Darts: The legend of `Evans the Arrow'

The darts world is lamenting the loss of a showman who launched a new breed of sporting hero. By commentator Sid Waddell (right)
ALAN EVANS, universally known as "Evans the Arrow" since the early 1970s, died last weekend in Barry, South Glamorgan, at the age of 49.

It would be hard to imagine a less prepossessing character than this little Welsh genius whose image launched professional darts on television. He had spots, unruly hair, gappy teeth and the temper, at times, of a polecat. But when he crossed tungsten with his pal, Leighton Rees, his arch adversary Eric Bristow and fellow cockbird, Jocky Wilson, it was pure sporting poetry.

I first met "Rhondda Fats" when he came to Leeds in 1973 to play in the ITV Indoor League which I produced. Alan brought with him a dozen of the footy-style fans who had almost swept him to victory in the previous year's News of the World final. He lost - but his Denis Law-style victory leaps and playing to the crowd had entranced the audience on ITV's World of Sport.

Again, at Indoor League, he didn't win - but he didn't need to. Once Evans approached the oche there was a hush. He would swallow a good half of his pint of lager or cider. He would balance, graceful as Nureyev. The eyes would squint like Geronimo. "One hundred and eighty", yelled the caller. Up would go the right arm. On Boxing Day, 1974, he finished an exhibition at the Ferndale Labour Club in the Rhondda with 150 in three bulls.

By the summer of 1974, Alan was making pounds 70 a night at exhibitions, touring the country in a mauve Daimler Sovereign - but coming second too often in big darts tournaments. Then came the breakthrough. In the next 12 months he won the British Open and World Masters titles. Dressed in the white flares of a Welsh Elvis he jumped around the stage brandishing a leek. The legend had begun.

After a visit to Batley Variety Club he told me: "I signed more autographs than Lovelace Watkins!" In 1976 he walked off the Johnny Carson Show in America after being asked to throw darts backwards through his legs using a mirror. "I'm a dart player, not a bloody clown," he hissed.

Over the next two years he and his pal, Leighton Rees, then a National Coal Board storeman, took on all-comers for big money in the working men's clubs of South Wales. One day, from the North, came Brian Longworth and John Lowe with two bus-loads of supporters.

John recalls: "It was amazing this day at Maerdy. Two blokes stood down by the stage with two cardboard boxes in front of them. One was for Evans and Rees, one for Lowe and Langworth. There were dozens of blokes chucking money in the Welsh box. Our lot from Yorkshire couldn't match it. So some of the Welsh backed us just for fun. When we toed the oche there was a total stake of pounds 1,500 riding on the match!"

On that occasion Alan and Leighton lost but their moment really came in early 1978 at the first ever Embassy World Professional Darts Championship at The Heart of the Midlands nightclub in Nottingham. I will never forget the atmosphere as Evans and Rees stepped up for the quarter-final. Typically, each had "warmed up" on several pints of lager.

The crowd sensed that these two were not bosom buddies tonight. Evans started the match with a 180 and won the first leg in 13 darts. The match was a classic. At 2-2 Rees delivered a killer leg - 137, 180, 180, double two. A 10 dart leg. He went on to win 6-3.

A couple of nights later, when Rees won the title and was smoking cigars and pouring bubbly, Alan quipped: "Pickfords have just been on the phone offering to drive you round, Leight."

The verbals weren't so chummy when Evans, toting a dragon flag, a couple of leeks and sporting a badge reading "Proud to be Welsh", took the oche against other rivals at the Embassy.

I don't know if there was ever any personal animosity between Alan and Eric Bristow but in their early meetings they went at it like two fighting cocks who had not spilt blood for a while. Bristow, then as now, likes a quick game. But Evans was a master at slowing the game down, thus putting an opponent's rhythm off.

It all came to the boil on the night of 8 February, 1979 at the Embassy World Professional at Jollees, Stoke-on-Trent. Bristow, aged 21, was still smarting from a first round defeat the previous year by a tortoise-slow American, Conrad Daniels. When Evans employed the same technique in their quarter-final, sparks, harsh language and gestures resulted. It was magic television. Alan won the match in the very last leg.

It was the same story, but with less vitriol and more showmanship when Evans played Jocky Wilson. The result was the same - vivid sporting aggression between two little blokes the punters could empathise with.

It could be argued that Alan never achieved his full potential. He never won the Embassy title. One reason, Leighton Rees suggests, is the two- year ban in the early 80s from all British Darts Organisation events - imposed for an incident including an official. Also, kidney problems meant that his health was not good in the last years of his life.

But he came out of semi-retirement a couple of years ago to play a head- to-head against Bristow for the Sky TV cameras. Supported by his wife Jean and his kids Mark and Claire, the old eagle-eyed magic was still there for about six legs. Then, a shrug and a painful grin. Bristow won easily. Afterwards it was as if the past had never existed as the two of them had a few pints together.

Leighton Rees sums up the man and his talent thus: "From when I first met him at Tonypandy Working men's Club in 1970, I knew he was special. His darts were awe-inspiring. He made people aware of the game and he loved to be in front of the crowd - especially if they were Welsh."

Alan Evans was the darts entertainer par excellence. His focused aggression and obvious enjoyment of his skill paved the way for a whole new breed of TV sportsmen: Eric playing up to the crowd as "Mr Nasty", Jocky brandishing his false teeth in triumph and today Phil "The Power" Taylor coming on stage in a spangled cloak with pop music and a light show. They all owe a debt to the one and only "Evans the Arrow".

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