Another year over…

Three World Championship finals in eight days and another year of darts was over. Already, however, a new one had just begun.

A couple of hours before Ted Hankey had finally hit double 10 at the Lakeside to see off the likeable Tony ‘Silverback’ O’Shea, up in Doncaster Lloyd had brushed off Osborne in the battle of the Colin’s at the first PDC UK Open Final of the Year.

The PDC big guns chose not to make the journey to Doncaster. After their performances a week earlier, Phil Taylor, Raymond Van Barneveld and James Wade took the weekend off. They were probably amongst the three million BBC2 viewers watching Hankey join Jocky Wilson and Dennis Priestley in a select group of players to have won exactly two world championships.

Taylor has now won fourteen – including twelve out of the sixteen the PDC has held. This victory was emphatic, with his 111 average in the final unprecedented. The 7-1 victory over Van Barneveld was as comprehensive as it sounds – even if, from 2-1 ahead, four of the last five sets went to the deciding leg.

Barneveld sounded like a broken man afterwards. “Beating this man, I don’t know what to do. Practicing ten hours a day is not enough I think…”. But Barney will be back, refreshed, and mentally ready to challenge Taylor once again. Indeed, he’ll look back on the tournament as a success – 2008 was not a great year for the Dutchman, so securing his world number 2 status will be some comfort. To do so following a thriller against Ronnie Baxter – who had darts to win the match – and then by hitting the first 9 dart finish in the PDC World Championships was simply the icing on his cake.
James Wade before a predictable defeat to Raymond Van Barneveld
James Wade can also consider the tournament a success. His form was patchy throughout the year, and at times poor in this tournament. He will not expect to win another world championship quarter final with an average of 82. ‘The Machine’ found some form to ensure a competitive semi final against ‘Barney’, but he never looked convinced that he believed he would win that match. He has still to knock Phil Taylor out of a televised tournament, and without significant ranking monies to defend, 2009 is a year when we will find out if there are two stars of world darts, or three.

The first couple of days of the PDC tournament had been dominated by the defeats of two existing World Champions. Day one had seen Canadian John Part eliminated at the hands, arms and shoulders of fellow North American Bill Davis. Day three saw Anastasia Dobromyslova, fresh from her move to the PDC, fail to become the first woman to beat a man in a televised PDC tournament, the Russian losing 5-3 to fellow wildcard Remco Van Eijden.

Not surprisingly, Dobromyslova’s decision to switch codes had caused something of a stir, which the PDC’s PR machine had lapped up. The timing of her move perplexed some; just a few weeks before the BDO tournament began, she wouldn’t be able to defend her title. But a wildcard into the PDC event, plus a guaranteed £2,500 to start her attempt to climb up the rankings, were catalysts enough. An early victory in the UK Open event in Doncaster may have reassured any doubters that her decision was not an entirely impetuous one.

The only player justified in begrudging the timing of the switch is Francis Hoenselaar. No longer the Jimmy White of women’s darts, the ‘Dutch Cap’ finally beat her old rival Trina Gulliver in a World Championship final, at the sixth time of asking. Having beaten Dobromyslova in the Winmau World Masters final a few weeks earlier, Hoenselaar can justly claim to be the best female darter in the world. Next year, however, it won’t be so clear; Anastasia’s defection will certainly have reduced the status of the BDO event.

Over the longer format, the women players have a way to go to match the men. As does the BDO to match the PDC. At Lakeside, from the quarter finals onwards, only Ted Hankey was able to average over 95 (in his semi final defeat of Martin Adams). At Ally Pally, more than half of the fourteen equivalent performances saw averages over 95. The fact that six of the eight were by Taylor and Van Barneveld is irrelevant. The PDC has the two best players, and the BDO is playing catch up.

Oddly, this resulted in the BDO tournament being in many ways the more interesting of the two to watch. The lack of stand-out players ensured that, particularly from the quarters finals, results were entirely unpredictable. Few would have thought that Hankey would win his second world championship, and many were celebrating it – ‘The Count’ is much more likeable in interview and behind the mike than his stage persona would make one believe.

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2009 will see darts continue to battle to be taken seriously. If a £1 million tournament in London over Christmas is not enough to silence the critics, then Barry Hearn’s continued quest for world domination may have some effect. Ranking tournaments are expected to be held in South Africa, Germany, Austria, Ireland, USA, Canada and, of course, Holland. The PDC calendar is unrecognisable from just five years ago, and no doubt further changes will be made throughout the next twelve months.

Darts’ nasty underbelly is never far away, however. Sponsors are now nearly entirely booze and betting related, the crowds and players remain entirely white, and the introduction of family enclosures during the Premier League is reminiscent of football in the 1980s – the decade, of course, in which some elements of the BDO remain firmly entrenched. Serious crowd trouble at a darts tournament is as predictable this year as Adrian Lewis not quite reaching his potential once again, or Eric Bristow saying something controversial.

Perhaps the biggest development in darts in 2009 to watch for, however, relates less to the playing of the game, and more to television rights. The BDO have a contract for their World Championship with the BBC for 2010, but no further. There is currently no reason to suspect that another contract will not be signed, but considering the coverage given to the event this year – with live games interrupted at will, amateurish on-stage and in-bar presentation, a lack of any new initiatives, and a general impression created that nobody really cares about the game – it is impossible not to wonder whether the Beeb will want to carry on with what is quite clearly a second rate tournament. Without the BBC, it is hard to see how the BDO tournament would survive. Many in darts would welcome just this catalyst to end the nightmare of the big split before the 20th anniversary of darts’ darkest days.

There is no need for the BBC to sign a new contract until autumn 2011. But no news is bad news for the BDO. The longer the uncertainty, the more players will look to jump ship.

For the darts fan, every January is tinged with the excitement of anticipation. A new year of darts has just begun. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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