Darts: War and peace at the Gardens

Dave Hadfield finds the darts world in Blackpool trying to settle old scores
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The Independent Online
It is a beautiful afternoon in the resort noted for fresh and fun, but hundreds of people are choosing to spend it within the ornate confines of Blackpool's Winter Gardens ballroom. What is more, a good proportion of them are wearing red and black wigs and Dennis The Menace sweatshirts.

It is the tournament that is supposed to bring the world of darts together after its bitter recent schism, and the Mexborough Mafia are out in force for Dennis Priestley.

Blackpool, surely closer to the spiritual home of the game than Surrey's Frimley Green, which stages the rival Embassy World Championships, is the symbolic setting for the resumption of normal service.

Under the terms of a court ruling last month, the British Darts Organisation, which used to run the whole game, was told that it cannot ban 14 professional players who broke away in 1993 from its events.

The first consequence of that was players from the breakaway World Darts Council taking part in the BDO's British Classic at the Norbreck Castle Hotel, just up the coast, at the weekend. Priestley duly won it. By the same token, BDO players are at the Winter Gardens for the World Matchplay but, faced with players like Priestley and Phil Taylor, the WDC's No 1, few of them will entertain any hopes of winning it.

"They are going to find it very hard," Taylor said, relaxing after a first-round victory on Monday that the voice of darts, Sid Waddell, rates among the finest displays he has seen in 20 years.

"He was landing it in the same holes," Waddell said. "Eric Bristow was a burglar. Phil is a mugger."

Taylor is a protege of Bristow, who was beaten 8-2 by Dennis Smith on Monday. "I feel sorry for him, because he's been playing well again," Taylor said.

"He brought me and a lot of other players through. Probably wishes he didn't now, but he's still the biggest name in darts."

Bristow is not the only notable first-round casualty - the former world champion Keith Deller also went out at the first hurdle. "Played crap," he says. "Stevie Wonder would have beaten me." But at least the defeat frees him to help out the Sky TV production team in the specialist role of predicting where the next dart is going to go.

He has some assistance from two girls studying monitors to see whether a player is looking up or down, in order to hone in the camera on his next arrow. It is only for one player who is distinctly cross-eyed that the system breaks down.

If technology equates to status, Sky are treating a game which has suffered more than its share of disparagement with great respect, allocating 40 hours of live coverage and 12 cameras.

"When it used to be on BBC, it was one o'clock in the morning, beer-bellies and all that business," said the tournament director, Tommy Cox, who has still not forgiven Smith and Jones for a wicked spoof in which doubles and trebles were all of the liquid variety.

Darts has worked hard to try to live down that sort of image. There had been no drinking or smoking at the oche for eight years - although the practice room captures the atmosphere of its pub origins with more authenticity.

Those origins are nothing to be ashamed of, Waddell said. "It's working- class archery - and these men are working-class heroes. The difference between them and footballers is that the fans are their pals and rub shoulders with them afterwards."

Waddell also said that this is "the strongest field that has ever played darts together" and that it is a fitting conclusion to the battle between the two wings of the game. The game got too big for the bureaucracy that used to run it. When the players realised their value, the days of that sort of governing body were numbered."

Taylor, who has taken home prizes of pounds 45,000 and pounds 42,000 this year alone, can afford to be magnanimous. "This is a chance for the BDO lads to get themselves on TV, get a few exhibitions and earn themselves a bit of a living," he said.

They will do well , however, to take the bread from the mouths of the stars like himself and Priestley. Despite showing that he has what Waddell calls "his sloppy head on" by leaving his darts with his son, Priestley beat the BDO's Andy Jenkins 8-6 - and now goes back to sit among the Dennis the Menaces.