The 19-year-old realised a lifelong dream at the weekend when he won the European Under-21 Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, to secure his professional tour card for next season. Leslie is the first Lothians boy to make the breakthrough since Leith potter Chris Small joined the pro ranks in 1991.
It means that, from June onwards, the Midlothian player will be able to enter qualifying for all the major tournaments, giving him the chance to lock horns with the world’s best. Indeed, at this time next year, Leslie will be attempting to qualify for the 2013 World Championship at the Crucible. Higgins, the four-time world champion and current world No. 6, has been following Leslie’s fortunes for years and has played the teenager in practice. And, while warning that it will take a mammoth effort to stay on the pro tour after his initial two-year card expires, the 36-year-old Wishaw Wizard sees no reason why Leslie can’t make a big impression in a game which is currently burgeoning under the leadership of the ebullient Barry Hearn.
“Michael’s a lovely boy and works so hard at his game, so I’m absolutely delighted for him,” said Higgins. “He’s been knocking on the door for a while, but in the last year he really has improved beyond all recognition. I had played him a few times in previous years and he maybe wasn’t ready to turn professional, but I played him about six months ago and the change was dramatic.
“It’s going to be tough for him on the tour because every time he picks up his cue he’s going to be up against a tougher standard of player, but that will make him a better player. With all the changes happening in the game just now, it’s a great time to be a pro. A few years ago there were only about six tournaments, so Michael would have struggled to stay on the tour, but now there’s about 25 tournaments in the season. He also gets two years to establish himself which is massive because until recently, new players just got a one-year card which made it really hard for them to establish themselves.
“The first year will be all about trying to get used to being a pro, and then in the second year, he can try and make a bit of headway. There’s no reason why Michael couldn’t qualify for a big tournament over the next two seasons. You never know how a player is going to handle life on the tour, but he’s certainly got all the tools, so it’s up to him how much he wants it. He’s a really heavy scorer which is one of the main ingredients these days. I watched the video of the 147 he made in practice recently – anyone who can make a maximum knows their way about a snooker table. There’s nothing stopping him being at the Crucible in the next year or two. He’s got a great opportunity.”
Leslie will join a Scots contingent of Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Stephen Maguire, Graeme Dott, Jamie Burnett, Marcus Campbell, Alan McManus and Anthony McGill in the pro ranks. Campbell, the world No. 22 from Dumbarton, has been Leslie’s unofficial mentor since the pair began practising together at the Minnesota Facts club, near Hampden, in the last few years and, while he is thrilled for the youngster, he warned that the jump into the pro ranks will be a real baptism of fire.
He said: “I’m delighted for Michael. I watched the final online and thought he was fantastic. It’s a massive win for him because if you’re serious about making it, you need to be winning these type of tournaments. I’ve been playing him off and on for the past few years now, but he’s been coming religiously to play me over the past few months and I’ve noticed a big change in his game. You can see that, having played with myself and few of the other professionals, he’s taken his game to a new level and he’s beaten me a few times recently. He’s now going to have to improve again to hold his own on the tour because it really is difficult. Even players that people won’t have heard of are good tour pros who are hard to beat, so not many young pros have been able to qualify for tournaments recently. In essence they are just doing an apprenticeship when they first get on the tour.
“But Michael’s got a great attitude and he’s very level-headed so it’s all about learning quickly and letting his ability take care of the rest. The fact he’s guaranteed two years gives him a chance to relax and enjoy playing. A couple of years ago, a new pro probably wouldn’t have played a top-32 player in his first year, but now there are so many tournaments that Michael’s got a great chance of playing the top players.”
Campbell, 39, who faces Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of next week’s China Open, believes Leslie can benefit from having such a concentration of the world’s top players just along the M8. “In Glasgow he’s got half a dozen pros who are ranked pretty high in the world, so he’s got a great wee starting base if he can get in a few practice games against these boys.”