Darts: Global rivalry raises bar for Shepherd

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The Independent Online

They own Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, they fill more and more teams in Britain's professional sports and, from next week, they will be in charge of England's football squad. Foreigners are even taking over the pub.

John Part's 7-2 victory over Kirk Shepherd in the final of the PDC World Darts Championship on Tuesday night kept the title out of home hands for a second year in succession. Part, a 41-year-old Canadian who was the first overseas player to win a world title when he whitewashed Bobby George 14 years ago, succeeds a Dutchman, Raymond van Barneveld.

"I guess we can only thank your sporting curse, because it doesn't seem to be going very well for you at the moment," Part said. "I'm not trying to make light of it. I come from a country which is struggling for champions all the time. We feel the pain. Maybe in Canada we're a bit more supportive of our athletes' efforts. I think there's such a desire for success here in all sports that there's a bit of a backlash when it doesn't happen."

A record 19 countries were represented in the 68-strong field at Alexandra Palace, but there was hope: the sport's newest hero is as British as pub sawdust, even if his Ramsgate base is called the Australian Arms. Shepherd, a 21-year-old qualifier, thrilled record crowds for a fortnight.

"I went out to do some Christmas shopping the day after I beat Terry Jenkins in the first round and the odd person recog-nised me," Shepherd said. "Now when I get back home I probably won't be able to get in my own pub without being mobbed. Before I came here I'd probably signed 40 autographs in my life. Here I've been signing hundreds every day. The fans have been brilliant and I've tried to do my best for them."

Shepherd said he would not be returning to his job as an 8,000-a-year sheet metal worker. "Giving up work and becoming a professional is a big risk but sometimes you have to take risks in life," he said.

The emergence of Shepherd and early departures of Van Barneveld and Phil Taylor, who failed to reach the final for the first time in the Professional Darts Corporation event's 15-year history, emphasised darts' rising standards. More players defected to the PDC last year from the British Darts Organisation, whose BBC-televised world championship begins at Frimley Green this weekend. It is hard to see anyone beating Taylor's 13 titles in future.

"There are so many great players coming through, like Kirk," Part said. "There are still old guys playing great and it's never been so open. I think that's why we're seeing signs of weakness from great players like Phil and Raymond. It's not easy for anybody now."