Autographs not averages – the League of Legends

August 4, 2008

Darts’ League of Legends makes its way to The Spa in Bridlington this week, with just two league nights remaining before Finals Night at the Circus Tavern on August 22.

To those who follow the Premier League of darts, the format is familiar: eight players, seven weeks, one match against each other. The top four qualify for the final, with every dart since the opening night in May shown live on Setanta Sports.

Amongst the legends are names that any casual viewer will know – notably Eric Bristow and John Lowe. One of ‘The Crafty Cockney’ or ‘Old Stoneface’ starred in each of the first fourteen World Championship finals since it launched in 1978. Add two of the other three men to win the title in the 1980s (Keith Deller and Bob Anderson), a couple of two-time runners-up (Dave Whitcombe and Bobby George), and perennial semi-finalist ‘Big’ Cliff Lazarenko, and the nomenclature ‘legends’ is a fair one.

The first darts world champion, Leighton Rees, died in 2003. The only major star of 1980s darts absent is therefore mercurial Jocky Wilson. Twice world champion, the Scotsman could not be coaxed into making his first public appearance for more than a decade.

The ninth man to appear in a World Championship darts final was a certain Phil Taylor, in 1990; the tenth, Dennis Priestley, the following year. With these two still winning tournaments on the PDC circuit, the next logical legend-in-line was Mike Gregory – the man remembered for missing six darts at doubles to become World Champion in 1992. With echoes of his return to the BDO after the big split, Gregory was withdrawn from the League at a late stage of negotiation, to be replaced, it seems, by Peter Evison. ‘The Fen Tiger’, although better-known from the 1990s, is a player who not only secured two major championships, but also, on his way to winning the 1996 PDC World Matchplay, handed Phil Taylor what remains probably his most humiliating televised defeat.

The line-up is probably as good as could be gathered. And the players are taking it as seriously as any ex-professional sports star would be expected to – ridiculously.

The re-kindling of former rivalries has lead to all eight players spending time on the practice board, keen both to win their games and let it be known that not all the magic has disappeared in a puff of dry ice. Although, after five weeks, the league table has in effect split into a top and bottom tier, the sub-plots which remain will ensure the final weeks retain plenty of interest.

Three of the biggest names – Bristow, Lowe and George – are, in all probability, out of the competition. Having managed just one win each, they will all be desperate not to finish bottom of the pile. Eric versus John at the Town Hall in Stoke on August 15 may well be their decider, and with Lowe having finally found his touch last week in Reading (with a respectable average of 85 for every three darts) Bristow will no doubt try anything to avoid the humiliation of last place.

At the top, Bob Anderson has confirmed his position as pre-tournament favourite, looks certain to remain in the first four, and, with fixtures against Bristow and Bobby George to come, will probably top the league. This leaves just three places from four at finals night. Whitcombe, Evison, Deller and Lazarenko – currently in that order in the league, but separated by only one point – have matches amongst each other still to come. They are playing for more than prize money.

Looking ahead to the finals, both Whitcombe and Evison drew with Anderson in their league match, Lazarenko appears to be improving every week, and Deller has shown he can still average 85 plus. Whoever makes it through to Purfleet will therefore fancy their chances, and competition remains fierce amongst the players.

The tournament overall has, however, received a mixed response. Some of the criticism has been as brutal as those renewed rivalries. And there is no denying that the League has some problems.

To start with, at 44, Peter Evison is four years younger than Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, the undisputed best player in the world. Keith Deller is the same age, Bristow only three years older. Lazarenko and Whitcombe are both younger than Dennis ‘The Menace’ Priestley, currently ranked number 11 in the PDC.

Unlike in football or tennis, age does not necessarily impact on the ability to play the game. Bob Anderson is the third oldest in the tournament, but despite his 60 years he was still ranked in the top 32 of the PDC when he quit the full tour earlier this year to become a legend.

The reason, therefore, that one becomes a legend, is not related to age; it is due to ability, or a lessening of it. And watching once-great darts players scoring 26 and 41 can be a painful experience for the viewer.

None more so than with Eric Bristow. The man retains a certain fascination; the description of him as Hurricane Higgins, John McEnroe and Minder rolled into one still holds as he makes his way through adoring fans in his timeless walk-on to Chas & Dave. There is an allure to that Roman nose, the arrogant demeanour, and those post match interviews – with much much more rabbit than Sainsbury’s. But when he averages 62 for three darts memories of former glory begin to be tarnished. No dart fan can fail to be intrigued to watch a twenty-fifth anniversary rematch of his classic 1983 world final against Deller. But once is probably enough.

Similar criticisms were no doubt initially aimed at ‘Masters’ football, ‘Champions’ golf, or ‘Seniors’ tennis. All have, however, settled on their formats and criteria, managed fans expectations, and become successful in their own way. With a re-think of the format (a series of knock-out events?), a shortening of the matches, and clarification of qualification criteria (50 or over, with dispensation for Deller for one year?), the legends have enough charisma, charm, nous and nostalgia to ensure huge success in the future.

Because, ultimately, to heavily criticise the quality or format is to miss the point of the League of Legends. Don’t head to Bridlington, Stoke or Purfleet in the next few weeks to witness Eric Bristow play high class darts – that’s what YouTube is for. Expect a nostalgic night of fun, a throwback to a previous era.

When Bobby George hits a 180 and turns to camera to reveal his left breast, accept it for what it is. The ‘King of Bling’ knows the score: “People don’t ask the legends for their averages; they ask them for their autographs.” That’s dartertainment.