Homely hero of menace

A veteran stands on the oche poised to put his rivals to flight. Greg Wood talks to a man keen to rule the world again; close-up; Dennis Priestley
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The Independent Online
Ten years ago, Dennis Priestley would have been one of the most famous sportsmen in Britain. Those were the days when it really meant something to be the best darts player on earth, all the more so at Christmas with the world championship beckoning. Eric Bristow was at the Palace receiving an MBE, Jocky was on his oche and all was right with the world of darts.

Like snooker, darts had emerged from a nicotine-stained back room to prove itself an ideal sport for the television age. There was the half- and-half picture, the excited, wobbling zoom after two treble-20s and the beery roar which greeted every winning double, not to mention a finish every five minutes, enough to satisfy the shortest attention span.

But unlike snooker, darts returned from whence it came, and it did so very suddenly. Television coverage all but disappeared and so, inevitably, did the sponsorship deals. By the turn of the decade, the Embassy World Championship was the only televised tournament left. Bristow, Jocky Wilson, John Lowe and company, including late arrivals such as Priestley and Phil Taylor, were stars with nowhere to twinkle.

They could only watch as the snooker players from down their street traded up to somewhere far more grand. Their deepening resentment was directed against the British Darts Organisation, the sport's governing body until, five years ago, the best players in the world walked out, almost to a man, to form the World Darts Council. Sky Sports offered the year-round coverage they craved, and will screen hours of action from the WDC's version of the world championship, which begins today at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex.

Forget the "official" tournament at the Lakeside Country Club, the final of which will pitch Joe Bloke against Steve Someone. It is the winner at Purfleet, receiving pounds 45,000, the largest prize in the sport's history, who will deserve to be called the best in the world. No one will be surprised if it is Priestley, who regained the WDC's No 1 ranking from Taylor back in August, who picks up the cheque a week today. As he cheerfully admits, however: "My timing's bang off."

His reasoning is simple. At 46, Priestley is one of the oldest players on the circuit, and the same age, incidentally, as Dennis The Menace, the Beano character who inspires his red-and-black image on stage. Bristow, somewhat incredibly, is still in his 30s, but Priestley did not break into the big-time until 1991, when he won the Embassy title despite starting the week a 66-1 chance.

"I'm old enough to have been there for all the good years," he says, "but I came to darts quite late. I started in my local pub. They had a team that played dominos, crib and darts, and to be honest when I joined I was more interested in dominos and crib. Then one night they were short on the darts team, so I had a go and found I was making as much as the regular players."

In those early days, Priestley was throwing at a Yorkshire board, without trebles, but the arrival of televised darts in the late 1970s made the trebles board standard, and also offered a serious incentive to practise. "People could see that if they were good they could have a comfortable living."

Armed with a new set of the tungsten darts which were all the rage - "they cost me the large sum of pounds 11.20, and they don't cost much more these days" - Priestley slowly worked his way through the local leagues near his home in the mining town of Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and his unheralded emergence as the world champion of 1991 was a textbook example of an overnight success which had taken a decade to achieve.

"I'd been there or thereabouts for a few years, captain of Yorkshire, in the England team," he says. "What turned it was the quarter- final against Phil Taylor. He was the defending champion, and I came back from 3-1 down and won it four sets to three. As soon as I made the breakthrough, everything seemed easier. In the final I beat Eric Bristow 6-0."

Within a few months, however, it was clear that professional darts was in serious trouble. "In some ways I blame the top names at the time. They should have done more in the late Eighties. Someone took snooker by the scruff of the neck and made it what it is, but we didn't do the same, even though darts has a lot of advantages. We're done and dusted in a couple of hours, you've got high scoring and then the tension of the finish, all that ebb and flow. And you can't play safe at darts."

For all the frustration, though, it is doubtful whether even millionaire status would make much difference to Priestley. He lives opposite the house in which he was born, and sees the devoted band of family and friends - the Mexborough Mafia - which follows him around the country as a indication that success has not left its mark. "It can go to some people's heads," Priestley says, "and it might have gone to mine if it had happened a lot younger, but they're all friends I've had a long time and I don't think I've changed. I'm very lucky to have them to support me. John Lowe might turn up with a driver and that's it. Obviously he's got his supporters but they're not really close people."

Priestley's success has been a precious source of pride for Mexborough, which has changed immeasurably since his father worked down the pit by night and built up a business during the day, "to set his kids up with a better chance". As a result, Priestley has never been down a mine, though as a former coal merchant, "I've seen plenty of it, but I relied on other people to get it up". He has also seen Mexborough's working pits dwindle into extinction, and much of the local economy with them. "It's a nice town with history, but it's really suffering. We used to have a thriving main street and now it's a ghost town. Unemployment is 25 per cent."

That he could easily be another statistic is not lost on Priestley. "I've been very fortunate, things have dropped into place very nicely throughout my life. I sold the business in 1980 and started doing contract work, which gave me more time to practise my darts. If I'd stayed in the coal game there wouldn't be much of a living now, and I would not want to be throwing bags of it around in my forties." Indeed, there can be few sportsmen who are so firmly attached to their roots, and even if he has never been underground, there is much of the miner's character in Priestley.

There is the appetite for hard work. "When things aren't right, you've got to practise more, there's no other way back. I don't think Eric's ever been able to accept that." And there is the strength of character which keeps his throwing hand steady at the most stressful of times. "What it comes down to at the end of the day is bottle. Whether that's something you can work on or something that's just in you, I don't know. I've had stacks of nervy moments with doubles, and some of them I've missed. But I've hit more."

From The Cowboy to Bravedart: A lexicon of nicknames

Bob Anderson. From Swindon. World ranking: 5. Known as "The Limestone Cowboy" - keen country music fan.

Eric Bristow. Leek, Staffs. Ranking: 14. "The Crafty Cockney" because he is a crafty Cockney.

Keith Deller. Ipswich. Aged 36. Ranking: 9. "Suffolk Punch" because of his roots and his knockout style.

Peter Evison. Ranking: 6. "The Fen Tiger" - he is from the Fens and has a tigerish temperament.

Rod Harrington. Chelmsford. Ranking: 7. "The Prince of Style" because he wears a tie and drinks mineral water.

Jamie Harvey. Barrhead, Renfrewshire. Ranking: 5. "Bravedart" after the Scottish legend Braveheart.

Cliff Lazarenko. Wellingborough. Ranking: 10. "Big" because he is.

John Lowe. Chesterfield. Ranking: 8. "The Elder Statesman" out of respect.

Chris Mason. Bristol. Ranking: 19. "Mace the Ace". Mason abbreviation.

Steve Raw. Bishop Auckland. Ranking: 13. "The Lion" because when he plays he "raws" like one.

Kevin Spiolek. Cambridge. Ranking: 11. "The Pope" - he sounds Polish?

Graeme Stoddart. Newcastle. Ranking: 16. "Shark" - he preys on rivals.

Phil Taylor. May Bank, Staffs. Ranking: 2. "The Power" because he is regarded as the finest player ever.

Alan Warriner. Lancaster. Ranking: 3. "The Ice Man" - the coolest of players.