Monday 20 May 2019

Obituary: Eric Bristow

Dominant but divisive darts player known for his skill and his swagger

DOUBLE TOP: Eric Bristow in 1983 with his little finger cocked
DOUBLE TOP: Eric Bristow in 1983 with his little finger cocked

Eric Bristow, who has died of a heart attack aged 60, was the dominant darts player of the 1980s, regarded as the greatest then seen and instrumental in turning the game into a mass spectator sport.

In an era when competitors still smoked and drank on live television, Bristow, who had been a teenage prodigy, won the World Championships in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985 and 1986. He also finished runner-up four times in that period and was victorious on five occasions at the World Masters.

"When Alexander of Macedon was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer," observed the commentator Sid Waddell of his world title victory in 1984. "Bristow's only 27."

Such hyperbole was apposite to the swagger with which Bristow carried himself.

His technique was formidable, rendered distinctive by his crooking his little finger while he threw. Waddell thought Bristow the best 'counter' in the game too, able to work out the combinations he needed to score without interrupting his rhythm. Nor did he allow himself more than a few sips of a pint when at the oche, or throw line.

Yet what singled Bristow out was his ability to cope with pressure - and to pile it on to his opponents, such as Jocky Wilson, John Lowe, Bobby George and Cliff Lazarenko, before seizing the decisive moment. "I have two bowls of confidence for breakfast each morning," agreed Bristow. This translated into his cocky persona of the "Crafty Cockney", a nickname borrowed from a bar in Los Angeles that he had visited.

The bar's commemorative shirts, emblazoned with a Union flag and the image of a British bobby, became his trademark, as did his sunburnt features, with his Greek nose and curled nostrils not unlike that of Alexander, his bleached hair and caustic put-downs.

Bristow was a divisive figure, especially early in his career. Scottish crowds would jeer and pelt him with cans of McEwan's lager.

All of this, of course, was theatre, and Bristow's rivalries made for compelling viewing at a time when television was seeking cheap fodder for its schedules. Darts took hold of the public consciousness for the first time - the Bullseye game show hosted by Jim Bowen was created because of the sport's new popularity - and made Bristow a fortune.

It therefore came as a shock, not least to Bristow's self-esteem, when at the 1986 Swedish Open he began to suffer from "dartitis", the sport's equivalent of golfer's yips, leading to a player being unable to release his darts when he wants. Although he regained his No 1 world ranking for a record sixth time in 1990, and in 1993 was among those who broke from the game's ruling body to set up the Professional Darts Corporation, he was never again the same force.

Bristow's decline was in part self-inflicted. In the mid-1980s, he began to mentor -and to fund - Phil Taylor, who had decided to give up making chain handles for lavatories after seeing Bristow on stage and believing that he could do better.

Soon he could - usurping Bristow's status as the best darts player in history. He defeated Bristow in the semi-finals of the 1997 World Championship, ushering in Bristow's retirement from the major tournaments. The two men hardly spoke for some years thereafter.

In recent years, Bristow had mellowed, however, enjoying what his ability and dedication had brought him. "My philosophy is that you've got to enjoy life while you can," he said in 2011. "There's not much point in being the richest man in the graveyard."

Eric John Bristow was born in Hackney, East London, on April 25, 1957. His father, George, was a plasterer and his mother, Pam, worked as a telephonist. He grew up in Stoke Newington, often making the pilgrimage with his father to see Arsenal play at Highbury, though Eric in fact was a Chelsea fan. His sporting idol was Muhammad Ali.

Despite being bright enough to win a place at Hackney Downs Grammar School, Eric could be a tearaway and had occasional scrapes with the police. His father was an avid player of pub games such as cribbage - Eric may have inherited his arithmetical abilities from him - and tried to interest his son in many different sports.

Then, he bought Eric a dartboard for his 11th birthday. Soon the youngster was keeping his parents up at night with the sound of his practising. "I thrashed all my mates, but I didn't realise how good I was until my dad took me to the local pub one Sunday when I was 14," he recalled. "I went home with my pockets full of change."

His first job, at 15, was as a proofreader for an advertising agency in the City, at £14 per week, but he made 10 times that by winning darts events against adults at the weekend. By 1979, he was the subject of a short film, Arrows, released in cinemas to accompany the Bob Hoskins drama The Long Good Friday.

After retiring from competitive darts in 2007, Bristow became familiar to a younger generation of darts fans as a forthright commentator on Sky. He was a contestant in the 2012 series of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! He was sacked, however, after suggesting on social media that victims of the paedophile football coach Barry Bennell should have "sorted him out" when they grew up.

"Darts players tough guys footballers wimps," he wrote, leading to a storm of protest. Bristow subsequently apologised, saying that it was a case of "live by the sword, die by the sword".

Yet with his endorsements from darts manufacturers, he made a good living, though his was not an extravagant way of life. He acknowledged that he was a spender rather than a saver and had just a modest two-bedroom house near Leek, Staffordshire.

His indulgence was holidays, often to Las Vegas, which he visited more than 50 times, and where he once won $17,000 on a fruit machine. He was appointed MBE in 1989.

Between 1978 and 1987, Bristow was in a relationship with Maureen Flowers, the former leading female darts player. He was then married, in 1989, to Jane, but they were divorced in 2005 shortly after he was acquitted at trial of having punched her in the face when drunk.

Latterly he had been helping his girlfriend Becky Gadd to run a cattery; the pair had met at a Bullseye roadshow.

He is survived by a son and a daughter.


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