By Nick Friend
In decades to come, 2016 will be the answer to just about every piece of pub trivia. It was the year that everything changed – reversibly, irreversibly; for good, for bad; the sensational, the unfathomable. Many will wish 2016 had never come at all – a year full of controversy, tragedy and disillusionment. As December approached its end, the world needed a lift – a bit of fun: lights, music, dancing, beer and some high-class entertainment.
And there it was, as it always is, waiting for us at the top of Muswell Hill. As Daniel Harris coined so perfectly in The New Statesman, “There are few things on this planet which never disappoint. The World Darts Championship is one of them.”
If you watched it, you’ll agree. If you didn’t, you should have done. For, if political circles will forever view 2016 as the year of Brexit and Trump, the darting world will remember it as the year that saw the sport reach levels never witnessed before.
It is the same people who summer in St Andrews, scratching around the old course as they hack from bunker to bunker, who will never accept darts as a sport. But they are so wrong and, in truth, it’s their narrow-minded loss. The World Championships at Alexandra Palace are the culmination of a year of blood, sweat and tears, with tournaments held as far afield as Australia and crucial prize money to be won at each event. No spectator would begrudge these athletes their earnings – no sport gives us the simultaneous picture of anger, passion, delight and frustration like darts does. And as Gary Anderson agrees, no sport has an army of spectators so willing to serenade every player, applaud each double hit, provide such a carnival atmosphere regardless of the occasion, erupt with the magic of a nine-darter.
“It’s just incredible to be honest”, Anderson admits. “The noise and atmosphere at Ally Pally is like being at Wembley or Hampden Park, I just love playing there. The Premier League is just something else. When I’m playing at Glasgow or Aberdeen, the support for me is just out of this world.”
And why wouldn’t they be? Barring Sir Andy Murray, there cannot be a Scottish sportsperson representing his country with such distinction as ‘The Flying Scotsman’ himself. Going into the tournament as the reigning champion, a stage on which he had not tasted defeat since losing as the eighteenth seed to Michael van Gerwen in 2014, Anderson flew the flag once again, easing all the way to a third consecutive final. Given that Anderson could hardly see the board until he started wearing glasses shortly before the tournament, his run is all the more remarkable.
That he lost is, in a way, immaterial. “To be honest, I’ll look back very happy on the Worlds”, he tells me. “I changed my setup and had my glasses just a month before so it was always going to be an uphill task to stop Michael.”
There is, of course, a hint of frustration – he wouldn’t be the champion that he is without a sense of what might have been.
“I felt I played well. I just missed a couple of chances in the final and that’s all [van Gerwen] needed.”
Sixth seed James Wade claimed in an interview after his second-round win that “if everyone plays their best darts, Gary wins.”
Anderson, typically, is philosophical in response to the praise, insisting that: “A lot of it comes down to that one game. It can hinge on one dart. For example, the final probably changed on Michael hitting double seven to level the match at 2-2. There’s such a fine line between success and failure now. I know if I play my A-game that I can beat anyone.”
Anderson, however, is not alone in knowing that even an A-game assault may not be enough to stop Van Gerwen. Across the tournament, Cristo Reyes averaged 106 in his second-round defeat – breaking the record for the highest ever losing average, only for Raymond van Barneveld to record an average of 109 in his semi-final defeat. Anderson even threw at 107.8 in the final. Yet, Van Gerwen chewed each of them up and spat each one out, breaking a fifteen-year-old world record in the process as he averaged 114 in his semi – the highest number ever seen at the World Championship, followed by a record-breaking 109 in the final – the highest ever seen on the last night of the tournament.
Remarkably, the madness will increase, Anderson predicts. “This is just down to more professional players being able to give up their jobs and just practice, practice, practice. The average record can be broken again; Michael could well do that over a short format in the Premier League.”
Indeed, that record too belongs to Van Gerwen – currently sat at a mammoth 123.4 in a 7-1 mauling of Michael Smith in last year’s Premier League.
Such statistics bring the obvious question – is Van Gerwen invincible?
Twenty-five ranking titles in 2016 would suggest so. No player had ever even lost before whilst averaging 109 as van Barneveld did against him. Yet, Van Gerwen was so good that ‘Barney’ only managed two of the eight sets in one of the most stunning sporting displays ever seen. The equivalent to the Brazil side of 1970 at their very best, or Brian Lara’s 400*. But then he followed it up with equal astonishing panache to dispose of the reigning champion in the final.
Anderson, the two-time world champion, is, however, unfazed. “It becomes even more motivating and challenging. It would get boring if someone didn’t raise the bar every year. Michael has been phenomenal – but we’re not finished getting him back, that’s for sure.”
Perhaps this belief stems from the way in which Anderson and Van Gerwen have led a generation in hunting down Phil Taylor, the game’s greatest ever player, a sixteen-time world champion, and a figurehead for what the sport has become.
“Phil Taylor made the sport what it is today. His success, dedication and sheer ability made people watch the sport when it needed it most.
“There will never be another Phil Taylor so I can’t say whether it will be a golden era. Phil has done more for this sport than anyone else.”
What strikes me throughout Anderson’s responses is the level of respect that exists between the world’s top players. Of Van Gerwen’s triumph, Anderson was effusive in his admiration, acknowledging that “the best player won and that’s the main thing.”
Yet, given the vast amount of time spent on a grueling yet lucrative circuit, the jovial relationships that exist between the players is hardly surprising.
“In some respects, we are one giant family all touring together”, Anderson explains. “We have a laugh and a joke together, eat together and practice together. But the minute we walk up those stage stairs it all changes. But generally, it’s a good spirit and we have our mates on the circuit.”
Throughout our interview, Anderson is at pains to stress the professionalism of the sport – perhaps still wary of the ignorant stereotype that has long since left the game.
“It has become far more professional. There’s less of a drinking culture at all now. Again, with so much money up for grabs, the players are more focused. It’s more about winning than just a hobby as it sometimes was for players before.”
While debates surrounding money in football have never been in greater supply, with the Chinese Super League joining the Premier League in hurling unfathomable sums of cash at, often, mediocre has-beens in search of one final payday, Barry Hearn has quietly built up a sport, using money as a prize for success rather than a prerequisite on which terms are signed. The Order of Merit is based on the year’s earnings – encouraging players to attend more tournaments and to practice more in the hope of claiming a winner’s cheque.
And Anderson is grateful to the Professional Darts Corporation for what it has given its players.
“I don’t think I envisaged just how big it would become – not this quickly anyway. I didn’t see this coming during my career.
“Barry Hearn has done an incredible job. The sponsorship thy have brought in has made the game more professional, more competitive and therefore better to watch – and that’s why there’s been such an explosion of people watching at the events and on television.”
‘The Flying Scotsman’ sees this as merely the start; the Olympics have been bandied around as a possibility, though Anderson is wary of “a lot of red tape” that will have to be hurdled for that dream to transpire.
That, though, doesn’t feature high on Anderson’s list of worries. The welfare of the game, with both Taylor and Van Barneveld having admitted that they may be coming towards the end, is of greater importance.
“It looks very bright”, he tells me – though, with the infrastructure put in place by Hearn, it is hardly surprising.
“There are so many good players and the sport breaking into Germany and the Far East.” Indeed, 20-year-old German Max Hopp is just one of several talented young Europeans coming through the system as the sport continues to create waves all over the world.
Anderson is excited by the prospect, predicting that the sport “will become even bigger in middle Europe, Germany and the Far East – and become an even bigger worldwide sport.”
“The future”, the 46-year-old enthuses, “is going to be huge.”
Photographs: PDC/Lawrence Lustig