Saturday 21 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Growing international appeal of darts could be hampered by Brexit boost to xenophobia'

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Willie O'Connor. Photo: PA
Willie O'Connor. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The World Darts Championship has been a bit different so far this year. It's been different in a good way because there's significant Irish interest, largely thanks to Willie O'Connor, the 32-year-old Limerick man who became the first player from this country to win two games at a world finals when he beat England's James Wilson 3-2 on Wednesday.

Number 26 seed Wilson reached the quarter-finals of the World Grand Prix in Dublin just two months ago and was hotly fancied to beat O'Connor. Yet the manner in which O'Connor battled back from one set down and overcame the disappointment of missing a dart for the match in the fourth set show the Cappamore player is made of stern stuff.

It's been some year for O'Connor who in September beat world number one Michael van Gerwen 6-1 in the Dutch Championship. He could have been joined in the last 32 by Steve Lennon but the Carlow player was edged out 3-2 in a tie-break after a nerve-racking battle against number 25 seed Alan Norris. Lennon will probably feel that he left this one behind him after missing two match darts and throwing first in the tie-break, but his time will come again.

Now to the vexed question of what connection we have to the Northern Irish players in the competition. Derry's Daryl Gurney is number five seed after all but there's been little talk about the prospect of an Irish victory, perhaps because Gurney comes from a community which tends to regard itself as British.

Yet we should perhaps take a leaf from the book of Gurney's Northern Ireland international team-mate Brendan Dolan who's said, "There are no boundaries really. I am lucky to have fans from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and regardless of where I am playing in Ireland I always get such a nice welcome. There are no boundaries really. I support any darts players from north or south." So should we all. We were quick enough to lay claim to George Best and Alex Higgins in their day.

Dolan, whose home town of Belcoo could hardly be closer to the border, swept number 14 seed Joe Cullen of England in double quick time in the second round, hitting the championship's first 170 finish along the way.

The 45-year-old Fermanagh man considered quitting the game eight years ago before turning around his career by reaching the 2011 World Grand Prix final, where he lost to Phil Taylor. In the semi-final Dolan had achieved the rare feat of a televised nine dart finish.

His opponent in that semi was James Wade who's made the championship different in a bad way. Struggling against Japanese outsider Seigo Asada, Wade shouted into his opponent's ear after levelling the match at 2-2. Afterwards, grinning like a prize fool, Wade said that he "wanted to hurt him. I wanted to hurt him in the face," before declaring, "That's for my son and also for the UK."

Given the amount of drink being consumed the championship has always seemed a remarkably good humoured affair but Wade's behaviour and comments introduce a nasty jingoistic streak to the proceedings. With the tensions resulting from Brexit it's perhaps not surprising that there's been an increase in this kind of thing at football grounds lately.

It would be a pity to see darts go the same way, not least because one of the features of the championship in recent years has been the increased prominence of players from outside these islands, reflecting the game's growing international appeal. There was, for example, a real heart-warmer on Tuesday when the first Lithuanian to compete in the champonships, Darius Labanauskas, shocked former world champ Raymond van Barneveld.

Wade apologised on Thursday morning but didn't take responsibility. He blamed his behaviour on an episode of 'hypomania' due to the depression he's spoken about suffering from in the past.

That won't wash. People have struggled for a long time to have mental health issues taken seriously. Seeing them used as a get out of jail card by brats doesn't help the cause. Wade's statement isn't very different from the old 'I mixed drink and tablets' number long used as an excuse in District Court assault cases. It seems a tad convenient that this 'hypomania' enabled him to gain an advantage by intimidating his opponent. And it's news to me that aggressive xenophobia is a side effect of depression.

But who knows?

Maybe they've all got hypomania over there.

The Last Word: Arrival of Clarke has Killies humming again

Kilmarnock have been the big revelation of Scottish football this year. A storming finish to last season saw Steve Clarke receive Manager of the Year honours and they've kicked on this term, spending time at the top of the table. At the time of writing they're third, just two points behind Celtic.

Two Irish midfielders have been almost ever-present for Killies. Former UCD and Brighton player Gary Dicker, 32, has been starring alongside fellow journeyman and former Irish under 21 international Alan Power who'd spent six seasons in the Conference Premier with Lincoln City before signing for Kilmarnock.

It's an unexpected spell in the limelight for both players and a club which before the arrival of former West Brom boss Clarke had gone through eight managers in as many years.

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Niall Moyna is both a highly intelligent man and one unafraid to speak his mind. So when the man who's steered DCU to four Sigerson Cup titles and coached some of the country's best young footballers says, "You couldn't pay me to watch a game of football. I couldn't watch it," it's another wake up call for a game which hasn't been short of them this year.

The new rules currently being trialled at inter-county level are a step towards making the game more attractive but even that seems to be too much for the likes of Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney and Carlow manager Turlough O'Brien who've been whinging about the changes already.

Moyna doesn't have much time for such complaints. "Of course there is resistance. Always the same people, the inter-county managers. Let's give it a try because what's there isn't working. Look at the attendances this year. That's all you have to look at. You couldn't pay people to go. Giving away tickets and people still wouldn't go."

Let the battle for the soul of Gaelic football commence.

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The news that Ladbrokes paid £1 million to five victims of fraud by a problem gambler on the condition that they "agree not to bring any complaint or make any report to any regulator in relation to the claim," underlines the extent to which the big gambling companies seem to be out of control.

This pay-off would have remained a secret had the gambler himself not informed the UK's Gambling Commission. Ladbrokes had offered the man free tickets to Arsenal games, a place in the company's box at Royal Ascot and return flights from Dubai, where he worked for a property business, in order to keep him on the hook. There may be some ethical difference between this kind of behaviour and that of drug dealers but I'm not seeing it.

It beggars belief that while tobacco sponsorship of sport is illegal, gambling companies are allowed to turn events into billboards for themselves. Someone needs to shout stop. These people are jackals feasting on human weakness.

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