Burnett threat to Gutbucket and Zane

Greg Wood observes the lesser lights of darts bidding for a place in the limelight at the Embassy World Championships
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The Independent Online
The walls of the Lakeside Country Club are smothered with photographs, hundreds of them, of the entertainers who have walked its stage down the years. Some - Michael Barrymore, Jim Davidson - have made their mark on a far wider audience. Many more - like Arnold Gutbucket, and Zane, International Illusionist - remain stubbornly rooted in obscurity. For the competitors in this week's Embassy World Darts Championship, the pictures are an uncomfortable reminder of how fragile and limited fame can be.

Ten years ago, when darts was - well, almost - the new rock 'n' roll, its leading players were seriously famous. By and large, men such as Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson still are, even though their talents are in decline and they have joined the rebel darts circuit on Sky television. The average person in the street, however, would not recognise Richie Burnett if he poked them on the nose with one of his arrows.

Burnett is the reigning Embassy world champion, and a strong favourite to retain his title after beating Roland Scholten to reach the quarter- finals last night. One day, he might even match Bristow's record of five championships, but still, you feel, he would struggle for even a fraction of the Crafty Cockney's recognition factor. So where did darts go wrong?

Some say - as they do about snooker - that there just aren't any characters any more. They have clearly not met Andy Fordham. Long before his match with Andy Jenkins last night, Fordham was tackling a bottle of Pils lager, which was clearly not his first (he admits to having "a few" before going on stage). Fordham's trademark is the all-black wardrobe which is draped over his 20-stone frame because, as he says with his tongue in chubby cheek, "it makes me look slim".

With his bulk, beard and shoulder-length hair, Fordham was inevitably dubbed "the Viking", although it is doubtful whether the ancient Norsemen were quite as keen on tattoos. He is also delighted to make his living playing darts. "Hard life, isn't it?", he says. "In the pub every night."

The Viking fulfils most preconceptions about darts players - "I like a drink and I'm a bit large" - but as the No 2 seed this week, he has every chance of picking up the pounds 36,000 first prize. For all the bright lights and glamour of Sky's world championship, the serious money is still at the Lakeside.

William Hill estimates that Phil Taylor, winner of the rebel championship, would be a 1-6 favourite were he to play the winner of the Embassy. But while the very best players throw their darts elsewhere, the official championship still has considerable strength in depth. Burnett, Fordham and Martin Adams, the third seed, will all expect to record three-dart averages close to or above 90 throughout the tournament, while Ronnie Baxter, who beat Alan Brown last night, averaged an exceptional 95 for each three darts.

The crowd - a 1,200 sell-out throughout the tournament - certainly does not seem to miss the old stars. Some had even come from the Netherlands to support Scholten and Raymond "Barney Rubble" Barnveld, and others cheerfully picked their way between the tables carrying, in one case, a tray with nine pints of beer, and two G&Ts for the ladies.

Bristow and Wilson may be history, Taylor and Dennis Priestley may be the best in the world, but darts is putting on a convincing show of getting by without them.

Who knows, they may even save Richie Burnett a space next to Arnold and Zane.