Luck of the throw proves elusive
Colin McGarry knows just how hard it is to mix it with darts' big boys at the 'Ally Pally', writes John O'Brien
THAT time of year again. The world stepping gingerly to the oche for its annual festival of noise and colour, Christmas itself almost an interlude to the main event now, the wholesome meat in a tungsten sandwich. For three weeks the crowds will make their way to a grand building in north London, affectionately known as the 'Ally Pally', where they'll squiggle messages on small cardboard placards and wave them hopefully at the camera while periodically rising out of their seats to proclaim how much they love the darts.
It is a love that is being lavished in ever-increasing proportions. When Phil Taylor eased past his former nemesis, Raymond van Barneveld, in the 2013 semi-final, their joust attracted a larger audience on Sky Sports than either of the two Premier League fixtures screened that day. This time around, with feverish anticipation of a climax involving Taylor and Van Barneveld's insanely talented Dutch compatriot, Michael van Gerwen, the viewing figures are expected to eclipse England's efforts to retain the Ashes. Nobody deems it much of a contest really.
The PDC World Championship is big business now. In London, the 72 remaining players will play to divvy up a prize fund in excess of €1m between them, the winner skipping merrily away with a quarter of the pot. With 16 world titles already to his name, Taylor will be seeking to add to the €6m career earnings he has already pocketed. Van Gerwen is just 24 but recently purchased his second home.
And, yet, it would be a grave mistake to assume the sport confers such lavish wealth on all those blessed with the opportunity to throw under the heat and glare of television lights. Outside the tight confines of the top dozen or so, perhaps, the brutal reality remains a life of constant travel around Britain, Europe and, increasingly, the world, hoping for the tournament victory that might attract the sponsorship deal that could, in turn, make the difference between full-time professional status and the need to find a steady job.
Next Friday, Colin McGarry will leave his home in Larne on the north Antrim coast and, with three mates in tow, make the hopeful journey to the Ally Pally. The following afternoon he faces a tough preliminary-round contest against the Dane, Per Laursen, for the right to face the 17th seed, Terry Jenkins, in the first round proper later that day. Survive three matches and his prize is the privilege of being cannon fodder for Taylor and a guaranteed cheque of just shy of €25,000, all told a decent week's work for the 48-year-old plasterer.
It's not McGarry's first time on darts' biggest stage. Back in 2004, when the tournament still called the Circus Tavern in Purfleet home, he qualified for the finals, won two games and fell into Taylor's orbit. "It's a hard situation," he says, reflecting on the memory. "He's full-time, the best player in the world. You're an amateur, or maybe semi-pro at best. You just resolve to do your best and come off happy with how you performed."
Sparring with the world No 1 wasn't a springboard, though, to a fruitful life on the pro circuit. In 2008, McGarry made a small ripple at the Grand Slam of Darts in Wolverhampton, beating Mark Webster – then world champion of the rival BDO organisation – before defeats to Van Gerwen and Mark Dudbridge stopped him in his tracks. Not too shabby, he thinks, for a guy who was merely "messing about" at the time.
"I wasn't taking it very seriously at the time," he says. "I was playing a lot of golf, competing in the top amateur tournaments. I set myself a target of getting down to a plus handicap and I achieved that. I played a bit of darts on Friday nights, just to keep my hand in. But now I'm back playing every day and playing well. I feel that on my day, I'm capable of beating anyone."
McGarry has never felt that the gap between him and those high up on the rankings ladder was insurmountable. He is friendly with the likes of Jenkins and Paul Nicholson who always encouraged him to stick at it. The problem, inevitably, is money. Or more specifically, the lack of it. Negotiating an increasingly global circuit is a tough and expensive business when you have a young family to feed and, right now, Brendan Dolan, the world's No 16, is the only Irish player on the full-time PDC circuit.
Dolan, a 40-year-old from Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, got his big break two years ago when he reached the final of the World Grand Prix in Dublin where he fell to Taylor. "That was Brendan's chance," says McGarry, "and he took it. He'd had a tough time getting there. But he hung at it and hung at it. The biggest thing was mental. He always knew he was good enough."
Knowing you're good enough and bridging the divide are two different matters, though. It's easy to ask why a country with so many pubs per capita has produced so few top-class darts players given how the sport has never quite shaken off its somewhat unfair portrayal as a glorified pub game. It's not for lack of numbers anyway. Even if the recession has taken a toll, the number of people playing darts in this country remains huge.
Michael O'Sullivan knows the question is coming before you ask it. Every year as the World Championship approaches, he knows his phone will start humming with messages from proud dads eager to tell him about their prodigious offspring. "Emails, text messages, fellas stopping me in the street," he says laughing. "My young fella will be the next Phil Taylor, he got 10 maximums in practice last week. That kind of stuff."
Although he has witnessed an explosion in the numbers playing the game, O'Sullivan doesn't think the landscape has changed appreciably. Back in the day when there was one World Championship, one organising body, they came to the Lakeside every year and, occasionally, an Irishman like Jack McKenna or John Joe O'Shea would make a splash and get to the second round. It was as hard then, he believes, as it is now.
"You'd have 32 players at the Lakeside for the finals. But there are at least 32,000 players in England, Scotland and Wales thinking they're every bit as good as them. There's a huge population in those countries playing the game. You need luck to make a breakthrough. You need proper sponsorship. The game has come on now. The standard is getting higher all the time."
O'Sullivan, from Ballyvolane in Co Cork, is a life-long darts fan and the organiser of the Tom Kirby Memorial Irish Matchplay Championship from which McGarry emerged in October to claim his place at the Ally Pally. In 1981, O'Sullivan was one of the founder members of the Irish National Darts Organisation which administers the sport in the 26-county south, but quit some time back over what he diplomatically calls "political issues".
Clearly, Irish darts lacks a strong central axis. Outside of the INDO, the likes of O'Sullivan and Joe Coyne from Kilkenny run their own events, giving players more opportunities for tournament play. Coyne runs the Irish Darts Championship, staged over nine months, with the grand finals in Enfield in June and says the appetite is there. In 2010, when he got TG4 on board for the All-Ireland Championship, the viewing figures were impressive, out-performing Greyhound View which was the station's minority flagship at the time.
For Coyne, the problem for Irish players is a lack of competition. It's no coincidence, he thinks, that the majority of Irish players who make an impact hail from the north. The sport is better structured there, designed to get players performing at a higher level. "One of the things they do is pick players on averages," he says, "whereas here we tend to pick on [League] points. It's too confined here. Players get limited exposure to top-class competition."
In one sense, the path Irish darts needs to follow now seems obvious. While not completely abandoning its traditional pub base, to have any hope of developing it desperately needs to branch out. That is how it happens across Europe right now where the likes of Van Gerwen crop up as teenage prodigies who are then nurtured and supported until they are ready to cut loose on the professional circuit, with an increasingly devastating impact.
And maybe that process has already made a tentative beginning. Coyne looks around and sees a glut of young talent: Liam Gallagher in Galway, John Seagrave in Dublin, Dean Finn in Waterford. Finn is the name on everybody's lips right now. Last year the 16-year-old reached the finals of the World Youth Championships, losing to the eventual winner, and turned heads when he swept to the final of a pro event in Kerry, going down 6-4 to Dolan.
The young players need support, though. They need sponsorship, a little leg-up when the heat rises and they find themselves in a tough spot. Encouragingly, Coyne sees evidence of it happening. He knows of a contingent in Drogheda who train together and travel as a group to tournaments. He's heard of an academy being established in Laois where talented kids as young as 12 can play and practise outside of the pub environment. Little stories that carry offshoots of hope.
Next week he'll help his fellow Kilkenny man, Michael Meaney, in his preparations for the BDO World Championships in the first week of the new year. In Shirley's Bar in Kells, just south of the city, he'll set up a stage just like the Lakeside and shine a halogen lamp on the oche to replicate the heat of the venue. As little as possible will be left to chance.
But still there's life in the old dogs yet. McGarry looks ahead now and surveys his chances of making a splash at the Ally Pally. Laursen, the highest-rated player in Scandinavia, presents a stiff opening test, and in a quickfire, best of seven legs format, he knows a quick start is vital. "Not the worst draw," he shrugs. "Not the best either. It is what it is."
Since beating Connie Finnan, world No 63, at the CityWest in October to book his place in London, McGarry has secured over €1,000 in sponsorship from local sources, enough to get him to the Ally Pally with a bit left over for the PDC Q-school in Wigan next month where more than 200 players will pay €275 for the privilege of chasing one of the 25 available two-year exemptions on the Pro Tour. "I'm a better player now than I was in 2004," McGarry says, bubbling with confidence. "We'll see what happens."
Still chasing the dream. Still in love with the darts.