The Power keeps his eye on the glory
The king of darts once missed out to a princess in Sports Personality of the Year but he couldn't care less – instead he's aiming for a 15th world title
Sunday 13 December 2009
Phil "The Power" Taylor is somewhat unplugged: sitting in off-duty garb, red and grey Berghaus jacket rather than regulation oche shirt, waiting for the energy charge of breakfast in a first-floor room at the Park Lane Hilton.
In terms of his chosen profession – or rather his ultimate profession – the man who used to earn £40 a week making ceramic toilet chain handles for AG Hackney of Burslem is not so much parked on Park Lane as past Mayfair with the game in the bag. Having won 14 World Championship titles, Taylor has turned the global darts game into a personal version of Monopoly. An on-going monopoly, that is.
When the great and the good of British sport gather in Sheffield this evening for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, The Power will be hammering away on a dartboard at home instead, preparing his challenge for world title No 15. "I've been invited to Sports Personality of the Year but I won't be there," he says. "I'll be getting ready for the World Championships."
The Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championships open at Alexandra Palace in north London on Friday, with a record £1 million in prize money at stake. Taylor is the 1-3 favourite to emerge with the £200,000 winner's purse from the final on Sunday 3 January. In this year's final the pride of the Potteries beat Raymond van Barneveld, the Flighting Dutchman, returning an average score of 111 per three-dart visit to the oche. Last Saturday he averaged 110 while leading England to victory in the Jocky Wilson Cup against Scotland in Glasgow. It has been a good year for Taylor. "Yeah, I've had a couple of good years...well, 20-odd years really," he says, matter-of-factly.
The new year will mark the 20th anniversary of Taylor's first World Championship success, when he blitzed his mentor, Eric Bristow, 6-1 in the 1990 final. Two decades on, at the age of 49, The Power reckons he is at his most powerful yet. "I'm playing better in TV competitions than I've ever played," he says. "I think this is the most confident I've been going into a World Championship. It would probably mean more to me to win a 15th world title than it did when I won the first. As you get older, you appreciate things more."
Not that The Power appears to be gaining due appreciation as the years roll on and the world titles stack up. Sid Waddell, the wonderful wailing Geordie banshee voice of darts, might consider Taylor to be "up there with Ali, Bradman and Babe Ruth", but when the runners and riders were announced for the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year award the name of the 14-times world champion was not up there with those of Jenson Button, Mark Cavendish, Tom Daley, Jessica Ennis, Ryan Giggs, David Haye, Phillips Idowu, Andy Murray, Andrew Strauss and Beth Tweddle. Taylor did make the shortlist in 2006 but finished outside the frame, Zara Phillips taking the honours, ahead of Darren Clarke and Tweddle.
"It really doesn't bother me," Taylor says, not just about his Sports Personality bypass but about his lack of recognition generally. "I've never had it, so I couldn't really care less whether I get it or I don't. If I did let it bother me it would ruin my career, so I just shrug it off. I just keep doing what I do, winning what I win, year after year.
"It bothers other people more than it bothers me. People say, 'It's not right. You've done this. You've done that'. But that's the way it is. It's always been like that, so it doesn't matter."
It seems a jarring note to mention before breakfast, but the fact is Taylor received a conviction for indecent assault in 2001 – although he has always refuted the allegations made by two female fans who visited his motorhome after an exhibition match in Fife. "I don't think the lack of recognition is anything to do with that," he maintains. "I think it's just snobbery towards darts. We're not all Linford Christies, I suppose, and they don't think it's on the same level. We're just a second-rate sport to 'em. That's what I think."
It is 29 years now since the Not The Nine O'Clock News team performed their classic take on televised darts, with Dai "Fat Belly" Gutbucket (Mel Smith) and Tommy "Even Fatter Belly" Belcher (Griff Rhys Jones) going for double vodkas instead of double tops, and with Rowan Atkinson in the Sid Waddell role ("That's a good start for Fat Belly: two doubles and a pint. That's 100 milligrams.") Darts is still struggling to shake off the hangover of its image as a bar-room pastime rather than a top-flight sport but even its sniffy detractors cannot deny that The Power happens to be a serious sporting phenomenon.
He already has twice as many World Championship titles as Stephen Hendry has won at snooker. One more would match the 15 world snooker titles racked up by Joe Davis between 1927 and 1946. Taylor has spoken on several occasions of hanging up his arrows and retiring to a beach in Spain, Florida or New Zealand but his plan is to maintain his world darting domination for another six years at least.
"Well, I'm 49 now, 50 in August," he says. "I'm looking to carry on until probably 55 and then settle down a little bit. Next year I don't really want to be playing tournaments every week, but having said that I'm old-fashioned. I come from a council house, so when there's £12,000 on offer every weekend I'll go for it. It's good money, and I'll win it most times."
Taylor might be a multi-millionaire these days, living in the exclusive gated enclave of Wychwood Park in Cheshire, but he still has the work ethic of the kid from the Tunstall council house with boarded-up windows and no electricity who went digging for coal in clay-pits and for copper wire on scrapheaps – and who grafted his way up to a £74-a-week merchant making toilet and beer-pump handles for Hackneys.
"At AG Hackney I started off on £40 a week and went up to £74," he reflects. "Yvonne, my wife, had £70. I had £4 pocket money. That was good, that. That made me into a winner. When people say, 'What makes you into a winner,' I say, 'Get rid of your money, that'll make you into a winner'. You've got to get up and practise then.
"I've seen a lot of sports people over the years – including dart players – where the money has come into it and ruined their careers. Yes, I've made a bit of money but it doesn't make a scrap of difference to me. If I won £50m on the Lottery it would just go into the bank and then it would be 'just move on to the next tournament'.
"'Think poor.' That's what Barry Hearn, my manager, always says. 'You're poor.' He keeps saying to me, 'I want five more years out of you, you little bastard. I don't want you retiring yet.'"
Taylor chuckles at the thought of the cajoling voice. A father-of-four and grandfather-of-two, he has always been a workaholic and a perfectionist. In his time at Hackneys he would not wait for the foreman to kick him if he happened to make one mistake in a batch of 1,000 handles; he would do it himself.
It is the same on the oche when he misses a check-out at competition time or during the countless hours of practice he undertakes. Taylor is his own worst critic, although Bristow probably eclipsed him on that front in the days when he took the young prodigy under his wing and bullied him into being the best in the arrow-chucking business.
"What Eric did was turn me into a winner," The Power says of The Crafty Cockney, the five-times world champion. "I was a good player, but I wasn't a winner. When Eric sponsored me – and he made sure I paid him back – he made sure that I was ready. Even now, he's still got that influence on me. If he walked into the room now, I'd get up and start practising. I wouldn't stay sitting down."
Taylor first encountered Bristow back in 1985, when he visited the Crafty Cockney pub that the darting legend ran in Burslem. More recently, The Power has been in the most cele- brated hostelry in the land. In February this year he played Disco Dave, the star of the visiting team in a pub match at the Rovers Return.
So he might not have made the Sports Personality cut this year, but he has joined the select band of celebrities who have made cameo appearances on Coronation Street, following in the footsteps of Cliff Richard, Norman Wisdom, Peter Kay and his long-term pal from the Potteries, Robbie Williams.
"How's Disco Dave doing these days?" Taylor ponders. "I think he's still winning dart matches for the Flying Horse." As for The Power, it will be back to World Championship Monopoly come Friday.
Phil Taylor was promoting Sky Sports' exclusively live and high definition coverage of the Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship, beginning Friday
Sportsmen of many parts
John McEnroe got to play himself alongside comedian Larry David in an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' in 2007. Acting as an emergency limo driver for the three-time Wimbledon champion on the way to a Paul McCartney concert, David told McEnroe "ping pong" was a better game than tennis. "I'd have to respectfully disagree," the one-time 'Superbrat' replied.
Ian Botham played himself in an episode of 'Emmerdale' in 1995. The cricketing colossus was opening the refurbished Woolpack Inn.
Shane Warne also made a bar-room appearance as himself in the Aussie soap 'Neighbours' in 2006. He was there to collect a cheque for his charity for sick and underprivileged children.
Graeme Souness and Sammy Lee appeared in Alan Bleasdale's bleak, black-humoured television drama 'Boys From The Blackstuff' in 1982. The Liverpool stars were approached in a nightclub by the Bernard Hill character, Yosser Hughes. "I could have been a footballer, but I had a paper round," he told them.
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