Men of letters court chance to pool their wits

Greg Wood sees darts continue its emergence from the gloom of the late Eighties in the emotional atmosphere of an Essex night-club
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The Independent Online
It was shortly after 1pm and Dennis "The Menace" Priestley was ready to make his entrance into the Circus Tavern for the first match of the day in the WDC World Darts Championship, but something was not quite right. Despite the best endeavours of several smoke machines, not to mention the substantial puffing majority in the audience, you could still see the board, so a man with a mobile fug-generator - who was clearly being paid by the cough - was dispatched to add a final cloud or three. By the time he had finished, visibility was down to six inches. At last, somewhere to the left of the acrid fogbank, the stage was set for darts, Sky-style.

And that, it must be said, is the only style worth bothering with. In each of the four years since the WDC breakaway, the presentation at the Purfleet venue has grown a little more garish, but it is none the worse for that. When darts fell into a late-80s slump even more drastic than the one in the housing market, the big names felt a new ruling body was the only answer, and now their decision appears to be paying off.

After lagging behind the prize-money on offer in the other world championship, the Embassy event at Frimley Green, the WDC tournament now offers pounds 45,000 to the winner, the largest prize in darts. The formula - gladiatorial entrances, young women in swimsuits, bright lights and thumping disco beats - might not appeal to the old-timers in the snug of the Ferret and Trouser-Leg, but darts, you feel, is finally on the way back.

And it has much to offer, not least a degree of audience participation which few other sports would encourage in these nervous times. Spectators are encouraged to line the route to the stage, exchanging handshakes and backslaps with their favourites while the kids pucker up in the hope of a kiss, cheerfully unaware that, if they breathe in at the wrong moment, it will probably leave them both drunk and choking. It is rather difficult to imagine Nick Faldo indulging in similar pleasantries on the first tee at St Andrews.

Priestley's route yesterday was relatively trouble-free, but such was the crush when Eric Bristow appeared the previous evening that it seemed odds-against him even making it to the oche. Lucky for him, the cynics would have said beforehand, such has been Bristow's decline from the mid- 80s heyday when he was all but unbeatable and one of the best-known faces in Britain.

Yet despite setting out as a 150-1 chance to win the tournament, the "Crafty Cockney" Bristow swept past Bob Anderson, the No 3 seed, finishing the final leg from 276 with four straight treble-20s and double 18. It was as if he had never been away, and at the final double the Tavern descended into ecstatic bedlam.

But as even Bristow later admitted, "you can't have two world championships in any sport", and indeed, the plague of acronyms which has infested darts as thoroughly as it has boxing may at last be responding to treatment. The British Darts Organisation, which banned the renegade players from all its "open" events four years ago, is on the receiving end of a World Darts Council writ alleging restraint of trade which, after a delay of almost two years, will finally reach a court in June. Close observers of darts politics feel that a reconciliation between the two organisations is as inevitable as it is overdue.

What is certain, though, is that no matter how the sport arranges itself in the coming months, Priestley, who made impressively short work of Steve Brown yesterday, and Phil Taylor, who he is seeded to meet in Sunday's final, are the finest two players in the world and have been throughout the 90s. Their rivalry, which must be among the most enduring in any sport, is a friendly one, but there is an added edge this year as Taylor attempts to equal Bristow's record of five world titles.

"If he plays very well and beats me, and I don't play really badly, then I'm happy, and I sure it's the same for him," Priestley says. "It's a matter of putting pressure on at the right time. You can score well and then miss a double and then suddenly he'll get a 156 out-shot and you're left regretting it all. Last year in the final I played excellent darts and it wasn't enough, but maybe if we get there this year, the pressure of going for three in a row will get to him a little."

But even another classic like their match 12 months ago will not shift the prejudice which still persists in some areas of the British sporting audience. "There are obviously some people here who look at darts and see cloth caps," Priestley says, "but if you go to America or Australia it doesn't have that stigma, and you find that there are lawyers and doctors playing."

Whether the doctors would approve of the smoke machines, of course, is another matter entirely.