Bristow suffers icy blast

Purgatory in Purfleet for the Crafty Cockney as he steers a turbulent flightpath; Andrew Baker sees a former world champion fail to recapture golden days
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MOMENTS before he was due on stage at the Circus Tavern for his first match in the World Darts Championship, Eric Bristow disappeared. There was no question of a temperamental outburst, no suggestion of a backstage row or catastrophic confidence crisis. It was just that the man on the dry-ice machine had left his finger on the button for a little too long.

Eric? Are you still there? "Yeah mate." What does all this nonsense do to your nerves, Eric? "That's not the problem mate." A hand loomed out of the fog and touched my cheek. "Feel? Cold fingers. Murder innit. But that gets better once you're up there, in the lights and that. After the first leg you're fine. Nick the first leg, you'll be all right."

The mini-skirted young lady assigned to Eric raised the flag of St George and the recorded chimes of Big Ben rang out. The announcer started his spiel: "Ladies and gentlemen, the five times world champion, the five times Masters champion, the current world pairs champion, the Crafty Cockney himself . . ." And he shuffled forward into the mist and noise. Eric's day was about to take a turn for the worse.

He'd had a lovely morning. Up with the lark at the Palms Hotel, Hornchurch, brekker, half an hour's practice, then a wallow in the past. "Sky Gold are showing some of the great finals from the Embassy days," he explained in the players' bar before his match. "Me and Bobby George, me and Jocky Wilson, me and John Lowe . . . so I gave a couple of interviews to them, then I had a nice little natter with Bobby, who's a mate of mine." Then it was back to the room for a bath and change, and a splash of the smelly stuff, plenty of it too. Nice niff, Eric. "Antaeus mate. Then I come down here and put me new flights in. Done." He ambled over to the practice boards.

He was smart: black loafers, black slacks, scarlet sweatshirt, black leather jacket and improbably brown hair in a loose quiff. He's a banter machine, a josher fuelled on brown ale and frequent fags. Looking trim, Eric. "Golf. Nothing strenuous. And easy on the junk. It's hard that, though. You do an exhibition some place and get through at 11 and what's open? Chinese. It's hard."

A bow-tied bouncer brought in a couple of young fans seeking autographs. Bristow was delighted. "Bring as many up as you like, Dan," he said. "You know the rules: pounds 2.50 a time."

More brown ale, more cigarettes, more practice. Barry Hearn appeared and swapped Christmas gambling tales with Bristow, a kindred spirit. Dennis Priestley, Bristow's opponent that afternoon, was having a miniature camera affixed to his belt by some Sky television technicians. "If you go for a piss, Dennis," one of them warned, "don't waggle it too hard."

A tabloid reporter approached Bristow, who had snappy answers to some not terribly probing questions. Finances? "Fine, mate. Santa's been." Flash motor? "Volvo mate. Safest car on the road." Still pulling the birds? "I'm a married man, mate. Two kids. Is that it?"

Interrogation over, Bristow slipped off his sweatshirt to reveal his newly slimline physique before donning a red shirt with his trademark on the back: a London bobby superimposed on a Union Jack. Ready to do the business.

But the business was delayed by Jack Russell, who was resisting South Africa's bowlers, prolonging the Test Match and thus holding up Dennis and Eric, whose clash was to be Sky's next live coverage. "It'll be 15 minutes," a flunky informed Bristow. "'s all right," he said. "Same for both of us, innit?"

Someone suggested that the organisers should put a comedian on to entertain the crowd during the delay. Bristow had a better idea. "They should put the cricket on. Simple, innit? Then we could see, right, three overs left, we'd be ready. None of this 'Right, Mr Bristow, two minutes' 'Er, mind if I go to the loo?'"

Bristow must have felt like a dash to the Gents at the end of the first leg of his match with Dennis Priestley. The dry ice lingered in his fingers and he missed six shots at the finishing double. Priestley nipped in, Bristow said "Eeeyurgh" and eyed the scoreboard as if it had made an obscene suggestion to his wife.

Bristow threw 100. Priestley threw 180. Bristow threw another 100. Priestley threw another 180. Bristow muttered to himself: "Come on", he said. "Come on Eric!" the crowd yelled. Priestley threw a double 16 and took the leg.

In the mid-1980s Bristow was invincible: three world championships on the trot. But he hasn't made it to the final since 1991, and now - he threw a 20, then another 20, then dropped his last dart on the floor, picked it up and threw another 20. "Come on, Eric!" yelled a voice in the crowd, and the tone was different, suggesting: "You can do it. Can't you?"

He couldn't. Priestley won the first set 3-1, the second set 3-1 and the third set 3-0. Bristow wouldn't be in the final this year. The players' bar was quiet as he walked back in, lighting a much-needed cigarette, but his rivals were quick to approach with comforting words: "You've not played so bad there Eric," Rod Harrington said. "No word of a lie. He just didn't let you in."

Bristow didn't see it that way. "I missed a couple of chances in the first two sets," he reckoned, "but then in the third I wasn't playing darts at all. And I'm still annoyed at missing those six darts for double in the first leg."

But most of all he blamed the bad luck of the draw. "I keep getting these difficult draws," he sighed. "I never get the chance to get my toe into the tournament. But that will change. I'll plod on, and maybe next year I'll get a nice draw." He took a long pull on his cigarette. "And maybe somebody will start missing doubles against me."