Why Darts Is the Greatest Sport in the World
Watching the PDC World Championship final Sunday night, I was struck by an earth-shattering realisation.
Usually, the tankard of sodium in a Pepperoni Passion is more than enough to get my heart racing. But on Sunday night, there was something besides pizza making my ventricles thud against my chest cavity walls. Something more than just cheese making my forehead look like a curry house waterfall painting. It was the final of the PDC World Darts Championship, and it was making me lunge forward, bite my lip and upper cut the air like it'd just called my missus a tart. I'd scarcely been so excited during a sporting event in my life.
The final – contested between 16-time world champion Phil "The Power" Taylor and Gary Anderson, a man from the Scottish border town of Eyemouth who looks like the friendliest school bully in the world – could have sold out London's cavernous Alexandra Palace ten times over. But despite darts being treated, slightly weirdly, as the hot new up 'n' comer of British sport in the last few years, a kind of proletarian surge against football that's too expensive and rugby that's too posh, this kind of popularity is not without precedent. Back in 1972, Alan Evans defeated reigning champ Dennis Filkins at the News Of The World Darts Championship in the same venue. The semi-final was attended by 12,000 people, and watched on TV by an unreal 7 million. Over the next decade and a half, more and more characters began to emerge. A procession of chubby working-class boys and girls from up and down the country, who'd been incubated in moody boozers where even the pub dog stinks of fags. Thousands of pounds changed hands in big money games. Holidays were had abroad by teams of British darts' finest, looking to make far more than just their flight and beer money back. But, by the end of the 1980s, darts had started to fall out of favour. The BBC showed less and less of it, and the prize pot dwindled. Unhappy with the climate of the game, 16 players from the British Darts Organisation, including Phil Taylor and his mentor, Eric Bristow, formed their own tournament, as well as what would later become the Professional Darts Corporation. And then Sky got involved, and it was time for shiny new flights to be fitted to the back of those rusty tungsten spikes.
Which brings us to Sunday. The PDC World Championship saw all the big dogs competing. Stephen Bunting, a Peter Griffin lookalike from St Helens who comes on to "Surfin' Bird"; Peter Wright, an apparently shy man with a neon mohawk who paints a snake on his head before each match and looks like a kind of cybergoth taxi driver; and of course crowd favourite Michael Van Gerwen, the 25-year-old Dutch slaphead whose name rings around the arena even when he's not playing, and this year, even when he'd exited the tournament. Shockingly, the world number 1 was beaten by Anderson in the semis, while Taylor arrived there at the expense of Raymond van Barneveld, a former champ who has the appearance and demeanour of a Stephen King detective who turns out to be a cannibal. The stage was set.
You may be asking yourself some questions at this point. You may be saying 'But why should I give a shit, they just put a new series of Dexter on Netflix?' and believe me, I understand; I once asked myself the same questions. Why would anyone want to watch a bunch of unhealthy, tattooed men throw needles at a fibrous disc, surrounded by long tables of pissed-up dickheads, in what looks like a beer hall putsch sponsored by Carling? But watch a few sets and you'll realise quickly that this is the same wet prejudice people like Chris Addison and David Mitchell bring to football, where they willfully ignore all the atmosphere and narrative and just rehash the same shit jokes about "22 millionaires kicking a pig's bladder around in the rain". What draws you into the darts isn't its base elements. The millions of people who watched it live or on TV weren't doing so because there's just something they inherently love about men throwing things and then some maths happening. They were here for the drama, the stories, how ludicrous the whole thing is. The skill is a distant second to the intrigue with darts – and chief among those mysteries is the question of how something that seemed so ready to sink away into the bygone era that birthed it has survived with more temerity, more glitz and pomp than it ever possessed before. The appeal is almost like witchcraft, a big boozy spell cast over your brain, leaving you absolutely hooked but unsure why.
The two finalists
So to the final, and what's a story without a villain? Phil Taylor may be a 16-time world champion, but he's also a convicted sex offender, after being found guilty of "fondling" two women in his motor home in 1999. Though it seems like the crime's lapsed from the media's memory, it lives on in the minds of some darts fans and Taylor's bravado and arrogance does nothing to extinguish their ire. Was Gary Anderson, a man with a sweet face but who is no doubt as rough as a sandpaper cosh, ready to give them the upset they wanted at Ally Pally?
Being the 16-time world champion brings with it not only expectation but an infuriating level of skill. Even a one-set lead can bring about a powerful, stomach-churning dread. But Anderson took the first set and it was looking hopeful.
Midway through the match, the board had to be changed. Anderson's darts kept falling out of the board; at one point a 180 was forfeited when all three darts tumbled to the deck. The crowd jeered and taunted Anderson, tables and tables full of braying Where's Wallies and Spidermen putting any allegiances aside for the sake of their next sing-a-long. It looked like Anderson was rattled, maybe even beyond repair. But Taylor was fucking up his doubles, and Gary pulled his guts from his bollocks to claim the set. It was six sets apiece, and the first to seven to win. My hands were gushing sweat, covering my face, which was also sweating. I stood up with my eyes as close to the TV as they'd get. One leg to Anderson. Is he actually going to do it? Is he going to pack this wrong 'un in? Two legs to Anderson. Oh fuck, he's doing it. Missed the bull – don't bottle it now, Gary.
Then the double 12 was struck and a teeth-bearing smile didn't leave my face for a full 20 minutes. If I were a weaker man I'd have cried. A sex offender had just lost out on a trophy and a quarter of a million pounds had been given to a man with an abusive parrot, and in that moment, darts became, to this bright-eyed novice, the greatest sport in the world.
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