Following the 12-year ban handed out to snooker player Stephen Lee last month after he was found guilty of seven match-fixing charges, Ronnie O'Sullivan has revealed he was approached by a local match-fixer "a long time ago".
Appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival earlier this evening, O'Sullivan spoke of the incident during a session shared with sports psychiatrist, Steve Peters, who he credits with getting his career back on track.
"I got a phonecall from someone, a local who you don’t want to get on the wrong side of," he recalled, "but I knew him, knew the man. He said, ‘Can you meet me?’ and I thought ‘What have I done now?’ So I braced myself for it. We went for a walk through the forest, I understood why. He went, ‘Don’t want to talk out there – microphones – we’re safe out here.’ And that was it when it hit me. ‘Would you be willing to throw a few.’
When prompted to reveal exactly what had been asked of him, O'Sullivan replied: "Just lose certain frames and he said, ‘I’ll give you a big bag of money,’ but I said, ‘I’m not interested – I like playing. I just can’t do it.’
According to the reigning world champion, the sum offered was, "Not a lot, really. I couldn’t do it – I’d feel dirty."
Explaining the aftermath of his decision, he recalled, "He was fine, he said, ‘No problem, I understand.’ I still say hello to him – he’s a nice guy."
The hour-long Cheltenham session – in which O'Sullivan discussed how he's overcome his much-publicised battles with depression and addiction with the help of Peters – also saw the former world number one express empathy for the family of Lee, who has since submitted an appeal against his 12-year ban.
"I’m a softy at heart so to see someone lose their livelihood..." said O'Sullivan. "He’s got four children and a family to support so as a human you find empathy for someone. Where does he go from here?
"But then you think the other side of it. You have to see that world snooker had to make a statement of intent to stamp out matchfixing – it’s not right, it’s terrible, something I can’t get my head around. It’s a sad story in a way but you can totally understand why world snooker have had to do what they’ve had to do because the integrity of the sport is bigger than any player and that needs to come first and foremost.
"But I just feel sorry for the family. 12 years – it’s over. No coming back there."
O'Sullivan was threatened with disciplinary action last month when he sent – and then deleted a tweet – suggesting match-fixing was more rife in snooker than was publically known. He told his followers, "No need to worry if you got nothing to hide. But plenty of people have got loads to hide. That’s why there is no free speech."
"I’ve heard there are many more players who throw snooker matches. I suppose Steve Lee was just caught out.
"They will probably fine me for talking about it. They don’t like you doing that. Like to keep things under the carpet."