Darts: Flights of fantasy

Kirk Shepherd is a penniless sheet metal worker from Kent. Tonight he stands one win away from pocketing 100,000 as darts world champion. Paul Newman reports on a life-changing journey

Kirk Shepherd lives at home with his parents, cannot afford a car and gets up at seven every morning to walk two miles and back to his "horrible dead-end job" as an 8,000-a-year sheet metal worker. No wonder he talks about the last fortnight as a "life-changing experience".

Tonight the 21-year-old from Kent plays Canada's John Part, the 2003 champion, in the final of the PDC World Darts Championship. If he loses he will leave Alexandra Palace with a cheque for 50,000, which is 48,030 more than he had earned from darts before the start of the tournament. If he wins, he will double his prize-money to 100,000.

The only certainty is that one of the workers at FK Moore and Son, "the premier suppliers of fixing and fasteners for the glass industries", will not be clocking on for work at his scheduled start time at Haine Industrial Park in Ramsgate tomorrow morning. Indeed, it is a pretty safe bet that the firm will soon be looking for someone else to make hooks and screws out of sheets of brass metal.

"I really hate the job," Shepherd said in the small hours of yesterday morning as he reflected on his semi-final victory over Wayne Mardle on Sunday night. "I'd love not to set foot in the place again. I want to get out of it. Now I think I probably can, though I'm not thinking about that at the moment. I'll worry about that after the final."

Shepherd is the youngest player ever to win a place in the PDC final and is attempting to become the first qualifier to lift the world title since Keith Deller in 1983. If he wins, he will be two days younger than Jelle Klaasen when the Dutchman upset his fellow countryman, Raymond van Barneveld, to win the rival BDO world crown two years ago.

Ladbrokes, the sponsors, have taken some 20m in bets on the last fortnight's action at Ally Pally, but only one punter, staking just 5, backed Shepherd at his pre-tournament odds of 500-1. There was, after all, little reason to fancy a player who was one of eight to emerge from a 160-strong field at a qualifying tournament and had made little impact since joining the Professional Darts Corporation circuit two years ago.

Shepherd, the world No 140, is not short of confidence, but even he admitted: "When I came here I knew that if played the darts I could I might do well, but I never dreamt I'd reach the world final. Now I really think I can win this.

"At the start I was just chuffed to have qualified for the world championship. All I was hoping for was that I would play well in my first round against Terry Jenkins, who's the player I've always admired most. At previous competitions he had been the one who had given me the most encouragement and support. He even gave me tickets to watch him in the Premier League final."

Deller is another who has taken Shepherd under his wing. "Ever since I reached the last eight Keith hasn't let me forget the story about how he won," Shepherd said. "I think he'd love to see me win it. He's been giving me a lot of advice about the importance of relaxing and not worrying about anything.

"He told me the crowd would be on Wayne's side in the semi-final. He said I should concentrate on my own game, which I did. I hope the crowd will support me as the English player in the final, but I have to put all that to the back of my mind."

Shepherd's expectations were such that he did not bring enough clothes with him on returning to London for the resumption of the tournament on Boxing Day. "My girlfriend's been washing them in the bath at the hotel," he said. "Two pairs of boxer shorts for seven days were not enough."

But for his mother's ability with a needle and thread Shepherd might also have been looking for a new pair of trousers. "I split them when I reached down to high-five some mates of mine at the front of the crowd after the quarter-final," Shepherd said. "Thankfully, mum was around to sew them up."

His parents, Debbie and Keith, have been Shepherd's support team ever since he took up darts at the age of 13 and started practising on a board hung from the bathroom door. "Mum wasn't very happy when I smashed a window one day when I missed," he said.

"She's a diamond for me. I give her 18 a week towards my keep. You can't beat living at home. I don't think I'd survive living in my own place on my own. My mum and dad have been brilliant, supporting me all the way, driving me to wherever I've been playing. Now the rewards are starting to come for all the work they've put in for me.

"I wrote my Ford Fiesta off when I ran up the backside of some old lady about a year and a half ago. After that I couldn't afford to buy another car, or the insurance. I have to walk two miles to and from work, whatever the weather is. The factory's on an industrial estate and the buses don't go down there.

"I had to work the day before my first match here because my boss wouldn't give me the time off. They've been pretty good at giving me time off without pay when I've run out of holiday and need to go to a tournament, but if I can win here I hope this will be my future from now on."

Until now Shepherd has had to limit his practice to two hours every evening after work, but a new future is beckoning. He plans to take his parents and girlfriend on a week's holiday after the tournament but then hopes he can concentrate on moving up the world rankings and winning direct entry to the biggest events.

The evidence of the last fortnight is that he clearly has a big-match temperament, which he puts down to experience in karate, which he gave up when he was 16 in order to concentrate on darts. "I'm a black belt second dan," he said. "I think the karate has helped me a lot to cope with the pressure mentally. I used to fight in front of a lot of big crowds at places like Crystal Palace and I think that's what's helped me here. Karate's a lot harder than playing darts and it helps you concentrate. When you lose focus at karate for just one second you get hurt.

"If I'm going to win the final I need to block out all thoughts about the money and how my life might change as a result. I just have to concentrate on beating John Part."

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