Eric Bristow and Phil Taylor: How darts' motormouth mapped out glory for The Power

The Crafty Cockney talks up prospects of the forthcoming match between his one-time protégé and Andy 'The Viking' Fordham to decide the undisputed world champion
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The Power and the Crafty Cockney, the two mightiest legends in the history of darts, 16 world championship titles between them. It is like having tea with Pele and Maradona, with Borg and McEnroe, with Schumacher and Senna.

The Power and the Crafty Cockney, the two mightiest legends in the history of darts, 16 world championship titles between them. It is like having tea with Pele and Maradona, with Borg and McEnroe, with Schumacher and Senna.

Except that it's not. Partly because this is darts we're talking about, a sport in which glamour plays second fiddle to lager. Is it a sport, even? How do these two men, the weeble-shaped Power and the booze-loving Crafty Cockney, tackle the tired old insult that darts does not deserve the same esteem from sports-lovers as aerobically demanding pursuits such as football? That it's basically a pub game?

Cleverly, is the answer. "We never said it wasn't a pub game," says Eric Bristow, the Crafty Cockney. "But there are different levels, ain't there? Football's played at Hackney Marshes, innit? There's a game of darts down the pub and there's the world championship. Anyway, darts is more of a sport than football because football is just about reflexes. The only time a footballer is under real pressure is in the penalty shoot-out. And we, England, we're crap at them. Footballers are fitter than dart players, course they are. But they never have time to think about what they're going to do. And when they do have time to think, in the penalty shoot-out, they ain't got no bottle. They can't even hit the target."

Phil Taylor, The Power, is less provocative.

"Alex Ferguson introduced dartboards into Carrington [the Manchester United training-ground], see, to help them with hand-eye co-ordination. They wanted me to go up there to play with them. Anyway, how do you define sport? Is golf a sport? Is snooker?"

I take the point. On the other hand, neither golf nor snooker have ever had world champions the size of a Transit van. Which roughly describes the British Darts Organisation champ, Andy "The Viking" Fordham, whom Taylor, Professional Darts Corporation champion for a record-shattering 11th time, is shortly to play in what is billed as a boxing-style unification bout to determine the undisputed champion of the world. The last time such a showdown took place, Taylor hammered the BDO champion, Raymond Barneveld.

Nobody seriously gives The Viking much chance against The Power. Nobody except Bristow.

"I think it will be a bloody good match," he says. But the Crafty Cockney is smiling. He works for Sky Box Office, who are televising the event. He would say that, wouldn't he?

Bristow knows better than anyone how good Taylor is. It was Bristow who 20-odd years ago, while running a pub just outside Stoke-on-Trent called, of course, the Crafty Cockney, discovered Taylor playing for his county, Staffordshire. He became his patron, stumping up for him to play in tournaments around the world, and duly taking a share of the prize-money.

"But he did it mainly to wind up the other players," Taylor says.

"He'd say, 'I've a lad here who's gonna kick the arse off you'."

Bristow nods, approvingly. "And we went to nice places. Vegas, Canada.

"There was this one tournament in New Brunswick, Canada," Bristow recalls. "Nice place. We played golf up there. Phil done a sharp right in a buggy and Keith Deller fell out."

Both men chuckle. We are sitting in Taylor's front room, in what, considering the money he must bank thanks in large measure to his canny manager, Barry Hearn, is a surprisingly modest house on a modern estate in an unremarkable suburb of Stoke.

The room, however, is anything but unremarkable. There are cherubs and cuckoo clocks and chandeliers and ersatz pillars, and in one corner a lifesize alabaster Nefertiti, holding a gold lamp. It is a minimalist's nightmare. But for Taylor it is the room of a man who's achieved. He grew up in a house that cost his parents £100, which was nothing even in 1960s Stoke. There was no electricity; his dad had to syphon it through from next door. And the stairs were condemned; they all had to sleep downstairs.

There were only three of them; his mum, his dad, and him. Bristow was an only child too. "Maybe that's why we were both good at indoor sports," Bristow theorises. "We spent a lot of time on our own. I got a dartboard when I was 11, and I used to spend four, five hours a day, playing darts. I was good at maths and the dartboard intrigued me, the way you could get the same score in different ways."

Taylor's dad made tiles; Bristow's was a plasterer. "Stoke Newington," he says, when I ask him where he grew up. "Do you know London?" A smirk.

"Spot the white man."

His comment hangs in the air for an uncomfortable moment, although I think I am the only one discomfited. Bristow is not only unreconstructed by the standards of 2004, but unreconstructed by the standards of 1985. It is in the mid-1980s, really, that he still belongs. The chunky jewellery that he wears now looked better then, when he bestrode the oche like a colossus.

Who, I ask them both, is the greatest darts player who ever lived?

"Me," says Bristow.

"Him," says Taylor. "Yeah. I'd say him. Course I would. He started it all, see. Leighton Rees, Lowey [John Lowe], Jocky [Wilson], Alan Evans, they all did their little bit, but he was the main one."

"Alan Evans walked off The Johnny Carson Show in America," Bristow adds. "That was the best thing he ever done. They asked him to throw darts between his legs, all that, and he said 'this is a serious game, mate', and walked off."

For eight years Bristow wasn't able to do much more than throw darts between his legs. He couldn't throw them in orthodox fashion because he was assailed by dartitis, the psychological condition similar to the yips in golf, which prevents the arm from following through and the hand from releasing the dart.

"It's my biggest fear," says Taylor, dolefully.

Happily, Bristow seems to have shrugged it off now and is on the exhibition circuit again, playing four, five, six times a week. He is due to play against John Lowe on the Taylor v Fordham undercard. And if the dartitis doesn't clobber him there, back in front of the TV cameras, then he can safely say he's beaten it.

"I dunno what it's all about," he says. "Bernhard Langer had it with a putter and Patsy Fagan, the snooker player, had it with a rest. Bloody weird, it is. I used to do a lot of work for Bass, 100 nights a year. They had an entertainments manager called Malcolm Powell, lovely fella, dead now.

"I got my manager, Dick, to ring him. I said 'Tell him I'm not going no more. I've had enough, I'm not standing up there not letting me darts go."

"Dick had other players on his books. Cliff Lazarenko, Deller. He offered two of them instead of me, but Malcom said 'I don't want 10 of them. I want Eric. If he can't let the darts go we'll sit on stage and have a chat."

"So I went. And that night I could let 'em go. I played lovely that night, lovely for two weeks. Then it come back. But then it went again for a bit longer, and after the third or fourth time it never come back. Now I just have this little jump."

Bristow was the most famous sufferer of a condition he assures me is endemic. "Every exhibition I play someone says 'I've got what you had'. Weird. Even practising I had it. The friggin' hand won't let go. I went to see a shrink, but you've got to believe in that sort of thing. I don't. Lot of crap, innit? A mate of mine said I should try fly-fishing, to get the arm moving again. It didn't do my darts any good, but I had a great time fishing."

Taylor is chuckling. "His mate took him to a reservoir, and there's this sheep in the field there what pushes you in the lake. Eric's there, and this sheep comes up and bump, pushes him in the lake."

A fleeting smile from Bristow. He doesn't mind poking fun at himself but I'm not sure he thinks others have the right. "My dad would have spotted it [the dartitis] coming. I was throwing slower and slower. But he stopped coming to watch me. Now he doesn't give a monkey's. I phone him up and say I'm off to Barbados for 12 days, and he says 'good, I'm off to bingo'."

Bristow's 12 days in Barbados are being paid for by the Barbados Tourist Board, who want him to supervise the running of a darts tournament there. The alternative foreign trip was to Iraq. "I was asked to entertain the troops. I said no. I done 10 days in the Falklands, but they chop your head off over there, don't they?"

Taylor listens admiringly to his mentor's wisdom. There are only three years between them - Taylor is 44, Bristow 47 - but the Crafty Cockney belongs to a different generation, darts wise. And dartitis or not, he's done better than many of the other big names of the 1980s. Jocky Wilson, for instance, is skint, ekeing out a reclusive existence in a tiny council flat in Kirkcaldy.

"But he don't drink any more," says Bristow. "He's got nothing, he's on the dole, he's diabetic, but he says he's happy, don't he Phil? He lost everything. Lost his little boat. If I could give something to Jocky it would be his boat. That's all he ever wanted. But he signed everything away.

"He was that pissed he didn't know what he was signing. He used to drink off the top shelf. I've seen it happen to lots of 'em. At first it's a double to calm the nerves, at the next tournament it's two doubles, then three. You can't start hitting the top shelf like that. With me it's beer. Guinness."

Taylor, by contrast, hardly drinks at all. It's food that's given him the belly, not booze. And he's started a fitness programme to prepare him for the Fordham showdown, which is more than can be said for The Viking.

"I'd like to see Andy lose a bit of weight," says Bristow. "He's a nice fella but he struggles with his breathing. He waddles along, don't he, Phil?"

"Yeah," Taylor says. "Mind you, it's easier to train when you're at home. It's much harder on the road."

"That's right," says Bristow. "I've just come back from nine days in Ireland. Eight Indians and a Chinese we 'ad."

We all laugh. Bristow starts telling Taylor about the fracas in Dublin allegedly involving Stan Collymore and some Bath rugby players, news of which has passed Taylor by. "That Tara was there," says Bristow.

"You mean Zara," I say. "That's it. Going out with that rugby player."

"Tindall," exclaims Taylor. "He's my mate, he is."

Rather sweetly, Taylor derives manifest pleasure from the famous people he knows, as well as the fame he enjoys himself. In most interviews he makes a point of saying that it's not as burdensome for him as it is for David Beckham, as though their levels of fame are remotely comparable. He has recently become friendly with the former boxer Nigel Benn, he adds, and proudly shows me a signed photograph of Benn.

But Bristow, as ever, can top this. He once sat at a dinner table with Muhammad Ali, he tells us. However, his celebrated bluster for once failed him. "I wanted his autograph but didn't want to ask him meself. So I asked this bird next to me. I said 'do us a favour, darling, get 'is autograph for us.' She said 'get it yourself'. She turns out to be Princess Caroline of bleedin' Monaco."

The Showdown is on 21 November exclusively live on Sky Box Office. Call 08705 800 888.