James Wade Raymond van Barneveld Mervyn King

2007 – who will break through and who will drop out?

Players come and players go. It’s a fickle and often cruel game and one where if you stand still you go backwards. Any ranking system, be it on points or money, has to be based over a period of time. This period has a start point and an end point – your position is governed by the points won in this period. And as time moves on, and your points fall outside the window, if you don’t top them up again you lose them. And this invariably means a drop in the rankings. It isn’t possible to tread water in this game when the rip tide of hungry new players are constantly dragging you out to sea.

So each year we can take a view of the top 32 and have a look at who we think will be there at the end of the year, and which new faces we might be getting familiar over the next 12 months.

2006 was a great year for Magners Cider. It was equally good for James Wade, Andy Hamilton, Adrian Lewis, Wes Newton, Terry Jenkins and Barrie Bates. These are the new faces who have given us some moments to remember thus far. There is a more familiar face to add to this list. One who has revitalised his career in 2006 and at the time of writing still has more points in 2006 than any other player, including Phil Taylor. Dennis Priestley is arguably the player of the year and a place in the Premier League is just reward for a man who said to me back in February – “The premier league is my aim. It might sound far fetched but I believe I can do it and that’s what I’m aiming for”. He called it, went out and made it happen and deserves massive respect for achieving it at this stage of a fantastic career.

That’s what these young guys are aiming at and competing with. Dennis has been the benchmark for years – the one player who could take Taylor on and give him a game. The one player who wasn’t beaten before an arrow had been thrown. Part & Barneveld have since come along to place themselves in the “Taylor’s Nemesis” category but Dennis has been doing it for years. He’s 56, looking to play till he’s 60 and planning to go out with a bang. Expect more of the same in 2007 and given a little more luck in avoiding Taylor early on could take one of the major titles next year. Possibly the big one.

I expect all of the players mentioned above to increase their stock next year. We may also see Andy Smith join the list if he continues to progress at his current rate. Awkward but effective and its all about confidence. Once you know you can get amongst the top guys and beat them the confidence grows and the success comes.

There are other players just off radar who could make inroads next year. One player we at DartsMad Towers are keeping a keen eye on is Colin Osborne. He broke his tournament duck this year and hit a 9 darter to go with it. 118 points in 2006 puts him on a par with Askew, Walsh, Anderson, Beaton and he can finish the year on a high with more to come in 2007.

Another one we have a soft spot for is likeable brummie Wayne Jones. He has had some difficult draws and awful luck this year, missing out narrowly on the big summer tournaments. A change of darts after 20-odd years may do the trick and herald in a bright 2007. He certainly has the game and a provisional top 20 ranking in the order of merit will hopefully see him qualify outright for more televised events next year.

A couple of players going the wrong way who I think can turn it round are John Part and Alan Warriner-Little. Part’s Desert Classic win this year reminded us that he is still around, and a force in the game. It is the huge points that he’s been defending from years gone by that have caused his ranking slump. Expect a big improvement in 2007.

The Iceman’s slump has been purely down to bad form. Too many lax performances for too long have shaken him out of his job and onto the tour full time. It can only help and few hours a day pounding the board should bring his game back to where we know it can be. He isn’t too far from the top 16 but needs to stop the rot immediately and what better time than the world championship where he looked to have kick started his career last year. Things haven’t gone quite to plan in 2006 but he can also curse the luck of the draw, which you need on your side almost all the time. You know lady luck isn’t smiling when, needing a good draw for once, you get Barney followed by Taylor.

Other names I will throw into the hat as players who look like they could make an impact next year are Mick McGowan, Matt Clark and Steve Hine, All have shown decent form in 2006 and are on the cusp of the top 32.

Now what about those going in the opposite direction? This is always difficult to call and nobody wants to drive nails into somebody’s career coffin. But it is inevitable that some players will move up and others will be shunted down. Stand still and you go backwards.

I don’t expect Dave Askew, Dennis Smith or Mark Walsh to remain in the top 32 for too long. Askew hasn’t done it for a while now. Smiffy seems to be struggling with his fitness and his game, and I really hope Walshy can overcome the apparent throwing problem he’s developed and get his game back on track. As enthusiastic as Anto McCracken is, Walsh should be putting him to bed any day of the week.

Dudbridge and Sams need to start winning on stage – particularly the former. Sams to be fair has started to warm to the task, whereas Dudbridge is trying to remember what it was once like. Why can’t Chris Mason deliver the goods consistently? It’s a question he will need to answer if he’s to challenge at the top next year.

Ronnie Baxter, Andy Jenkins, Dennis Ovens & Kevin Painter all have holes to plug to stop the ship listing as they are consistently outperformed by others around them. Once you get sucked out of the top 10 or the top 16 it becomes an eternal struggle, as automatic entry to big tournaments is less guaranteed and invitations to prestigious events dry up. It’s a slippery slope and these guys had better put their rubber wellies on sharpish.

It’s tough at the top and 2007 ain’t gonna get any easier.