Down the years, darts has had its fair share of legends. Eric Bristow, Raymond van Barneveld and Dennis Priestley to name a few. However, nobody has ruled the roost like Phil Taylor.
Over the course of a 30-year career, ‘The Power’ has utterly dominated the sport, winning 216 professional tournaments, including 85 majors and 16 World Championships.
On Friday night, however, Taylor will begin his last World Championship and, indeed, last professional tournament at the Alexandra Palace in London.
Being a symbol of the game for so long, it seems scarcely believable to most darts fans that they will never see the 56-year-old play on a live stage again after January.
Not least, Barry Hearn, the chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, who believes the likes of Taylor are from a breed hard to find.
“I think there will be a standard of play higher than what Phil played,” says Hearn, in an exclusive interview with Elephant Sport. “But for someone to dominate the sport the way he did will be extremely difficult.
“You can’t compare him. Look at all he’s won. He’s a unique champion sportsman and I don’t think we will ever see one like him again.”
The growth of darts
In the 1980s, when the likes of Jocky Wilson, Bristow and John Lowe would down pints of beer while playing in front of World Championship crowds numbering only a thousand at the cramped Lakeside, the idea that darts could rise to be a sport watched all over the world, like it is today, seemed far-fetched.
However, since the split from the British Darts Organisation and the creation of the PDC in 1992, aided by Sky Sports, the game has been transformed to a level where the winner’s share at the World Championship now stands at a huge £350,000, and the Premier League, established in 2005 and played all over the British Isles, Germany and Holland, is watched by crowds some nights totalling 12,000.
The group of 16 top professionals, which included the likes of Bob Anderson and Rod Harrington, could surely not have envisaged development on such a scale when they decided to form the PDC all those years ago.
Certainly, Hearn, who became chairman back in 2001 after acquiring a majority shareholding in the corporation, has no qualms in admitting that darts has exceeded expectations.
And he confirms that Taylor, being one of the 16 to make the breakaway and with his magnet-like pull factor, has been at the heart of its progress.
‘Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil’ – Barry Hearn
“Astonished would be the word,” says Hearn, with pride in his voice. “Beyond our wildest dreams. We’ve taken it in our stride. I’d love to sit here and say I saw this development coming, but I didn’t.
“We’re just at the beginning of something special in darts. It’s a British sport played by ordinary people. Every country wants more darts and more TV coverage. It’s all over the world. Dubai and Australia, the list goes on.
“Phil was the flagbearer for us and he’s done an amazing job. That’s for sure. Nobody dominated or led a sport like he has done for 30 years. Arguably, you could say he’s the greatest sportsman ever.”
Life after Taylor
With athletics facing up to life without Usain Bolt, golf struggling to replace Tiger Woods and tennis fearing the day Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal eventually retire, the golden generation of super champions across the sporting world does seem to be nearing an end.
Looking from the outside in, you’d think darts should be equally worried for the future with its greatest ever player retiring. But, on the contrary, Hearn believes darts is well placed to look forward with optimism.
“Without sounding cocky, I think we’ve been a lot smarter than other sports,” says Hearn. “We’ve built a strong infrastructure within the sport.
“The formation of the Qualifying School gives us a chance of getting good young players continuously coming through. You’ve seen that this year with Rob Cross [who has broke into the world’s top 20 in his debut year on tour].
“Michael van Gerwen [current world No.1 and defending world champion] is trying to step into his shoes but there are others as well.
“Overall I think we are in a good place. Premier League ratings are going up and tickets have sold out already for nearly every week next year.
“Its clear people have bought into darts as a game, and not just for Taylor.”
Although, darts has developed tenfold over the last 25 years and is not perhaps reliant on Taylor as it once was, there’s no doubt the legend’s impact on the game and appeal to fans and viewers is still prevalent today.
Whether it is Blackpool, Sydney or London, you only have to be present on a night when Taylor is scheduled to play to realise the unique buzz in the air of the venue.
Hence, you do wonder if it goes without saying that darts will keep the door open for a U-turn in the future.
“Always,” says Hearn. “Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil.”
Having clinched the World Matchplay in Blackpool in July for a 16th time, Taylor can already mark his final season down as a success.
But the chance to go out on an all-time high by winning a last World Championship title on the grandest of stages at Ally Pally has to be on the Stoke-on-Trent man’s mind.
The tournament itself is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month and most in the darting world, including Hearn, would see Taylor triumphing as the ultimate tribute.
“The sport owes him a lot that’s for sure,” adds Hearn. “I’m sure it’s in his mind to win it. It would be a great achievement. Everybody would want him to do it.”
The World Darts Championships start on Thursday, December 14th and will be shown live on Sky Sports. For more details and ticketing information, click here.
Images courtesy of zimbio.com