At 46 years old, they assumed Rory McLeod’s best years to be behind him. At 54th in the world, and facing World Championship favourite Judd Trump, they believed he would be out of his depth.
But in defeating Trump 10-8 in a white-knuckle thriller at the Crucible, McLeod delivered the biggest – though not necessarily the best – performance of his career to complete one of the biggest shocks the grand old Sheffield venue has seen.
Trump, five-time finalist and twice winner in ranking tournaments already this season, was the overwhelming favourite against the oldest player in the first round draw. At 4-0 up, he seemed untouchable.
Yet McLeod, with nothing to lose, did not give up. It was ‘The Highlander’ who took the next five frames going into Wednesday’s morning session.
The second session was disjointed, often sluggish, mostly tactical, and incredibly tense viewing.
Both players missed simple shots. McLeod was guilty of overplaying the cue ball, Trump of playing himself into trouble and only on occasion playing himself out of it.
Trump went into the match complaining of a shoulder issue, but was still able to guide himself to victory in the opening frame of the day. The two were rarely seated during the opening exchanges, so little time did they have thanks to the paucity of sustained breaks.
The pair exchanged 33 breaks in the 12th frame, McLeod missing an attainable black and leaving the green open at pivotal points but Trump failing to punish the errors. At 20 and a half minutes, the frame would prove to be the quickest of the entire morning.
McLeod kicked the next frame off with a promising break of 19, but left the door open for Trump – yet the 2011 runner-up was unable to take advantage.
The match gave a tortoise-and-the-hare impression; Trump springing up eagerly to play his next shot, McLeod taking his sweet time at every opportunity.
McLeod had never ventured beyond the last 32 stage of the competition, and had been struggling with long pots and pressure shots. He needed both to pot an important blue, and did just that to make the score 7-6.
It was to get even better for McLeod. He was a picture of nerves throughout the 14th frame, remonstrating with himself, agonising over simple-looking pots. But pot them he did.
Trump refused to lie down though, and a timely 30 break helped him wrestle his way back into contention. Yet after the world number two missed the green, the momentum swung in another direction.
An important pink potted at the second time of asking sealed a two-frame advantage for the man from Northamptonshire.
Frame 15 would prove to be pivotal, and the tension on Table two at the Crucible was palpable. McLeod opened with a 14 break curtailed by fluffing a simple red, before Trump missed an effort of his own while inadvertently snookering his opponent.
A foul by Trump was balanced out by a fortunate pot caused by a ricochet off the cue ball minutes later, but an attempt to feather a red ended up missing its intended target entirely.
The frame was a drawn-out war of attrition, McLeod playing some excellent snookers and Trump expertly escaping them.
One McLeod snooker was too much for Trump to overcome, however, forcing a third foul. The frame had gone ten minutes without seeing a pot, and McLeod’s poor effort extended that wait. At last, Trump was able to rack up a small break, but poor shot selection saw the Players’ Championship champion snooker himself.
The tension became almost unbearable. First Trump missed the blue, then a McLeod safety almost saw the cue ball land in the middle pocket. Trump escaped one McLeod snooker attempt, but could not repeat the trick.
McLeod was gifted a straightforward shot at the blue, but inexplicably missed, and Trump was ruthless for the first time in the session.
It would also be the last time in the session. The mammoth frame, lasting 48 minutes and 29 seconds, had taken the game through to near the end of the session with the score at 8-7 to McLeod.
It was the outsider who seized the opportunity in the 16th frame, regaining a two-frame advantage with a superbly timed 66 break to end the session.
The pair would be forced to wait until the conclusion of Xiao Guodong’s win over Ryan Day to resume their tussle, the apprehension heightened, the tension racked up to fever pitch.
Trump struck first, reducing the deficit to one frame. Either he was to take it to a decider, or McLeod would have to finally put the tie to bed.
The rank outsider was nervy, overplaying his shots, struggling to line up the cue ball with his intended targets. Yet still he potted. The green nestled in the corner pocket twice. All eyes were on the cue ball, which nestled terrifyingly close to trouble.
Yet fate was on McLeod’s side. Trump, gifted an opportunity to get back into the game after what many thought would be a costly miss by the underdog, simply handed control of the frame back to his opponent.
McLeod was not worried about what people thought, nor had he been from frame one. The world number 54 kept his cool, carried himself over the line, and completed a victory that will be talked about for years to come.
Whether or not he can defeat Stephen Maguire on Saturday, McLeod can at least say he is the only person able to quell a Trumpian bid for domination this year.