Snooker: Why am I the only black pro on circuit?

Go to inner-city clubs and you see a game embraced by all ethnic groups so racism must be the reason why Rory McLeod is alone
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The Independent Online

Type "Rory McLeod" into Google and the first name thrown up is an itinerant musical troubadour. You have to head a little further down the list to find the 39th best snooker player in the world.

McLeod – the one better with a cue in his hand, rather than a guitar – makes his first appearance at the Pokerstars.com Masters this week as one of two wild cards joining Ronnie O'Sullivan and the world's elite players.

The 38-year-old McLeod has never made it past the last 32 of a major tournament, and had to emerge victorious from an 80-strong field in a competitive qualifying event to secure a first-round meeting with former world champion Mark Williams tomorrow.

But if McLeod has reached Wembley Arena as a relative journeyman and against the odds, he arrives also as a trailblazer: he is still the only black professional on the circuit, and the first to appear at this prestigious event, just as he was at the World Championships at Sheffield's Crucible last April.

The briefest visit to any inner-city club is sufficient to see that at grass-roots level snooker is a sport warmly embraced by all ethnic groups, leaving the question hanging as to why more talented young black players have not followed where McLeod has led.

McLeod admits that he has had his "fair share" of racist comments during his career, adding: "It has been hard being the only black player on the circuit. I'm not treated any differently by the other players, but I have had some stupid comments from time to time."

After one brief flirtation with life on the tour, McLeod, from Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, drifted away from the sport for eight years and tried his hand at several other jobs, notably as a pub landlord. But nine years ago he made it back and has remained ever since. So why is it he remains on his own?

McLeod said: "You need backing. I don't think other black players have had the backing. If you look at Ronnie O'Sullivan, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, they have never done anything else.

"They have never had to, because they had backing. John Higgins and Shaun Murphy the same, Shaun was getting sponsorship from nine years old. They have been almost bred for it. In the black community that does not happen and if it did there would be a few more knocking at the door.

"Look at China. They are throwing money at it and producing a load of talented players, but who is throwing money at the black community? Whether it is a bit of prejudice or racism, I don't know.

"If I was to say that there is no racism out there I'd be lying, because there is. People are racist, how much is another thing. There is racism on this planet.

"When I was playing football as a young kid, I was the best striker, we never lost a match when I played and I scored in every game. Many of the players were sent to scouts at Aston Villa, to Manchester, Liverpool, Arsenal, and I wasn't sent anywhere for five years. What was that about? You tell me.

"I died inside a few times, you can imagine. Young kids and football, I loved the game and at that time that is what I wanted to be. I cried my eyes out many times."

McLeod forced his way back on to the Tour in 2001 after being passed over the year before, a decision that still irks him, and now spends much of his year in Qatar coaching the national snooker team to supplement often slim pickings.

He said: "I used to practise at the Academy when it was in Rushden and before it moved to Sheffield. One time, 22 players from Qatar were over, and I was the only player in the building. I got to know them well, and then they offered me work there. I've semi-moved out there now, it's been 25 degrees this week, so London will be a shock.

McLeod became a Muslim 10 years ago and is frequently seen listening to verses from the Koran on his iPod, adding: "It helps calm me down, I find there are no better words or speech than that to help put me in the right state of mind."

And does the father-of-three feel any extra pressure, given his pioneering status? McLeod adds: "I used to worry about it a lot more than I do now, and that is partly down to my faith. I have plenty to be grateful for, I am looking forward to Wembley and, God willing, I can play well and do myself justice."

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