My favourite line by legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell, the Voice of Darts, goes:
‘When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. [Eric] Bristow’s only 27.’
Multiple world champ Eric Bristow is now rapidly approaching 60 (his birthday is on the same day as Mrs Raider’s, which is how I remember her birthday) and in all that time, despite playing and watching darts on and off all my life, I’ve never been to a major tournament.
So when Roxy texted she had two spare tickets to the BDO World Professional Darts Championship I jumped at the chance to fulfill a life’s ambition: Dressing up as Tinky Winky. Half-life, who happened to be beside me chatting up a new barmaid, said he’d take the other ticket (if I could spot him the money, naturally).
‘OK. But tell him not to make a scene like he usually does,’ replied Roxy.
‘She says don’t make a scene like you usually do,’ I told him.
‘What’s she on about?’ he said.
‘You’ve got a bit of history, to be fair,’ I said. ‘Pissing in the paddock at Kempton?’ Half-life shrugged.
‘Just because it happened in the past doesn’t make it history,’ he said, which I might have put on my gravestone.
Darts championships start around 11am, even on weekdays, which qualifies them for special Deserter attention, along with cricket, horse racing, tennis and the Kazakh Premier League. We were going to the evening session but nevertheless on the day I received a text from Roxy saying she was heading to Waterloo Station at 2pm because she was too excited. Attagirl.
Waterloo has upped its game since St. Pancras showed up in its fancy garb and we actually managed to find a couple of decent pints while Roxy and her mates filled me in on when darts got great. Or rather, got great again.
Darts suffered a decline in fortunes in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sponsors deserted the game, spooked by the hard-drinking of some top players who would routinely drink during matches, an image not helped by an earlier Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch that had lampooned the levels of in-game consumption and which had stayed in the public consciousness. Even in the ’90s Andy Fordham was said to enjoy up to 30 bottles of Holsten Pils on competition nights – and that was before he played.
‘Fucking hero,’ said Half-life, as we boarded the 16.09 to Farnborough and doled out tins of gin and tonic for a bit of hard-drinking of our own.
Then came the acrimonious split between the game’s governing body, the British Darts Organisation (BDO) and a group of the top professionals at the time, now known as the Professional Darts Corporation. Today, the PDC has more prize money and probably the better players, though BDO champions do beat PDC champions in one-off events where they are permitted to play together.
‘It’s sort of like the Premier League and the Football League, I guess,’ said Roxy.
‘The rules are the same though, are they?’ said a stranger on the next table, who’d been earwigging. ‘Like, they still aim for the middle?’ Roxy explained that in fact they mostly aim for treble 20.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said our new friend. ‘Really, why would you go for anything but the middle? Just look at the board!’ We liked her.
For the ‘Home of World Darts’, getting to Lakeside Country Club, Surrey, is a bit of a struggle. It had started simply enough, hopping on the train at Waterloo. The only problem is, trains don’t go there. They go elsewhere, for some reason, and you have to get a cab the rest of the way (and finish off your gin and tonics before you get in – this is Surrey, after all).
Through the ’90s, darts cleaned up its act. Drinking at the oche was banned, Sky Sports launched, the game re-emerged on TV and the sponsors returned. By 2006 Andy Fordham had lost 17 stone. (Check his website for a truly startling ‘before and after’)
With the increased exposure, the crowds surged and the darts began to get a reputation as the best party in town. Except, we noticed, we weren’t in town. We were in somewhere called Frimley Green. From the cab we spotted a group of Smurfs chatting to Elvis Presley outside the Rose & Thistle and I had a pang of regret that we hadn’t come down earlier to sample the pubs of this quiet village, which for a few days each year is turned into a theatre of the surreal.
A half-lit sign appeared out of the darkness: ‘Bob Potter’s Lakeside’. That’s Bob Potter OBE, whose vision Lakeside was and on whom Peter Kay’s character in Phoenix Nights is allegedly based (Kay’s character is another B. Potter – Brian). At Lakeside they sell Bob’s book at the entrance: One Man’s Dream. All proceeds to charity.
Even in the queue you could feel the magic, as strangers chatted and joked and a bearded Wonderwoman passed around some brandy. And as soon as I entered the main arena I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’m doing this again’, just like my first football match and my first kiss.
I surveyed the floor. More than a thousand carousers at long shared tables, cheering, singing and messing about. It is like a cross between a night at Butlins, a knees up at the village hall and, well, a rave. Everyone, but everyone, is out for a good time. It’s a veritable love-in. During the course of the entire evening there was to be just one incident in which the stewards had to get involved.
We were shown to our balcony table, adjacent to the BT Sport commentary box, and I perused the programme in advance of the night’s action. Scott ‘Scotty Dog’ Waites was taking on Jeff ‘The Silencer’ Smith and Trina ‘Golden Girl’ Gulliver was also on the bill, along with my personal favourite, ‘The Harbour Master’ – Dennis Harbour, 54, pictured in the programme sporting a plague of boils and doing it for the oldsters.
‘What would your darts nickname be?’ I asked Half-life.
‘The Cunt,’ he replied, taking a swig from a jug of cider.
‘You’re supposed to pour it into your glass first, mate,’ I said.
‘Amateur,’ said The Cunt.
Unable to find a decent Tinky Winky costume at short notice, I had instead dressed in the Harbour Master’s honour – an Aran wool-knit jumper and a sou’wester. I headed down to watch the player entrances for which every player has their own special walk-on music. By shouting, ‘Let me through, he’s my father!’ I was able to squeeze through to the front and give the Harbour Master a firm handshake as Eye of the Tiger pumped out across the tables.
As the Harbour Master’s son I decided to join the official BDO tables. The drink flowed and as the atmosphere became more boisterous, friendships were forged. By the end of the evening I was hugging the players’ families, having my photo taken with them and arranging to meet them all the next day for lunch. Even the Harbour Master himself came out and posed for photos.
Meanwhile, back up on our balcony, Half-life was doing his best not to make a scene.
Some time during the second gallon of cider, a BT representative had popped out of the commentary box to ask if our table could calm down and be a little quieter.
‘You what?’ said Half-life. ‘I’ve just seen Spiderman being sick into the lake and a cowboy that’s pissed himself in the bogs, and you want us to calm down? You’re having a fucking laugh. I didn’t pay 35 quid for this bollocks.’ (Which was true, he hadn’t paid £35. I had).
Nevertheless, our table was warned that if we didn’t quieten down, security would be summoned to evict us. This was apparently too much for Half-life, who strode purposefully into the commentary box and, live on air, told a global audience of darts fans that BT Sport were a bunch of wankers.
Almost immediately, three security guards came running up the stairs to the balcony, while Half-life beat a retreat in the opposite direction.
‘He went that way!’ he said, pointing behind him as he passed them on the stairs.
Roxy and chums were duly escorted from the premises while Half-life evaded capture and ducked into BeePy’s Night Club, where he claims he got a snog off Lisa Scott-Lee from Steps.
As Sid Waddell would say, there’s only one word for that: Magic darts.