Darts has changed. The old game of arrows, a sport rooted in smoky, sweaty, beer-soaked pubs where ale was the isotonic drink of choice and a warm-up involved a stroll to the bar for more crisps, has finally arrived in the 21st century.
After a lull in interest in the 1990s, there are now tournaments in Japan, Malaysia and Australia. The prizes have grown too: the total pot for next month’s World Darts Championship in London is £1.25m, with the winner taking £250,000.
Of all the pot-bellied behemoths to have bestridden the oche – the throwing line, 7ft 9.25in from the board – there is one real superstar: Phil “The Power” Taylor. And he’s going to give me a lesson in the game.
Taylor has claimed an unprecedented 16 World Championships, won more than £6m in prize money, thrown a record 10 televised nine-dart finishes and been nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2006 and 2010.
He is already installed at a dartboard in the corner of the Horseshoe pub in Clerkenwell, London, and is drinking a coffee when I arrive. With him is his associate Bob Glenn, a meaty, silent mountain of a man and – it seems – keeper of the sacred darts. Whenever Taylor steps away from the board, he hands the three darts to Glenn, who carefully removes the flights – the little plastic feathers that stabilise the dart in flight – and zips them snugly into a small leather pouch the size of a woman’s purse. When Taylor is ready to play again, Glenn reverses the procedure, carefully handing the darts back.
Taylor uses 26g darts specially developed for him by Target that cost £65 a set. I weigh them in my hand against the set I’m to use but the difference is barely discernible. “Oh, there’s about 6g or 7g in it,” says Taylor.
After signing a couple of autographs at the bar, he ushers me to the board: “Let’s see what you’ve got.” I put my toe to the oche, pull back the dart to just behind my right ear and throw – or perhaps more accurately fling – it at the board. Taylor steps in almost instantly.
“Put your toe to the oche and stretch your arm out,” he instructs. I do as I’m told. “See where your arm comes to? Now if you turn your foot and put the side of it against the oche . . . ” He demonstrates – “look where my hand is now.”
Where it is now is six inches closer to the board. I throw again from this new position.
“Woah. Don’t bring your arm up to your ear. You’re throwing with your shoulder. Use your arm. Like a knife through butter.”
I have a go. It feels oddly unnatural, my foot turned and the dart carefully brought up to within a few centimetres of my nose, but it makes sense. “You’re all set up,” Taylor says. “You know where your dart is going. Then you can just reach for the next one and adjust your aim slightly.” I hit the 20. I reach carefully for the next dart without taking my eyes off the board and throw again: a five.
How often do you practise, I ask as I pluck the darts from the board.
“I’ve taken a few weeks off but normally I throw every day,” he says. “I’ll work the board, we’ll do 50 bullseyes to start…”
“Sorry, you’ll hit the bullseye 50 times . . . in a row?”
“Yeah. Then we’ll move on to hitting treble 20s and work down.”
Taylor grew up in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, and used to play darts as a child – his parents always had a board. His break came in 1988 when darts legend Eric “The Crafty Cockney” Bristow sponsored him to turn professional. He left his job in a ceramics factory making beer-pump handles and headed to Canada for his first tournament. He won and never looked back.
Now 54, Taylor is no longer a young man and he seems keenly aware of how the game’s profile has changed. Downing a few pints before a late-night tournament and then hefting your 20-stone bulk to throw some darts simply doesn’t cut it in today’s sport.
“If I want to keep playing, I’ve got to take care of myself. These youngsters coming into the sport are bright lads. They see how much money there is now and they realise you’ve got to be fitter and stronger than the others.” To stay ahead, Taylor has adopted a lifestyle more commonly associated with a sprinter or footballer. “I’ve got a small gym in my house so I can work my arms and shoulders.” And healthy eating? “I’ve got a friend who has a juice business and he brings boxes round and fills up my fridge with fruit and vegetable juices,” he says. It takes me a moment to realise he’s not joking.
In January, Taylor attended a camp in Portugal run by Jason Vale, a celebrity lifestyle coach and motivational speaker also known as “The Juice Master”. Taylor’s favourite juice contains avocado, apple and ginger. “I walk six miles a day when I’m training,” he adds. “I live near a big hill and so me and Bob walk up it in the morning and back down.”
I challenge Taylor to a best of three legs of 501 darts. “OK, sure,” he shrugs. The aim is to hit treble 20s, reducing that 501 as quickly as possible, and to finish by throwing a double: the first player to zero wins. I don’t make a bad start of it – throwing 42 to Taylor’s 60. But he pulls away, throwing a 125, then 60, 100, 92 and finally finishing on a double 10, leaving me floundering with 131 left to find.
The second leg is little better. Taylor finishes in just 16 throws. But what the scorecard fails to show is that mid throw, Taylor answers his mobile. I’m tempted to suggest we blindfold him too or he throws left-handed but he’d still beat me.
I limp through the final leg, finishing with a relatively respectable throw of 73, but I’m glad it wasn’t best of five. Taylor hands his darts to Glenn and goes to the bar to sign more autographs for the pub’s star-struck regulars. Next time, mine’s a kale and ginger.
‘Staying Power: A Year in My Life’ by Phil Taylor is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20
Photographs: Marco Kesseler
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