Friday 15 December 2017

Beer and betting pave the way to freedom for Ally Pally faithful

They deal in the unvarnished at the Alexandra Palace. And the truth is out there. The final takes place today but the finalists are not as important as the process. There is a union between the spectators and the players at the Ally Pally. They are united in their desires and needs which are simple. The spectators scrawl their basic messages to the folks back home on the cards handed out and wave them at the cameras. "This is better than my wedding night," one card read as the crowd enjoyed the classic encounter between James Wade and Andy Hamilton.

That man -- of course it was a man -- may have been making a wry observation. He may have been noting that as the chances of marriages failing increases exponentially, weddings have got bigger and bigger. It is as if the couple are saying, "Look at these swans, this orchestra, these chariots -- on the top of a Peruvian mountain. After this, what could possibly go wrong?"

The dispossessed and the disenfranchised are at the Ally Pally. Some time last week was spent broadcasting testimonials from sportsmen to Phil Taylor. Despite the words of Freddie Flintoff and Steven Gerrard, there are those who are unconvinced. Taylor is not one of them.

When the Power turns on the television and hears Wayne Dudbridge or Alan Tabern say that the great thing about winning your first-round match is that you can enjoy your Christmas, he knows he has nothing to fear.

For Phil, Christmas is not enjoyed in the traditional sense. He gets his enjoyment from knowing that his rivals are enjoying themselves. He takes pleasure knowing that they are eating and drinking in the festive manner. In some ways he carries the traditional Christian message of Christmas.

Taylor knows that the more they celebrate Christmas, the greater the chance of another Taylor world championship.

He would have shook his head knowingly when the former world champion John Part lost last Monday. Part had gone home to his native Canada for Christmas and returned the day before his second-round game. There was a time when a man would have several reasons for looking as pale and drawn as Part did standing on the oche a few days after Christmas, but now they talked openly of Part's jetlag, questioning his dedication.

The Power can never be questioned and it is one of the reasons he has a connection with the crowd who, in the Alexandra Palace, show some commitment themselves.

I am thinking, in particular, of the men who travelled in the days before the Palace rose for its Christmas recess. The transport experts were insisting that nobody travelled unless it was absolutely necessary. These men would see a day at the Ally Pally, spending some quality time away from their family, as a vital exercise, certainly on a par with a taxi driver battling through snow drifts to deliver blood.

They, too, were alleviating some human suffering or, at least, alleviating their own suffering temporarily as they frolicked in the cavernous arena, dancing their magic dance. The darts was mediocre with the organisers perhaps rightly thinking that there would be some who would be too distracted by family commitments to concentrate on the darts on the day before Christmas Eve.

Those who were there didn't care. They would see those who travelled after Christmas as dilettantes, thinking that anyone can give a day up to drinking after Christmas when the hard work is done, but it takes a lot more commitment to tear yourself away from your family during the hectic preparations and make your way through the snow to the Ally Pally.

Once they got there, they found a big sign with an even bigger arrow above one of the exits at the Ally Pally. It says 'Beer and Betting Shop' and they swarm out under it, participating fully, obeying orders and doing as is directed. There is no need for the sign, I think they'd find them somehow.

These scenes undoubtedly caused distress to the health and safety brigade who would view the average darts fan and their appetites as an accident waiting to happen at the best of times, let alone when it's nine below zero and 3.0 in the afternoon.

It was not just the spectators who showed commitment. The Dutch darter Vincent van der Voort had to take a ferry from Holland when his flight was cancelled and then walk the final three miles to the Ally Pally. He certainly wasn't going back home for Christmas.

You are obliged to look beyond the superficial with these darters, mainly because the superficial is an appalling collision of acrylic and plastic. Some of them try to swagger as they accompany what can only be called the dolly bird to the oche. Darts may be the only sport where you would be surprised to hear that the top professionals were sleeping with these models. They have the sexual menace and danger of a human resources manager at a kitchenware suppliers in Sutton Coldfield trying to crash a swingers' party in Walsall.

Darts has big ambitions, a dream of broadening its global appeal. "It's a real World Championships this year," somebody remarked at one point, "with two men from Stoke through to the quarter-final." The only way is up.

It will be with Barry Hearn running things. Hearn was behind the move to the Ally Pally from the intimate and ferocious Circus Tavern in Essex, a place with a host of ghosts.

Hearn will be pleased with the progress of the Australian Whitlock. Darts could catch on in Australia with its promise of booze and betting and beating the poms, but the spiritual home will always be the Ally Pally or wherever they gather for their Christmas rituals.

"You don't get this in Holland," Co Stompe, the Dutch challenger remarked as he pointed at the crowd below him, dancing, drinking and believing that everything was going to be alright. The permissive society has its benefits but in the Ally Pally they think they have found true freedom.

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