Bloodied, bruised but unbowed, Shaun Murphy potted his way out of a rancid hellhole of mental and physical abuse to become a world champion at the age of 22.
Before he carried off the old pot as a 150-1 outsider at the Crucible Theatre in 2005, Murphy, now 36, discovered that not everyone was keen to join him on his snooker pilgrimage. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Murphy is stronger these days only because it didn’t kill him, but it was not for the lack of trying as his wonder years were besmirched by bullies riddled with large swathes of jealousy and self-loathing.
Shaun Murphy with world title in 2005.
Image credit: Eurosport
For Murphy it was a case of England's green and unpleasant lands. His assessment of his personal experience at Huxlow Science College in Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire is scathing. It falls far short of pass marks in how to handle kids with prodigious talents.
He has opted to discuss the subject during this World Championship in the steel city of Sheffield to shine a light on bullies at school, the workplace and the virtual world by airing his own personal experiences on what is an ongoing blight on society. Especially in the digital age.
It was not only schoolkids who bullied Murphy during a wretched three-year period, but teachers who did not know how to encourage a passion for his vocation in life.
“There was an episode at school when a teacher of mine took me aside very aggressively and told me that this snooker b******s was b******s and it was a complete waste of time,” said Murphy.
At the time, my family were going through some really bad times. My mum and dad had lost the house, the cars and almost everything we had. And this teacher said to me: ‘You’ll end up like your father. That’s what you’ll end up like’.
“I remember thinking: ‘that’s a bit strong’. He very forcibly gave me the impression that I should walk away from snooker and just be normal, study.
“What is the best word to describe it? They just couldn’t cope with the fact I was a bit different. They couldn’t cope with it, and a lot of the teachers couldn’t cope with it.
“It was all built around this: “Who do you think you are? Why aren’t you normal like the other kids? Why aren’t you doing what the other kids are doing?”
Murphy’s decision to go to a school closer to home so he could focus on table time at the local snooker hall unwittingly signalled his descent into torment in a backwater.
“My own experiences of bullying at school were very graphic,” said Murphy. “The town I grew up in - Irthlingborough - was quite a parochial, quite a local town.
“It had the kind of mindset when we moved there as a family in 1985. My dad was quite a high flier commercially, he was quite a good businessman, and we had a nice house.
My parents then went broke, the bank took everything off us and we ended up living in the high street in rented accommodation which we rented off a Ford dealership next to their showroom. They ended up becoming sponsors and lifelong friends of mine.
“But because I was starting to feature in the local media and the local press there were clubs in my local league where I wasn’t allowed as a kid.
“Because I was doing that, I was breaking down a few barriers and making a name for myself playing snooker. We had this thing at school if you did well then bring the trophy or medal in, and we’ll make a thing of it at assembly.
“They were trying back then to start this momentum of bigging people up and praising people if you are doing well to inspire other kids.
“In the main it was all very successful, but there was this element who were keen to keep you downtrodden and they made my life hell for years, and years and years.
“I moved from a Roman Catholic school in Wellingborough. I was meant to go on to a school in Northampton called Thomas Becket which was the next school in the sequence.
“I had just got keen on the snooker at the time so I was thinking if I take two buses to get there, my snooker is finished and I can only play at the weekends. I was really getting to the stage of wanting to play every night after school so I chose to jack that and said I’d go to the local comprehensive.
“Looking back, while that enabled me to pursue the snooker, that is when things started to tail off in terms of how I was treated at school.”
The snooker player dubbed ‘The Magician’ due to voracious appetite for break-building and bewitching attacking shots almost had his ambition knocked out of him when he was left for dead one day.
He would have had to have mastered a vanishing act like David Blaine to escape the scrutiny of those who detested him for simply being. He would not be left alone or encouraged. The old green-eyed monster of envy is greener than the baize on which he plays.
“I sort of breezed in, and was decent at school. I wasn’t top of the class or anything, but I wasn’t behind the door,” said Murphy.
“Because I was playing in snooker clubs all the time, I actually socialised better with a lot of the teachers than the kids.
I had more in common with the teachers because I could have grown up banter with them that I was having with all the guys in the club.
“I was having banter with the teachers, but that singled me out as different from a lot of the kids.
“They didn’t like that. One of my school reports said that Shaun would rather sit with the teachers than the kids. It was like a safe haven, and I was quickly singled out for some bad treatment by the kids.
“I found it was refuge to spend as much time as I could with the teachers, I felt safe and would not get picked on.
“But I was wrong about that as well, the bullying I went through for three years wasn’t limited to kids, just because I was trying to pursue a career in something that was different. Yeah, it was bad.
“I remember a couple of things aside from the fights and being picked on by kids. It was the sort of mental torture of 'we’re gonna get you' and never knowing what was around the corner.
“And then our brothers 'are gonna get you', and 'the bigger boys are gonna get you'. You are only a kid, 10 or 11 at the time so what are you thinking?
Which is what happened in the end. A team of lads, year 11 or year 12 brothers, got me one day and gave me the biggest hiding of my life. They left me in a toilet in the humanities block in a pool of my own blood. They kicked the c**p out of me, and left me there.
“But for my old Geography/PE teacher found me and took my back to my parents that afternoon.
“I'll never forget the little journey back to my parents in the car. My teacher said: “If you take my advice, you’ll never come back to this school. Don’t ever come back to this school.”
Murphy regrets not telling his parents about the mental anguish he had been suffering, but the physical scars made them realise that pursuing snooker and secondary school were not going to be natural bedfellows.
“I probably didn’t open up to them about it, but they did know about what happened on the penultimate day of year nine because I was home and in a bad way,” said Murphy.
I never went back to school after that. My dad’s first reaction was to have everyone in the town shot which as a father myself I can understand. My mum was devastated and heartbroken that someone had beaten her son physically and mentally.
“My dad very quickly turned it around and said: “we’re going to use this, we are going to make a success of this".
“We’re going to shove it down their throats. When they watch you in the World Championship in a few years’ time they can stick it right up themselves.”
As the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley goes: "In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed."
Poetic justice arrived in good time. Murphy’s greatest day remains his victory in Sheffield 14 years ago when he usurped Chris Small, John Higgins, Steve Davis, Peter Edbon and Matthew Stevens on his way to lifting the £250,000 first prize.
Shaun Murphy celebrates with father Tony
Image credit: Reuters
He has progressed to earn over £3.5m in career earnings from the sport, claiming seven ranking titles including the 2008 UK Championship and the elite invitational 2015 Masters. He is one of only 10 men to have carried off the snooker triple crown by winning its three blue-chip tournaments.
His youth was time well spent. He is married to Elaine, and is a father to Harry. He pays tribute to his parents for their unwavering support to pursue his snooker dream.
“That was the journey we went on," said Murphy. "I had a private tutor come to the house every Monday. I learnt English and maths, and a Spanish teacher came to the house and taught me,” he said.
Shaun Murphy celebrates victory with the trophy in 2005
Image credit: Eurosport
“I did that for a year until I was 14, and took my GCSEs two or three years early, privately, in a college in Northampton. And five days a week I played snooker full-time. That was it. I finished school when I was 13, never set foot in a uniform again. That was me done.
“I remember looking back misty eyed thinking I missed out stuff like the lads holidays, etc. Would I swap it? Well, I wouldn’t be here now if I continued that traditional journey.”
'Twitter brought zero to my life'
Murphy’s experience with bullies was partly to explain why he decided to shy away from Twitter last December due to the social network’s inability to censure the keyboard warriors.
“Twitter brought zero to my life. I joined twitter on the advice of a friend, who said it would be a good chance for me to interact with snooker fans,” said Murphy. “I left in November. It is just too hostile.
"It’s just horrendous. I’m not out there making fortunes from it.
“I remember saying to my wife: Why I am I doing this? Why am I allowing these people to say these things?
It leaves a mark, and will upset me if I read them. Nasty comments are nasty. I’m not in control of what they tweet me, but I am in control of whether I’m on there or not. So I just decided to jack it in.
“It was a shame because as an idea it was a good way to interact with genuine snooker fans about the history of the game, technique etc.
“What I found that 99.99 per cent of people on there would never have the balls to say it to your face. I found that hard.
“If I’ve got a problem with someone, I’ll go to speak to someone’s face to sort it out. People on Twitter are full keyboard warriors. I’ve just not the time or emotional energy to spend on it.”
'Bullies are weak'
It is estimated about 16,000 children between the ages of 11 and 15 are absent from state schools in England due to bullying, but it cannot protect children at risk. It is an epidemic of years gone by that is very much virulent today leading to fear, mental health issues, depression and suicide.
Murphy is urging victims of bullying to speak out about it, to not live in fear. He says it is important bullies are confronted and conquered.
“It is okay for people to have a difference of opinion in life, but when things become abusive, that’s not okay,” said Murphy. “People who are being subjected to bullying should tell somebody. Shine a light on it. Bullies don’t like it up them.
“There is usually a very low self esteem at the centre of bullies. I don’t know anybody who is happy with themselves who bully people.
Bullies are usually the weakest people in the world who distract attention from themselves by attacking you. Shine a light on it. Expose them for what they are. It’s something I wish I’d done, and confronted these guys.
“Until it got to the peak of physical brutality, I thought I was just among the crowd getting bullied, but I don’t know anybody who got it as bad as me.”
The teacher who had accused Murphy of being a fantasist for pursuing ambitions on the baize did apologise for not encouraging him after watching him claim the world title 14 years ago, but he believes children should not be dampened for having dreams.
“My mum and dad gave me everything they to had to give me the chance to become a snooker player, and that is what I want for my own kids. They should be made to believe that hard work can pay off, and you should aim high in life.
“Nothing is out of reach if you put your mind to it. That’s the sort of environment I hope to foster for my family and kids."
A world free from bullying is one worth fighting for.
Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre
*The article would like to make clear that the financial problems encountered by Shaun Murphy's parents did not mean bankruptcy, and an earlier version has been amended to reflect this.