Desmond Kane

Jimmy White interview: ‘O’Sullivan has six world titles left in him’

Desmond Kane

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Jimmy White

The last time Jimmy 'The Whirlwind' White appeared in a meaningful final on a Sunday night, traditionally the evening when snooker tournaments conclude, he wound up finishing third on ITV's gloriously garish I'm a Celebrity..Get Me Out of Here!

For a lifetime apparently defined by second place, at least it was something different.

Celebrity chef Gino D'Acampo and minor TV personality Kim Woodburn were voted ahead of the ongoing snooker player by viewers in the Aussie 'Jungle' a couple of years back. It made a change from Stephen Hendry or Steve Davis doing the dirty on him. It may sound a tad unfortunate, but second place has tended to be White's natural habitat. It is said that they love a loser in the UK. There was nobody more loved by the British sporting public than Jimmy back in the day.

'The Whirlwind' was an attacking bundle of joy in his pomp. He has carted off over 20 trophies in 30 years in snooker, but his happiness was also his handicap: White has always been more about entertaining than winning. He hits his 50th birthday in May, with  a testimonial lunch and dinner staged at the Grosvenor Hotel in London to mark his career a month later. It may be difficult to blot out the feeling of what might have been.

White remains a player who will forever be recalled for finishing behind some other bloke on the most revered occasions. Professional sport is strewn with such figures: golf's Colin Montgomerie, Earnie Shavers in boxing or Nikolay Davydenko in tennis. White is perhaps the daddy of them all. Or rather not.

He won the Masters in 1984 and the UK Championship in 1992, but will be remembered as the best man never to win the World Championship. He finished runner-up to Steve Davis (1984), John Parrott (1991) and Stephen Hendry (1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994). Always the bridesmaid and all that jazz.

White, from Tooting, turned up at last week's Masters final between Neil Robertson and Shaun Murphy to promote his testimonial.  It was more a mild breeze than a whirlwind that followed him into the Alexandra Palace on Sunday.

It was certainly different from the quarter-century he spent playing in the Masters at the Old Wembley Conference Centre in the 1980s and 1990s, when 2,500 Londoners used to turn the arena into a bear pit with cries of 'C'mon Jimmy' adorning every flummoxed opponent who missed a shot against their darling.

He may not have been the world champion, but he remains the 'people's champion', a moniker he shared with the late hellraiser Alex Higgins in the 1980s. Tragically, his close mate Higgins died of throat cancer less than two years ago. White had his own cancer scare when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the 1990s, but is looking a picture of health during our chat. He has forged new friendships in the game, with his natural successor - triple world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan - agreeing to play an exhibition match at his testimonial.

White vowed to keep off the extra timber after being found wearing a red lycra jumpsuit on I'm a Celebrity, but the good living of lagers and a few helpings of curry have clearly clamped themselves to White. It is perhaps not difficult to understand when you are good mates with Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, and prefer a slice of life.

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Jimmy White plays a shot at the Masters in 2007

White could be spotted in the crowd at the final wearing an ear piece listening to the television commentary. Somewhat mischievously, the World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, Davis's former manager back in the sport's halcyon days of the 1980s, joked that he may soon need one of them. White's last tournament win came in 2004, but he has no plans to give up yet.

DK: What brings you to the Masters when you are not playing?

White: We are announcing my testimonial which will take place on June 2. Barry Hearn said to me last year, 'you are coming up to 30 years as a professional so why don't you celebrate your career?' It is coming up to my 50th birthday party. On the day, we have Gino doing the food. We are having crocodile feet for lunch..only joking..

I am playing a match with Ronnie O'Sullivan, and then we have Joe Longthorne coming on to sing. We have loads of footballers, and all sorts of celebrities there. At night, we have a dinner dance, and Ronnie Wood is going to come on with a surprise band and they are going to sing 12 songs.

It is going to be a helluva day. I'll probably have to sing a song so that will probably empty the room. I'm excited about it, and looking forward to it...

DK: You must miss playing in these finals?

White: I lost in the last qualifying round to get to the UK, but I'm playing good stuff and am in the top 48. To get in the Masters, you have to get in the last 16. I've gone from 68 last year to 47, so hopefully I'm going in the right direction. I still feel that I'm too good not to be playing, and as long as I feel that I will continue playing.

DK: So Barry Hearn has been good for the sport?

White: The game was in dire straits three years ago, and I ended up going into the jungle. That is the answer to that. It was crap..there were only six tournaments. You practised for six weeks, played one match and it was all over. Barry Hearn has changed that. Not everybody is happy with the (smaller tournament) PTCs..

DK: What did you think of Mark Allen's criticism of Barry Hearn for shortening the matches at the UK Championship?

White: I thought changing the length of the matches at the UK was the wrong choice, but when I watched it..the punters coming to the UK saw a result. It is like you going to a football match, and leaving at half-time. I understand where Barry Hearn is coming from after watching it. And it was a success.

There is one tournament he can't touch, and that is the World Championship. I can't see that happening because in snooker there is a tiny bit of luck. If you have too many short matches at the World Championship, you would have the wrong players winning all the time, so he has got to keep the World Championship at least (best of) 19 frames.

DK: Do you think snooker is still sellable to sponsors?

White: Since Barry has come on board, we are refusing sponsors. Before Barry's arrival, we couldn't get any. We are in good shape.

DK: What do you think of the argument between Judd Trump and Neil Robertson? (Trump said he would have beaten Robertson "easy" after losing to the Australian in the Masters semi-final, while tournament winner Robertson rubbished Trump's immature conduct.)

White: I think one of them nicked the other one's football or something. They are a bit young to interest me in that nonsense. It was a bit more serious in my day. At the end of the day, as long as they behave properly and give the game the respect it deserves there is no problem with a little bit of banter. Judd is probably getting all the limelight and getting all the birds..some people are maybe a bit annoyed by that.

DK: What was the biggest incident after a game back in the day?

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Jimmy White at the funeral of friend Alex Higgins in 2010

White: If (Alex) Higgins was playing you the next day, he'd try and ring your hotel room at two or three in the morning. He would try to send someone you sandwiches at two or three in the morning. He was a bit of a boy for that. We used to give out false room numbers, so he never got to me.

DK: Back in the 1980s people would be sitting with a pint and a cigarette when they were playing. Do you think there are the same personalities in the game?

White: Of course, you look at (Ronnie) O'Sullivan. You never know what he is going to do. He can be fantastic one minute. He is the most naturally gifted player I've seen, and he is getting whacked by Trump at the moment, so it is all good for the game. Ronnie is taking it well. I know O'Sullivan and he will be out to put this all right by the World Championship.

DK: You think Ronnie has still got the game for another world title?

White: Ronnie has got five or six world titles left in him. He is too good. He is far too good.

DK: How important is it for the game for guys like you and Steve Davis to continue playing?

White: I love playing. I had a 147 yesterday on a tight table. If I'm still playing well, there is no reason why I need to retire. My aim is to get back to the top 32. Hearn has given us all these great opportunities. You either want it or you don't. I am 100 per cent committed. I love the game too much. I've tried to go play golf or sit in the sun, but that is not for me.

DK: What do you think of the Alexandra Palace?

White: I've played at Wembley Conference Centre 25 times, and the Wembley Arena once. This is different. The crowd have got their pints in their seats, and are not under any pressure. It is a good experience all round.

DK: Ambitions for the year?

White: My main ambition is to get in the top 32. I aim to keep practising, keep working hard and organising my testimonial..I will be busy.

DK: Just sad that Alex Higgins won't be there?

There is a bit of sadness Alex won't be there. He would have been one of the guests of honour at the dinner, but it is not to be.

DK: Are testimonials not supposed to mark the end of a career?

White: Nah. This is just the beginning. Ok mate? God bless you.

Jimmy White stages his testimonial lunch and dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel on June 2.

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