Darts and boxing, on the face of it, have little in common. It is hard to think of a fitter British sportsman than Joe Calzaghe, for example, or one less fit than Andy Fordham, and that is if you class darts as a sport in the first place. Yet there are more parallels than first meet the eye. Darts players, like boxers, have to keep their heads while all around them are losing theirs. They operate in similar noisy arenas full of baying, often inebriated supporters. They need good balance, a reliable aim and a steady hand. And the Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld's decision to leave the British Darts Organisation, which he bestrode like a colossus, and join the Professional Darts Corporation to challenge the dominance of Phil "The Power" Taylor, is rather like a champion boxer fighting for a more respected belt.
It might be stretching a point to compare the forthcoming PDC World Championship at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet, with a unification fight between the two best in the world. After all, there are 62 players other than Taylor and Van Barneveld to consider. But the commentator Sid Waddell, who knows a thing or two about darts, told me this week that he places the 39-year-old Van Barneveld ahead of Eric Bristow and second to Taylor in his list of the five greatest players of all time. And the seeding is such that they could contest the final, a lip-smacking prospect if only because of the excitement it would cause Waddell, who once said: "If we'd had Taylor at Hastings, the Normans would have turned round and gone home." In fact, Taylor is precisely the reason Van Barneveld has crossed the North Sea, and he has no intention of going home until the job is done.
We meet in the foyer of the Great Eastern Hotel by Liverpool Street Station, which does not appear to be full of darts enthusiasts, given the scant attention he receives. In the foyer of any hotel you care to mention in the Netherlands, Van Barneveld, "Barney" to the darts world, would be mobbed. Over there, he is a huge star; indeed, when I put to him a version of the Waddell question and invite him to name the five greatest Dutch sports people of all time, he includes himself after only fleeting hesitation.
"Johan Cruyff, of course, and Marco van Basten," he begins. "And, erm..." I prompt him with the name of Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics, but he just laughs. "No. Actually, me, I think. Why not? For popularity, why not? Also Joop Zoetemelk, the cyclist. And perhaps Richard Krajicek, the tennis player who won Wimbledon."
Van Barneveld is not being unduly immodest by placing himself in the Dutch top five, not when you consider that 10,000 people turned up at Schiphol Airport to welcome him home after he won the BDO World Championship for the first time, in 1998. But when he finally began to realise that his status was diminished simply by Taylor's existence, he delivered a dart in the eye of the BDO and joined the rival organisation, the PDC.
"Even people on the streets in Holland were saying to me, 'OK, you're one of the greatest players in the world, but what about Phil Taylor? I wanted a fifth BDO title, which would have put me on the same level as Eric Bristow, my first hero, but the PDC has better money, it has tournaments all over the world, but most of all, the biggest reason, it has Phil Taylor. If I stick with the BDO and then look back on my career when I am 50, I could say, 'Yes, I was good. I won seven or eight world titles. But I never played the best player ever in the world championship'."
Since crossing the divide this year, Van Barneveld has played Taylor five times. They have each won two matches, with one drawn. But they have had 15 meetings over the years, exhibitions and so on, and the Dutchman's overall record is less impressive: three wins, that single draw, and 11 defeats.
"The man is unbelievable," Van Barneveld says. "Even when I beat him this year, both times it depended on the last leg. His dedication is amazing. Every day he is training for three, four, five hours. His whole life depends on darts. I mean, I love my work but I have so much to do: my kids [he has three, aged 17, 14 and 12], my hobbies. I like the internet, I like playing computer games, but Phil never surfs on the internet. He only plays darts."
I tell him that I have been to Taylor's home in Stoke-on-Trent a few times, and never fail to be surprised by how relatively modest it is, considering the money he must have made. "Yeah, I heard that. I heard it is not a house that makes you say 'wow!' But that shows what I mean. His life is darts."
Van Barneveld himself, he tells me, lives in The Hague, "in a nice home but not a villa or anything like that". Until 11 January, 1998, the day he won his first BDO world title, he was a postman, earning 2,500 guilders (about £750) a month. "Not much with three kids," he says. "But that day my whole life changed."
So, in a small way, did the life of his country. "Many hundreds of Dutch people, maybe thousands, started to play darts when I won my first world title. And it has become very popular, I think because of the winter break in our football. For two months there is not much to do on Saturdays, so in the first week of the year, darts is massive. And the Dutch government sees this and puts in a lot of money. So our youth system is very good."
One of the products of this youth system is Jelle Klaasen, the dishy current BDO champion, who defeated Van Barneveld in the final at a decidedly orange Lakeside Club, Frimley Green. Another is the 17-year-old Michael van Gerwen, the Theo Walcott of the oche. Both acknowledge their debt to Barney, whose influence was recognised by an unlikely darts fan in Queen Beatrix. "I got what you call here the MBE. In Holland it's the same. She and the prince sent me a telegram when I was in the final, saying, 'We are watching you, you are a credit to our country'."
Barneymania started in 1995, says Van Barneveld, "when I first reached the [BDO World Championship] final. It was on Netherlands 2 television, which is like BBC 2, and people were saying, 'What is this, a Dutch guy in an English sport?' Then in 1998 when I arrived back at Schiphol, I couldn't believe it. It was like Michael Jackson arrived or something. We have a population of 16 million and more than five million people watched the final, almost one out of three.
"Everywhere I went people were shouting, 'Hey, Barney, 180!' I did press conferences, talk shows, newspaper interviews. I am a big football fan and I met Ronald and Frank de Boer, Philip Cocu, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, and they all told me, 'Hey, I was standing on top of my chair!' Actually I didn't meet my biggest football heroes yet - Dennis Bergkamp, Van Basten and Cruyff - but I know they're all aware of darts and what I do. Ronald and Frank de Boer both play and they are very good, but I think they are good at everything they do, tennis and poker as well, I know."
He has a big chuckle at this, and reflects on his rise from humble origins. "I was the son of a carpenter," he says. A good pedigree for this time of year, I venture. "Yeah, ha ha ha ha ha. Now my father is a lorry driver. He drives all over England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But when I was young he took me every Friday afternoon to a bar, The Entertainer, where they gave me a set of darts. I started playing in tournaments for three or four hundred guilders, but my dream was to compete in the Embassy [the single world championship before the schism in 1994]. In 1993 I became the first Dutch player to survive the first round. I lost to John Lowe 3-2, and he won that year, but I hit a 161 finish, a 170 finish. After that match I went to the VIP room and Bristow, Lowe, Bob Anderson, Phil Taylor, were all applauding for me. When I think about that it still gives me goose bumps."
I ask Van Barneveld whether, like some top players, he has supplemented his income down the years by placing some astute bets? "No, in Holland it is not allowed. There is gambling only in casinos. It is funny, actually, because you can go to the red light district of Amsterdam, which is legal, but you can't have a bet. But I don't mind, because I don't understand it. Eleven to six, six to 11, I don't understand."
His head for darts combinations, however, is very clear, and it is here he feels he holds an advantage over Taylor. "Phil is not very good at counting. If he has 266 left, he hits 100 instead of 99, but 99 would leave him a finish on 167. With 166 left he can't finish, so it gives his opponent three extra darts. That usually doesn't matter to Phil because he's so powerful at hitting treble 20, but sometimes it's a weakness.
"Actually, I am developing a system using the bull more often. If I have 201, for example, then instead of hitting 100 I will hit 105: treble 20, single 20, outer bull. That puts you on 96, which is a two-dart outshot: triple 20 double 18. On 101 you need three darts: treble 19, 12, double 16. And that one extra dart might be the difference between getting into the next round, or not."
I ask whether there are other areas in life where this mental agility comes in handy? "No, not really. If you say, what is 373 plus 349 then I have to think. Every darts player has to. What I know are finish combinations, for example 501 minus 137 is 364."
He will prepare for his debut at the Circus Tavern by playing his favourite 1980s music - Duran Duran, Culture Club, Frankie Goes To Hollywood - and to ready himself for the noise he can expect when Barney goes to Purfleet, from British fans as much as Dutch, he will turn the volume to maximum. That has always been his method of preparation, standing in the attic at home, practising at keeping his focus with ear-splitting music all around him. Whether his 17-year-old son yells from downstairs to keep the bloody music down, he does not say. Whether his preparation and form will take him to his first PDC world final, the next fortnight will tell. Waddell thinks there is every chance.
"I actually think Barney will win two out of the next five, that's my prediction. He has a better style than the Power, because he's the classic height for a darts player, six foot one and a quarter. That means he's looking exactly at the 60, it's on his exact eyeline, just under five foot nine, whereas the Power's looking up.
"Barney's also one of the most free-throwing players ever, but he's not the best chaser of a game. He doesn't have the big-game mentality of the Power, but then nobody does. The Power is the greatest sportsman I've ever seen for reacting to a negative. If Denis Law missed a header, he might miss the next one. If Bradman mistimed a drive, he might mistime the next one. But the Power puts negatives behind him and keeps them there. It's a big challenge for Barney, but I'm delighted he's taken it on. Absolutely delighted."
Amen to that.
The PDC World Darts Championship is live on Sky Sports, beginning next MondayReuse content