Mike Rowbottom

I would regard Ronnie O'Sullivan as a genius, even if he himself has just ruled out that possibility.

This self assessment - sorry, that phrase… okay, I'm all right now - was offered to Rob Maul of The Sun at the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, where the 46-year-old genius/non-genius has now reached the quarter-finals for a record 20th time.

Such statistics are a mere by-product of O'Sullivan's talent. In fact, even his record of world title victories - six so far, and of course he has as usual written himself off for a seventh this time round so stand by your beds - is slightly beside the point.

Which is that he plays like a genius.

When O'Sullivan switches between right-handed and left-handed potting in matches of the highest import it is not - necessarily - a disdainful gesture towards his opponent, but self-expression. It's just like watching a child run one way and then the other. It's in him.

O'Sullivan revealed that he had recently met the former Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio and England midfielder Paul Gascoigne at a Hertfordshire health spa and had chatted and exchanged messages with him about the impending World Championship at the Crucible Theatre.

Six-time world snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, no genius in his own estimation. Discuss... ©Getty Images
Six-time world snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, no genius in his own estimation. Discuss... ©Getty Images

"He's just a maverick," O'Sullivan said. "He’s a different talent. I don’t call myself a genius. He’s a genius.

"George Best was a genius. Alex Higgins was a genius. I don’t put myself in that bracket."

There’s a YouTube clip - there are lots of them, thank goodness - of Higgins at his swashbuckling best during an exhibition game against John Virgo. Relaxed - even very relaxed - and in japing mood, Higgins finds himself jammed in a corner, barely a centimetre behind the pink.

After having a chat and laugh with Virgo he addresses himself to the sacred and always serious business of playing a shot. The odds look impossible - odds that always draw the best from him. The thinnest of cuts sends the pink trundling unerringly down into the far pocket, with the cue ball traversing its way down-table to the spotted black.

As it travels, Higgins is in motion himself, wobbling on one leg as he tracks its progress.

The concluding shot - by no means simple - is then accomplished one-handed. Before the black is halfway to the middle pocket, Higgins has slid his cue onto the table and turned away like a footballer who has just scored a decisive goal. It’s all about the flourish.

This was the best of Higgins. And it was not something that only occurred in exhibition matches. It happened regularly in the most important, tightest matches of his career. Like his fellow Belfast-born sporting hero Best, what people remember of Higgins above all else is the style. The charisma.

George Best at the top of his game in 1966 - a genius ©Getty Images
George Best at the top of his game in 1966 - a genius ©Getty Images

What Higgins and Best also had in common was a self-destructive urge - something that is often a part of the psychological make-up we recognise as genius. "Tortured genius" has not become a cliché for nothing.

Those who knew Best well, particularly in his younger days, describe him as naturally quiet, shy, amenable. That is the picture given for instance by Eamon Dunphy, who was also at Manchester United in the early 1960s before falling out with Sir Matt Busby and heading off to become a Millwall legend, an Irish international and, eventually, one of the very best writers about football.

In his acclaimed book about Sir Matt, A Strange Kind of Glory, Dunphy corrects the lazy view that Best simply went off the rails in the early 1970s because of booze and birds. For season after season, while the club struggled to find a successor to Busby, Best's efforts and goals kept a declining force of a side in business.

The weight of those words so frequently repeated to his players by Busby as they prepared to leave the dressing room - "And remember, you are playing for Manchester United" - fell with increasing weight upon his slim shoulders until he crumpled under the pressure.

The rest of his life was a long struggle with the drinking that, as he freely acknowledged, he loved to do, for all that he knew he shouldn't.

Alex Higgins at the top of his game - a genius ©Getty Images
Alex Higgins at the top of his game - a genius ©Getty Images

It was a similar story with Higgins, who won world titles in 1972 and 1982.

I was present at Goff's sales ring in County Kildare in 1990 when Higgins met compatriot Dennis Taylor, the affable world champion of 1985, in an Irish Masters first-round match that was drenched with angst following an earlier publicised row between the two men following Northern Ireland's defeat in the Snooker World Cup final.

Higgins had threatened to have Taylor shot. Given the troubled times, and the fact that the two men belonged either side of the sectarian divide - Taylor is Catholic - the words reverberated to chilling effect.

Higgins, drinking steadily, went 3-1 down by the intermission. Taylor returned to his room. His opponent remained at the table, drinking steadily. Later in the interval, as I stood a few yards outside the hall with its live TV paraphernalia, I was alerted to a figure unsteadily relieving himself in a drain in the horses' yard before returning to the centre of things, where he ended up, inexorably, beaten.

Upon reflection, if that’s genius, perhaps it’s better for O'Sullivan not to be one after all.