Barney's flights of fancy

He’s one of the most popular figures in darts but Raymond Van Barneveld has been battling his demons on the oche in recent years. From hypnotism to Buddhism, the Dutchman is searching for alternatives to find his best form again

Barney's flights of fancy

Tom Humphries chasing Clinton Morrison at the Crystal Palace training ground still sums up best the awkward dance.

“A decent feature requires at least an hour’s worth of interview. The first 30 minutes are just inconsequential faff, all the stuff you know the answers to, but need to ask just to get the wary player warmed up. The second half-hour should be meatier, but not too scary, and by that time has elapsed, hey presto, you should be having an actual conversation and finding out a little about what the person is really like. You conclude with the hard, scary questions. All fine in theory, but no PR person will ever tell a player that a journalist needs at least an hour of his time.”

That day, as he puts it in Laptop Dancing and the Nanny Goat Mambo, Humphries got a Morrison who “had nothing to say but only a few minutes to say it in”.

Truth is, Raymond Van Barneveld had plenty to say, but time was short. In the Twitter age, faffing has been squeezed well under five minutes, but Barney — as he is only known — proved so obliging on the faffing front that we had scarcely finished faffing when the PR person politely wondered if we had enough there.

Barney was in SportsWorld in Finglas on Wednesday ahead of his PDC Premier League match with Phil Taylor in the O2 on Thursday night. The Barney Army was about to march on the shop with flights and shirts to be signed and the odd copy of Barney’s 2009 biography The Eye of the Tiger.

And we hadn’t got near the scary stuff; stuff like his struggles with diabetes, with blackmail, with fame, with confidence, with the demons. If the much-advertised demons from that now-famous defeat by Upperchurch in Tipperary Town are still loose in Brendan Cummins’s head, the consensus is that Barney carries demons from beatings all over the darts world.

In recent years, he has turned to hypnosis, explored Buddhism, hired new management, thrown different arrows.

Still one of darts’ most popular figures, the faithful have grown used to seeing Barney shake his head on the oche, berating himself. Even if there have been little oases in his form, these past two years, it is the demons, the prevailing wisdom goes, that will prevent Barney ever adding a sixth world title to his one PDC and four BDO crowns.

He was a picture of frustration at the Ally Pally last time round, bowing out in the third round to the unfancied Mark Webster. A disappointment, then, to have Barney slip away to join his foot soldiers without really scratching the surface.

Still, a listen to the recording turned up a few things. During the faffing alone, the phrase “people forget easy” cropped up four times. There might be a few loose bits of the Barney puzzle worth chucking back in the box.

I had tracked down Barney’s biographer, Hans Willink, on Twitter — just to get a feel for how big a name Barney is in his homeland. Where might he rank in the annals of Dutch sporting celebrity? Top 10?

“All time? Certainly,” insisted Hans, not troubling the 140 character limit.

What did Barney make of that?

“It’s all about football in Holland. We’ve a lot of famous football players. People forget very easy. It’s 16 years ago since I became world champion. People forget easy. People who were watching the darts at that time — 1998 and 1999 — they will never forget these nights. It was absolutely amazing. But top 10, I’m not sure. We got a lot of speed skating heroes and Olympic gold medal winners.”

Bigger than, say, Krajicek? He brightens up.

“Oh yeah, I’m as famous as Krajicek. People know who Barney is.

“When I became world champion, 5,000,000 people saw it. That’s one in three. That’s really impressive, of course. And it’s not like a footballer, your face is in front of the camera for two hours. They know my face.”

Rooting on Google, I noticed Brian Viner of London’s The Independent had pressed Barney on much the same thing in 2006. Original as ever. This is how it went with Viner, who only wanted a top five.

“Johan Cruyff, of course, and Marco van Basten,” he begins. “And, erm...” I prompt him with the name of Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics, but he just laughs.

“No. Actually, me, I think. Why not? For popularity, why not? Also Joop Zoetemelk, the cyclist. And perhaps Richard Krajicek, the tennis player who won Wimbledon.”

Time seems to have chastened Barney. What about his home town, The Hague? The likes of Dick Advocaat surely can’t contest his status as its greatest sporting export?

“That’s certainly true. But I always say, people forget easy. As long as you’re not winning world titles any more; people forget easy. And funnily, the city of The Hague, I never ever heard nothing from them since five or six years. When you become world champion again, they call you straight away. You know how it works.”

Still, he is a Knight of the Oranje Nassau. Should we be calling him ‘sir’?

“The same as you call here [we’ll let that slide, Barney] a Member of the British Empire; MBE. I’m the same in Holland. I received a medal. Not from the Queen, but a minister. It was big. In those years, the Queen and her husband were sending me telegrams all over. I still have these telegrams, yeah.”

You might call the vibe a little wistful. But what about being the father of Dutch darts? The guy who took the sport out of the brown bars and onto TV and then into youth academies? The guy who paved the way for three more world champions; Jelle Klaasen, Christian Kist and Michael van Gerwen, A source of great pride, you’d imagine.

“Darts is still popular in Holland but not as huge as it was in the 90s and until 2005. Then I joined the PDC and the people in Holland seemed not to be interested any more. They were a bit fed up with the war between the organisations. The BDO was on a different channel so a lot of people on the streets didn’t realise what was going on. What is this? Who is Phil Taylor? They never heard of him.

“I noticed, if I play a PDC World Championship, it’s not that orange, not like when I played at Lakeside. And I believe it never will be. Which is very weird because darts is still popular but it will never be as popular as in those days. Never.”

Still wistful.

Hans Willink pointed out that the Dutch, as much as everyone else, still argue the tired old debate; is darts a sport at all? Barney has never won the Dutch Sportsperson of the Year award, which must be a coveted prize, judging by his reaction to my mentioning it.

“I spoke to one of the directors at the biggest TV channel, NOS. All the football is on there. He said; ‘if the darts was on our channel, you would be voted sportsman of the year because you will have seven, eight, nine million viewers’.

“Of course, for many kinds of sports, you need fitness and stamina. But do another trophy for sports like billiards or darts or table tennis or whatever. Give these guys a chance to win a trophy as well. Cycling, football, tennis, Olympic medals; you can never beat that.”

Barney loves the football, supports Den Haag, and is on texting terms with the likes of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

But in terms of his own sport; he might be best compared to van Persie’s old boss — a first foreigner to prosper on British shores. The first to change perceptions.

“It was a complete shock for my whole country. They never thought a non-English [speaking] player would win. They went mad. I was lucky at that time because it was in winter and the football was off. That was a big, big shock for darts in the UK as well. It gave you real popularity.”

That first BDO title, won in a thriller against Richie Burnett in 1998, remains the sweetest. “The best moment of my life.” When he landed that double-eight and dropped to his knees and allowed the tears to flow, he was taken to many hearts.

His people mightn’t have known Phil Taylor, but Barney was well aware and wanted to match himself. After three more worlds — 1999, 2003, 2005 — he made the call.

“I still think it was a well-taken decision to join the PDC. I’m still part of it now and really enjoying my life. I really believe the PDC was in a big dip. Phil Taylor was winning everything. And suddenly a guy from Holland, from The Hague, came over and in one year hit a nine-darter on TV and then beat Phil in the final. Winning the world championship after 12 months and becoming number one in the world.”

A few more tears were shed that night in the Circus Tavern after another of the sport’s best ever matches. Afterwards, talking to Donald McRae of the Guardian, Barney seemed almost floored by the enormity of his transformation, as McRae put it, “from postman to millionaire”.

“People want to have heroes, whether they’re footballers or singers or darts players. But it still feels strange that a lot of people want my success, my lifestyle, everything. Then I remember when I was growing up, I wanted to be Eric Bristow, the Crafty Cockney. He was world champion so many times, an entertainer who people loved. I wanted that myself.”

Four years later, at the Ally Pally, Bristow would say this of the man who had idolised him: “He is going too deep into his game and is not enjoying himself. He doesn’t look happy up there. He should be enjoying what he is doing. He’s getting paid a lot of money and it’s only a bit of fun. It’s a game, at the end of the day. He should look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m a lucky boy to be a darts player’.”

Barney had been to see a hypnotist on the morning of the first round of the world championships. He was trounced 3-0 by bricklayer James Richardson.

What exactly happened in between? When did Barney stop saying ‘why not’? When did he begin to worry about things like his people deserting him? When did he begin to worry? Alas, I didn’t pin that down. But as he dutifully sang the praises of Unicorn — “the best manufacturer in the world” — a little insight, maybe, on the whirlwind inside that head when he steps on stage.

“It’s about draughts in some venues. The temperatures. If you play the first game on stage, the temperature is okay. You notice there is a lot of draught, maybe some doors are open, you never know. When you play the fourth or fifth game, it’s better. It’s nice and warm. Sometimes it’s hot. Some of your darts will react to that. If there are draughts, your darts will go really straight into the board, which happened in Bournemouth against Wes Newton.” Barney lost that one, last month, his only defeat so far in this Premier League campaign.

“The first week I played awesome against Gary Anderson — 108 average. And suddenly, week two was a complete disaster. Couldn’t believe what I was throwing. And then you go, ‘what is wrong?’ ‘What did I do different than last week?’ You don’t know.

“You can’t figure it out and that’s why you keep on puzzling to try to get it done and to get it right in your head.”

What about the power of Zen? How did it help?

“Good. But when you do that, you have to get your body fit. You have to do a lot of exercising; running or jogging or whatever. Sometimes, you don’t have the time for it. If you don’t do that, and you’re doing Zen or whatever, it will cost you energy. Sometimes you are on the stage thinking ‘oh well, I’m feeling okay, I don’t care if I lose, which shouldn’t happen of course’.”

He chuckles at that. A line about Taylor from that interview with McRae comes to mind.

“His whole life depends on darts. I mean, I love my work but I have so much to do: my kids, my hobbies. I like the internet, I like playing computer games, but Phil never surfs on the internet. He only plays darts.”

You wonder would Taylor find the time for the running, if the Zen worked.

Maybe it was The Power who changed things; wore him down a little, like everyone else. The head-to-head, before Thursday, stood at 47-11, with two draws. Thursday night made it three draws, after they finished 6-6 in legs.

“In the first two years of the PDC, I really beat him a lot of times. Since then, I never ever beat him in the Premier League. But to beat a guy like Phil... he never offers you his own leg away. To break his throw, it’s not easy. He’s always out in 12 or 15 darts. If he hits 12, what can you do, you have to hit a nine-darter. So it’s hard to beat.”

The 2009 world final was a case in point. Barney hit the best average of anyone in a final apart from Taylor, many times, and Dennis Priestley in 1996. He still lost 7-1. Incredibly frustrating? “Of course, of course. What more can you do? My darts went brilliant. That night he was absolutely steaming.”

He remains friends, he insists, with his chief nemesis. The incident after the 2013 World Championship semi-final, when Taylor pushed away Barney’s handshake and invited him to ‘fuck off’ now put behind them.

Maybe. You sense it’s another little hurt carried around.

“For me, it’s all forgotten, but you have to ask him. I don’t know. He apologised. But I don’t know what went wrong with him that night. Maybe the pressure. Or maybe I said things in the press or in the studio he didn’t like. I don’t know.

“You have to ask him. He never explained it to me but he said I’m in a really stressful life now. I could understand if he lost that match. But he won, and won the world championship, what could go wrong?”

Thursday night at the O2. Last match of the night. Surely no draughts. As usual, the hall is on his side. Barney is throwing well enough and Taylor looks beaten. Barney has two darts for a 6-3 lead. Misses them. He has tops for 6-4. Misses it. The head drops. Wayne Mardle in commentary: “He’s never beaten Phil in the Premier League. Is it playing on his mind?”

Barney pulls it together for another draw and the smile looks genuine. “A great battle. Me and my old friend,” he tells Dave Clark. “I'm happy with a point against the best man in the world.”

Some people don’t forget easy.

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