The final of last year's Professional Darts Corporation world championship, between Phil "The Power" Taylor and Raymond "Barney" van Barneveld does not quite stand comparison with last weekend's welterweight boxing contest between "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather and Taylor's pal, Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton, except in the sense that, in a sport similarly festooned with nicknames, it brought together the world's two transcendent performers.
If Hatton had won there would have been more parallels: like "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Phil "The Power" has an aura of near invincibility. He had won an astounding 13 world championship titles when he stepped up to the oche against Barneveld at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet in January. When he swiftly took a three-set lead, only a Dutchman or a fool would have bet against him making it 14. Yet Barney stormed back to win 7-6. It was like Hatton getting up in the 10th to deck Mayweather.
If he is to regain the title that he once owned no less emphatically than he owns his house and his dog, Taylor must do it in unfamiliar surroundings: the PDC world championship begins on Monday on top of a hill in north London, at historic Alexandra Palace, where the BBC delivered the world's first public television broadcast in 1936. This time the Ally Pally cameras will be bearing the logo of Sky Sports, for whom the darts world championship is one of the biggest events of the year. This time, audiences really have something to entice them: can Taylor, at the age of 47, reclaim his crown?
At his relatively modest home on a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, I ask him what it felt like to lose to Barneveld? "It was a relief, in a way," he says. "It took the pressure off me, took the weight off my shoulders. I thought, 'You can have it for a bit now'. Do you know what I mean? But after a couple of months it really began to sink in that I'd lost. I thought, 'Right, I want it back now'."
Taylor admits that his fabled killer instinct went missing against Barneveld last year. "At three sets up I thought I was cruising it. I thought, 'If he wins a set it doesn't matter'. So you do take your foot off the gas a little bit. You can get spoilt in this game, you know. You reach the point where you get a new car and don't get excited about it. You get complacent, and that's what you've got to watch for. That's why I took my little grandson Matthew the other day and showed him where I used to live."
Taylor has told me before about his upbringing. His family were so poor that they lived in a house with no electricity supply; his father had to hotwire next door's meter. The upper floor was condemned, while a car was the stuff of dreams. "I told Matthew that we always had six or seven shopping bags to carry home two miles from the market. Now I carry the bags to the car and my arms are tired. It's good to remember where you come from."
Taylor shows me where he is going to; the brochure of a ritzy new housing development overlooking a golf course. Not that he does not like it where they are, knowing all the neighbours and that, but after eight years the lack of privacy is finally getting him down. The other week a bloke walked into the conservatory wanting an autograph. He had seen the front door ajar and just wandered in.
Taylor would have bought a new house for himself and his wife before now, but he felt a duty to sort out the rest of the family first. "I've got two houses for the kids, my mother's got one, the in-laws have got one, my 18-year-old will be wanting one next. I feel sorry for youngsters now. My first house cost 7,500; the same one now is 150,000. My parents paid 100 for their house." Just imagine how much more it might have cost, I venture, if they had been able to go upstairs. He chuckles. "You're right."
He was an only child, and reckons that the solitude is what turned him into the champion he became. "We had this little yard, and during the summer holidays, when my mum and dad were working, I spent hours bowling a golf ball at a stick. Just bowling, bowling, bowling. And I got to where I could hit the stick every time, repeating the same action. That's where the darts came from. And when you win you get attention. Maybe that's something to do with having no brothers and sisters around me, growing up. You get love off people. It's not just the winning I like, it's the affection you get for winning. It's a lovely feeling, that."
This is the fourth time I have interviewed Taylor, and each time I have warmed to him more. One might expect some arrogance in a man so dominant in his sport, yet there is none. Even his eagerness to drop the names of his celebrity friends comes across as endearing, rather than boastful. "I've had a couple of meals over at Amir Khan's house," he says. "His mum's the daddy of all cooks; I don't know how Amir keeps as slim as he does. But everything she cooks is healthy, see. She's given me some tips, which I need, because I'm always on and off diets. I put weight on very easy, like my mother. It's one of the reasons I got a big dog. I walk him in the afternoon for four miles, then I practise when I'm tired, which is good, fighting through the tiredness."
We repair to Taylor's practice room, where he plays me an answering machine message received the night before from his mate Robbie Williams. "Hiya Phil, it's Robbie, I'm in Los Angeles. I just wanted to thank you for playing 'Let Me Entertain You' when you come on stage..." Taylor listens again, a huge grin on his face, but is savvy enough in the presence of a journalist, damn him, to turn it off just before Williams leaves his mobile number. "I knock about with Pete, his dad," he explains, handing me some darts. Characteristically, he finds some kind words for my action. "You're nice and relaxed. I think you need a heavier dart. Freddie Flintoff got his first 180 with me the other week, you know. Over the moon, he was."
I hit a couple of treble ones with unerring accuracy, then stand back to watch Taylor land a succession of treble 20s, which, given that it is a training board, with smaller targets, is no mean feat even for him.
"I practise in here from nine to 11, one until three, five until six-thirty, and 10.30 to 11.30," he says. "It's just like when I first started. I'm watching the telly at night thinking 'I feel like practising again', which hasn't happened for a few years. And when I've been out playing I've had a fellow named Tom with me, a sports psychologist. He sits quietly, observing, advising on little things. It's all common sense, really and truly."
Tom, he adds, has worked with a lot of footballers, which reminds him that he was up at Newcastle United recently giving an exhibition. "I played Sam [Allardyce], Steve Harper, James Milner... Sam can't hit a barn door, but that James Milner is very good: 100, 100, every shot. A lot of footballers are good at the darts. They have good hand-eye coordination, see. John Terry's the star man at Chelsea. Me and John are going to have a little bash at each other."
On the wall, next to a framed pair of Amir Khan's boxing shorts, there is a chart compiled by Tom the psychologist, detailing various mental exercises. Another practice aid is a tape recorder, which plays raucous crowd noises. "The game has changed since the Premier League started," Taylor says. "The crowds have got bigger and noisier, and the likes of me and Barney aren't used to it, whereas the youngsters coming through have known nothing else, which gives them an advantage. When you were on a nine-darter [a nine-dart finish] you used to be able to hear a pin drop. Now they're chanting and whistling. That's why I practise with noise."
Taylor has not been on his most scintillating form this year, yet still he managed to win his third successive Premier League title. "When my form picks up, they won't touch me," he says. "And over the next five years I want to go up another level. My average over the years has been 105. Now I want to step up to 110, 111."
If he does that sooner rather than later, like over the next fortnight, then a 14th world title will be in the bag. But Barneveld wants his second PDC title every bit as much as Taylor wants his 14th, to say nothing of the other contenders. "Barney's very professional," Taylor says. "We can be in the same hotel all week and not see each other because he's putting in his [practice] hours, even though he says he doesn't. Everything he does is based on winning, and I like him for that. I like winners. And me losing wasn't such a bad thing for the sport. It created a lot of attention. Every exhibition I go to, they're all coming up to me, asking if I'm going to beat Barney?"
Taylor, though, will be cutting back on the exhibitions next year. He is forever in pubs, playing in rotation against the best eight players in the area. "Next year I'll only do 15 nights," he says. "For instance, last night I wasn't back until 1am. It's only 10 in the morning now and I'm tired, and I shouldn't be."
With those cuts to his schedule, he thinks he can stay at the top long enough to outlast the emerging generation of darts players. "I've already been around through the Eric [Bristow] and John [Lowe] and Jocky [Wilson] years," Taylor says, "then it was the Rod Harringtons and Dennis Priestlys, and now it's a new lot. I've seen off the first two lots, I've got to get these now."
Who knows, maybe he will stay at the top long enough to go arrow to arrow with Nathan Bradley, a three-year-old darts-throwing prodigy from Lancaster. On the morning of my visit, he is waiting for a call from Radio Five Live, who wish to talk to him about young Nathan. The call duly comes. "Oh yes, he's like a little Tiger Woods," Taylor tells Five Live. "It's ever so weird. Proper dedicated he is, a really good little player, with his little Power shirt on. And it will help his maths, see. He'll be as good at five as some kids are at 14 or 15."
The radio interview ends, with Mr and Mrs Bradley manifestly thrilled with Taylor's input. It is time for me to leave, and time for Taylor to put in some serious hours on his own, accompanied by the noise but not the affection of the crowd. Not yet. He calls me a taxi, which soon arrives, and he walks me towards it. The taxi driver winds his window down. "I never knew you lived at number seven," he calls out. Taylor looks at him blankly. "I thought you lived at number 180."
"The Power" grants him a generous smile, as if this flash of devastating wit has illuminated a grey Potteries morning, and returns to the house, a walking counterblast to the old adage that nice guys don't finish first. Except, of course, that last year he didn't.Reuse content