The sport of darts lost one of its greatest craftsmen and most emblematic characters recently when Eric Bristow, MBE, died from a massive heart attack. He lost his life while attending a darts event in Liverpool and was only 60 years of age. Here is a summary of those six decades.
Born in North London in 1957, Bristow was the only child of a telephonist mother and a plasterer Dad called George, who bought his son his first dartboard when the boy was just 11 years old.
A highly intelligent youngster, excelling at mathematics, he made it to grammar school which was a praiseworthy achievement for a working class lad from Stoke Newington in the 1960s. However, any prospect of a conventional life of educated respectability soon evaporated.
Eric went awry in his early teens, left school at 14 and later claimed any spare time he had away from his dartboard was spent stealing cars and breaking into houses. He recalled his teenage delinquency with inappropriate nostalgia in his later years. “We were good thieves, if there was such a thing,” he wrote. “We didn’t trash people’s houses, we didn’t physically hurt anyone and there wasn’t a sinister side to us.”
The big-hearted burglar somehow found a job in the city as a proofreader but soon realised that he could make 10 times his regular salary by playing darts for money at the weekend and Bristow was effectively a professional darts player by the time he was aged 16. By then he had already acquired the grating arrogance and ‘in your face’ brashness that was to define his public persona for the next 40 years.
He packaged that persona into a brand he labelled ‘The Crafty Cockney’, an idea that came to him when he visited a bar of the same name near Los Angeles in 1976. He explained why: “I was a freak, wasn’t I? It was an old man’s game and, then all of a sudden, you had this kid wiping them out.” The legend of Eric Bristow was now truly up and running.
By the late 1970s the BBC had come to realise that darts was fast joining snooker as the chosen ‘end of day TV viewing’ of the post-pub British public. It was fast-paced, had uncomplicated scoring structures and was cheap to cover. All they needed now was to find some heroes and villains for the viewers to cheer and hiss and their package would be complete. Eric Bristow at once became both and towered over darts for most of the 1980s the same way Steve Davis dominated snooker.
He topped the World Darts Federation rankings on six separate occasions and won a total of 22 major titles including five world championships, five world darts masters titles and four world cup singles victories. The colourful television commentator Sid Waddell proclaimed in 1985 when he again won the World Championship that “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Eric Bristow is only 27”.
The sharp-featured, mullet haircut, alpha male Londoner with the incongruously
effeminate throwing style had become one of the most recognisable faces in Britain and it remained that way until that sad night in Liverpool a couple of weeks back.
That is a brief summary Bristow’s six decades on Earth but still very far from describing the enormity of his sporting and cultural presence in 20th century Britain. More than any other player, Eric Bristow transformed darts from a pub corner curiosity into the large venue, lucrative fancy-dressed, chanting extravaganzas that we know and love today.
His beginnings are recorded in a grainy 1978 ‘fly on the wall’ documentary called
which can be found in the usual corners of the internet. It follows a 20-year old Bristow, loud, talkative, and skinny on a trip to a working man’s club in Nottingham to play an exhibition against 16 different opponents — wannabees who have paid to challenge the wunderkind who’d become an England international before it was even legal for him to drink in the bars he plied his trade in.
His world then is filmed through a haze of tobacco smoke and pint glasses of premium lager. Bristow is on the brink of fame but is already icily conscious of his standing in the universe.
“If I walk into a pub and buy a drink,” he tells the camera, “then I’m way too flash. If I walk in and don’t, then I am being tight. You can’t win.”
By the end of the Nottingham exhibition, he is drinking pints in two mouthfuls and still easily dispatching decent amateur throwers. Yet only 10 short years later his brilliant future was already in his rear-view mirror.
Bristow’s Shakespearian fall from greatness begins with the arrival of ‘dartitis’ in 1986, a condition that is now mainstream and even codified in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “state of nervousness which prevents a player from releasing a dart at the right moment when throwing”.
Bristow described the dreaded condition in starker terms: “You feel like you’re doomed. It does your brains in. Just does your brains in.” Within a year of winning his last World Championship in 1986 he was struggling to release an arrow, involuntarily holding the throw for over a second and a half longer than his previous norm.
The result was as destructive as the putting ‘yips’ in golf and although there was to be periods of moderate recovery in later years, his dominance of tournament darts was over before he was 30 years of age.
Despite his hardships on the ‘oche’, he used his boundless energy to drive his sport into ever-increasing revenue flows with often controversial and belligerent commentaries. He was one of the prime movers along with John Lowe in a breakaway movement that led eventually to the formation of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) which gave the elite players significantly higher prize funds and more control on their sport.
Another of his enduring legacies was to find, fund, and mentor the early career a talented pub thrower he met in Stoke in the late 1980s. It is eerily poignant that his protégé, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, played in his last world championship just a couple of months before Bristow died.
But his enduring footprint is this: Phil Taylor came second to Tony McCoy in the public vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2010. The cocky kid who took his arrows on that smoky train to Nottingham 40 years ago was travelling to play a game.
By the time of his death that game was now officially a sport and at the Echo Arena, Liverpool where he died, 9,000 people were paying half a million pounds to spend an evening watching it.