Bristow, Deller and Jocky Wilson in 1983

Time’s Arrows

The pure, unappreciated entertainment of darts

Magazine Sports

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sometimes a cockney can get too crafty. The atmosphere was tense in a Potteries cabaret club on that extraordinary night almost 40 years ago. It may not have been the occasion when Sid Waddell, the voice of darts, told viewers that “they’re showing Othello on BBC One but if you want real drama tonight, get down here to Jollees, Stoke-on-Trent”, but the same sentiment applied. “The Crafty Cockney”, his generation’s greatest flinger of an arrow, was about to lose to the Milky Bar Kid.

In the deciding set of the final of the 1983 World Darts Championship, Eric Bristow, winner of five world titles between 1980 and 1986, trailed Keith Deller by two legs to one. The cherubic qualifier, just 23, was one leg away from defeating the maestro but Bristow had a chance to draw level. One hundred and twenty-one needed. Bristow licked his lips, stuck out his pinky and aimed for treble-17.

It is pantomime for grown-ups. They sit there in the audience dressed as Smurfs or Minions

Miss! A single left him needing 104. Bristow threw again: treble-18. The camera zoomed in on the bull’s-eye … but nothing appeared. Instead of trying to win the leg in one, Bristow had reasoned that young Deller, needing 138, was too far back. Single-18 would give him three goes at double-16 on his next visit. Cocky? Complacent? Deller had never played in a World Championship before but he had taken out John Lowe, the world No 3, and Jocky Wilson, the No 2, on his way to the final. The kid could throw.

And throw he did: treble-20, treble-18, double-12 for the title. As Deller raised his arms in the air, the camera caught Bristow slowly downing a pint. “I was left there smiling like a wally,” he later wrote. “All I wanted to do was punch his lights out.” “He’s not just an underdog, he’s an underpuppy,” said Waddell on a champion who had recently been filling doughnuts in a factory. And you could see why Bristow cursed the jammy so-and-so. This was like Foinavon winning the Grand National, Greece winning Euro 2004 or Emma Raducanu winning the US Open. And as for them, glory was fleeting. Deller won only three more matches at the World Championship over the next decade. From 1989-93 he didn’t even qualify.

A late, brief flowering came for Deller after darts, like the Catholic church 944 years earlier, had its great schism and rival World Championships were formed on either side of the M25 — the BDO at the Lakeside Country Club in Surrey; the upstart PDC at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex . But despite reaching the semi-finals in 1998, he was taken apart by Dennis “The Menace” Priestley.

“The Power”

There are some who will tell you that darts is not a sport. I don’t see why. If they say you need to sweat to be a sportsman, they clearly never saw Andy “The Viking” Fordham, the 30-stone world champion of 2004, under the lights at Frimley Green. If great concentration, nerve, precision and an action honed by thousands of hours’ practice are what you need, then Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor deserves to be celebrated alongside the world’s finest sportsmen. You try throwing a 15cm piece of tungsten over 2.4m into a target 8mm thick again and again. Now try doing it after as many beers as Fordham used to drink.

Above all, darts is brilliant entertainment, especially when the World Championship comes around at Christmas. It is pantomime for grown-ups. They sit there in the audience dressed as Smurfs or Minions, sinking gallons of lager, while cheering on a selection of fat men with bad costumes and dodgy nicknames who enter the stage to the sound of their own leitmotifs.

Taylor used to begin with a blast of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” that segued into “The Power” by Snap; Steve Beaton, who still calls himself The Bronzed Adonis at the age of 58, enters to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees; Peter Wright, the reigning champion, wears a multi-coloured Mohican and has a reptile painted on to his shaved skull that gives him his nickname Snakebite. It is gloriously silly.


And at its best it is gripping. I have seen Test centuries at the Oval, tries at Twickenham and gold medal-winners at the Olympics; I have watched Federer swat forehands on Centre Court and Tiger sink putts at St Andrews; I was at Lord’s when Stokes and Buttler won the cricket World Cup and at the Ryder Cup’s Miracle at Medinah. And yet seeing Raymond Van Barneveld make a 170 check-out at Ally Pally has to be up there with them.

In 2007, Barney and the Power put on one of the greatest pieces of sporting drama, the gunfight at the oche corral. Taylor, going for his twelfth world title, wins the first three sets; back comes Barney, the best player by far in the BDO but on his PDC debut since defecting. It goes to 6-6, a deciding set, then 5-5 in legs. With both players throwing superbly — Barney averages 100.93 for three darts, Taylor 100.86 — it comes down to one sudden-death game.

With another 180 — his twenty-first of the match — and a double at the first attempt, van Barneveld becomes the champion. “There’s your back-page splash,” I urged the night editor of the Times. “If I put darts on the back page, it will be the last thing I ever do in journalism,” he replied. The paper went instead with Manchester United drawing at Newcastle. Some people have no soul.

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