Darts: 'You either have the hunger to work hard and succeed or you don't'
Ever since Roy Keane labelled him an 'ex-champion', Phil Taylor has won five more world titles. David Kelly meets the man who's still striving for success
Portrait of a Dartist as a middle-aged, contented man. "See the way some folk put their name on their flights? Well, you might as well put your bloody address on 'em as well, the way you're chuckin!"
Phil Taylor (51) 15-times world champion, multi-millionaire, is trying to teach another middle-aged, contented but rather less well-rewarded man the art of darts.
Mercifully, it's a rarity to confront a world-class sportsman with the mirror image of his body shape.
A bit like Dai Fat-Belly-Gut-Bucket from the 1980s sketch that has forever entwined the sport's image with supping ale and smoking fags, we explain that when it came to Beer Darts, we normally concentrated on the former, not the latter.
"It's like chucking a toy to your child," he motions. The easy, rhythmic grace with which he arrows another dart at treble 20 -- how many hundreds of thousands of times he has done so -- mocks those who mock him. And his sport.
Anything of a competitive nature, that involves hand-to-eye co-ordination and that can be advanced with practice is surely a sport. His brief master class has already inculcated some improvement -- from almost impaling one's foot after Taylor deigned to loan us one of his arrows, we're now flinging darts with consummate aplomb.
At the wall, it is fair to say. But the man they call 'The Power' makes it seem so easy. But then, that's what you expect from his sport's Tiger Woods. "There are thousands of living-room champions," Taylor avers.
Some would say that Taylor had the misfortune to ascend to the previously unassailable heights of his sport after its 1980s golden era, when the 'Crafty Cockney' wore more jewellery than BA Baracus and players could barely see the oche through cigarette smoke or because they were p****d as newts.
Taylor, who was set on his way to stardom by the aforementioned Cockney -- Eric Bristow -- who lent him £9,000 in 1985 to get started, has a rather different take. Darts has made his fortune. Over £3m in career earnings and rising, you can multiply that by at least three times to aggregate off-stage earnings and endorsements.
But he remains a working-class hero. A humility bequeathed by his father.
"I remember winning my first trophy," he recalls. "'Hey dad, look at this.' 'Shut up, don't want to know.' 'But I did well.' 'Yeah and I'm sick of hearing about it, get ready for the next one.'
"He'd ask me had I practised. 'I bet that John Lowe's practising. I bet Bristow's practising and not sat watching telly,' he would say."
His work ethic was forged initially as a teenaged apprentice electrician before a variety of jobs -- one involving the assembly of toilet handles -- ensured sloth was anathema to him.
"Ten minutes for brekkie, half an hour for lunch. I'd get £74 a week and give £70 to the missus. I still appreciate £50." To illustrate, they played a tournament last week which involved exactly that amount for winning a leg -- £50 a pop. Imagine Tiger Woods bunking in at your local club just to win the monthly medal.
Like Woods, Taylor has singularly transformed his sport in financial terms. Taylor knew that the booze-and-fags Bristow era couldn't last. It is difficult to ignore the irony that Bristow helped spawn a new era which would terminally kill his own.
"I thought I'd clean up when I saw them all," Taylor says. "I'm going to earn a fortune here! I knew they weren't like me. Bed at eight. Up at six. That's the hardest part for sportsmen nowadays. Getting all this money so fast. When I started, you had to win to get your money back. You had to perform. Nobody had my drive then. I've never met anybody who's had my drive."
Mention this and Adrian Gray comes to mind. He stunned Taylor in the first round of the 2007 World Grand Prix and was immediately hailed as the man who could finally switch off the 'Power'. Not so.
"He thought, 'that's it, I've arrived, I'm the best player on the planet,'" recalls Taylor with a confection of relish and regret. Gray has since returned to his former job.
He fits carpets. "And I buy 'em!"
Ask Taylor what shot produces the most pressure -- the final shot to secure a nine-dart finish (the equivalent of snooker's 147 maximum) or the one that wins a world title and, unusually, he pauses. Surely the world title means more?
"The first nine-dart," he replies. "Because there was £100,000 riding on that one. There's not so much pressure on them anymore (remarkably he had two in one match last year, almost a third) because there's no money in it. That's my fault as well..."
At this point, the press officer displays five fingers with his right hand. "Five grand?" asks Taylor, eyes lit. "Is it really? Very good..."
If money drives him so, it's only to ensure he stays as far away from his poverty-stricken childhood as possible. He accumulates properties -- some 16 at the last count -- to inoculate himself against unexpected penury.
His proudest moment was when he gave his parents the keys to a new house. No more begging letters from the council. Comfort at last where for a lifetime there had been none.
And still he drives on. "You've either got that hunger or you don't. It's like Roy Keane. You don't ask Roy what motivates him or he'd think you've just landed on the planet. That's why he'll never make a manager. Nobody else thinks like him."
He met Keane at Old Trafford once. Alex Ferguson had been keen to introduce his squad to a variety of champions. So Taylor, admittedly a Port Vale fan, pitches up with giddy excitement at Carrington.
Fergie introduces his captain. "Phil Taylor, Roy, world champion." Keane glances up from his weights. "Ex-champion," sniffs Keane. He was right. For eight years straight, from 1995 to 2002, Taylor was champion. But not in 2003. He never forgot. He's won five more titles since.
"Sometimes you need to get beaten," he says now. "When you win all the time, you become complacent. Getting your arse smacked, you have to do it again. But I never question myself because I always know why I've lost."
Apart from selfishly having darts re-instituted as a hobby rather than a sport -- "I wouldn't have to pay tax on half my fricking earnings then" -- there is little left for Taylor to achieve.
Any particular advice for young players, as opposed to middle-aged, pot-bellied hacks? "Get two bank accounts -- 50pc for the taxman, 50pc for yourself. You know where you are then."
Watch live and exclusive coverage from the World Grand Prix Darts Tournament at Citywest Dublin on Sky Sports HD this week or catch all the action on the go with Sky Go for laptops, tablets and iOS devices.