The most wonderful time of the year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so Andy Williams, Twiggy and Antonio Banderas keep reminding us. And for a darts fan, they’re not wrong. From December 17th the two world championships span twenty-one days stretching into mid-January. This is darts annual moment in the ever-increasing spotlight.

The thirty-first British Darts Organisation (BDO) tournament kicks off on 5th January, with Frimley Green once again the venue. The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) have finally said goodbye to the Circus at Purfleet, trumping the BDO with a location that not only looms large over the manor of Olly Croft, but which may have a fair claim to be the true ‘home of world darts’. Having been put through its paces with the Premier League earlier in the year, darts is being brought, full circle, back to Alexandra Palace in North London. Memories of the days when dishy Diana Dors doled out the prizes to the winner of the historic News of the World tournament will remain forever in the shadows as new legends are created.

As usual, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor starts as favourite, but this time only narrowly ahead of reigning world champion Raymond Van Barneveld. A repeat of last year’s classic final is anticipated by many, but the gap between these two colossi and the rest has narrowed significantly in the last twelve months. James Wade has won two majors, Terry ‘Tucker’ Jenkins has reached four televised finals (losing them all), and Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis must surely soon make the step up from exciting newcomer to actual contender. Kevin ‘The Artist’ Painter will want to show that his run to the final in 2004 was no fluke, at some point Wayne ‘Hawaii’ 501 Mardle will translate his recent form away from the TV cameras onto the small screen, and Andy ‘Hammer’ Hamilton showed he too can play in front of an audience with his high quality run to the final of the recent Grand Slam of Darts. Add in the ever-competitive double world champion John Part, the unpredictable Peter Manley, and newcomers to this competition Jelle Klaasen, Vincent Van der Voort and Mervyn King, and the tournament has a tasty feel about it – and that’s before even considering the predictably unpredictable upsets and the one or two plucky qualifiers who will still be in the tournament long after the turkey sandwiches have been demolished.

Of the two giants, Barneveld has by far the tougher draw, seeded from round three to play Painter (assuming he puts out the talented but perennially self-destructive Chris Mason), then Lewis, only to set up a possible semi-final with Wade or Part. The Dutchman will have an off-day at some point, and may well say ‘Vaarwel’ to his trophy to one of these four, leaving them to battle amongst themselves for a final place.

Taylor’s route looks considerably easier, although King or Mardle may be ready to prove something should they meet in the quarters. Terry Jenkins dispatched The Power with surprising ease in the semi-final of the World Matchplay, but, as long as he can squeeze past the precocious talents of Michael Van Gerwen in his opening clash, it would be a major surprise were Taylor not to extend his extraordinary record of appearing in every PDC World Championship Final. Win or lose, what odds a Taylor retirement announcement at some point, hastily withdrawn a few weeks later, of course?

The opening rounds may also be key over at the Lakeside. Following a brilliant 2007 Gary Anderson starts as firm favourite, and it is hard to fathom who could challenge him in the later longer rounds now that everyone – including himself and number three seed Scott Waites – knows that he can play in front of a large British television audience. Perhaps rank outsider Fabian Roosenbrand will make a name for himself against the Scotsman in his opening match. More likely, however, Anderson’s toughest test will be in round two against the Wizard of Oz, Simon Whitlock – surely a good enough player to one year string together enough quality performances to become the second Australian World Champion.

Talking of which, it’s good to see Tony David back at the tournament he won in 2002, stuck in an upper half of the draw which is something of a mystery. Top seed Mark Webster will be looking to become a household name, but any of Fitton, Robson, Walton, O’Shea and Greatbach are experienced and talented enough to put together a run to the final, as is Robert Thornton, recent winner of the Winmau World Masters. And Martin Adams, the only man to play in every BDO World Championship since the big split, will surely make easier weather of Phill Nixon when their first round clash repeats last years final.

For the first time in the women’s tournament (note to Wimbledon: if darts can call them women, isn’t it about time your ‘ladies’ received a re-brand?) reigning and undefeated world champion Trina Gulliver is not seeded number 1. If she can drag herself away from signing copies of her autobiography, however, ‘The Golden Girl’ will still be strongly fancied on a Lakeside stage which her main rivals, notably Francis Hoenselaar, have previously struggled to come to terms with.

Stuff Christmas. In four weeks there are just seven days on which world championship darts are not being played. It should be possible to find something else to do on 25th December and the two Eve’s, and the three day gap between the tournaments will be just enough time to stock the fridge and discuss the differences between Sid and Bobby, before facing the tension of those opening day matches all over again.

The anti-climax that will be Monday 14th January – no darts to watch, and eleven months before the next most wonderful time of the year – looms small on the horizon. But that’s for then. For now, let the chucking begin.

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