Darts: Queen of the oche has sights set on equality

Trina Gulliver is the leading light of women's darts but falls well short of the men in the money stakes. Beverley Turner reports
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The Independent Online

Trina Gulliver is very proud of her car. The silver Nissan Primera sits in the drizzly Lakeside Car Park, her name emblazoned in red along the side, a dartboard on the bonnet. The sponsor- branded saloon signals her arrival in the primitively macho world of darts. It has only taken her five world titles to earn such a reward (and she will have to give it back on retirement).

Darts' culture possesses a harmless, old-fashioned chauvinism, where Bobby George greets you with a kiss on the hand and men in their fifties joke about their chances with a younger woman. The warm, friendly men at the Lakeside tell me Trina is a "lovely girl... and good too." For a game that was officially recognised as a sport in March last year and is desperate to leave the beer-swilling image behind, it is moving remarkably slowly in validating its female players.

Gulliver's acceptance by the British Darts Organisation is in no small part due to her appearance. Conveniently trim and attractive, her moniker ­ the "Golden Girl" ­ is as much about her hair colour as her winning record. The theme tune that accompanies her into the arena is Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing".

One of five siblings, Gulliver spent the first four years of her life in the Bowling Green pub in Southam, Warwickshire. Her parents divorced, causing them to leave the pub, but mother and daughters regularly returned to play darts. "I couldn't legally play until I was 16, so I would sit there watching. Then at the end of the night they would let me have a go," says Gulliver.

Her mother was a tremendous source of inspiration, raising five children single-handedly while working for a car-parts manufacturer. "Mum would bring these wooden palettes home and I'd smash them up and make things out of them. I was always good with my hands so decided to train as a carpenter."

That schooling would provide valuable lessons in surviving an all-male environment. "I got shit every day for two years at college," she recalls. "There was a lot of name-calling and my practical work would be smashed up again and again. I took it for two years then one day I just hit one of them. Knocked him out. They never said anything again."

Gulliver delivers the tale with a smile, a shrug and a genuine femininity that belies such a steely core. After qualifying she returned to the college to teach young women and later, 17-year-old boys. "I'd go down the pub with them at lunchtime and play darts. I always beat them."

After marrying at 24, Gulliver set her sights on devoting a year to darts. Within 12 months she was No 10 in the world but all her savings had gone. "It was awful because I believed I could be No 1."

The owner of Reeves boat-builders came to her rescue. As a long-time friend and darts-lover he collaborated with a local paint-spraying firm, Johnny King, and together they offered the £300 Gulliver needed for a forthcoming trip to Switzerland. She won there and returned to make an agreement with them about further backing.

Big profits in women's darts are rare. The open competitions across Europe carry a prize of roughly £500 per event. That leaves little to spare after travel and accommodation. With such little public recognition (not even one appearance on A Question of Sport) and little monetary reward, why does she bother?

"I just love it," she says. "I can't imagine life without darts. I will always be involved and I hope to make it better now for future generations of women." And of course there is the famous atmosphere of the Lakeside. "Coming out here is a feeling that cannot be beaten," she says, blue eyes sparkling. "It makes your spine tingle. It's a magical place. And I've never lost here."

Trina lobbied hard to gain a women's-only world title and won her struggle five years ago. Previously, women were allowed to qualify in the men's event. Trina was just one round away from making it into the top 32 that play in front of the nation. Now she believes she would rank more highly. As does Martin Fitzmaurice, the chief executive of the International Dart Players Association and MC at the World Championship, most famous for his nightly call, "Let's... play... darts!"

Fitzmaurice says Gulliver is "the best ladies darts player there's ever been. There isn't a title she hasn't won. She would give these top men a very good game." But then he explains: "She has taken the game to a new level because the stereotype of what a lady darts player looks like goes out of the window. She wouldn't look out of place on a catwalk."

On stage, Gulliver is famous for her focused, unflinching glare. Before missing a couple of doubles on her way to winning her opening match here at the Lakeside, she averaged just over 98 points per three darts thrown ­ better than any of the men in the first round. "The men were actually happy when we got our own title," she said. "If they play against a woman they are under much more pressure."

But the playing field is far from fair. The winner of the men's BDO world title will take home £60,000. The woman pockets just £6,000.

Taking to the stage against Chrissy Howard in her first world final in 2001, an official warned Gulliver that "the future of women's darts depends on this game." She had to prove that women deserved their own title. She did not drop a leg and managed a 34-dart average that is equivalent to today's top men. Perhaps just as importantly, she looked good while doing so.

The women's final has never been shown live on television and as yet the BBC cannot guarantee that it will be on Friday. But it will be available on their interactive service.

Tomorrow night Gulliver will play her semi-final against the England No 2, Claire Bywaters. They recently became house-mates andplay together in team events, existing as fierce rivals outside of them. "It can be awkward," Gulliver confesses. "It can be frosty. We get back to normal in the bar afterwards."

Her mother, Muriel, continues to be her main supporter and will be urging her on to a sixth world title. At this event last year she fell while shopping on the day of the final. Trina's sponsors took Muriel to hospital with a suspected broken hip, but the proud mother was determined to see the game. "They kept it from me because I would have worried," said Trina. "But she arrived on crutches and the bouncers carried her in to the arena." Gulliver may be walking in the land of the giants but she is well prepared. Suddenly that steely glare is easier to understand.