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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Donald McRae

Shaun Murphy: ‘What would I do without snooker? It’s my drug’

Shaun Murphy at the Crucible in Sheffield on the eve of this year’s tournament.
Shaun Murphy at the Crucible in Sheffield on the eve of this year’s tournament. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“My wife says I should be in the corner of the room, dribbling away,” Shaun Murphy suggests with a smile as he revisits some tumultuous moments in his life which include violent bullying, becoming a snooker pro at 15, winning the world championship as a 150-1 outsider, bible-readings, a sex worker and tabloid exposé, divorce, estrangement from his father, depression, death threats, being called the Magician, obesity, surgery and a sudden resurgence of form in the game which consumes him.

We’re in the Crucible, that hushed and venerable site of the snooker world championships which have just begun in Sheffield. Murphy has reached four finals here, winning his first in 2005, and the world No 4 enters the tournament with the certainty that, in his words, “no one’s playing better snooker than me right now”.

Yet nothing is simple for the Magician. In his first round match, starting on Wednesday, Murphy plays Si Jiahui, the young Chinese player he lost to 18 months ago in the UK Championships. Si was an amateur then and Murphy ranted that “I have lost to someone who shouldn’t even be in the building”. He was abused and threatened and so Murphy’s law meant, as the 40-year-old says wryly, “it was inevitable” he would draw the 20-year-old Si this week.

The temptation to find a secluded corner of the Crucible and dribble helplessly, however, is resisted. “I may well be on my way there at some stage,” Murphy says with another grin, “but not yet.”

His love of snooker is obvious in the way he remembers how, on his first visit to the Crucible as a nine-year-old, he got his hero Steve Davis’s autograph. Thirteen years later, in 2005, Davis was one of the players Murphy brushed aside on his way to becoming a shock world champion who had negotiated his way through the qualifying rounds. But I am more interested in the background to Murphy’s rise, for he talks openly about the hurt and the glory.

It is a small wonder that he has become such a cheerful and engaging man because, as a chubby snooker prodigy in Northamptonshire, he was bullied brutally. “It was mostly that I dared to be different,” he says. “I grew up in a small town and there weren’t many kids like me who were in the paper and on the BBC. I was just very different and kids can be cruel. I was terrified of going to school because it was a harrowing experience. I’d get beaten up all the time. In Year 9, when I was 13, I got left for dead in the toilet after these kids attacked me and left me there. A teacher found me and took me home. She sat my parents down and said: ‘If you take my advice, you’ll never send Shaun back to this school. They’ll kill him.’”

His parents decided to home school him amid serious family problems. He looks up and says quietly: “My dad was very hard on me and we haven’t spoken for a long, long time. We’re estranged. I’m not sure it worked out well.”

Shaun Murphy celebrates with the world championship in 2005
Shaun Murphy celebrates with the world championship in 2005. ‘It was completely life-changing,’ says Murphy. ‘I was completely unprepared for the level of recognition’ Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

Even before he became world champion his relationship with his father was “on and off. It wasn’t long after that that we had a big falling out. We got back on better terms for a brief period but it didn’t last. Our relationship morphed into something it shouldn’t have done. He found it very difficult to wear several hats: to be Dad, coach, manager, driver and mentor. I would have preferred him to have been Dad a bit more. There were mistakes I’m very keen not to make with my own kids.”

Has his dad met Murphy’s children? “He briefly met Harry [who is now six] once and we thought that might have been the olive branch to make him see sense. It didn’t work and he’s yet to meet my little girl.”

At least, as Murphy says, “I speak to my mum. My mum and dad split up when I was 14 and I didn’t speak to her for many years. I was a very angry young man but we got back on good terms and she comes over to Dublin [where he and his family now live] as often as she can. Seeing her with my children makes my heart go funny – like it’s a magic circle.”

There is magic in the Crucible and, when Murphy made his debut here in 2002, “I remember being backstage, because me and Stephen Hendry [his opponent and seven-time world champion] were the last table out. The others went first, and it’s akin to watching people jump out of a plane. It was the most nerve-racking experience. You walk out, get a great reception as a debutant, 19, and then God himself followed me and proceeded to dispatch me with ease.”

Three years later Murphy joined the pantheon by winning the world title. He is animated when I remind him that he nearly lost his final qualifying match at those worlds in 2005 when he edged past Joe Swail 10-8. “It’s a shame there’s no footage of that match because that was an incredible game. It was at Pontins in Prestatyn, the holiday camp in north Wales. About 20 people saw it.”

Murphy then beat John Higgins, Davis and Peter Ebdon before winning a close final against Matthew Stevens. “It was the first big win of my life and I didn’t know how to handle it. I remember wandering back to my dressing room on my own and going: ‘Right – what do we do now?’”

Murphy got engaged, bought a house and a Mercedes. “I’d always wanted a Mercedes,” he says. “My dad had worked for Mercedes-Benz in the 80s as quite a big director and so we’d had a Mercedes for a period and that was the car I wanted. But becoming world champion was completely life-changing. I was completely unprepared for the level of recognition.

“I fell foul of a couple of journalists who were looking for dirt. They found out that, at the time, I was heavily religious. I’m an atheist now but back then I was deep down the rabbit hole of being a born-again Christian. Some unsavoury things were written about me which I didn’t know how to handle.”

In 2009, with his marriage in trouble, Murphy reached his second world championship final, against Higgins. The night before the final a tabloid newspaper ran a story which they headlined “Snooker Hero Murphy & the £100 Escort”. “Committed Christian Murphy, 26, and brunette Abigayle, 25, first met ten years ago at a religious youth group in Irthlingborough, Northants,” the article suggested.

“That’s not quite accurate,” Murphy says. “This girl and I had dated in our teenage years and following the break-up from my wife at the time in 2008, she reconnected with me through Facebook.”

Shaun Murphy at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield on the eve of this year’s tournament
Shaun Murphy faces Si Jiahui in the first round of the world championships. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

But the newspaper took great delight in detailing the fact that Murphy’s friend had since become a sex worker who chose to sell her story to them.

Murphy says: “She led me down the garden path a little and made up stories of what she did for a job. It turned out she was an escort. Nobody was more surprised than me and it was very unnerving to see these things written about you.”

That difficult time, which he describes as “a mess”, severed Murphy’s relationship with Christianity. “When my marriage to my first wife ended in 2008 I found hypocrisy from people in the church who’d claimed to be my second family. They deserted me and, when I needed them most, they treated me like a leper. I found that very hard to reconcile.”

Murphy is happily married now to Elaine, the mother of his children, but his life in snooker has not always been easy. Despite reaching a fourth world championship final in 2021, when he lost 18-15 to Mark Selby, Murphy went three years without winning a ranking tournament. “I contemplated walking away from the game,” he says. “I’ve stepped into the pundit role for BBC, which I love, so I thought about doing more of that. I even thought about retraining and doing something completely different.”

But then, after losing in the first round of the world championships last year, he decided to undertake gastric sleeve surgery to lose weight. “I just got to the stage where I had to do something drastic,” Murphy says. “I was completely out of control. I was eating too much, drinking too much and putting on weight every day. I couldn’t stop myself. If I’d gone to see a doctor I’d have been diagnosed with depression. I was in a real black hole. I got to the point where I had to do something. I now wish I’d done it 20 years ago. It’s been completely life-changing.”

Murphy says that, after surgery, “my stomach is so small now, I cannot overeat. I still look at a buffet and think: ‘Oh, that looks nice!’ But I can’t physically eat much.”

His game has been transformed. In winning the Players Championship in February, Murphy became only the 11th man in history to win 10 ranking tournaments on the snooker tour. “That week is the best I’ve ever played,” he says. “It’ll take some beating to improve on that.”

Earlier this month he won his next ranking tournament when he secured the Tour Championship which underlined his status as the form player going into the worlds. It helps him remain philosophical about his match against Si. “I’d accepted it when I was having breakfast on the morning of the draw,” he says. “I knew it was coming.”

Murphy regrets his outburst after losing to Si. “I had to re-educate myself on how the tour’s set up commercially and why amateurs are invited into tournaments. I changed my opinion and I’ve apologised.”

Murphy weighs up his options during the Tour Championship in Hull, another tournament he won this year.
Murphy weighs up his options during the Tour Championship in Hull, another tournament he has won this year. Photograph: Colin Poultney/ProSports/Shutterstock

But he still looks amazed by the furore he caused. “One of the guys who ran the BBC sport website told me it became their most clicked story on snooker, ever. That seemed completely ridiculous. I got abused on the M1 two days after it happened. In crawling traffic a man asked me to wind my window down. I thought he was going to wish me good luck for the next tournament. Instead, he absolutely abused me across the motorway. I was also getting death threats [on Twitter]. It was horrific. Who knew so many people were interested in the makeup of the World Snooker Tour? But I was wrong and wish I could take those comments back.”

Since then, Murphy says, “Si has been doing brilliantly. He’s fully earned his right to be here and become a very impressive player. I’ve got my hands more than full with him.”

Before then, and after everything he has endured, Murphy takes comfort in the certainty of why he is still playing. “We all go through these ups and downs but snooker is my absolute first love, my passion.”

Murphy gazes at the Crucible. “I remember coming to this building as a nine-year-old boy,” he says, “and that passion still rings true. I’m fascinated by the game. What would I do without snooker? I’ve never taken a drug in my life – but snooker’s my drug. That table, and those balls, are enough for me.”

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