This is the second part of our journey through Stoke-on-Trent, Mecca of darts, home to the arrowstocracy. You can read part one here.
If darts works like a dream on TV, it is less successful as a live spectator sport. Given that all the action takes place on a 340mm-diameter target potentially several beer snakes away, attending at the Ally Pally or any of the Premier League arenas is akin to watching a game of chess at Wembley Stadium. Indeed, the live audience are effectively watching it on TV. But of course, they're not there to watch the darts so much as to soak up the atmosphere (among other things). They're there for the experience.
Nevertheless, those boozehound crowds are an integral part of the TV tableau and for them a trip to the darts is something of a carnival, an unofficial stag weekend without a stag. On the one hand, a giant inhibition-losing machine – We'll be going loco, down in central Stoke-oh – and on the other a set of rituals that give the drunken wobble stable contours, shape, familiarity. People like it. People who know what they like, like it. And they know what they're getting: good old darts. Any genuine strangeness is kept firmly within comprehensible parameters embodied by the plentiful security escorting the players through the gauntlet of boozed-up, placard-brandishing Scooby Doos and Fred Flintstones and Bananamen.
With this new wave of TV cash – in 1996, the PDC World Champion won £14,000; 20 years later it was £300,000 – darts suddenly represented an enticing career option for the proficient pub players of the Potteries, an incentive to get practising – although this carrot didn't yet mean you could just stroll straight out of the boozer and on to the PDC's stage. We were still a long way from filling out 10,000-seat arenas, still a long way from the Premier League outgrowing Stoke's infrastructure.
While Barry Hearn provided the razzmatazz, the spectacle was enhanced by another defector to the PDC: the inimitable Sid Waddell. That said, while Sid's dulcetly demented descriptions brought the game to life, his reveries could at times project subtlety and nuance where there is, essentially, basic arithmetic and biomechanical repetition.
Darts is a simple game. Aside from slowing down the play or eschewing certain outshots when your opponent is on a finish, there are no real tactics as such – although Phil Taylor occasionally used to give away the bull-off and with it the first throw, allowing him to get into the game while potentially spooking his opponent. The sport is unlikely to ever inspire a body of great literature: it simply lacks real depth or variety, and doesn't yield to much interpretation or analysis.
Yet what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in throbbingly immediate drama. And to that extent its simplicity is its greatest strength, with the set format in particular – the frequent peaks and constant jeopardy for dropping your level – drawing out the tension exquisitely.
Of course, claiming it's a simple game – both to play and to comprehend – doesn't mean it's an easy game, particularly at the level the likes of Taylor and Adrian Lewis play, where throwing first in a leg is tantamount to serving in tennis, and often ensures that winning against the throw requires you to clear 501 in 12 darts or fewer, as the 'server' is likely to go out in 15. The standard is so high at the sharp end that two bad visits – that is, six bad darts – at the wrong time can mean a 4-0 defeat in sets. You need clinicism alright.
Perhaps this highly skilled repetitiousness is what appeals to the tenacious Stokie craftsmen, all the best of whom, felicitously, are called throwers – be that of darts or clay. Indeed, JB Priestley's account of his trip round a pottery factory, under the guidance of an "aggressively sententious" and "pugnaciously informative" foreman that could easily be Taylor talking over an interviewer, depicts how they "would stop to see a man – or rather, gentleman – at work on some process, and my guide would say, 'Now, you're thinking this looks easy, aren't you?' and the man himself would turn round and say, 'Yes, that's right, they all think this is easy, until they try,' and they would both fix me with sharp little eyes, as if my blundering ignorance was trying to rob them of the fruits of years of apprenticeship and careful craftsmanship". Darts: not complex, but not easy.
And Priestley – who was trying to unearth the essence of each city that he visited – could well be describing the cocksure Taylor further on: "What is certain, however, is that this sound element of craft, in which they can, and do, take a personal pride, removes all these men from the ordinary ranks of modern workmen. They are not merely doing a job for so much a week. They are craftsmen. They are doing something that they can do better than anybody else, and they know it".
Waddell's romance, Hearn's finance, Taylor's dominance – the triumvirate that revived darts' fortunes. The latter is also, of course, the principal reason Stoke identifies so closely with the sport. First you work for your name, the saying goes, then your name works for you. And there was little doubt that in his pomp Taylor's opponents were beaten before the first bar of their walk-on music. The Power, indeed. Waddell considered Taylor to be Britain's greatest living sportsman. Such was his supremacy that between 1994, when he lost 6-1 to Dennis Priestley in the final, and 2007, when he was edged out 7-6 in a classic final by Raymond van Barneveld, Taylor was beaten in but a single match at the World Championships. One in a dozen tournaments! That solitary loss was to the Canadian John Part in the 2003 final. (And yes, that makes 14 straight finals).
Part himself moved to Stoke-on-Trent, living there for a number of years until quite recently. He even played in the local Superleague, for Crompo's in Tunstall. Add Lewis into the mix and for a while Stoke-on-Trent could say that of 19 PDC World Championships between 1995 and 2013, all but one (Barney's 2007 win) was claimed by Potteries residents. Meanwhile, another Stokie, Ted 'The Count' Hankey, famous for his candelabra-wielding walk-on, won the BDO World Championship a couple of times, too.
Both Stoke's homegrown PDC champions, Taylor and Lewis, are from bona fide darting stock. Taylor's parents met at Pontin's, where they faced each other in a dart's final (Mr Taylor won 2-0 and the future Mrs Taylor "never forgave him"). Lewis's father, Sammy Wright, from whom he was estranged until the age of 17, was a former England player, his mother a County 'B' player. Although the relationship between Taylor and Lewis wasn't that of mentor-protégé in the mould of Taylor's with Eric Bristow, they did practice together in Lewis's early days, the then much slimmer former British Teenage Open winner cycling across the city for marathon sessions at The Power's home. It wasn't long into his career that Lewis happened upon his own nickname, 'Jackpot', after winning $72,000 on the slots while competing at the Las Vegas Desert Classic but being too young by law to claim the prize. Nevertheless, he was destined for great things and after winning the 2012 World Championship, his second, parading the trophy at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium, The Sentinel trumpeted: "We are the world capital of darts. Arrerz central". Hard to argue, really.
Neither Lewis nor Taylor play in the Staffordshire Superleague these days – being regular members of the Premier League of Darts has seen to that – although there is plenty of PDC presence in the Potteries pub leagues. Part's former teammates at Crompo's include a couple of players who've flirted with the PDC limelight: Andy 'The Vision' Pearce, a player Lewis has sponsored, and Mark Frost, possessor of the utterly brilliant nickname 'Frosty the Throwman', who played Raymond van Barneveld on TV in the 2008 Masters, losing 11-9. Another Stoke-born player, Andy 'X-Factor' Boulton (yes, he appeared on X-Factor), qualified for this year's World Championships. Frost is a scaffolder, Pearce a parts salesman. Both nurture aspirations to make it into the big time, although competition is strong and it's difficult to break through the seam of very capable players bubbling beneath the professional ranks, as both Ian White and Andy Hamilton will confirm.
Nicknamed after a famous vagrant hooch and sporting one of the worst shirts in a genre of garment that ought to be reported to the European Court in the Hague for crimes against fashion, 'Diamond' White made the News of the World final in 1997, losing to Taylor. It could have been his breakthrough, but he didn't take the plunge into the professional ranks, and wouldn't – or couldn't – until 2008, when he used the £11,000 redundancy payment from his job as a forklift truck driver in Runcorn to fund joining the BDO circuit. After a couple of years, a couple of two tournament wins, Adrian Lewis sponsored him to cross over to the PDC, picking up his tab for eight months (operating costs for a year on the circuit are around £10,000). "He's a great friend," says White. "He's put me on the circuit and I owe him everything".
In 2015, despite a first-round exit at the Worlds (a performance repeated in this year's event) White broke into the PDC top 10. He remains firmly in touch with the grassroots, however, even turning out in the Burslem League, where "you get the same teams that play Superleague, which is where you get the county players. The standard's very high. I had a guy take 128 out on me recently for a 15-darter…"
Hamilton was also a late starter, turning pro at the age of 37. An electrician by trade, he bought The Skylark pub at Talke in 2005, allowing him ample practice time without compromising his income (Taylor himself almost bought the pub he used for practice, the Sagger Maker's Bottom Knocker in Burslem). 'The Hammer' made an all-Stoke, non-Taylor World Championship final in 2011, losing 7-3 to Lewis, and although he has now slipped back from number 6 in the rankings he has still made over £110,000 during the two-year Order of Merit qualification period, amply demonstrating the temptation for the talented amateur to go all in.
Hamilton occasionally turns out for The Bradeley in the Staffordshire Superleague, where he once ran into White's Jubilee Club. "The whole place just stopped," remembers White. "It was like playing at the Ally Pally. You'd normally pay £35 a ticket to watch that, and we're playing each other in a local league match!" Hamilton lost the best of three legs encounter – a format that gives the good local players a fair chance of causing an upset – and is sure that "having the pros playing in the leagues can only be good for the area, to raise the standard. It's great publicity, and you've got a target on your back. Everyone wants to beat you".
Perhaps it's this clammy local competitiveness that pushes the Potteries' players upwards. The quartet of qualifiers for the Donna Louise Masters are certainly all good quality players, each no doubt nurturing their own darting daydreams. But as White and Hamilton's stories suggest, time and funding are essential to break through the glass ceiling. "It's a risk," says White, "but in 2008 I thought I should have done it 11 years ago. But I wouldn't commit".
Hamilton says he "could have [fallen] apart as a young person, so you can regret not doing it. And you can regret doing it at the wrong time." The costs might not seem exorbitant, but that's all relative and sponsorship is crucial for these ordinary, working-class men to make it into the big time. Steve 'Mase Man' Mason, who will go on to win the DL Masters, says "there's a difference if someone offers you £15,000 as a gift or you're playing with other people's money as a loan." It is funding of one sort or another that affords them the practice time to elevate these players above their peers and through the glass ceiling. Once there, as White knows, "one big tournament win and you're made as a darts player".
Before that can happen, however, you have to get on to the Tour. This means negotiating the dreaded "Q-School", held each year in a tennis centre in Wigan, where around 32 PDC Pro Tour cards are up for grabs. It's a fairly complex qualification structure, but the PDC tour card, of which there are 128, gets you into all the "Pro Tour" events. These are the non-televised "floor" competitions, played over a single day, sometimes two per day, with a not-negligible prize pot of £115,000 for the nine European Tour events (£25,000 to the winner), £60,000 for the 20 Players Championship events (£10,000), and £50,000 for the six UK Open Qualifiers (£10,000). The televised "Premier Events" – the majors – are open only to the top players on the Order of Merit, insulating them from quick slides down the ladder and thus protecting the personalities, the all-important narrative at the top of the game.
Practice, sponsorship, fine-tuning, prize money, breathing space: the darting dream flickers tantalisingly within reach. Big Andy, the in-house Matchroom security guy patrolling the King's Hall's upper balcony, tells me he was considering paying the £250 to enter Q-School, before he's back peering over people's shoulders to ensure there are no obscene slogans (he's not so interested in the obscene spelling) being penned. There are. By the time Mason has won the Masters and the amateurs get their shot at the pros in the Exhibition, the venue is getting a little raucous. Parts of it resemble the green room at The Jeremy Kyle Show. Lads, here to get trollied. And to watch the darts. And to walk in a Taylor Wonderland, paying homage to The Power's waning powers.
And they are there to celebrate the pre-eminence of their geographic locale, its darting superbity. Stoke-on-Trent may not be a destination too high up most people's city-break bucket list, yet through the economic hardships there endures an old-fashioned warmth and kindliness among the people that's at odds with the football club's fabled reputation for providing conditions too inhospitable even for Messi. Indeed, Stoke City's success under Tony Pulis and subsequent ugly-duckling transformation under Mark Hughes, bankrolled by local entrepreneur Peter Coates' Bet365 behemoth, speaks of a renewed civic confidence that has undoubtedly been kindled by the city's darting hegemony. (Incidentally, alongside gas cannisters, knives, fireworks and lasers, the list of items banned from the Britannia Stadium includes darts – worthy of specific mention, presumably, because a true Stokie is unlikely to be without them. It's tantamount to banning the Qur'an from Mecca).
The Stokie fingerprints to be found all over the TV-fuelled emergence and resurgence of a genuinely popular sport helps explain the affection and warmth generated by the King's Hall crowd – the gratitude, even. Sure, Taylor may be a little bumptious, occasionally cringeworthy, but he's an icon in these parts and the roar he gets for his first hometown outing in a decade is touching and heartfelt. They love him, especially when he gets seven steps of the way to a nine-darter. But it's not to be. For their part, the amateurs don't disgrace themselves. Each wins a leg against the pros, and each hits a maximum.
But they all lose, of course. Taylor then disposes of Hamilton in the first semi, while White and Lewis's match is a love-in between mates, albeit with a modicum of Stokie bragging rights at stake. The screens flanking the board reveal Lewis's study in concentration: he throws with his mouth open and dilating rhythmically, like someone recovering from a badly broken jaw learning to blow smoke rings again. Lewis also throws quickly and fluently, almost at the board to pick out his third dart before it lands in the double. He brings the house down with a sensational 150 finish: bull, bull, bull. White shrugs, then hugs. For darts is all bonhomie, with more macho tenderness and hetero male kissing – all permitted within these safe, ritualised parameters – than anywhere outside of Latin football. For a moment it's tempting to speculate that the whole sport exists as a ruse for the covert exploration of homoerotic boundaries, a space of big-daft-teddy-bear tactility.
Taylor takes the final, banging in a 161 outshot en route to defeating Lewis. Inevitably, they hug. The speed with which darts' stripped-back gladiatorial mano a mano turns touchy-feely underlines its affinity with boxing (of course Barry Hearn's Matchroom stable deals predominantly with pugilism: walk-on music, walk-on girls, narrative). Like boxing, darts provides a way out of the working-class 'trap'. It did for Phil Taylor, and it feels appropriate that he should win, given that he, as much as anyone, has put Stoke on the sporting map (along with Stanley Matthews, a plaque in the King's Hall's warren of corridors announces, he was the first inductee into the City's Sporting Hall of Fame in 2011).
He grasps the trophy with those thick fingers and launches into a sentimental victory speech – gauche and kind-hearted in equal measure, making a point of letting the audience know that he, and the others, have come for free: "Ian pulled his face – well, I can't really tell."
He congratulates Mason and 'Beardo,' forgets the names of the two other lads who have been sharing the green room all night, then pays tribute to the crowd for turning out at £35 per head. "You don't know what you've done for the charity, you really don't." He applauds. They applaud.
"I know I've got all this money," he signs off, to a crowd in one of the country's most impoverished cities, "but Stoke-on-Trent – you're my home, my love, and I'll never leave you."