Friday 24 January 2020

Ewan MacKenna: 'Darts' appeal lies in fun and integrity'

Game of the people is a real and relatable alternative to sports besmirched by grime

Jack McKenna makes his way to the oche for the Paddy Power World Grand Prix 2002 at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile
Jack McKenna makes his way to the oche for the Paddy Power World Grand Prix 2002 at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Jack McKenna always caught the eye, even though so many never looked past his opponent.

In the shadow of Paul Lim at the 1990 world championship, he was standing on the shoulder of the first nine-darter in the tournament's history, lost to the background of a magic moment with a green shirt too big for his slender frame, and that was badly in need of an iron too.

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On the first week of what's suddenly become the last decade, travelling to Newbridge to meet him, he was trying to rid himself of a chest infection beside the fire. Sitting there, to pass the time he started to unpack his mind of its many memories.

Having never drank, he recalled clearly how he had the best seat in the house at the maddest of shows.

He spoke of how, with his team coming back from a match in Dundalk one weekend, and at a time when the drink-driving warning on the pub wall would suggest you might have had enough at four, the clutch went on the minibus and they sent one of the players out front to warn oncoming traffic as they pushed it up the road.

Only a bypasser thought they were trying to run him over, called the authorities and gardaí intervened nearer to Drogheda.

Waiting his turn against Phil Taylor at the Citywest Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Waiting his turn against Phil Taylor at the Citywest Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images)

He recalled how he could beat Jocky Wilson, but only in the mornings when his opponent had the shakes.

There was his Ireland team-mate Charlie Byrne who had a habit of following his last dart and one night caught a toe on the oche, grabbed the wall and pulled the stage down.

Alan Evans, who he had to stop throwing darts at a fan in London that had a board tattooed on his back for fear a bullseye would mean the spine. And Andy Fordham who would be regularly seen carrying a crate of beer to his room in the hours before games to calm down.

We laughed. It's a simple sentiment but how often can you say that about so much of sport today?

Glamorise

This isn't to glamorise how drinking was tied to the game at a time when the Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch about Dai 'FatBelly' Gutbucket and Tommy 'EvenFatterBelly' Beltcher touched a nerve. But it's to understand where it came from and, what it was fuelled by. It's also to contrast and highlight the extent of the amazing shift that has taken place since.

By evening in 2010, McKenna said he didn't miss it because he was there for the best of it. It was the only thing we disagreed on. For all the giddy stories, those behind such stories couldn't keep on living that way.

Wilson died broke and a recluse in a council house, Evans died younger after kidney problems ruined what should have been the good years, and Fordham was 42 when a doctor told him that 75 per cent of his liver was useless and the other 25 per cent was in particularly bad shape.

It wasn't just that though, for darts had to evolve beyond the smoky backrooms of local halls as there was no way that version could have found a prominent place on the modern map.

In doing that though it's become one of the great successes in this sphere. It's not been easy either, considering how snooker stripped away a character-driven competition and was left with nothing as it failed to evolve and to catch enough imaginations.

After it's halcyon days it's merely survived whereas the PDC has solely thrived and then thrived some more.

There are those who still ridicule darts and refuse to consider it a sport, who attach jaded old barbs about a boozed-up room cheering on those whose size means they could never be athletes.

That's unfair, as for many consumers, it's forced itself into a seat at the Christmas table, sitting comfortably alongside a crowded Premier League programme and a sprinkling of rugby interprovincials. That seemed like an impossible position not so long ago.

The key ingredient was so simple though and one missing in so many other arenas. It's fun.

There's only so much you can keep highlighting the ills of big business and human nature that have crept up and crawled over so many other areas. It's an exhausting experience trying to bang the drum over and over around the most obvious wrongs and to try and push for the most basic of rights.

Grip

Nike's grip on athletics and the pass they continue to get. Manchester City and their owners' real reason for having a team that good.

Dublin continuing to live the lie and pretending money doesn't matter.

It's all been tainted if not outright ruined.

Indeed, perhaps the entire FAI saga perfectly encapsulates a chunk of professional sport for it's not really about the sport at all. Instead it's about Shane Ross and his goose, about John Delaney and his expenses, about Deloitte and their free pass. A game being used as a front for a whole lot of other wants and needs.

But even the most moral of crusaders get tired.

This is where we shack up as it provides the most brilliant of breaks.

An earthy and pure innocence; something that's accessible, relatable and real.

In fact it's so much more than fancy dress costumed on the lash, for a hefty chunk can recall and identify with the lost voice of Sid Waddell, with Raymond van Barneveld breaking down a door, with Lim nearly doing it again although this time without McKenna behind him, with Michael van Gerwen throwing 17 perfect arrows in succession.

You watch that very last moment and tell us that it's not sporting brilliance and genius.

This World Championships have been more of the same. From a wave of Irish threatening a breakthrough to Fallon Sherrock showing it's not the working class game of men, but a game of the people.

There's plenty of time across the year to get into the dirt and the grime of sport.

It can wait for a little longer.

Today, instead, is about what sport should and can be.

Irish Independent

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