Premier League darts all shook up by The King

May 26, 2009

James Wade won the fifth instalment of Premier League darts last night at Wembley Arena, but it was Mervyn ‘The King’ King who rescued what, since it started back in February, had become an increasingly disappointing tournament.

King’s semi-final victory over Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor was as deserved as it was unexpected. Taylor had won this tournament every year since inception, and began the evening unbeaten in any significant knock-out televised match in almost a year – including the last six major tournaments. In Aberdeen just a few weeks previously Taylor recorded a three-dart average of 116, the highest on record. His humanity was up for debate.

There has, however, always been something different about Mervyn King. Whereas most players crumble after consistent defeats by Taylor, King’s self-belief and stubbornness are ideally suited to keep him coming back for more.

Last night he tossed one of The Power’s favourite tricks back at him – winning the bullseye to choose who throws first, but electing to give the honour to the World Champion. For two legs it worked, but the 2-0 lead quickly became a 2-3 reverse, and the 5-5 scoreline by the next ad break was ominous: the situation was ideally suited for a Taylor victory-charge.

That it didn’t come only partly resulted from The Power having an off-night. Maybe he was just a little surprised by the persistency of King, who, having been presented with the opportunity, took out three ton-plus finishes, the last of which sealed a famous 10-6 victory. The sight of Taylor busting 7 in the thirteenth leg with an accidental 19 confirmed his humanity – as did the habitual good grace that he showed in defeat.

Ironically, it was King’s excellent start to the tournament back in February that was the catalyst for genuine sporting interest in the league to wane significantly over its’ fourteen weeks – not that the majority of the raucous crowds seemed to mind (or even notice). Having won his first four matches, and with rivals dropping points against each other, King virtually guaranteed a top four spot by the end of February. It was never likely that the top three in the world rankings – Taylor, Wade and Van Barneveld – would not join him in the semi finals, particularly bearing in mind their opposition.

Triple World Champion John Part has never been known for consistency over several weeks, and has yet to finish outside of the bottom two in his three Premier League appearances; Terry Jenkins once again showed that he can match Taylor in this competition, but struggled against other fellow professionals. Draws in the first three matches severely limited his chances, and another in his final match in Cardiff may well turn out to be his last appearance in the tournament – he already looks unlikely to retain his place as one of the six automatic qualifiers for next year.

The two wildcards, Mardle and Klaasen, were, it turns out, poor choices. Klaasen, so fluent in the early round of the World Championships, was out of his depth. His tournament was over by the time of his sole victory, in week 8, but the experience will be invaluable, should he earn himself – or be given – another opportunity.

As for Wayne ‘Hawaii 501’ Mardle, he had to withdraw from the tournament after nine matches due to illness, ending with him twice being hospitalised. Despite attempts to alter the schedule to allow him to return, the withdrawal and subsequent deletion of his results was presumably determined to retain the sporting integrity of the tournament – an unnecessary and incongruous decision at an event where the integrity is surely already compromised by one quarter of those playing being selected by the TV broadcaster.

Criticism had been aimed at the decision to hand Mardle a wildcard for the second successive year – but it was misdirected in this instance. The Essex man was ranked in the top 8 at the beginning of the year, so should have qualified by right. Censure should be aimed at the very concept of wildcards, particularly as there are no published criteria for the invitation. If the ranking system, based over a two-year period, is not the most effective way of selecting the current top 8 players, then either the system should be changed or replaced with something transparent, or a qualifying play-off competition should be introduced. Further wildcards will be harmful to any attempts to encourage sports fans to take the Premier League – and darts as a whole – seriously.

The illness issue also needs handling better. The odds of a player missing a week or two will always be high for a tournament running for fourteen consecutive weeks starting in a British winter. Re-scheduling games so that some players have two matches in a week is a problematic and unfair solution – to players and fans alike. Illness and injury in individual sports is clearly a challenging issue, but other sports have found a better solution – notably tennis, in which the regrettable but logical use of ‘Alternates’ is commonplace.

Although exacerbated by Mardle’s unfortunate illness, the format for the competition is also unwieldy: fourteen weeks to reduce the field from 8 (in this case 7) to 4, then one night to decide a winner. The play-off principle works well in other sports – particularly football – but the four clubs who make it to the knock out stages have battled their way through a pool of twenty-plus.

These problems will not worry the PDC whilst ticket sales continue to illustrate that the Premier League remains popular as a great night out, and such concerns will be buried following the fantastic night of darts at Wembley Arena. The seemingly unforgettable first semi-final between Wade and Van Barneveld quickly became a distant memory thanks to what followed in the second. And although King was unable to keep pace with Wade in the final, the tournament ended with a worthy victor – ‘The Machine’ taking revenge for his only two defeats in the league to secure his fourth major title. A World Championship, or a defeat of Taylor on the way to a major success, and Wade will become a true darting great.

Oddly, the quality of the darts was surprisingly low; the quality of the crowd predictably so – to the extent that after suffering torrents of abuse for much of the night, it appeared that by the time of the presentation ceremony The King had left the building – no doubt heading back to his heartbreak hotel. But he was responsible for ensuring that a tournament which begun in the same week that Britain was enveloped in a blanket of snow, ended with a ray of sunshine. Bow down to The King.