrily, by the largely female staff, O’Sullivan finds it hard to pinpoint what happened. “Nothing really, nothing really to say,” he says, stumbling over his words, trying not to say the wrong thing and get himself in trouble (an all-too familiar problem for O’Sullivan, who last month paid a £2,750 fine to the world snooker authorities for making lewd comments during a press conference after the China Open).
“You just grow apart sometimes, you know, you go in different directions and that’s not my fault, that’s not her fault, that’s the way it is, you know. She’s a good girl, Jo; great girl, you know, she really is and, um, we’re just gonna do the best for our children now.”
What he does let slip, as he rips chunks out of a bacon butty, is that he hasn’t had a shower this morning. “I stayed round at a friend’s last night and drove home early this morning and went to sleep for an hour and I’ve just woken up,” he confesses sheepishly, tugging on his T-shirt. “I only live three minutes away.”
It’s a confession that could lead to obvious conclusions. Five weeks after he and Jo were photographed together behind his world championship trophy at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, O’Sullivan was forced to admit they were no longer together. The tabloids had got hold of a photograph showing him in a car, with a “mystery brunette” and an expression that might have suggested it wasn’t entirely innocent. He claims the mystery woman was just a friend but thought it was as good a time as any to let it be known that he and Jo were living largely separate lives.
He insists he has no intention of getting involved in another relationship for a long time. “I gotta be in female company, I’ve gotta be in male company. I’ve got lots of friends. Got a big social life now. You know what I mean? So inevitably I’m gonna be photographed.”
The brunette wasn’t his girlfriend? “No, no, no, I’m single at the moment,” he huffs, but good-naturedly enough. “That’s the way I want it. I’ve just come out of a relationship so I’m not really . . . I want to enjoy myself.”
Despite his millions, O’Sullivan now finds himself in the same spot as so many other newly single men. While the ex is in the “nice house in the sticks” with the children, he’s renting a lonely, boxy apartment, staring at the four cramped walls, wondering where it all went wrong and vaguely hoping that they might get back together. “You know, my ideal would be that if things could work out with Jo and, you know, she could see that life’s too short and we just support each other,” he says, struggling, or unwilling, to define exactly what he means. “That would be the ideal thing that could ever happen to me but until that I ain’t gonna accept anything less.
“You know I’ve had a while of it, of not being happy, you know we both weren’t happy, and one thing I won’t do is tolerate going through that again.”
He’s waiting for tenants to move out of one of the many properties he has bought with his winnings before he can move into more spacious surroundings. For now he’s stuck with the 14in telly. “I’m just renting, which is not very good. Actually the TV looks like a big plasma because [the room] is so small,” he jokes, “but it’s all right, it does me for now.
“My mum’s just down the road and I go back to get me food and washing done. She’s good like that. I need that.”
O’Sullivan’s parents come from a generation that didn’t really do break-ups, certainly not in the numbers and at the accelerated rate their offspring seem to.
Maria Catallana and Ronald O’Sullivan Sr were old school. They were teenagers when they met at a Butlins holiday camp where she was working as a chalet maid and married a few weeks later.
Maria comes from a Birmingham-based family of ice-cream-making Italians and “Big Ronnie”, as he’s known (although he’s a bit smaller than his son), spent a few dispiriting months working on the ice-cream vans before he took his young wife to start afresh in a high-rise block on the notorious Holly Street estate in Dalston, east London.
The son of an East End boxer, Ronald then worked as a steward on the railways, among other things, before opening his first sex shop, in the heart of Soho, in the mid1980s. As the economy boomed, Ronald embraced Margaret Thatcher’s spirit of entrepreneurialism and quickly built up a lucrative central London porn empire.
“Little” Ronnie remembers helping to kit out the first one, in Brewer Street. “I was there hours just putting these books up. I was only about 10, me and me grandad. The books were 90% soft, just the usual books people read, and 10% sex, which was basically what made the money, but it meant it wasn’t classed as a sex shop. That was his first shop and within the space of four or five years he owned every shop there was to own.
“My parents had nothing, so my dad would have done anything to get money and he wasn’t hurting anyone, it was just straight sex, so there was nothing wrong in it really, you know? You look at similar stuff on the telly.”
As the business grew, the family, including “little” Ronnie and Danielle, his younger sister, were able to move to the relatively bucolic surroundings of Chig-well, Essex. His mother “always had a bowl of pasta on the table”, he recalls, there were always people in and out, his “dad was just laughing and joking”. O’Sullivan makes it sound like one of the “happy family” scenes from The Godfather. There was never any talk of his parents not being together, even when his father was convicted of murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Ronald Sr is now in the 16th year of his sentence for stabbing the driver of Charlie Kray, brother of the Kray twins, in a Chelsea nightclub in 1991, after an argument over a bill. O’Sullivan was 16 and only a few months into his professional snooker career when his father was arrested, and it’s easy to put his ensuing problems with drink, cannabis and long periods of depression down to his reaction to that one terrible event. It didn’t help when his mother, who had taken over her husband’s business, was convicted of Vat fraud three years later. She spent seven months in Holloway prison, during which Ronnie had to look after Danielle, who was then 12.
When we break off so Ronnie can reluctantly pose for some photographs, his press agent asks me, almost wearily, not to talk about his father, but Ronnie can’t seem to help himself - he almost lights up when he mentions him. “He is a really strong person. There’s just some people who are that way inclined. He was always, always positive, always, always, always, always. I mean, I’d love to know what goes on in his head sometimes. God, if I could have some of that. No matter what circumstances you’d face in life, if I could deal with them how he dealt with them, you know, dignity and whatever, he’s just amazing, you know.”
It was Big Ronnie who encouraged his young son’s talent, building a snooker room at the bottom of the garden where he could practise, and driving him to keep a level head and always better himself. “My father likes geniuses.” Fortunately, Ronnie played snooker with natural flair, and so fast it was hard for anyone to keep up with him, earning him the nicknames “the Rocket” and “the Essex Exocet”.
“It’s just feel, touch and line,” he says simply, “and once you’ve got that, you should, by rights, never miss a ball, but a lot of people struggle with that. They have to fight to see an angle, they have to fight to get control and feeling for the ball, whereas me, I just get down and go ‘all right’. When it’s there, it’s just instinctive.”
He achieved his first 100 break at the age of 10, scored a maximum 147 break at 15, won his first 38 professional matches, took the UK championship title aged 17 and won his first world championship in 2001 at 25. During all this time, Ronald Sr was his mentor, his inspiration, his moti-vator; O’Sullivan has even described him as his “guru”. He is still trying to come to terms with what he calls “the trouble”.
“He’s never been a troublemaker, never been in trouble. The Krays were nothing to do with my dad,” he says with feeling. “Listen, you know, it’s not something . . . he committed . . . but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it certainly wasn’t a murder, [as in] it certainly wasn’t premeditated murder. It’s horrible, horrible, someone died, but it certainly wasn’t intended. You know, my dad had too much to lose; two kids, family, business, good life. He’s never been in trouble in his life, the only thing he got done for was having his ice-cream van music on after half past seven at night, that was the only conviction he’d got.”
O’Sullivan admits he can be “fragile”. He didn’t inherit his father’s steely resilience, his natural, easy positivity, and over the years his complex, mixed-up feelings about what happened no doubt fuelled some of his erratic and self-destructive behaviour. In 1996 he was fined £20,000 for assaulting a media official at the world championship. In 1998 he was stripped of his Irish Masters title when a drugs test revealed he had been smoking cannabis.
In moments of despair he called the Samaritans and contemplated suicide, while all around people accused him of wasting his remarkable talent. Then in 2000 he checked himself into the Priory clinic, the private rehabilitation centre favoured by celebrities, started a course of Prozac soon after and dipped in and out of therapy.
“I had to battle to find perspective, to get my way out of feeling depressed,” he says. “I’m not sure whether it was snooker, I’m not sure whether it was because of my dad going away. But, you know, I certainly think if he hadn’t gone away I wouldn’t have had the problems that I’ve had, because he would have been there to make sure that it didn’t happen.”
O’Sullivan can still be unpredictable. In 2006 he walked out halfway through a quarter-final match against Hendry, for example. But he seems increasingly able to handle his problems. Despite the emotional upsets of recent weeks, he doesn’t look like a man who’s just crawling from the wreckage of a ruined relationship (despite skipping the shower). He recently returned from a running holiday in France, where – competitive as ever – he completed a six-mile race in 34 minutes. He runs about 40 miles a week and credits it with helping him to find some sort of equilibrium. Although he’s now 32 there seems no reason why he shouldn’t go on to win many more titles. He looks fitter than ever.
And yet there’s still the sense of an internal struggle not far beneath the surface. The day after winning the world title, and a few days after Davis, his boyhood hero, had called his performance “breathtaking” and described him as the most naturally gifted player in the history of the game, he was suggesting he might pack it in for a while. “It’s like sometimes my happiness is dictated by how I’m playing at snooker and sometimes you think, ‘Arghh, I don’t want to wake up with those nightmares or problems,’ and it’s hard sometimes if I’m having to struggle against players I know I shouldn’t have to be struggling against. It’s just frustrating.”
The problem for O’Sullivan is that he’s never satisfied. Even when he’s lifting the world title trophy, somewhere in the back of his head he’s fretting about what he could have done better. “The final was a bit of a letdown, to be honest with you,” he admits. “I felt a little disappointed.”
He’s abandoned any plans to quit the game for now, but when I met him he hadn’t played for several weeks. Increasingly his mind is turning to a future beyond the frustrations of the green baize, where he’ll always struggle under the pressure of all those superlatives. “I realised the other day, I just want to build houses,” he says, with boyish enthusiasm. He plans to start by building himself a new home in Essex, adjacent to a “1940s, pink, Tudory cottagey kinda gaff” he already owns but plans to demolish. “If I showed you the house that I wanna build and the house I’m living in at the moment, they’d be a million miles apart. So that’s what I want to do, build my own house.
“It’s going to be a house where people can come, people can relax, they can put their feet up, have a barbecue, you know. I just want to create that environment. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while now, ever since I got myself together.”
His father could be spending the odd weekend at his self-built house as early as next year, he says, presumably on day release from his cell on the Isle of Shep-pey, prior to his scheduled release in 2010. He makes no comment about how his break-up with Langley will affect his plans, but there’s something in his voice that says he knows exactly what will be missing from his new home.
By RICHARD WHITE
11 June 2008
SNOOKER star Ronnie O’Sullivan has split from long-term partner Jo Langley.
The news comes after the world number one was spotted with a mystery brunette.
Friends said the couple, who met at a drugs rehab group eight years ago, “grew apart” after a series of rows.
But they have agreed to stay living together for the sake of two-year-old daughter Lilly and Ronnie Jnr, who will be one tomorrow.
A pal said: “They’re not an item any more and are both free to do as they please.
“The most important thing is that the kids have a stable and loving family background.”
Jo, 38, watched Ronnie, 32, win the World Championship in Sheffield in May.
They live in Chigwell, Essex.
But he was pictured looking sheepish as he drove from a car park in London’s Soho with the pretty woman just after 1am on Saturday.
Ronnie, who has battled drink and drug demons as well as depression, met Jo at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in 2000.
She became a buyer for his lingerie boutique Viva La Diva and he credited her with helping him stay off drugs.
The pal added: “Jo was out with friends recently and was dressed to kill.
“She was asked if Ronnie minded and she just said they were no longer an item.
“It is clearly an amicable agreement.”
A spokesman for Ronnie, who is on a running holiday, confirmed the split but would not discuss the identity of his female friend.
He added: “Ronnie and Jo are not together but it is a private matter and Ronnie does not wish to discuss it.”