“The Queen sends her best”— Sid Waddell
Seven feet, 9.25 inches. A little under two-and-a-half metres. Not so great a distance if, say, you were face-to-face with a grizzly bear, but it’s a mighty long way when you are standing, dart in-hand, all alone at the oche.
It was this measure that faced Fermanagh’s Brendan ‘the History Maker’ Dolan as he braved the cacophony of chaos that is the legendary Ally Pally crowd. Dolan, a seasoned pro, kept a steady hand. You don’t ever silence a darts crowd, you drive them wild. And that he did.
Almost all of us have thrown a dart at some point in our lives, whether down the local on a Saturday night or at home, half-fearful/half-hoping your sister might walk through the door from which the dartboard hung to receive said arrow to the forehead.
It was part of the 1980s TV landscape which was dominated by very North-of-England influences – snooker from Sheffield, Saint and Greavsie from the Granada studios, and Bullseye, curated by the inimitable Jim Bowen, a man whose voice provided a soundtrack to many a Sunday.
The game of darts nearly died a death in the 1990s but the millennium heralded a second golden age for the sport, thanks to some big personalities, clever marketing, and the universal appeal of throwing an arrow at a piece of cork.
The PDC World Darts Championships continue this week at London’s Alexandra Palace – the Ally Pally – and, truthfully, the theatre is a thing of beauty. For the sporting pedants among us, it is easy to cock our noses up at darts, a pub game played by working-class men who we believe swill ale with feckless abandon, most likely in lieu of getting reasonable employment that would take them out of this anti-social spiral.
For those of us that think that way, rugby is undoubtedly the safe, middle-class choice. A game played by proper-looking gentlemen. But, unlike the darts, rugby is not fun to watch anymore.
There was a time when the only occasion you would get shushed in a pub in Galway was maybe in the Crane Bar, and that would be for a song - usually a Clancy brothers lament - in which case the shushing was justified. Nowadays, every Saturday afternoon, January through March, speaking in a pub is strictly verboten, especially if Johnny Sexton is lining up a kick in Edinburgh, some 400 miles away where it is unlikely he would hear you. The act of kicking, which takes, on average, two minutes to execute, is followed by shrieks of hysteria comparable only to copulating hyenas. Johnny usually slots these kicks from what is referred to colloquially as “the 22”, a line that is 22 metres from the goal posts. Twenty-two metres!
I’d wager good money that with a little practice and the right footwear, most of you could kick a rugby ball through the sticks from 22 metres.
The beauty of darts is in its simplicity: it’s just you and your arrows. One player can make an entire arena go ballistic with three cocks of the wrist. There are constant upsets. The outsider always has a chance. Witnessing a live nine-dart finish is to see the sporting aurora borealis . Players’ appearance matters for naught.
Take Michael Van Gerwen, two-time world champion, unlikely to ever grace a
Men’s Health cover, but he can throw a cracking loomin’ bird. He can do it not because he’s a feckless beer swilling philistine but because of the 10,000 hours of dedication it takes all top sportspeople to succeed. The game is littered with characters — some unsavoury, just like any other sport — but the body language and the stress the players wear at the oche is anything but contrived. Then, of course there are the nicknames; Mark ‘Frosty the Throwman’ Frost, Richie ‘the Prince of Wales’ Burnett, Mark ‘the Spider’ Webster, and my own personal favourite, Kevin ‘The Artist’ Painter.
With the public’s growing indifference to inter-county football, the GAA should embrace the moniker concept: Cillian ‘The Teacher’ O’Connor, David ‘Edge of the Cliff’ Clifford and Dean ‘Chip off the old Block’ Rock.
Support for rugby continues to grow, while playing numbers do not. Maybe, instead of parents spending tens of thousands of euro each year to send their kids to a private school to get a shot at an academy contract in Leinster, they should seek out the darts school instead, simply because darts is a better career path because:
It’s time we broaden our perspectives as a sporting public — think less about what’s cool to be spotted at and more about what sports we can play with our children. To paraphrase Pádraig Pearse, if your son or daughter likes darts and you’re concerned and don’t know what to do? Buy them a dart board.