He is arguably the greatest player his sport has ever produced; without question the most talented, and almost certainly the most personable. A five-time world champion, he bounced back from losing his third successive world championship final to lift the UK Championship recently in a thrilling final, after making a stunning 147 earlier in the competition. All while playing with a broken ankle.
And all that is still not enough to earn Ronnie O’Sullivan equal billing with a swimmer, a giant of the dressage world and boxer Carl Froch. Whose exertions in 2014, remember, amounted to one eight-round fight against bitter rival George Groves, who had Froch worried until he walked into the path of the Cobra’s venomous right hand.
This column does not, of course, intend to demean the achievements enjoyed by the likes of gymnast Max Whitlock, Olympic champion dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin or inspirational skiing duo Kelly Gallagher and Charlotte Evans. They have enjoyed an amazing period of success and are capable of physical and mental feats probably well exceeding you, and certainly exceeding I.
But Sports Personality of the Year is not, as it was when it first started way back in the 1950s, just about sporting achievement. That is an obvious prerequisite, of course, but the BBC does little to hide the fact that the whole bash has become a brazen, glorified popularity contest.
The debut show, in 1954, lasted 45 minutes and one award was given. Last Sunday’s BBC extravaganza ran almost two and a half hours long, with hours of previews and reaction thrown in after Lewis Hamilton’s shock success over odds-on favourite, Rory McIlroy.
Which, for me, makes O’Sullivan’s continued omission from the shortlists, year after year, even more baffling. SPOTY is a celebration of achievement and popularity, and O’Sullivan simply oozes both. Stephen Hendry, O’Sullivan’s rival and a seven-time world champion, was the last snooker star to be shortlisted for the award. Steve Davis, another multiple-champion, won it in 1988.
And neither has a tenth of the Rocket’s ‘personality’. He is box office. The atmosphere at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre is cranked up a notch when O’Sullivan is in the building. Nine million of us, over two days, watched his defeat to Mark Selby in the World Championship final earlier this year. Broadcast live on... the BBC, of course, who are content to devote hours and pounds aplenty to snooker each year, then routinely overlook its stars when it comes to their yearly celebration of sporting achievement. Dujardin, of course, had a superb 12 months, adding a world championship to her Olympic and European championship successes to cement her place at the very top of her sport - just three years after she began competing on the tour. An amazing achievement - one which deserves highlighting in a more appropriate fashion.
In reality, her hopes of winning this award were roughly comparable to teaching her Dutch gelding, Valegro, to pot the red and screw back for the black. Is that a fitting tribute for a unforgettable year? Welcome, Charlotte. Here’s your reward for beating almost everyone in your chosen field this year: a place in a competition you have no chance of winning. You’re most welcome.
Instead, rather than a line-up of two great and eight good, why not reserve the main event for the elite greatness that British sport has to offer, make SPOTY more than a two-horse race and then highlight the success of Dujardin/Evans/Gallagher/Whitlock in a more fitting way?
Instead, the BBC continue to pander to sports like skiing, gymnastics and sailing, almost as if there is some kind of equal opportunities quota to satisfy. The Ballon d’Or shortlist this year, for example, features the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Rodríguez, Müller and Neuer. Left to the BBC it’d probably include Stewart Downing, Eoin Doyle and that lad who bangs ‘em in for fun on a Sunday morning for the Dog and Duck XI.
McIlroy, who beat 60 or 70 serious rivals to win two majors, without the help of vastly-superior equipment, is in esteemed company amongst golfers to be overlooked for the award. In fact, only two (Dai Rees in 1957 and Nick Faldo, 1989) have ever won it.
Curiously, only five footballers have ever took first place and scoring a hat-trick in England’s World Cup win wasn’t even enough for Geoff Hurst in 1966, as he finished third - while speedway rider Barry Briggs took the crown.
Gary Lineker, who hosted Sunday’s show, won the Golden Boot in the World Cup of 1986. Imagine that now? He’d probably be knighted. That year, he finished third in the SPOTY vote. F1 driver Nigel Mansall was first, and he didn’t even win the world championship that year.
Closer to home, Nick Matthew was overlooked for the award despite reaching number one in the world, winning two medals in the Commonwealth Games and lifting three World Open titles in four years. He was, quite rightly, invited to the BBC’s love-in in Glasgow, a day after O’Sullivan appeared on the Beeb’s Saturday Kitchen Live.
This is the man, remember, who reached the final of the snooker world championships in 2014, as well as picking up the Masters, Welsh Open, Champion of Champions and the UK title. He won last year’s worlds after taking an almost-year long break from the game, and came back and played like he’d never been away.
Could any other sportsman in the world do that? Probably not.Would any other sportsman in the world do that? Probably not, either.
And maybe therein lies Ronnie’s problem. He is very much his own man, and inherently anti-establishment. Memorably, he was fined for a row with referee Jan Verhaas last year, after being told to tuck his shirt in before a match in Barnsley.
Given the choice, he’d probably rather don an apron than a suit anyway.
‘Not for me, mate.’
But there was the unshakable feeling that he belonged somewhere else last weekend.
His talent, his genius, his unmistakable aura belong on the snooker table, not the kitchen one.
So let’s give the Rocket the plaudits he deserves, while we still can. Because genuine ‘personalities’ are diminishing year upon year in sport.
And we’ll no doubt miss him when he’s gone.