The silly season

January 18, 2008
Two world championships full of drama, tension and emotion. Two worthy victors. Now for the silly season.

January is traditionally a time for rumour and counter-claim in the darting world as players consider making the big switch. With the world championships the culmination of the year for both governing bodies, the weeks which follow are the perfect time to jump ship – with nearly twelve months to attempt to climb far enough up the rankings to ensure an appearance in the blue riband event on the other channel this time next year.

Two years ago Raymond van Barneveld made his move away from the British Darts Organisation (BDO). Last year Mervyn King and Tony Eccles joined him, along with the Dutch trio of Jelle Klaasen, Vincent van der Voort and Michael van Gerwen. All found a way into the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Championship at Alexandra Palace within a year.

PDC supremo Barry Hearn has suggested that a further handful will say farewell to the BDO this year – and there will probably be some lesser-known players who go the other way across the divide. The prize money at the PDC may be impressive, but travelling and entry fees for repeated first round defeats is not a way to make a living.

Gary Anderson was widely tipped to be the biggest name to make the switch, with the rumoured possibility of an appearance in the PDCs lucrative Premier League the big carrot should he become world champion. His surprise first round defeat at the BDOs tournament in Frimley Green, however, put paid to discussions of a Premier League place. The result, beaten by little-known Dutch player Fabian Roosenbrand, left the tournament feeling a little flat, certainly until the quarter-finals. But then, as it always does, it came alive.

Defending champion Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams’ topsy-turvy match against Winmau world master Robert Thornton was the game of the tournament. Having missed four darts to take a 3-1 lead in sets, Thornton managed to drag himself back from 2-4 down to take the match into a deciding ninth set. Aiming for his sixth ton-plus checkout to stay in the tournament, the Scotsman wired double 19, and had to watch on as Adams held his nerve with a crucial double 8 to reach his fourth consecutive semi-final.

Wolfie’s opponent there was number 1 seed Mark Webster, who had out-sparkled ‘The Dazzler’ Darryl Fitton in a surprisingly one-sided last eight match. (Fitton himself had looked in fine form averaging over 100 in the second round, and is one of the most watchable of all the BDO players whose walk-on to ‘One Step Beyond’ is more suited to the more boisterous crowds at the PDC.) If Adams thought he was a ‘prawn’ for blubbing on Ray Stubbs after his first round victory, he must have felt like a langoustine for turning a 0-3 deficit to Webster into a 4-3 lead, only to watch the Welshman reel off three consecutive sets for victory. The final set took Webster just forty darts, some feat in his first World Championship semi-final.

With their golden boy out of the tournament, it was difficult to see who the BBC would focus their attention on. For a while they chose Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey, whose moniker could surely be improved with one less vowel. The Prescott of darts, Hankey is certainly entertaining to watch, no more so than when dishing out verbals to the noisier members of the crowd. But his comfortable quarter-final loss to the Australian Simon Whitlock, himself progressing serenely to the final, put paid to Bobby George and Stubbsie dressing up a la Dracula for a second time.

Perhaps Whitlock’s relatively unruffled progress hampered his final efforts. Certainly Webster was quicker out of the blocks, and took the first three sets as if he was playing in his local pub, rather than in front of four million people. And the inevitable Whitlock comeback was halted, crucially, in set six, in which the Welshman came back from 0-2 in legs, to win the next three, and therefore the set, again in just 40 darts.

After the interval, Webster didn’t win another leg in the sets in which the Australian threw first – but with a 4-2 lead he didn’t need to. Each set went with the darts (not that it was always possible to tell thanks to the vagaries of the BBC graphics), and at 6-5 the players traded eleven dart legs, before Webster came through a high quality match to become only the second left-handed world darts champion.

Even though it was at the quarter final stage that the BDO tournament took off, the equivalent round at Ally Pally is unlikely ever to be bettered. Fresh from his defeat of reigning champion Raymond Van Barneveld, Kevin Painter’s evening defeat of Adrian Lewis was strangely subdued. The three previous games, however, were breathtaking – all reaching 4 sets all, 2 legs all, and a tie-break.

Peter Manley’s loss to Kirk Shepherd was a huge surprise, but anyone who can start a final leg with six perfect darts deserves to win. John Part and James Wade played out a quality battle decided by the odd wire and, ultimately, a 113 check-out for the match by the Canadian. And Wayne Mardle’s comeback from 3-0 down to Phil Taylor was unique – it was the first time ever that Taylor had been beaten in the PDC tournament in any round other than the final.

It was all too much for Mardle, who, having been close to tears on stage after dispatching ‘The Power’, was unable to match the performance in his semi final defeat to Shepherd (although Mardle’s run to the semi finals was enough, ultimately, for him to secure the final place in the Premier League). Part’s 6-2 success over Painter in the other semi was significantly closer than it seemed – Darth Maple won eighteen legs overall, just one more than ‘The Artist.’

And so to a final with the partisan crowd screaming for the 21 year old English rank outsider, and the darting connoisseur desperate for the Canadian to add another world championship, but this time gain the recognition that he previously deserved. Part had no concern for the fairy-tale ending dreamed up by the British tabloid press, but at least the two sets that Shepherd secured prevented him facing a whitewash – something that the Canadian himself suffered at the darts of Phil Taylor in the 2001 final. There is a new name in the list of the greats of darts who have won three or more world championships – Bristow, Lowe, Taylor, van Barneveld, and John Part.

The PDC tournament was a classic with a worthy winner. The new venue was liked by all, but the game has developed almost beyond recognition in such a short space of time that the natural results of professionalism are beginning to creep in. For the first time, the players’ wives and supporters were seated in a separate VIP area. There were even corporate seats. Darts’ prawn sandwich brigade has arrived.

After the outpouring of emotion at both tournaments, the measured response of the two new world champions was a marked contrast. There were no tears from Mark Webster or John Part. Both took victory in their stride. Webster now must decide whether to continue his training as a plumber or whether the £85,000 prize money is enough to turn full-time professional. Part, with an immediate invite to the Premier League, will cash in over the next five months as he travels Britain plying his trade. Two men with their feet on the ground, unlikely to do anything silly in the near future, whatever the season.