No game for trembling fingers

Jim White wonders whether the Embassy World Darts Championship is the r eal thing
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The Independent Online
During the quarter-final night of the Embassy World Darts Championship, two fans at the bar of the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green, Surrey, discussed their next move to sustain them through the long hours ahead. They were sporting waistcoa ts fashioned from old bar towels.

"Get some food in," said one. "Food?" queried his mate. "Oh yeah, you're right. Get another round in first."

Ten years ago, the players in this championship might have prepared for competition in the same way: you could take the darts out of the pub, it used to be said, but the player was loath to follow.

it can be exclusively revealed that just before he went out to play on Thursday night, Martin Adams, the captain of the England darts team, rummaged around in the booze-laden fridge in the backstage hospitality area and emerged clutching the neck of a bottle of Coca-Cola.

The players at the Embassy needed to be at their sharpest, without a hint of finger-tremble, because this year they were not simply competing against each other: they were battling for the very future of the game. 1993 was the year darts was, apparently,re-invented.

Against a background of declining television viewing figures and shrinking sponsorship, an unholy confederation of Sky television and Eric Bristow prised the leading names from the official British Darts Organisation and set up a rival circuit.

The new World Darts Council promoted its competition with a razzmatazz that would make Chris Eubank blush. Grand entries, explosions of confetti, a horse: the World Championship of Darts in Purfleet last week did its best to disguise the fact that the game at its heart involved two men throwing things at a board not much bigger than an LP.

Faced with this assault, those left within the British Darts Organisation have cast themselves as the custodians of pure sporting endeavour, promoters of competition in which the national flags of the players are carried into the arena by elderly men in plum-coloured blazers, rather than scantily-clad women.

To emphasise the break, the list of former winners of the Embassy (most of them now WDC defectors) has, Stalin-like, been removed from the back of the souvenir programme of "The Official World Championship".

"We don't need all that nonsense," said Robert Holmes, spokesman of the BDO. "Not when we've got the real thing."

And the crowd filing into the Lakeside Club hoped he was right. During the darts, the Lakeside is the place Umbro executives go to cheer themselves up by watching their profits lining up at the bar: there were more football tops here than in an England cricket crowd. One group of fans had taken to shirt-spotting to while away the time between matches. "Hull City, Hull City, Hull City," they chanted, as a youth in an ensemble of tangerine with black smudges walked by.

"We come down every year, and rule No 1 is wear a football shirt," said Luke Wates, a political lobbyist, clad in a Wimbledon top with his own name across the shoulders.

His party were all graduates of Exeter University. "We're bankers, city boys, a sprinkling of lawyers. We've been coming for years. It's always a brilliant night."

Were they not tempted by the big names down the road at the World Darts Organisation's tournament? "Well, that's a bit like the senior golf tour," said Wates. "Lot of character, but it's not the same competition."

His friend, Ollie Christie, was less sure. "We always used to have to book tickets months in advance to come here, but this year my brother paid on the door," he said. "Just look round - empty tables. You'd never get that in the old days. And though I think the Bristows and Jocky Wilsons are past it, there are still great players at the other competition. And you have to say you miss the characters. I mean, look at this lot."

He had a point. Up on stage, Colin Monk, of Hampshire, was rapidly losing his quarter-final. short and wiry - perfect casting should a third Mitchell brother be required in EastEnders - Monk was a model of concentration. As he threw each dart, he opened and shut his mouth like Gordon Brown in full flow. And that goldfish-at-feeding-time expression was the extent of his craft.

He was beaten by Raymond Barneveld, a ruthless Dutch chucker whose success at stacking up the 180s suggests that darts is soon to join the distinguished list of sports we have given to the world, only for the world to beat us back.

"The Australians will be here next," Christie said. "Complete with a bloody darts academy." Monk's huge travelling support, however - many dressed in monastic habits to show their affiliation - demonstrated that whatever the battles behind the scenes, darts remains a gentleman's game: they cheered the victorious Barneveld in a generous ovation.

The second quarter-final was more to the liking of those who fancied a bit of drama. Martin Adams and Mike Gregory (who has accomplished the rare feat of defecting from the BDO to the WDC and back again) arrived swathed in the cross of St George. And then proceeded to play as if contractually obliged to score treble 20s.

As the lead fluctuated between them, all eyes were drawn to the two big screens flanking the board, affording those at the back unencumbered views of every 180, every missed double top. Innovative camera angles - a hidden lens gave a board's-eye view - had been invented to chivvy up the coverage.

Some were relentlessly unforgiving. Gregory, a man for whom the extra-large shirt size is anathema, suffered particularly from the ankle-height shot. As he leant forward to address the board, it was impossible not to be distracted by the white glint of elephantine belly poking from beneath the tight nylon of his shirt.

As the game reached its conclusion, each amplified thud as dart hit board was accompanied by a huge cheer, each rattle as a double was missed was followed by a small gale of air sucked through teeth. At two sets all, with Adams on the equivalent of matchpoint, Gregory had a chance to win the leg and move into a tie-break.

like an amateur pub player needing double four, he threw four; needing double two, he threw two; with his last dart, he needed double one. He threw single one. As Adams clipped in his winning dart with some flourish, the place erupted.

"Enjoy that?" asked Mr Holmes afterwards. "You can't beat that. Magic darts."

Even Eric Bristow would have agreed with that analysis.