Ally Pally cries out for a hero

Two years ago, during my annual check of the bunker, I earmarked the giants of the oche as the men to lead us when armageddon eventually arrives.

Ally Pally cries out for a hero

I figured then, that anyone who can find the peace to hold dart after dart as though everything depends on it, then let each one go as if nothing does, while the madness of a thousand stag nights swirls around them; these are the men we are looking for.

Who else should we turn to, but the champions of the game of choice in hell? That most of them have the bulk too, to pull the odd car out of a ditch, as the need arises, is a happy bonus.

But now, I’m second-guessing. Was the reasoning sound?

Even as we admire these heroes, night after night, deal in millimetres and make snap calculations while a baying throng choruses tributes to Yaya and Kolo Toure, a nagging question persists.

Would the game be even harder in a hush? What would happen if, instead of standing up because they love the darts, the mob sat down and watched the darts? And shut up?

How would the gladiators of precision cope if they could hear themselves think? In a tense post-apocalyptic silence, when the time for roaring bantz is long over and we all look at them for guidance.

Would the calm amplify the storm between their ears? But that question should eventually be answered too at the Ally Pally.

Part of this demanding process of natural selection. On Sunday we will find the right man. The one whose inner peace endures. The man world leaders should have at their sides as fingers hover over red buttons.

The man who can scale all the traps that present themselves in the toughest of all mind games.

An hour or so into last Thursday night’s first quarter-final, we had seen and heard most of them. The internal roars of insecurity and despair and hubris and hope and disappointment and rage all the da-da-da-ing and oi-oi-oi-ing in the world can’t drown out.

The moments these guys hear every thought clearly.

Robert Thornton was throwing beautifully, but may as well have chucked snowballs into a blaze. Still, he wouldn’t melt.

Even 3-0 down, to the champion, he stayed with the next dart, then the next, waiting for hope.

Afterwards, Michael van Gerwen told Sky’s Laure James he’d glanced at the screens, saw his average was 109, and realised how well things were going.

“That’s always the biggest mistake you can make, because you can lose your focus.”

The Thorn was still throwing one dart at a time. 3-0 became 3-2. A glimpse of 3-3. He had the darts. But also, for the first time in the evening, the load of expectancy.

The next six flew to the extremities of traffic control radar. Or a centimetre or two askew anyway. But MVG hadn’t yet returned to the present. He even suffered the indignity of a miscount.

But we are not looking for auditors here, though those skills are needed too. We want poise.

And we soon knew, alas, The Thorn isn’t the man to trust with everything.

One more chance. Big checkout needed. Treble 17. Miss. Then the flurry of rage that betrayed him. A wild, furious dart, leaving him stuck out on 81.

The intrusion of assumption. The assumption that it was gone.

When MVG, improbably, missed again, Thornton was in no place to capitalise. He carried the regret on his face the rest of the way home.

“A learning moment,” MVG called it, that trip over a fine line. The moment he felt too much at home in the madness.

Two years ago, even after he threw 17 perfect darts in a row in the semis, even as he seemed set to lead Phil Taylor 5-2 in the final; Michael Van Gerwen wasn’t yet the man to lead us.

Unlike The Power, he was still a visitor to the Ally Pally. He hadn’t yet made himself at home.

As crisis loomed, Taylor walked taller, jauntier. He took off his shoes and loosened his belt. Metaphorically, at least. A playful punch to the referee’s midriff here. A knowing gesture to the mob there. Eventually, MVG bowed to entitlement.

These days, with a title under his belt, the regular, juddering convulsions of Dutch delight sit atop a convincing strut.

“Even the way he’s walking. He’s walking better,” noted the commentators, Thursday.

“If you want to be a winner, you have to walk on the stage as a winner and walk off the stage as a winner. That’s the most important thing,” the Dutchman told James.

Tonight he faces Gary Anderson, who has learnt many lessons en route to nearly being The Man.

Before Anderson walked off the stage after his quarter-final win over Peter Wright, Laure cornered him and praised his 102 average.

“You’ll need that against Michael,” she told him.

“He’ll need that against me,” corrected The Flying Scotsman, starting the mind games early.

Anderson will vow to make the champ think tonight. To make it hell.

Maybe he’ll have to go there and back before we know he’s the man to trust.

Gerrard earned his star billing and long goodbye

Steven Gerrard probably thinks of himself as the kind of guy you’d turn to in an apocalypse.

And you’d certainly have him in your ranks, possibly to land a spectacular killing blow on a key zombie, though maybe after someone else had calmed things down and organised the antidotes.

He certainly earned the top, top billing Fergie denied him. And if he never lacked self-regard, there was something endearing about the way he invariably bonded with other world-class talents – such as Torres and Suarez – that joined his cause. Glad of the company, perhaps, but never reluctant to share limelight.

He also earned what we probably knew he’d ensure would come his way: a long goodbye that will make Brian O’Driscoll’s exit look like a curt dismissal.

Notorious rings us out on bum note

They mistimed things a touch on RTÉ on New Year’s Eve, so Kathryn Thomas turned back to Conor McGregor for another 90 seconds or so of filler.

No better man to oblige, of course. And it was probably fitting that the distinctive voice of 2014 got to carry us over the hump with another volley of braggadocio.

And perhaps we can be kind and suggest McGregor had just read Michael Foley’s fine book The Killing Field and simply misjudged his remembrance of 90 seconds when lives were lost. But even by the grimy standards of UFC vernacular, it was particularly ugly to remind us that Croke Park has known bloodshed only as a device to promise more blood will be spilled if ‘Notorious’ McGregor gets his title shot there.

A touch of crass to wind up the year.

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