Everyone has their cultural
black-spots. Where one hears a gorgeous, life-affirming crescendo, another asks: what’s the deal with classical music? Some are moved to tears by a stanza of Heaney, more still are left cold by poetry.
For me? Darts. Do. Not. Get. It.
And God knows I’ve tried to get my head around it.
This time of year, Facebook brims with updates from people extolling the virtues of a nine-darter. Pub conversations are set to the thunk-thunk-thunk rhythm of the oche. The sports news fills with men that look more Taxi than Xavi. So I try.
I’ve stared at the screen like those magic 3D images, waiting for some secret to reveal itself. It never has.
Darts is a game that polarises sports fans. It has enjoyed a recent, contrived rise in profile thanks to the retro-fitted glamour of Sky Sports’ hype-machine and has welcomed happily the increased, ale-stained crowds who flocked to the Alexandra Palace and elsewhere.
In the past, to paraphrase Poe, this pursuit was not a “passion from a common spring,”. It was a game — and a game is the right word I think — which was happily but quietly played in the shadowy corners of saloon bars.
Now, however, it is billed as a sport to be enjoyed by the masses alongside the 100m dash, top-level rugby, the FA Cup final, whatever.
But for me, Jeff, when Phil Taylor inches onto a backlit platform between athletes like Jessica Ennis and Tony McCoy, you know the hype has gone too far.
Ah yes, Phil Taylor. This is the man perhaps who is more responsible than the PDC mega-brain Barry Hearn for the game’s rise. Every sport needs its talisman and darts unearthed that rarest of breeds; a star who transcends his sport by dint of consistent excellence.
And there’s no downplaying how good he is at the game.
Taylor’s astonishing hegemony of the arrows saw him take second place in last month’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He achieved nothing out of the ordinary last year, winning the title in January — but the same way Martin Scorsese was rewarded in his career’s twilight with an overdue Best Director Academy Award for one of his less genius films, The Departed, so too Taylor deserved some recognition. Fair enough.
But with the spotlight comes the heat of scrutiny. And there has been scrutiny.
Most sporting events are bulwarked by their surroundings. The Munster hurling final would not be the occasion it is with the ritual and pageantry which festoons it in Thurles every summer. But strip that all away and send 30 lads onto a half-ploughed field in a divisional dead rubber on a Thursday evening and it’s as much hurling as anything served up in Semple Stadium in June.
But professional darts is one of those ‘sports’ that leans on its context. Tear away the brain-rattling music, the epilepsy-threatening light shows and the placard-waving fans. What do you have? It’s like watching two skivers throw scrunched-up paper balls into a skip while the warehouse foreman is having his tea break. Is it not? I met Phil Taylor a couple of years ago I should disclose. So perhaps my opinion is contaminated by that unedifying encounter.
After Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe died, her one-time lover and husband, the baseball legend Joe DiMaggio had flowers delivered to her graveside daily, such was his manic devotion.
Since I met the 15-time darts world champion, I’ve felt the same. Every day I’ve thought about that overweight, middle-aged man from England’s midlands, and kept a vigil for his PDC title hopes. And throughout Christmas I kept an eye on his progress again, before he sampled the exotic taste of defeat.
And all this despite — probably because of — being one of the most difficult men I’ve ever had to talk to — professionally or otherwise.
I caught the post train from Cork at 5.30am to make our breakfast meeting where I was promised, I’d get to throw a few arrows with the champ. But when Taylor continually and bizarrely ignored suggestions to head for the oche, or go and get darts even, the press guy remarked to me in an over-the-top stage whisper behind his hand: “I don’t fink the champ wants to throw this mawnin’.”
I then conducted a ground-breaking and far-reaching interview while he supped herbal tea by a hotel lobby fireside.*
He hung up the blue ‘showtime’ shirt he wears on stage next to him, and casually preened it while I fired questions at him.
All around the lobby sat ink-sleeved men from the PDC circus, some drinking breakfast beers and chatting quietly. Fans swirled around the hotel lobby. Eric Bristow sat beneath the stairs, happily reading a broadsheet. Taylor supped herbal tea as I attempted to provoke him into an interesting answer. So this is darts when the lights go down, I thought.
* I can now reveal: 1) A Port Vale fan, Taylor said Cork City legend George O’Callaghan was part of one of their ‘better sides’ in the mid 90s.
2) James Milner is the best footballer with whom he ever played darts.
3) Taylor won’t be doing any celebrity weight loss shows anymore.
4) He also told me a story about Roy Keane absolutely humiliating him in front of the entire Manchester United squad at the club’s Carrington training ground not long after he lost his PDC crown for the first time in a dozen years, which I’ve recounted before.