I’d never been to the Circus Tavern before. This is my debut, so to speak, and you know it’s rather splendid. I’ve arrived three games into the Friday afternoon session and the ‘Main Arena’ as it’s glamorously labelled is only half full. But that doesn’t matter a jot to the hardy souls filling their bellies with chips and lager on a Friday afternoon. I’ve already heard the words “who’s round is it” several times and on the table next to me one punter has switched to double vodka and cokes to “take a break from the Stella”. My watch informs me it’s half past three.
This is darts, warts and all, and it shouldn’t be any other way.
I’m here for the coral.co.uk Players Championship – a weekend jamboree of darting drama featuring the top 32 players from the 2008 PDPA Order of Merit. This is the culmination of a money based ranking table where players’ performances in selected tournaments count towards their final placing, and hopefully qualification for this weekend to contest the £200k prize pot. It’s being held at the PDC’s spiritual home and is yet another addition to the terrestrial TV schedule, with ITV4 continuing their recent affinity with the sport.
The Circus Tavern is steeped in character and is a far cry from the faceless arenas of the Premier League. In Bolton, Burnden Park became the Reebok Stadium, Coventry replaced Highfield Road with the Ricoh Arena. As a consequence, both clubs lost a part of their soul. The Tavern has soul.
This place is soaked in history and stained with tradition; I sit here imagining what it would have been like on that momentous night in 2007 when Raymond van Barneveld edged out Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor to the World Championship in one of the greatest matches ever witnessed. I’m looking forward to seeing a full house tonight.
The ceiling is a mass of cables, monitors and lights and it puts me in mind of the inside of The Nebucanezar in The Matrix film. I drift off again imagining Morpheus uploading professional darts training to my brain and me striding up to the stage, arrows twinkling under the spotlights, to plough my way through the field and lift the trophy.
The acrid whiff of salt and vinegar pervades the air, tickling my nostrils and bringing me out of my reverie. It also makes me feel curiously peckish.
I’m watching the fifth match of this session and Felix ‘The Cat’ McBrearty is getting his claws into Mervyn ‘The’ King. A table of King supporters, all bedecked in regal crowns watch on nervously, pulling on their pints and pulling for their hero, no doubt clutching a Coral betting slip.
The first two rounds of the tournament are a short format race to 6 legs and that is often a recipe for shocks. The previous game threw up a minor upset with ‘Woody’ Wayne Jones shooting down Terry ‘The Bull’ Jenkins. We scent another upset as The Cat has started well.
I spot somebody in the crowd wearing his own darts shirt, replete with darts nickname – is that wise if you’re not competing? Furthermore, his nickname is ‘The Jackpot’ – hasn’t that already been taken? Maybe they should introduce a new department in the mould of Companies House where nicknames are registered to the owner. Nicknames House maybe?
It turns out that The Cat’s flying start was as good as it got as he tamely bows out to The King.
So far today, Vincent ‘Greased Lightning’ van der Voort has won the longest moniker competition and also beaten Chris ‘Mace The Ace’ Mason, who simply makes the short step from oche to commentary booth. A recent arm injury isn’t helping Mason’s game but I can’t help wonder how much he’s taken his eye off the board with the punditry role he’s forging.
Also earlier, Colin ‘Jaws’ Lloyd steamrollered Jamie ‘Jabba’ Caven, and ‘Rocket’ Ronnie Baxter produced a fine comeback from 4-1 down, winning 5 legs on the bounce to dump out ‘The Viper’ Tony Eccles.
PDC Ringmaster John McDonald brings ‘The Wizard’ Colin Osborne into the arena to tackle ‘The Pieman’ Andy Smith, so named because he makes them, although I’m sure he’s also quite partial to them. He’s also partial to hitting 180’s and he races to a crushing 6-1 win that spells the end for The Wizard’s title ambitions.
There’s one more match to go this afternoon and the conversation on the ‘double vodka’ table next to me is whether to stop for some food or continue drinking straight through to the evening session. The consensus appears to be for the latter.
The final match of the afternoon sees Dennis ‘The Menace’ Priestley up against ‘Mr Magic’ Steve Maish. Priestley has battled cancer for the last year and he battled back here from 3-1 down to see off Maish who will rue missed doubles and a spot of barracking from a nuisance in the crowd.
Backstage, Maish is commendably philosophical about the incident, blaming his loss of concentration, but as the venue security has words with the aforementioned nuisance we’ve reached half time for today. Roll on tonight.
Vincent van der Voort 6-2 Chris Mason
Colin Lloyd 6-1 Jamie Caven
Ronnie Baxter 6-4 Tony Eccles
Terry Jenkins 2-6 Wayne Jones
Mervyn King 6-2 Felix McBrearty
Colin Osborne 1-6 Andy Smith
Dennis Priestley 6-3 Steve Maish
A mist has descended on the venue this evening. I’m not too sure if it is dry ice or cigarette smoke but it gives the place an aura of yesteryear when players would go at it with a fag hanging out of their mouth or non-throwing hand.
The evening session opens up with a smoking ding dong between Kevin ‘The Artist’ Painter and ‘The Prince of Herts’ Alex Roy. Painter emerges a narrow and mightily relieved 6-5 winner having trailed 5-2. Another game, another comeback.
They are followed on stage by the cunningly named St Helens man Alan ‘The Saint’ Tabern, who is up against the real ‘Jackpot’ Adrian Lewis. Tabern is the third seed here and wins comfortably against an out of sorts Lewis. In the players bar Lewis is shaking his head and telling anyone who will listen that he doesn’t know what happened up there.
In the mist the action is silhouetted against the dazzling lights lending a dramatic veneer to proceedings but the comedy hats and 180 placards remind me we’re just watching darts.
And the next match sees the considerable figure of Peter ‘One Dart’ Manley casting his shadow across the stage and his opponent ‘The Hammer’ Andy Hamilton. Hamilton puts in a typically powerful display to emerge the victor and continue Manley’s recent disappointing run. Dropping out of the top 16 is now a distinct possibility for One Dart.
A player who has firmly established himself at the top table is James ‘The Machine’ Wade. Three major titles to his name and little effort expended here in seeing off ex-world champion Steve Beaton, who’s nicknames have been numerous over the years. From The Bronzed Adonis to Magnum, the tash is still there and so are the nicknames. You’ve got to have a nickname.
A newcomer to the PDC, and nicknames, is Scotsman Robert Thornton. He joined the PDC last year and has plumped for ‘The Thorn’. He takes on a resurgent Mark ‘Flash‘ Dudbridge and a tight tussle is eventually settled in favour of the Scot who wins the deciding leg and further enhances his rapidly growing reputation. The glow of victory sees Thornton cock-a-hoop upstairs afterwards, and rightly so. The boy’s on a roll.
The crowd are now in full flow and the atmosphere is about to be raised another couple of notches. Enter Phil Taylor and Dutchman Michael ‘Mighty Mike’ van Gerwen. Taylor is the behemoth of the sport and ‘MvG’ the new kid on the block. But there’s to be no fairytale for the youngster tonight as Taylor powers to victory in typical fashion. On current form can anybody cut The Power?
This brings that other giant of the game to the oche, Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld. ‘Barney’ is backed by the raucous Barney Army, and he climbs into the ring to the fitting strains of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ as he prepares for a heavyweight dust up with ‘Rocky’ Andy Jenkins. Rocky puts up a good fight but in the end the Dutchman pulls away to knock out his opponent. Cue more crowd frenzy and placard waving attempts to get on the telly.
With the starter and main course served, we are now left with the dessert and one man who’s form has deserted him recently is 2008 world champion, Canadian John Part, comically nicknamed ‘Darth Maple’ due to his love of sci-fi. The draw has been kind to him here with Denis ‘The Heat’ Ovens providing little resistance. Ovens, always a dangerous floor player, offers up yet another limp performance in front of the cameras and Part goes through without being tested.
If we could request a match to round off the day, this would surely be it. Local hero Wayne ‘Hawaii 501’ Mardle finds himself in the unusual position of underdog against ‘Walshy’ Mark Walsh, a guy who has fought back from the curse of dartitis and actually goes into this tournament as one of the form players. A perfect 9-dart finish in Gibraltar recently confirmed his resurrection and he takes the initiative to build a commanding 4-1 lead. Mardle looks down and out but manages to find his range, reeling off five consecutive legs to complete another unlikely comeback and cap the day perfectly.
So that’s that for round one. The Tavern rocked, the players rolled and I thoroughly enjoyed my debut. I’ll be back.
Kevin Painter 6-5 Alex Roy
Alan Tabern 6-3 Adrian Lewis
Andy Hamilton 6-2 Peter Manley
James Wade 6-2 Steve Beaton
Robert Thornton 6-5 Mark Dudbridge
Phil Taylor 6-3 Michael van Gerwen
Raymond van Barneveld 6-4 Andy Jenkins
Denis Ovens 3-6 John Part
Mark Walsh 4-6 Wayne Mardle
Phil Taylor won the tournament in the end, beating Robert Thornton in the final without getting out of third gear. Thornton will be more than happy with his weekend’s work but must be kicking himself at his failure to take advantage of an under par Taylor. The Power has won 11 of his 14 world titles at the Circus Tavern but has probably never played as poorly as he did in the opening stages here, struggling with doubles and looking unusually flustered.
Playing his usual game, Thornton would surely have found himself ahead rather than locked at 5-5. And this failure to capitalise bit him hard as Taylor then won 6 of the next 7 legs to gain control. He eventually ran out a 16-9 winner to take the £50,000 cheque and inaugural title. Thornton bagged his biggest pay day and moved up to 22 in the Order of Merit.
The Thorn is going places and 2009 could be a great year for the Scotsman. A semi final defeat of James Wade, having earlier despatched Alan Tabern and Dennis Priestley, displays an impressive run of scalps. Priestley, himself had produced one of the great comebacks in round two, clawing back a 5-0 deficit to beat John Part 6-5.
Ronnie Baxter was the other semi finalist and a player who hasn’t been featuring in the latter stages of major tournaments for some time. The Rocket had seen off the fancied Mervyn King and Wayne Jones in his run to the semis before Taylor grounded him.
The one big name missing from this role call is Raymond van Barneveld. Barney lost a see-saw thriller to James Wade in the quarter finals and will be back on the practice board trying to rediscover the magic of two years ago.
Great story mate. We don’t get to see darts like this in Australia and it was good to read about your experience. Cheers. – Dave