Darts: Phil Taylor - The Power and the glory

Brian Viner Interviews: Despite winning a 13th world darts title this week to continue his utter dominance in the sport, the modest and retiring family man has refused to let an unprecedented run of success go to his head

Either way, Taylor likes to see his name on lists of sporting legends, and in an engagingly guileless rather than arrogantly presumptuous way, likes to put it there himself. He tells me that someone from Sports Illustrated once phoned up as part of a survey of the world's most dominant sportspeople.

"They wanted to know the secret of my success, and they were also doing Schumacher, Woods, [Mike] Tyson, Michael Jordan. When I gave my answers he said, 'You're saying the same as everyone else, Phil'. I said, 'Well, that's it. It's the fear of getting beaten. I'm terrified of it'."

Maybe Taylor likes to draw comparison with other sports because he is still seeking validation for darts. "The game's changed so much, it's a bit like being a footballer, with tournaments every weekend," he says. Or maybe it's just because he's a sports fan. Whatever, his conversation is peppered with references to his boxing friends - Ricky Hatton, Nigel Benn, Sugar Ray Leonard - and he quotes a Potteries hero even more exalted then himself, the late Sir Stanley Matthews, when I too ask him for the secret of his success.

"I knew him when he was an old man, when we were invited to things together. Still immaculate, he was. And we were talking about practising. He told me that when he was a player at Blackpool he used to go running on the beach at five in the morning, long before training, and I said, 'What did you do that for?' I'll never forget his answer. He said, 'Because they didn't'. That was it, see. He didn't just do things that nobody else did, he did them because nobody else did.

"I'm the same. I used to have a practice board by the side of the bed, and I'd set myself targets: five 180s before I went to bed, that sort of thing. Yvonne [his wife] would be in bed, wanting to go to sleep, and I'd be 60, 60 miss, 60 miss, 60 60 miss... Then on New Year's Eve as the clock struck 12, I would go and hit five 180s, so I knew I'd be the first one that year."

Taylor sits back in his favourite armchair and chuckles. It is scarcely 12 hours since he arrived home with the PDC world championship trophy, which has felt the lick of Yvonne's duster every year since 1995, with the exception of 2003, when it sat on John Part's mantelpiece. Taylor hated that. He was invited to Manchester United's Carrington training ground that year, and introduced to the players as the world darts champion.

"Ex-champion," said the ever-forthright Roy Keane. Taylor laughs about it now but it stung at the time.

Sid Waddell, as incomparable in the commentary box as Taylor is at the oche, reckons the reason "The Power" lost in 2003 was that he lost too much weight. Critical throwing mass, Sid called it. Well, this year, the critical throwing mass was back. Taylor is looking hefty again, and doesn't like what he sees.

"It embarrasses me, to be honest with you. People write things, and it's hurtful. So I've started my fitness regime this morning, and I'm going to document it, maybe write a little book. The thing is, I'm 45, and if I want to prolong my career for another five years I've got to be physically fit. You have to be so professional now in the darts. Some of the younger players hardly touch a drop of alcohol, and some don't touch it at all, like the Japanese and Chinese players coming through. Each time I see them they're better, like they are in the snooker. They're the ones to watch. So I'm going to take a lot more exercise. I saw that programme You Are What You Eat and it frightened the life out of me. We've had plans drawn up to take the roof off and have a gymnasium added."

It would be less disruptive to buy a new house. At any rate, I can hardly be the first to arrive at the Taylor establishment, on a modern housing estate just outside Stoke-on-Trent, feeling faintly surprised that it is not grander. The only conspicuous sign of affluence is an enormous TV - "Yvonne went out to buy a coat and came back with a 42-inch plasma" - yet his world championship winnings alone must give him a vastly higher annual income than most families in the neighbourhood.

"Yvonne likes where we are," he adds, reading my mind as accurately as he throws an arrow. "I've got plenty of money, that's not a problem, but this is handy for the children, for the schools, my daughter Lisa lives just round the corner with my grandson, little Matthew. I bought her a bungalow, Yvonne's mum and dad own their place now, I sorted out my mum and dad. The thing is making sure your family are OK. And the neighbours all know us here. They look after the place when we're away. Dave across the road is a policeman."

Not for the first time, Taylor's manifest decency, and contentment in the bosom of his family and friends, makes me feel a heel for even thinking that he should be living behind carriage lamps at the end of a gravel drive somewhere. But how about a second home in the sun? In 2001 he told me that within three or four years he would be retired and living in Spain or Florida.

"I know, but I keep setting myself targets. My target was 13 world championships, and now it's 15. You need a tape you can run for. And the gamesmanship inspires me. They all have their tactics against me, like the slowdown, where they take the darts out slow, or they'll mumble things as they're walking past, or if they're getting beat they'll put their darts in their pocket, so you think, 'I've got this'. It's a big compliment, really.

"The younger players all have their little chips on their shoulders, their cockiness, they all say they're going to be the ones to beat Phil Taylor, and that inspires me, too. That keeps me going. A home in the sun? I've been offered a brand-new villa in Turkey by a Turkish development company in return for their name on my shirt."

The significance of this particular sponsorship deal is not lost on a man who grew up so poor that he had to live on the ground floor of the house in nearby Tunstall that his parents bought for £50, because the upper half was condemned. The house had no running water and electricity was accessed through a hole in the wall by tapping into the next-door neighbour's supply. "In return my mother paid her catalogue for her, see." Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen could not have competed. But Taylor's recollections evoke community spirit as well as dire poverty. "When my mother had a miscarriage, one neighbour came in to look after me, one would do my dad's sandwiches for work, one came in to clean up, another did the shopping. That's how we were then."

In 1990 he did the community a good deed in return, by winning his first World Championship (then sponsored by Embassy) at 125-1, beating his mentor and sponsor, Eric Bristow, in the final. A few days later an old lady stopped him on the street. "She's probably gone now, but I'll never, ever forget her. Shaking, she was. She said she never betted, but she'd had her last fiver on me and won £750. I used to work behind the bar at The Huntsman back then, and people kept coming in to tell me I'd paid for their new cooker, their new carpets, whatever."

His success is still paying for people's home furnishings and kitchen appliances, the difference being that they now have to wager their mortgage to win a kettle. "Someone bet 40 grand on me this year and must have won a pound or summut," he says, with a huge grin. Has he ever bet on himself? "Never. Not once. Well, there was one year when my mate went to fetch a Chinese, and he owed me £10 in change, so I said put it on a nine-darter.

"I'd thrown a couple [of nine-dart finishes] in practice, see. The odds were about 14-1, and I got one. But I don't bet on the darts, no. Yvonne does sometimes. Did you have a bet this year, Yvonne?" "No," says Yvonne, delivering two mugs of coffee. "My dad did, though. He bet you'd win 7-1." He should have had more faith. Taylor obliterated Peter Manley 7-0 inside two hours, his third whitewash in five years. He also pocketed a cheque for £100,000, but there was no celebration, not even a bottle of champagne.

"I've still got the first one I won, in 1990," he says. "It's in the shed outside. I might go to Toys R Us to buy Matthew something, that's all. That's just the way I am. I go down the pub about once every six weeks with Chris, my mate who's a builder. We get there at half-past six and we're back at half eight, just before the start of what I call the loopy period, when the loopies start coming out. I like being at home. Some people call me a recluse."

Still, if reclusiveness is what it takes to be a 13-times world champion, it might yet become all the rage among darts players. Taylor is conscious of them clocking his every cough and twitch, much like professional golfers studied Woods in an attempt to understand how he had reached a plateau all of his own.

"It's funny," he says. "At the beginning of tournaments they all have this air of invincibility, and little by little the money gets bigger, and a lot of them need it, so the pressure builds, and then they start coming to me and asking for my secret. I tell them there's no secret, that what suits me might not suit them. I say, 'You couldn't do what I do'. They say, 'I could'. I say, 'You could for a week, but that's about it'. I'm boring, see. I practise two to three hours every day, even Christmas Day. Especially Christmas Day. And I take my practice as serious as I take the final of the World Championship. Afterwards, I'm tired. I'm in bed about nine, watching a DVD, like Zulu or True Grit. Or a comedy. Rising Damp's my favourite. That's what I watch when I'm feeling depressed."

It is hard to imagine him feeling depressed, although he has admitted to me before that he contemplated suicide following his conviction for indecently assaulting two female fans. The two 23-year-old women had accused him of groping them in his motorhome, after an exhibition match in Fife in October 1999. He vehemently denied the charge but at Dunfermline Sheriff Court in 2001 was fined £2,000, and afterwards lay awake all night wondering whether a good dose of exhaust fumes in a parked car might make things better.

"Everything goes through your mind, everything," he told me. "But I haven't had any stick. I've been all over the world and nobody believes a word of it." His next foreign jaunt, later this month, is a 10-day Caribbean cruise; sponsored, of course. But the evening after his return from Purfleet the 13-times world champion has a more parochial date. He's taking Matthew to see Mother Goose at the Regent Theatre, Hanley. Once he's put a good long practice session behind him, that is.

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