Snooker coach Roger has China in his hands

Snooker coach Roger Leighton with some of his students in China
Snooker coach Roger Leighton with some of his students in China
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A Preston-born former snooker ace has become one of the sport’s top coaches after forging a career in the Far East.

Roger Leighton, aged 50, was ranked in the top 100 in the world as a player during the 1990s.

Rubbing shoulders with multiple world champions such as Stephen Hendry, Cliff Thorburn and John Higgins on the circuit, Leighton used to practise regularly with the legendary Alex Higgins and Tony Knowles.

But after reaching a career high of 88 in the world, the former contemporary of fellow Prestonian cueists Ian McCullouch and Stuart Pettman retired from playing after struggling to find a sponsor.

He turned his attentions to coaching and has gone on to forge a reputation as one of the best in the business.

After getting his big break working for the Star Academy, in Sheffield, Leighton has since worked all over the world, including Brazil, Denmark and Serbia.

But two years ago he was invited to take up the role of head coach of Wiraka Billiard Academy, in China.

In the country which spawned this year’s World Championship finalist Ding Junhui – who lost narrowly in at the Crucible to Mark Selby – it is Leighton’s job to nurture the next big star from China.

“I am working with the best juniors in China,” said Leighton.

“Some of these kids are winning major tournaments.

“I am coaching a 16-year-old called Luo Hong Hao who won the Guangzhou tournament this week.

“He lost in the final of the biggest pro-am tournament in China, beating Xiao Guodong – the world No.39 – 4-1 in the quarters

“My 14-year-old student Fan Zhengyi lost in the final of the Singapore Open while Fan Zhengyi won the Hong Kong invitation snooker Championship.”

“I have another kid called Bai, who I think could be the next China superstar. He looks a lot like Judd Trump with the way he plays.”

As of yet, Ding Junhui is the nearest China has had to a world champion, but Leighton is aiming to help the country break its duck.

“The players from the UK are mentally stronger compared to over here in China.

“The Chinese players play very good, but the British players are more determined and competitive and that goes a long way.

“Look at Mark Selby – he is very mentally tough where as the Chinese players are more placid and relaxed.

“But I am doing my best to change the way they think.”

Born in Sharoe Green Hospital, Leighton moved to Melbourne, Australia, as a baby with his parents Thomas and Vera.

He picked up a cue at the age of 12 and soon began to knock in century breaks. He became the Australian Junior Champion at the age of 15 – the first English-born player to do so.

With his burgeoning talent, his parents returned to the UK to give their son the best chance of making it as a pro.

“I was a pro for about four years and got to 88 in the world,” said Leighton, who can speak Chinese.

“I played some good players – Hendry, John Higgins, Thorburn.

“I lost to Higgins 5-3 in the British Open and I got an unlucky kick on an easy blue in the final frame.

“I was Tony Knowles practice partner for seven years and Alkex Higgins for two.

“I used to play with Alex and beat him regularly in practice. I got a 147 against him – was a good player.

“We used to play for money but he would never pay up because he would never have any money on him.

“I played with Tony when he was inside the top-16 and got to No.2 in the world. We are still good friends.”

Despite it being several years since he stopped playing professionally, Leighton – who has been the North West champion three times – most recently three years ago – has proven he can still mix it with the best.

He beat Stuart Bingham – who at the time was the reigning world champion – in an exhibition match in China last year.