Arrows hit television target
A nother New Year, another couple of world darts championships. And I love it. In fact, there are few sporting events which consistently give such good value to the viewer.
The first time I really became aware of televised darts was when the hitherto unknown Keith Deller beat Eric Bristow in the 1983 final. That made quite a splash because Bristow was a kind of Steve Davis figure in darts, an almost invincible player who'd set a new standard of excellence. For a brief spell back then it looked as though darts might even make the breakthrough into the mainstream like snooker had.
The breakthrough never really happened. But ever since then I've been watching darts world championships and my faith has been rewarded. I can still remember the excruciating tension of the 1992 final when Mike Gregory had Phil Taylor down and out only to miss double after double, six darts in all, for the title. Reprieved, Taylor came through in sudden death and has won another 13 world championships since. Gregory was fated never to win one.
I've seen few sporting events which for sheer visceral excitement rivalled the 2004 final between Taylor and Kevin Painter when the former came from 4-1 down to win 7-6 after another sudden death leg. And in recent years there was the 21-year-old Dutchman Jelle Klassen, a slight young man of Indonesian ancestry who looked more like a philosophy student than a darts player, coming from nowhere to win the 2006 BDO title, his countryman Raymond van Barneveld inflicting a sudden death victory on Taylor in the 2007 PDC final after perhaps the greatest darts match of all and the 2007 BDO final when Phil Nixon came from 6-0 down to tie 6-6 with Martin Adams before Adams won the last leg to become, at 50, the oldest man ever to win a world title.
It's over a decade and a half since the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) split from the BDO (British Darts Organisation). The PDC has better players, more money and above all Phil Taylor, the combined Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Henry Shefflin of the sport. Paradoxically, however, it's the very presence of Taylor, with 13 titles in 16 years, which renders the PDC the less interesting tournament. The BDO, with 11 different champions over the same period, has the advantage of unpredictability which gives it a greater appeal to the casual viewer.
There are plenty of people who would object that darts isn't a sport at all and point to the less-than-athletic cut of many of its leading practitioners. Yet while darts may not be physically demanding in the same way as athletics or football, the game at the top level is all about summoning the mental resilience to produce your best under pressure.
That's what makes it such an exciting television sport. Start watching a game, even if you have no real interest in the players taking part, and it's hard not to get involved if there's a close finish and the whole match comes down to one man trying to check out from 117 while his opponent needs, sorry 'requires', 99. Anyone with an interest in sport couldn't but be excited by last week's BDO quarter-final when Kevin Chisnall, 4-1 down to champion Ted Hankey, won the next four sets to come through 5-4.
One of the most appealing things about darts is that the game has made few concessions to television. It has remained loyal to its public and has changed little over the years. Darts still has players of a shape and size normally only seen on television in freak show programmes where people are being forced to lose weight by the SAS. And even when the BBC provide coverage, they have the good sense to employ Bobby George as analyst, a beguiling cross between East End Diamond Geezer and Zen Master who utters profound koans like "trebles for show, doubles for dough," while sporting enough male jewellery to set off every metal detector in Heathrow.
There is a family feeling about the championships. When the camera pans to the wives and girlfriends of the players during the action they have none of the self-conscious assurance and reserve of your typical WAG. Instead, they're shouting or shaking their fist or biting their nails or nervously gulping a large drink, sharing in the agony or the ecstasy. There are usually mothers, fathers and brothers there too. In fact, the whole event has a feeling of family and fraternity about it, an impression of a bond between players and audience which is rare these days in any sporting event.
The media is not normally kind to the people you see at the world darts championship. Some time in the Thatcher years television began to get a little embarrassed about the white working class and this process continued under New Labour. But this is the class from which most darts players come. Taylor was a sheet metal worker, Scott
Waites is still a carpenter, Painter and Colin Lloyd were builders, James Wade worked in a garage, Dennis Priestley was a coalman and Mark Webster is a plumber.
The crowd is made up of people who work at similar jobs. It is hard to imagine the sport ever making big inroads into the corporate middle class audience and darts is the better for it because it continues to embody the best qualities of the people it represents: a robust sense of humour, a community spirit and above all a complete lack of pretension. It inhabits the world delineated with great accuracy and affection by Peter Kay. Ted Hankey's entrance, dressed as Dracula, not to mention the variety of songs chosen by the players as walk-on anthems, is pure Peter Kay. But the walk-ons don't have the same portentous air that they do in boxing, they're more in the tradition of panto and the ITV wrestling spectacles of the '70s.
The only thing that would make my enjoyment complete would be the presence of an Irish player challenging for the title. Fermanagh's Brendan Dolan made the second round of the PDC competition while Derry's Daryl Gurney and Donegal's Martin McCloskey reached the same stage of the BDO Championships but we don't possess any member of the game's elite.
However, almost completely without publicity, Ireland have been making their mark at international level. Last September in the World Cup in North Carolina, for example, both the Republic and the North went all the way to the semi-finals while Limerick's Connie Finnan reached the last four of the singles.
Next year the World Cup takes place in Castlebar. Hopefully the game and our players will get the sponsorship they need to do something special on home ground, not least because it would be the perfect tribute to the great Tom Kirby.
Kirby was the closest we came to the holy grail of having an Irish player in a world championship decider. Back in 1994, he reached a quarter-final. In 2008, the Kildare man died of pancreatic cancer. He asked that his ashes be scattered on the beach at Tramore, perhaps the spiritual home of Irish darts because of its famous September tournament. His wish was carried out by his widow Ann and his old playing partner Jack McKenna.
Darts in this country has its heroes, its traditions and its rites, just like any bigger sport. That's why I hope that somewhere on an Irish oche there's a young lad setting off on a journey that will end in a final at the Alexandra Palace or Frimley Green, where his first three darts are accompanied by a shout of
. . . Ooooooooonnnnnne Hunnnn-nnnndred and eeeeeeeeeightyyyy.