Four weeks into its fourth year, darts’ only significant league event has finally become interesting. That James Wade is topping the table, a point ahead of Raymond Van Barneveld, is not particularly surprising. And it wasn’t entirely unexpected that new World Champion John Part would struggle a little – the Canadian has rarely been able to sustain form from one tournament to the next. But Phil Taylor’s terrible start – three defeats alongside his sole victory over Adrian Lewis – has set the competition alight.
It’s seems unsporting to celebrate Taylor’s lack of form, but for viewers of the fifteen week tournament it can only be welcomed. All previous tournaments have been ruined by him.
Since it launched in 2005 as the 888.com Premier League, the event has grown in size, stature and importance. Prize money this year totals £340,000 (with £20,000 just for coming last), and contracts have been signed to continue the event to 2010.
Even four years ago it was unthinkable that darts could be played in front of more than 6,000 paying customers – the number of seats sold for the night at Liverpool Echo Arena on 10 April this year. That first tournament, played by seven players over eleven weeks, was a huge success with good attendances from a seemingly new breed of darts fan: loud, lashed and loving the nicknames and nonsense that Sky Sports do better than anyone else.
The darts, however, was a little disappointing. Phil Taylor drew 6-6 in his opening match with Colin Lloyd, and then won his next thirteen to take the title (including 11-1 destructions of Wayne Mardle and the only other permanent Premier League fixture, Peter Manley.) With the exception of his colossal semi-final comeback – winning six consecutive legs to secure victory against the Dutchman Roland Scholten – the supremacy of ‘The Power’ was never questioned.
By year two, the tournament found a new sponsor in Holsten, but the slightly strange format was repeated – to fit twelve league matches in ten weeks some players had two games a night, surely unfairly impacting on their performances. The tournament came alive, however, in Bournemouth in week 5 when, newly arrived from the BDO side of the Tungsten Curtain, Raymond Van Barneveld hit a rare 9-darter against Manley. In his second match of the evening Barney won the last three legs to grab a 7-7 draw against that year’s nemesis, Phil Taylor.
Darts’ titans duly qualified for finals night as scripted in first and second place, and the final that everyone wanted to see approached with increasing anticipation. Except it didn’t happen. Scholten, clearly at ease with the format, destroyed his countryman Van Barneveld in the semi-final with a 104 average, but, predictably, he was unable to take that from into the final where he comfortably lost to Taylor.
For 2007 the sponsor for once stayed the same, but an understandable and accessible format emerged. An eighth players was added, with each now having ‘home’ and ‘away’ fixtures against their seven colleagues – fourteen weeks plus finals’ night. Taylor drew his first two matches, but then stepped up a gear, with one further draw his only blemish on reaching finals’ night undefeated for the third time.
The dream final approached with even greater anticipation. This time Taylor would have the opportunity to avenge his thrilling loss to Barneveld in the world championship five months earlier. Once again, however, the fans were disappointed. Barneveld lost in the semi-final to Terry Jenkins in a close match in which ‘Tucker’ averaged just 86. Taylor later threw the winning dart for a highly impressive trio of undefeated victories.
Which brings us back to 2008. A previously unbeaten Phil Taylor has already lost to James Wade, Terry Jenkins and Peter Manley, and sits in seventh place. This week he plays Wayne Mardle – who beat him in a famous World Championship quarter-final in December. Next week it’s the small matter of Raymond Barneveld, five times world champion. And the following week he is up against current world champion, John Part.
The tournament which has never previously lived up to expectations is suddenly brimming with anticipation each week. And with a settled format, seven genuine contenders for finals night (sorry Wayne), and several fascinating rivalries (Lewis versus Manley part seven next week, as well as a clash between Wade and Barneveld, the top two), the first four weeks have turned the tournament into one which is as exciting as it is unpredictable.
Perhaps that sense of inevitability will return. Taylor may discover his form; Wade and Barneveld may pull clear at the top of the league as Mardle, Manley and Part gradually drift towards the rear. By week ten the only question may be which of Lewis and Jenkins will best master their predictable unpredictably.
In the meantime, however, the burning question is clear. Will Phil Taylor rediscover the winning touch, or is this the time to declare the end of an era?