‘Old pals act’ takes gloss off Taylor’s Grand Slam

Phil Taylor was once again the deserved victor of the recent Grand Slam of Darts, but beneath the main headline from the ITV4 tournament lies an intriguing story which threatens to take some of the gloss off a fantastic nine days of darts.

The Grand Slam begins with a round-robin format consisting of eight groups of four. Two players qualify from each group, with the competition becoming a straight knock-out from the last 16 onwards. On the Tuesday night Darryl Fitton played Gary Anderson in his last group match knowing that a 3-5 defeat would be enough for both players to automatically qualify – thereby rendering the later match between Kevin Painter and Paul Nicholson irrelevant, and eliminating both players.

Anderson won 5-4. Nicholson would need an unlikely whitewash of Painter just to tie for second place. The Artist, however, finally showed some form and won another tight match to restore a little pride for his journey back to Ipswich. Good friends Anderson and Fitton had made it through to the last sixteen.

“Couldn’t be an old pals act could it Chris?” commentator John Rawling had asked at the beginning of that crucial ninth leg. “I’ll take the 5th…” replied Mason, once again illustrating a natural ability in the commentary box. As Anderson threw for the match, Rawling continued: “A cynic would say that Gary Anderson has been given the opportunity, and he certainly took it.”

Despite immediate mutterings of collusion, the story disappeared amongst a plethora of fantastic matches and great drama. Last Friday, however, a statement appeared on the PDC website revealing that the organisation had received a number of complaints during the past week about the match, and that these had been forwarded to the Darts Regulation Authority (DRA) to consider whether one of both of these players were bringing the game into disrepute.

It is a serious claim for a professional sportsman to have to deal with. The complainants are in effect accusing Darryl Fitton of being a cheat – and the fact that the tournament is sponsored by a betting company simply adds to the importance of any findings from the DRA’s investigation. But were the players colluding? And would it matter if they were?

The problem the DRA will have in coming to a decision is evidence. When the match is reviewed, they may well note that Fitton took his foot off the gas when he had secured his vital third leg. Certainly the darts he threw at double 20 to try to win the seventh leg were not his best. “He should get this; he loves tops”, but for possibly the only time in nine days Chris Mason got it wrong. Three darts sailed comfortably over the top, one of them landing in the ‘C’ of the Unicorn.

The pattern was repeated in the ninth, the decider. Fitton was left 55, and having landed his first dart narrowly inside the wire of single 15, two more shots at double 20 sailed predictably high, ending up nearer the number than the important red bit. Anderson immediately took out the same double, and the hand-shakes that followed amongst bemused smiles and quizzical looks added to the surreptitiousness of the occasion.

Fitton does a good line in quizzical looks. Another one appeared when he lost in the quarter final to… Gary Anderson. (To retain the relevance of the seeding, players from the same group will meet again in the last eight if they keep winning.) Fitton had stormed ahead 5-2, before Anderson pulled back to secure a comfortable 10-6 victory. On route ‘The Dazzler’ missed several darts at double top – including one that was so high a fantasist could claim it was on purpose.

Darryl wasn’t the only unbeaten player to struggle with his third group match. Whilst those as good as eliminated often put together a much better show – Mardle, Painter and Michael Van Gerwen for example – some of the players who had already qualified struggled to match the intensity in a game that was partly immaterial to them. Darts players are not familiar with irrelevant games. John Part lost his third, and so, notably did Andy Jenkins. ‘Rocky’ admitted that, having secured a famous first televised victory over Phil Taylor, he wasn’t particularly interested in his match with Phill Nixon. Disreputable behaviour?

The glass-half-full darts fan will be content that the game was ‘straight.’ It may be difficult to play your good friends at darts, but ultimately it is a professional sport and winning matters at all cost. If they were fixing a match, the players could have orchestrated it much more easily (with Fitton hitting less treble 20s along the way) and more effectively. After all, the game didn’t end 5-3, the only result which was certain to benefit them both. The two players may well get along well, but surely Fitton would not relish another game against a player of Anderson’s ability in the quarter finals – especially having surrendered any psychological advantage due to the first loss. Their quarter-final rematch was worth a minimum of £7,500 plus automatic qualification to the Grand Slam for the next two years. As well as being a chat, is Fitton now accused of being stupid too?

Unless the spooks from the DRA unveil a magical trail or emails and texts, it won’t be proved that the players conspired to agree a result, or that Fitton let Anderson win. Both players will be cleared. The questions and gossip will remain, however, and this is a serious problem for darts.

Not trying one’s hardest has been a part of sport for years. Arsene Wenger is no longer criticised for putting out a youth team in the League Cup. Everyone understands why players may not go in for fifty-fifty tackles the week before an FA Cup Final – and a captain won’t expect his fast bowler to dive around on the boundary if that will prevent him taking the new ball. Man Utd and Villereal played out a contented 0-0 draw just days before the DRA investigation was announced, and most famously Austria and West Germany spent 80 minutes in the 1982 World Cup making no effort whatsoever to attack.

There is a huge difference, however, between not trying very hard and actively trying to lose. Rumours abound on darts’ forums that odds on the betting exchanges for the match in question were as irregular as the London Stock Exchange. With the Ladbrokes.com World Championship starting in a few weeks, the betting companies are now vital to darts sponsorship, and any hint of a breakdown in the integrity of darts would be a serious blow to the game.

In recent years cricket, tennis, and horse-racing have all suffered from questions surrounding betting irregularities. These sports, even with their huge worldwide audiences have struggled at times to regain the faith of their fans. For a game which struggles even now to be taken seriously in the UK, any taint could be deadly. It was only in 2005 that darts was finally accepted as a sport; slip ups that allow the media to focus on negative stories cannot be affored.

Having courted professionalism, darts’ players and administrators have to accept a new set of responsibilities. The PDC has managed exponential growth admirably so far, but having chosen to share a double duvet with the betting companies, every effort must be made not to stain the sheets. Step one is to change the format for the Grand Slam so that no player can be tarred – or given the opportunity to tar themselves. That would allow the headlines to write themselves.

For the record, here are ten highlights for which the Grand Slam of Darts 2008 ought to be remembered:
1. Whitlock’s early lead against Taylor in the quarter-final, and the ensuing fightback
2. Terry Jenkins’ matches against Barneveld and Anderson
3. The frenetic (and occasionally outrageous) crowd
4. Anastasia
5. John McDonald’s absence on Saturday night showing just how integral his introduction of the reigning champion of the woooooooorld has become to the big occasion
6. The 9 dart shoot-out
7, Andy Jenkins beating Taylor for the first time
8. The fantastic King v McDine match
9. James Wade’s 9-darter
10. Taylor’s continued brilliance.

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