The Great Darts Split has received plenty of media attention: most sports fans must be aware by now that the biggest names in the sport have gone their own way with the World Darts Council, leaving the rump of the sport in the hands of the British Darts Organisation. Like most modern sporting disputes, television is the key. The WDC's Proton Cars World Championships are on Sky; the BDO's Embassy World Championship is on the BBC. It's all a tedious muddle.
The British Open (organised by the BDO) was a bit of a muddle, too, but it wasn't in the least tedious. Sixteen hundred darters had descended on the Thames Suite at the Park Inn, a vast chandeliered barn, to do their stuff. It was a convivial scene as the competitors and their hangers-on smoked and drank and darted. Bellies were de rigueur, displayed under two kinds of shirt: the proud, why-hide-it gut- hugger, and the maternity smock.
There were 40 boards; crowds milled and dispersed according to the star quality or otherwise of the quickfire qualifying matches. And that was the BDO's problem: few stars. They had Mike Gregory and Steve Beaton and . . . well, 1598 other players. Steve,who looks disconcertingly like Tom Selleck, brushed aside Marc Colaers of Belgium and settled down for another orange juice and more banter with Gregory. The pair were constantly interrupted by fans wanting autographs and snapshots, willingly granted. "
This is a social event, really," Steve told us, "a laugh, a chance to find out what people got for Christmas. I probably know 20 per cent of the people in the room."
The British Open was a happy, homely event, an evening in the pub writ large. The WDC World Championship was rather different. The venue, the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, is the epitome of Essex leisure, a gigantic nightclub with multiple bars and serious bouncers. Here the big names competed in front of the Sky cameras. They made grand entrances accompanied by blaring music and flag- bearing young ladies; huge screens relayed every twitch on the oche; Ladbrokes girls whirled around placing bets for the fans. The hype was heavy, the packaging all rather obvious: it worked with Jocky and Eric and Cliff; a few of the quieter players seemed uneasy. The fans (and, no doubt, the viewers) lapped it up.
Upstairs in the players' bar the off-duty darters took turns at the practice board, joked and joshed and put away the obligatory lagers. There was real camaraderie here, the same sense of sportsmanship that there had been among the competitors at the British Open. It arises, perhaps, because darts is such a pure sport: no referee, no line judge, no cause for complaint. If you're beaten at darts, you're beaten fair and square.
Next door to the bar the players did their "head-to-head" posing for the Sky package. It was the challenge of the day: stand facing your opponent with about six inches between noses and stare seriously for 30 seconds. Impossible. Jocky needed a box, and persistently kissed Dennis Priestley's nose. Cliff's belly got in the way. Bob Anderson couldn't stop laughing.
The players were serious enough on stage. Some people refuse to believe that darts is a proper sport, and all the Eubankesque parading probably won't help. But as long as there are matches as gripping as Jocky Wilson's contest with Dennis Priestley, the packaging will be irrelevant. It was a wonderful contrast in styles. The pugnacious Wilson, who looks as though he wants to throw his darts through the board, hurled his way to a two-set lead before Priestley, all quiet control and intense concentration,picked his way to parity. The final set was tied at 2-2 and the good people of Essex were on their feet, waving their lagers and baying for more as Priestley threw the winning darts.
Actually, we were doing a fair bit of waving and baying as well - we just couldn't help it. Whether it is played between friends in the fug at the British Open, or between stars on the screens at Purfleet, darts demands to be taken seriously.
UNSEEMLY goings-on at Sheffield dog track, where the 3.37 last Wednesday did not go as planned. The six dogs pinged out of the traps and raced into the first bend - where they lost interest in the hare and started an all-in fight among themselves. Honoureventually satisfied, they continued racing, but in the wrong direction: they met the hare coming back the other way. Greyhounds, Almanack has noticed, have very thin heads. Not much room between the ears.
MANY happy returns to Red Rum, whose 30th birthday is today. We hear that a keen admirer sent the great chaser a red rose as a present. Red Rum promptly ate it.