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      Hearn, Haram and 9/11: Rory McLeod Talks to VICE Sports
      All photos by PA Images
      July 16, 2015

      Hearn, Haram and 9/11: Rory McLeod Talks to VICE Sports

      Rory McLeod's text comes through: "Meet you at the mosque door."

      When I arrive and see him putting on his shoes as he leaves the prayer hall he is as unmistakeable as I'd imagined he would be – but bigger.

      I can't work out if it's his physical stature (6ft 2 and wide) or his presence, but he seems to tower over me and his friend from Qatar, who he introduces as Muhammed. McLeod has many friends in Qatar from his days coaching their national snooker team.

      It's a glorious English summer's day and we'd agreed to meet by the Regents Park Mosque and then sit in the park. I've driven past the magnificent golden dome and minaret countless times before but never visited the place. Like most non-Muslims, I've been to mosques as a tourist in places like Cairo and Istanbul, but I've never been to a British mosque.

      McLeod's conversion to Islam 12 years ago came about through contact and friendship with Muslims in the Emirates, not through the British Muslim community, which felt like a closed door to him.

      "They weren't going out and telling people about Islam." he says, "They were keeping it closed up like it was for them, and Islam is not for them: Allah is for the whole world."

      Growing up in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire in the 1970s, McLeod and his four brothers were raised by parents who were Seventh Day Adventists and had come to Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s. Two of his brothers are now Rastafarians.

      Now living in Leicester with his wife and three children, McLeod has been up since 4am for the morning call to prayer. His usual routine in midsummer is to go back to bed for some extra kip, then rise and take the kids to school, then practice from 11.30am until 7pm at the snooker club.

      But today he's driven down to London to talk to VICE Sports. Here in the capital his Midlands accent has an even warmer resonance to it than when we spoke on the phone. His jocularity and ever-present smile in person is an interesting contrast to the more sombre image of his television appearances and the spikiness of his quotes in media reports.

      Press stories on McLeod, rare as they have been, have tended to focus on squabbles with opponents over his style of play and controversies around his religion.

      The post-match press conference spat with Ricky Walden at the 2011 World Championship when he defeated Walden 10-6 to reach the last 16 was a case in point, making headlines on the sports pages of national newspapers.

      "It was like a dentist's appointment, absolutely painful from start to finish," Walden said of the match. "I just think the way Rory plays, it's so painful to play against."

      McLeod responded by saying Walden, usually a faster player, had been responsible for the slow pace of their match-up.

      His colour has always been at the fore, of course. He's the only black professional snooker player and the first to qualify for the World Championship. But now his religion is increasingly the talking point.

      There was a furore earlier this year when snooker fans watching his televised Welsh Open match against Ronnie O'Sullivan noticed that the badge on his waistcoat said ISIS (his long term sponsor of 14 years, the accounting firm ISIS Business Solutions.) Many took to Twitter to express their outrage.

      Early on in his career the media noted that he didn't shake hands with female referees, something he puts down to Islamic law.

      It's fair to say that most things in McLeod's life are dictated by his religion these days, including his profession, to the extent that he declares himself, "a Muslim first, then a family man, then a snooker player."

      With the kind of zeal that only converts possess, McLeod takes his enthusiastic view of Islam into areas of discussion that are bound to raise eyebrows.

      I tell him I'm off to New York the day after our interview and we talk about America, foreign policy, Islamophobia, terrorism and why he didn't tell anybody he had become a Muslim for two years.

      "I knew the situation that Muslims were under, in the sense of the Twin Towers and things like that. And me knowing Muslims, I just couldn't believe this was true. So it made me look into Islam" he says.

      His friend Muhammed has been leaning against McLeod back-to-back on the grass, watching YouTube videos on his phone, but now he takes his earphones out to listen.

      "I grew up in Britain. Being subjugated to certain things at a very young age, I knew something was wrong anyway. So what I chose to do was investigate it for myself. I'm English born and bred and I know the system and I know the system is off the rails. When my country or my system that I know tells me they're Muslim terrorists and they've done that, I thought: 'no, come on, you're having a flaming laugh.'"

      I ask him to clarify. Is he saying he doesn't think the 9/11 terror attacks were carried out by Muslims?

      "Oh I know they wasn't. I know they weren't Muslims," he says. "Because the severity of what happened – the Muslims have not got that technology."

      I decide not to mention Saudi Arabia – the country spends £50 billion a year on military equipment, and 15 of the 19 hijackers from the Hamburg Cell were Saudi nationals – and let him explain why he believes the conspiracy theories.

      "NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defence Command] is the most sophisticated defence system on the planet. You tell me, how the blooming heck can people go in to America and do what they did when, if a plane is flown off course for less than five minutes, it's got a fighter jet behind it telling it it's going to blow it out of the sky?"

      So who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre? I ask, bemused.

      "You've just got to do your research and not be misguided and look into it yourself and everybody will realise that it was an inside job."

      I realise he's not being facetious or provocative. He believes what he's saying.

      And what about Al Qaeda?

      "Al Qaeda is the name for a computer database that they decided to call Muslim terrorists," he replies.

      God knows how all of this will go down on the World Snooker circuit or with its chairman, Barry Hearn, but McLeod doesn't seem too concerned. I don't get the sense that being an integral part of the snooker family is high on his agenda, if such a family even exists. It's a mega-competitive, devastatingly isolating game in a way that most other sports aren't.

      But within snooker he does have some good mates, including Peter Ebdon, with whom he played at the same club in Rushden from 1999–2005; Shaun Murphy who grew up in Irthlingborough a few miles away from Wellingborough; and Mark Selby, another Midlands lad from Leicester.

      When I compare the solitude and pressure of snooker to penalty shootouts in football, McLeod tells me he's still working on dealing with the stresses of being watched by millions.

      We discuss the difference in exposure compared to team sports, where players can hide on the pitch, and he tells me about his youth career in football. He excelled up front before being dropped for his school's all-England cup final appearance because of what he perceived as the racism of the coach.

      "It was the first time we lost in five years," he says.

      The loneliness of snooker, as well as the immense pressure, has led players to use drink and drugs – most notably Alex Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Jimmy White. McLeod, even as a devout teetotal believer, understands the reasons why.

      "It's about life," he says philosophically. "Life gets to people, life messes people up, it's not really the snooker, it's the pressures of life. If you're just living a life with no guidance and living for the sake of everyday... This [life] is a lot of people's Paradise; this isn't my Paradise."

      As for the mental health of players, McLeod puts a lot of it down to wealth and not knowing what to do with it.

      "More rich people commit suicide and have drug overdoses than poor people, so money's not helping people is it? Ronnie's one of the richest snooker players, so it just goes to show you, depression and whatever else – it's life. I like Ronnie, Ronnie's alright. Even though he might have his own issues he's still a nice person, he's down to earth."

      We walk past the boating lake in the park where girls are sunbathing in bikinis in the hot sun.

      "We have a saying, when the sun comes out, haram comes out," McLeod says and chuckles. "It's my missus' saying to the kids, it means when the sun comes out everyone comes out naked."

      I ask him about his views on women, in the light of the female referee no-handshake controversy and the emergence of Reanne Evans, who became the first woman to compete against men in this year's World Championship qualifiers.

      "Females in Islam are on a pedestal higher than males in a sense," he says. "They've had their rights for 1,400 years whereas in the West, in Christianity, 50-100 years ago women were thought not to have a soul. Women in Islam are treated with the utmost dignity."

      I can almost hear the cackling of Julie Burchill as I take in what he's saying, but I let it go. A debate on feminism and women's role in Islamic society would have us here all day.

      Not touching a woman is, he says, an Islamic law to protect both sexes from the temptations of infidelity. But does he welcome women into professional snooker?

      "I'm not going to say I'm against it," he says, "if they fancy themselves [playing against men] then yeah, bring it on. I'd have the utmost respect for them, but I wouldn't have physical contact with them."

      Then, as we cut across the grass, a funny thing happens. A young boy, probably around three or four years old, runs up to McLeod excitedly, arms outstretched as though he's just seen Father Christmas. He hugs McLeod's leg then falls to the ground laughing, apparently playing some kind of game that only he knows the rules to.

      McLeod pats the boy's head, beaming, and gives him a few kind words. We walk on and I wonder if it's something magnetic about his appearance or manner that draws people in.

      In his twenties, in the 10-year period where he'd effectively given up the snooker dream, McLeod worked as a pub landlord and barber, before running his own snooker club.

      Managing The Poachers Rest pub near Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in the mid '90s (the pub closed in 2010 and is now a Paddy Power), he became mates with the naughtier elements of the Spurs football firm who would sink pints and offer him lines in the toilets, which he politely declined. Back then he was partial to the odd spliff – one of the vices he has given up for Islam, along with swearing and music.

      "I love music so that was a big sacrifice," he says, misty-eyed, and describes what it was like in his small town when the debut Roots album was released.

      "But music is the whisper of the misguided. Music today signifies sex, drugs, witchcraft. And the artists are basically naked. It ain't good. I wouldn't have my 10-year-old listen to it."

      How he ended up running rough pubs in north London after emerging as a promising young snooker player is something only McLeod really knows. After leaving school at 16, then studying electronics at college and getting a job in the industry, he ran a barbershop with his brother for four years.

      "A man named Ron Elson who ran the Embassy snooker club in Wellingborough bought my pro-ticket when I was 18," he says. "There were 10 tournaments for the year and I played in six and missed out on TV in two of them. I lost 6-5 and 6-5 to get on telly, and for the next 10 years I didn't play snooker."

      Later he tells me he missed one of the 10 tournaments because he simply got the dates mixed up.

      Having been narrowly denied those big breaks as a youngster in 1989, the realities of earning a living became a fact he couldn't avoid.

      He moved to London to work as a landlord but only lasted a year in the big city before moving on to manage a succession of pubs and snooker halls in places like Northampton, Banbury, Peterborough, Bedford and Rockingham.

      "Snooker is not a cheap business to be in, it's very expensive," he explains. "You've got to have the money to enter the tournaments, and go wherever the tournament is, and stay over. And if you haven't got a sponsor..."

      Players who cannot self-fund have to raise cash by other means, which usually means working when they should be practicing, then coming up against players who "eat, sleep, drink snooker," in the major tournaments, where the difference is cruelly exposed.

      While the top-level money in the game is now huge – the World Champion wins £300,000 – McLeod says it's a relative "drop in the ocean" compared to Premier League earnings. And below that level, prize money tails off sharply.

      "Barry Hearn is trying to get snooker back up there," says McLeod. "Back in the '70s snooker [money] was the same as tennis. Look what's happened. Tennis went sky high, snooker went down. Most of the people who were running snooker were the biggest crooks on the planet. They didn't know how to promote anything, they were just in it for themselves. I'm not saying Barry Hearn isn't lining his own pockets, but he's trying to line the pockets of the players, too."

      Like most sportsmen, money was the last thing on McLeod's mind as a youngster.

      "I more or less fell into snooker," McLeod says of his childhood. A friend invited him to play at his house and was duly beaten by McLeod, who had never seen a snooker table before.

      "I was kind of natural in it, straight from the beginning. My uncle had a table but it was hard for me to get a game on it because they didn't know if I could do anything; when I did eventually get on it, it was hard for them to beat me as well. That was between 10 and 13."

      At 13 (quite late compared to some professional players) a friend took him to play on a full-size table for the first time at the Embassy snooker club.

      Raised with a sports-mad dad, the family grew up watching Alex Higgins. "Everyone who watched snooker back then loved Higgins," he says.

      "I just enjoyed playing and then I realised that there was nobody around who could beat me."

      The unavoidable 10 year hiatus from the sport only ended when he turned 30. One wonders how far he could have gone with the right backing. He puts the lack of other black players in snooker down to the problems he had: stereotypes and a lack of support.

      "Parents don't push them in that direction because they don't think there's a chance for them. When it comes to athletics it's a different ball game. That's not to say there aren't black people who can play the game; there are. It's just there's not the money in it that can push them to go the extra mile."

      When he came back to the game he had, by his own admission, "lost some of the edge."

      "You forget how you used to play and end up trying too hard. I don't think I've really played my game since [I was 18] in a way."

      He thinks the necessities of needing to do well on the tour in order to pay the mortgage changed his game into the more cautious, defensive approach he now employs.

      "It's like with Ebdon, he's got a family to feed hasn't he!" But, he says, he's beginning to feel like the player he once was, wiping the floor with his mates at the local snooker hall where shady characters played each other for money, and the scent of marijuana and lager filled the room along with the threat of potential violence.

      His game is developing with the work he's doing with coach Steve Feeney, whose patented SightRight method helped Stuart Bingham win the World Championship in May at the age of 39 – the oldest champion since Ray Reardon in 1978.

      Now aged 44, McLeod would be the same age Reardon was, 45, if he wins next year. His confidence in himself that he can achieve it is strong, despite the fact he has failed to qualify at The Crucible since 2011. Feeney has previously coached Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Jimmy White, so McLeod's faith in him has a solid foundation.

      The season began with the Australian Open last month, a tournament McLeod failed to qualify for. It was the first time in four years he'd failed to make the grade.

      "A bit of a kick in the teeth," he mutters, slightly subdued for the first time in the interview.

      Nevertheless, he still believes he can be the first black world champion.

      "I can be, I know I can be. And I want to be. But it's not going to come to me – I've got to go and get it."

      @josh_ua_surtees

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