'I was beaten to within an inch of my life and left for dead in the humanities’ block toilets' - Independent.ie
'I was beaten to within an inch of my life and left for dead in the humanities' block toilets'
Still thought of as 'a bible-bashing snooker player', Shaun Murphy is now content in Ireland after a life in which he was left for dead by bullies at 13; was world champion at 22; found God; lost God and had a roller-coaster career where a rivalry with Ronnie O'Sullivan has never been far from the surface
They left him for dead on the toilet floor. Mrs Heathfield, his old geography teacher, would find him, long after the brutal business of the kicking and the gouging and the punching.
Coiled in a corner, shivering and shaking, surrounded by the detritus of bloody battle. S**t and p**s, spit and blood.
He wasn't dead, of course. They wouldn't have killed him. That would have spoiled their fun. After all, that would mean there wouldn't be another opportunity to beat Shaun Murphy up.
When she brought the kid home, she had only one message.
"If you take my advice, you won't let Shaun go back to school again. Otherwise, they will kill him." He was 13.
It wasn't because he was different. It was because he wasn't the same as them that did the beating. Them that would stay in this little village for years and work in factories and live the same lives like their fathers and never escape.
So this was their escape.
"I was beaten to within an inch of my life and left for dead in the humanities' block toilets," he recalls now, 24 years later, from his new home in Dublin, a world away from the Middle England insularity of an 80s childhood in Irthlingborough, Northampton.
"A group of lads just beat the living bejesus out of me. I was found with blood pouring out of a variety of holes. She brought me home and I can only imagine what it would be like if my Harry came home like that. I'd bomb the school! How my parents didn't cause somebody serious harm, I don't know."
Her message was necessarily curt and cutting. That was the last beating he ever took in school. Because that was the last day he ever went to school. From them on, he was taught at home. The bullies had won. For now.
"It was just very transactional," he says now of a three-year torment of violence meted out wordlessly. "It was just rage, visceral rage. It was boys in my year and their older brothers. I was a big boy even then but one big boy can only do so much.
"It was insidious. They'd warn you but you never knew when the violence would happen. Like mental torture. I think the school knew. I didn't tell my father because he would have gone off like a firework and made it worse.
"It was a difficult time in my life. I tried to appease them as best I could. I'd steal money from my parents so come lunchtime I could buy them off and get them onside.
"My father hated it when he found out. It was like a scene from the 'Godfather'. He thought it was betraying the family. But I just wanted to stop these people beating the s***e out of me."
Some teachers empathised; others told him in no uncertain terms that his love for snooker was a waste of time. He would see some teachers at the local snooker club. This made him even more of an enemy to his peers. And their bigger brothers.
"If any of us achieved anything in school, they made a big deal in Assembly. The headmaster would present trophies to you and most people accepted it. But some didn't. And so I was attacked violently from the age of 10.
"I was perceived as being so different. I was on the front page of the local paper, the BBC had come out, the kebab shop gave us food every Friday. Ford gave us a car.
"This was in a town where people don't achieve and they never leave. Where an excursion is to the next town. But I didn't want to end up working in the shoe factory."
His prowess with a cue condemned others to feel trapped like their fathers and their father's fathers. Bottled frustrations exploded in violent rage. Ironically, Murphy had only attended the local comprehensive because to stay in the Catholic school system would have required him to take two buses and thieve time from his snooker.
"So I was dumped in the local comp. I remember walking in and I didn't know any of these kids at all. I may have deserved a bit of a kicking. But not three years of it."
"This was more important," he says, nodding at the practice table in Stephen's Green, where he hones his craft ahead of the imminent World Championships.
"At 10, I knew that if I had to pursue this sport, I had to choose a different school. And so when the beating started, I had to make a deal.
"So you go to school with a trophy and you know you're going to beaten up a few hours later."
It made him more determined to succeed. The bullies may have beaten him up. But Murphy ended up winning in the long run. He got out.
Using a sponsorship from Doc Martens (Steve Davis's brother installed their table from the first series of BBC show 'Big Break'), the family converted their house into a school/snooker venue.
He did GCSE's in Maths, English and Spanish, fulfilling the legal requirement for education.
Ticking a box.
As his one-time foes were failing exams at 15, he was presenting snooker as a potential Olympic sport to Juan Antoni Samaranch in Moscow.
"My first girlfriend went to Loughborough University and even now when walking around UCD with my wife (Elaine, a Chemistry professor), I think I wouldn't have minded spending a few years learning. But I wouldn't have swapped it for my career."
The bullies stole something from him. But not everything. Yet the mental scars reside, permanently, secreted somewhere within.
A few years ago, he got into his latest spat with Ronnie O'Sullivan; his ears were piqued when the world's best player used the word "bullied" to describe his treatment by authorities.
"That's going to hit a nerve, right?" he smiles.
"Ronnie comes from an extremely privileged world, the only snooker player to come from a multi-millionaire background. He classes himself as the people's champion but he doesn't have anything in common with the man on the street.
"Yet somehow he has harnessed this working-class image and it's marvellous marketing. As a child, we had absolutely nothing.
"We went to jumble sales to make ends meet. I come from a serious rough side of the tracks. Then he talks about bullying? And I'm thinking you've no idea what the word means."
Fergal O’Brien ‘was like a big brother’ to the emerging talent of Shaun Murphy. Photo:Sportsfile
Being bullied for daring to be different hasn't defined him. The bullies may have left him but some misconceptions have not.
His dad lost his career, his parents lost their marriage, Murphy himself lost a marriage. He found God and lost God. He has been a world champion at 22 in a sport but he almost quit several times.
But please, don't assume you know who Shaun Murphy is.
"People get me wrong all the time. That childhood has shaped me and pushed me on. Because I might wear a nice suit or put a sentence together they think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But people don't know me. They don't know me at all."
He was eight when he was potted his first ball. A 4x2 novelty table on Christmas morning. Soon he was at the Crucible, pushing through the throng to get an autograph from Steve Davis.
"Having smelled the place, I had a very vivid idea of where I wanted to be. It went from being a pipe dream to a realistic goal."
He had just turned 10.
"Our whole lives revolved around it. It cost my family everything and I'm sure it cost my parents their marriage."
They split when he was 14. Financial difficulties had also forced the family from their home; Murphy's father had been a salesman in Mercedes Benz but now they relied upon Ford to both sponsor a car for the young prodigy and provide accommodation above a high street shop.
"So for all those who think I could have gone to Eton or whatever, there's no truth there. People don't know much about me. There is a whole other back story here."
During his parents' divorce, he found God in Weston-Super-Mare. As you do. On holiday with his dad, he became friendly with a family and particularly fond of their daughter.
When her mother suggested Mass, Murphy wasn't reckoning on becoming closer to her God; he rather hoped it might bring him closer to her daughter. It actually ended up changing his life.
"It was one of those born again Christian things with the choir and everything. It was fantastic. It all just hit me.
"It had been a weird period, the bullying, leaving school, self-discovery, about to turn pro, my parents splitting up, hormones. All of it." Too much of it. In reality, he was having a complete breakdown.
"And I was literally born again. I decided to give my life to Christ. I started running youth groups, met some wonderful friends."
And his future wife. That would change his life, too. He moved north to be with her family but this meant leaving his father.
"That move caused a lot of hassle with my family. My dad said my game would go and he'd take me out of his will. I'm thinking, 'What will? You've got f*** all!' But he had been everything, coach, driver, manager. He thought all the sacrifices were being wasted for this 'woman.' So my folks never got on with her at all."
His father was nearly right about the career. By 2005, the 22-year-old Murphy had determined to quit. In April, he went into his dad's old job in Mercedes Benz looking for a salesman's job. They said it was his if he returned a fortnight later.
His coach, Steve Prest, whom he met in 2003 - he would die, tragically, at just 43 - urged him to at least complete the World Championship qualifiers.
"You've paid £750 and that's a lot of money where I come from."
In the second of two qualifiers, he had the match of his life against Joe Swail, prevailed 10-8. His first round win was his first ever at the event. Then he beat John Higgins, a nuggety nemesis. Then, his boyhood idol, Davis, the original nugget, enjoying an improbable revival.
On the same day, Peter Edbon, from the next village over in Wellingborough, ended Ronnie O'Sullivan's hopes. "Now you're in the semis, my tour card is safe for another year and Ronnie is gone. Suddenly you're not selling cars next week."
He doesn't know whether the intense coaching work was belatedly bearing fruit or if, simply, the freedom of knowing he was walking away finally unleashed the flowing quality of play that had always been within.
He did know he wasn't leaving without the trophy.
"So now it's a scrap. Rewind to my life as a child. This is my wheelhouse, this is my world. I'll scrap with you all day. I've been working since I was eight for this. And I'm not going to give this up."
On one of the days he was bullied in school, the bruises were inflicted with more relish because the kid had appeared in the local paper that morning.
"I want to win a world title and drive a Merc," said the cherub-faced 10-year-old on the front page.
So, on the day after he won the world title, he walked in to the old salesroom where his dad used to work and drove out with an E Class. He looked like a middle-aged tit, you suggest. He agrees.
"For me it was symbolic. I remember the cars as a kid.
"We had two in the driveway every day when my dad worked there. To me that was what success looked like. It's funny. An E class wasn't even what I wanted. I wanted an S Class but my wife said I couldn't afford it. Maybe that's why we fell out…"
At 22, the survivor had found success but trust remained elusive for the victim, too. His marriage wasn't the only thing to end.
"I always had an analytical brain and in bible study I'd query everything," he says of his dwindling devotion to faith as his first marriage ended in 2008.
"I was never satisfied with the answers. I'm almost completely atheist, heavily agnostic, but even now when I hear the music it still takes me back and it's very emotive. There's a spiritual connection. It has left its mark on me.
"But I just don't tell people they're going to hell anymore. I used to go on about it so much, giving 10pc of my winnings away, giving speeches in church as a 22-year-old world champion when you've nothing to say.
"But then when my marriage ended, the hypocrisy from the church leaders, who were supposed to be friends, dropping me like a hot potato, was hard to quantify. So I'm thinking that's not for me really. The more they pushed me away, the further I moved away. And I lost a lot of trust in people after that. Nobody tried to help me.
"It's funny. People still call me a bible-bashing snooker player! Reputations are hard to shift!"
Nobody knows who Shaun Murphy really is. He's still finding out, too. He remembers a few years ago driving around a roundabout in Kilcock on speakerphone to his uncle.
"My relations' old farmstead was on that exact spot in the last century," he smiles. He always knew there was some Irish in him, apart from the name.
His mother's lot hail from Donabate in north Co Dublin, his father's from Kilcock in Co Kildare.
"My passport says I'm British and I'm obviously English but I feel as Irish as anyone. It was made out very clearly we had Irish heritage.
"My grandfather may well have been involved in certain activities which may have been why he was shipped over to Manchester…"
In 2014, he met Irishwoman Elaine in Manchester and the journey home began. They now live in Ballinteer and their two kids, Molly (2) and Harry (4), were born here. The professional transition was not as smooth.
Fergal O'Brien was a huge help early on - "he was like a big brother to me" - so too Ken Doherty but Murphy, who was keen on dismantling his technique, craved solitude and the opportunity to share his work online with his Belgium-based coach.
Fergus Condon, a member of the Stephen's Green club, was walking in town one day when he spotted Murphy at a traffic light and messaged him via Twitter.
"'Two things Shaun. The guards here don't like people using their phone even at traffic lights. And if you want somewhere to practise, we'd love to have you'.
"It's a bit of scary world. I thought I wouldn't fit in here so initially I retreated to what I knew where Fergal was. I had put it off but I was shocked when we moved over and found hardly any clubs left which is sad for a country which produced a world champion.
"So it was very difficult. With all the unsettling stuff, I had the worst season of my life a couple of years back.
"So I sat down with my coach and we knew we couldn't get any worse so we said let's make all the technical changes I needed to make."
It was a last throw as, again, he was mulling over the idea of quitting. Except he didn't know how to do anything else.
"There have been times in my career that if I had a legitimate option of doing something else to pay the mortgage, I'd quit. But I don't so I haven't."
The bullies' lasting legacy. But the bullied boy would have the last word.
Now, he's in the form of his life, made three finals before lockdown and won the Welsh Open, fittingly; six-time Ray Reardon, who had given him first cue as a pro, handed him the trophy.
Later in the night, G 'n T in hand, the veteran sidled over to Murphy. "I see you finally learned safety play!"
"Ray was my mentor, we worked a lot under the radar, maybe two or three times a season. The game has changed in terms of break-building and attacking play have changed but the tactical nuances have always stayed the same. Fergal and Ken helped me greatly here as well to hone that down. Ray didn't teach me to split the pack. I remember a safety situation from a game I'd lost.
He said, I'm not sure yet but I wouldn't do A, B or C and I bet you did B. He was right! That's why he was there. When you learn to play a proper thin safety, and not move any balls, you'll be okay.
"It's a different way to see the table. It's like a golfer has 14 clubs in his bag, I've 10 shots. You work out the one with the least risk. Reardon was the grand master.
"I achieved most of my titles from having an attacking game that when it was on, I could beat anybody.
"When it was off, I could lose to anybody."
Once he played Graham Dott and was ahead on every stat. He lost 5-4.
When Judd Trump first came on the scene, the pair shared 12 memorable frames in a first round match at Sheffield before Murphy stopped playing. He won the next four and the match as Trump fizzled out.
Trump would absorb the lesson quicker. Murphy would get the message in the end.
"A great golfer won't win the Masters and the Open paying the same game. I got tired of sitting at home watching guys like Mark Selby win everything when I know I could do just as well."
Now, finally, in life and in sport, he has found an equilibrium. The forces that tried to beat the will out of him could never have hoped to triumph over the determined soul within.
"The last while has been about finding a better balance."
And he has found it in Ireland. He no longer cares about those who assume they know he is.
All that matters is that he does.
World Snooker Championships, Live, today, BBC/Eurosport, 10.0