John Virgo believes social media and celebrity culture’s intrusion into sport have turned snooker’s charismatic characters into privacy-guarding potters.
During the mid-1980s snooker boom years, the likes of Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Kirk Stevens and Tony Knowles were household names as much for their vibrant personalities as their snooker skills.
But Virgo says modern stars, in snooker and across the sporting spectrum, are denied the freedom to cut loose and enjoy themselves because the slightest hint of a misstep could count against them.
He predicted ’Hurricane’ Higgins, who died in 2010, would have smashed the camera phone of any modern-day interloper.
Crucible stars used to populate Sheffield’s nightclubs between matches at the World Championship, but the new generation are more likely to enjoy a quiet meal and turn in early.
Virgo won the UK Championship in 1979 and swiftly saw the one-time minority interest sport become a mainstream fascination.
“It is a different world now and I think the world started getting different round about then,” Virgo said.
“I remember that if you went down to the Crucible or other snooker tournaments it was all the snooker writers, and then all of a sudden when the game became popular on television it wasn’t only snooker writers: it was what we called special correspondents.
“All of a sudden you couldn’t go out to nightclubs, you didn’t know who you were talking to, and it just changed completely. As soon as it became popular then not only the sports pages wanted to know about it, everybody else wanted to know.
“Particularly now with social media, you only need to turn round and someone will have a camera in your face and occasionally someone will be talking to you at the bar, asking you to pose for a picture, and someone will say, ’They’re videoing this’.
“They’re videoing you at the bar!
“In the old days of (Alex) Higgins and people like that, that would have been some video. The phone would have got smashed. The Hurricane would have smashed it against the wall.”
A criticism often thrown snooker’s way is that colourful characters no longer exist, but Virgo sympathises with the current cue stars.
He said: “It’s a different world now and as we see with footballers and everybody else, and the fall from grace of any sportsman, it’s a difficult balancing act now of going out and being nice to the general public and being very wary.”
Virgo tells the story of his life in a new book, titled ’Say Goodnight, JV’. It is named after his playful sign-off from Big Break, the prime-time BBC One show he starred in alongside Jim Davidson from 1991 to 2002.
Of the current breed, Virgo sees Ronnie O’Sullivan as a player who could go on to star on television.
Virgo told Press Association Sport: “I’m sure he could. He’s very bright. He comes over very well. He’s very articulate. He’s not just a snooker player.
“As far as his snooker’s concerned, he’s an entertainer, full stop.”
* Say Goodnight, JV by John Virgo, out 2nd November (John Blake Publishing)