Buoyed by its success on these shores last year, the Professional Darts circus has returned with all the big names in tow - Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, who some call the greatest player ever to draw breath, Bob Anderson, Richie Burnett. There are even two Irish competitors, Jack McKenna and Paul Dillon.
Big time darts in Ireland. For those who are enthralled by the alcohol-fuelled shenanigans in Frimley Green every January, this is your chance to brush shoulders with the top arrowsmen in the game. But don’t come to CityWest looking for Andy Forham or Bobby George, because you won’t find them.
The Paddy Powers World Grand Prix is sanctioned by the Professional Darts Council (formerly, the more pompous sounding World Darts Council). This is darts brought to you by Sky. Expect none of the competitors who you could wile away a depressing January afternoon with.
The split came eight years ago, and the darts world is still reeling from tremours. Jack McKenna is tied to neither organisation, although he will be playing for the PDC next week. “It can get confusing sometimes, especially for the fans because they don’t know who to follow. I mean, we have two world champions in darts now. I don’t know why they split in the first place.”
Why? The almighty dollar, of course. Eight years ago, Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson took reputations the size of their bellies and hooked them onto Rupert’s sailing ship that was using a trawl net to capture all televisual sporting delights. Fourteen other pros followed Murdoch’s moolah. Frimley Green and BBC2’s January schedule would have to survive without the Crafty Cockney, the Jolly Scot and, most traumatic of all, the learned and seasoned ramblings of Waddell. All they had left was Bobby George and his cloak.
The World Darts Council soon morphed into the less pompous sounding Professional Darts Council and with the advent of Sky, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor began his domination of the sport (Taylor and most of the others were doled out nicknames by Sky, who appeared intent, by dint of theme music for players and flashing strobe lights, to make darts the British equivalent of WWF). Whether this has worked could forge hours of debate, there were over 150 hours of darts on Sky last year, but most could only be glimpsed on Sky Sports 3, the least popular of its five sporting channels.
For those concerned with the grim decline of darts since the days when people found Jim Bowen amusing, the lack of accessibility on television heads the list. Like its pub cousin Snooker, darts thrived on television. You mightn’t have been in Frimley Green to lager stain your shirt and smell the crowds, but you were almost transported there by dint of Sid Waddell’s literary commentary.
“The game is no longer widely available on television, “ Jack McKenna says. “That doesn’t help. And the sponsorship isn’t there anymore. Sponsors aren’t interested in darts, it used to be the cigarette crowd who were sponsoring all the tournaments, but they are not allowed to anymore. I suppose, it goes in circles, up and down.”
In Ireland, the situation is even bleaker. McKenna remembers being a young lad in his 20s in Newbridge. You didn’t have to search for people to stand at the oche. Twenty-five years ago, darts were big on the Irish pub scene. Big, big, big, and McKenna was the best player around.
“When I was younger, Sunday morning in Newbridge after Mass, you would go into the Arch Bar after Mass, and you had to be the first name down to guarantee a game, there would be that many people looking to play. And if you lost, you might as well forget about playing darts for the day or go to another pub, for you wouldn’t get back on the oche til closing time.”
Darts and pool, for so long the popular ways to kill those few early hours before a session got going, are falling by the wayside. And darts is suffering as a result. “In Newbridge, there used to be 12 dartboards round town, now there are about four. Pool has gone the same way. And it’s the same in any town. The younger generation only want to sit and drink, they are not interested in playing games, just drink and then go out and beat someone. They don’t want to take their anger out on a dartboard.”
McKenna hopes the Grand Prix event at CityWest will entice young people back to the sport he ruled through the seventies and eighties in Ireland. As Bristow and Wilson became celebrities in Britain, McKenna travelled the length and breadth of the island, beating all comers in tournaments that bore the names of Carrolls and Major.
“The game is almost gone altogether. That’s why people are playing in this tournament, to try and drum up some interest. In the seventies and eighties, darts was really popular in the country. We have seven or eight top tournaments in the country and then there was other tournaments like Open championships in Sligo, Dundalk, Limerick and other places. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”
It has been over 25 years since McKenna first started rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of the sport. When he first joined the global circuit, Leighton Rees was still in his pot-bellied prime. Although now 60, considered the twilight of many player’s career, McKenna feels he is playing as well as ever.
“I am 60 years of age, to be able to be throwing as well as I am throwing at my age, well it surprises a lot of people, but the thing is darts always came natural to me and it is not something you can lose. If the darts go my way, and I throw like I know I am capable of, then anything can happen. Phil Taylor is a big challenge, but the best can be beat, no matter how good they are. There is always someone around the corner ready to knock you off your perch.”
He may have retired by now, concentrating on his work on the buildings, if it wasn’t for a car accident a decade ago. Seriously injured, McKenna thought he had thrown his last piece of tungsten. However, a trip to the pub with his son told him different.
“I felt sure I wasn’t able to throw darts again, because I could barely walk for a few weeks after the accident. I was down in the pub about six months after the accident with my son, and I saw boys throwing, and I just thought to myself that even after the accident, I can’t be much worse than them. There was a tournament that night, that I won, after not throwing for six months. And that convinced me I could still play.”
So, out of 25 years of travelling the world, inhaling secondary smoke with the great pub arrow slingers, what are his most precious memories.
“I played against them all, Leighton Rees, Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson. In his heyday, Bristow was a magician, he would always beat me, but it was a pleasure just to play him ...... outstanding,” Jack recalls, his voice trailing off. So, it must be asked, Bristol, at his peak, and Taylor at his, who would Jack place his house on. “I wouldn’t put my mortgage on anyone to win that, it would be tight, very tight. I don’t know, Taylor is a wonderful player, but Bristow was special.”
It was the Crafty Cockney who denied McKenna a global title in 1989. Playing some of the best darts he can remember ever throwing, McKenna made it to the final of the World Cup in 1989. Only to meet Bristow. Still, it was a fruitful fortnight for Jack in Toronto. The Irish team came third, behind England naturally, of 24 countries.
There will be enough people in CityWest to create a sense of occasion, but it will be nothing like the hey day. Darts seared itself onto the public consciousness in Thatcherite Britain. Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson became such bona fide celebrities that Spitting Image crafted puppets of them, Martin Amis used his stylish prose to compose oh so clever pieces about the simple, base purity of the sport in Sunday broadsheets and Bristow’s achievements courted the attention of the Queen (Taylor has since become another darts player to be honoured in the Birthday list, she must be a fan, Liz).
In Frimley Green, every January, the Beeb afforded two weeks of televison time to those the Iron Lady seemed intent on making invisible in British society, the disenfranchised and down trodden who saw themselves reflected in the tattooed forearms and beer guts of their heroes. It was a working class sport, popularised by television, but for those who convened in Surrey to drink pints, smoke fags and swoon at Bobby George’s overbite, it was simply a release from the poll tax they couldn’t pay or the closure of another mine.
A cartoon character named Bully an a fading comedian named Jim Bowen wriggled into a prime time Sunday slot on ITV, bringing the game to a new audience. Each week, part of the Frimley Green crew would just fail to capture the mystery prize, which wasn’t much of a mystery as every week it was a speedboat.
However, the crack down the middle of the sport eight years ago only intensified what had been a slump.
Next week Ireland gets a chance to watch a sport trying to rail against inevitable decline. We can sit and watch Phil Taylor, enjoy Jack McKenna’s brief moment in the limelight in his twilight and discover the appeal. Martin Amis believed he had in the mid eighties, when he talked of a purity to the sport. A simple purity, and isn’t it great there exists a sport that remains immune to the fitness dictators and pionner culture dominating sport. Well, great for some of us.