FLIGHTS OF FANCY AT THE CIRCUS

5 January 2003

It is a serious business amid the beer, smoke and showmanship at Purfleet’s PDC World Championship

It has to matter. Floods and pestilence may have been sweeping the land but as Essex’s first night of 2003 closed out, something else mattered a great deal more amid the pints and cheers of the Circus Tavern. `The Power’ and `The Mouth of the South’ faced a shoot-out at the oche.

For the previous hour, 10-times world champion Phil `The Power’ Taylor and new local hero Wayne Mardle (also known as `Hawaii 501′ for the garish Hawaiian shirts that cloak his 6ft, 17½ st frame) had been side by side flighting darts at the practice boards conveniently sited upstairs next to the VIP bar. “I don’t believe in all the stuff about this being so much a sport that we should be athletes and never have a drink,” says Mardle, whose day job is with accountants in Clerkenwell. “I have tried that and it doesn’t work. I always have a couple of drinks to steady me.”

Downstairs most of the thousand-strong sell-out audience have got way past the steadying stage. As the announcer goes through a boxing-style build-up, the floodlight picks up Mardle standing like a grinning gladiator in the swirling smoke of the wings while assorted Hawaiian-shirted fans lean across and shout much well-lubricated advice. The trumpets sound, the cameraman shuffles backward as the dinner-jacketed bodyguards march Mardle forward. Their boy has done good.

A minute later the guy with the smoke machine is at it again. The floodlight threads through to hit the scarlet shirt and tattooed arms of the greatest darts player the world has ever seen. Taylor carries his fame lightly, indeed he has lost 3st in a year in a health kick which may even lead to the 2004 London Marathon, but at 5ft 8ins he is still more honeypot than hour-glass. He has bright brown eyes which flash warm in the smile, glint hard at the oche. Another trumpet, another pre-fight procession. It’s pugilism without the punches, boxing without the blood.

The plan is for Mardle to come out fighting. He may be ranked 28 places below the No 1 and his pounds 30,000 earnings a mere tenth of his rivals, but he beat Taylor a month ago and the 42-year-old champion has admitted that he fears the 29-year-old from Dagenham most in the field of 40. Mardle throws first and collects the opening leg in rapid time and turns to work the crowd. “Great darts, Wayne,” roars the Hawaiian shirt behind us. Hope lives but soon founders.

For at the oche there is a strange, easy, deadliness about Taylor which no amount of beer, smoke and chicken burgers can obscure. He holds the dart in his right hand, with thumb raised and index finger down. He leans his body some 30 degrees forward with his left hand resting on the edge of his now much-diminished belly, and programmes his little missiles on their way.

Beside him Mardle beefs up the body language. He holds his darts in a more orthodox manner, index finger up, and thwacks them into the board at nearer 50 than the 40 mph average. But they are not as tight on target. Taylor evens out the second leg before upping the tempo to take the first set 3-1. In each he throws a treble top cueing the first rolling “One hundred and ayteee” from the announcer while we wave the “180” placards on the tables.

The second set is a wipe-out, Taylor taking it 3-0. In the third set Mardle rallies, three legs to two. But in the fourth there is a renewed onslaught from the former lavatory-maker from Stoke to make it 3-1 in this best-of-nine-set showdown. Three times we wave our 180 placards and you notice the little jaunty smiling skip as Taylor goes to pull his darts from the board, the suspicion of a downward puckering in the challenger’s mouth. “Be hard, Wayne, be hard,” shouts the shirt behind us. It’s been bam, bam for nearly an hour with the commercial breaks the only breathers. Close up it is much harder than we thought.

From the outside it’s easy to mock the beer bellies and the nicknames, Alan `The Iceman’ Warriner had just edged out Les `The Natural’ Fitton in the previous match. But inside darts, one of its greatest attractions is the inverse relationship between serious knowledge and taking it seriously. No one reflects this better than Sky’s ace commentator Sid Waddell who, along with the studious John Gwynne and the ubiquitous Dave Lanning, keeps up an exclamatory Geordie enthusiasm that makes Murray Walker seem almost reticent, as well as a control of facts and detail which is like golf commentary on quadruple speed.

“You can take darts out of the pub,” says Waddell of the game which first emerged with the brewery leagues in the 1920s and 30s, “but you can’t take the pub out of the game. This is the earthiest of our four big televised venues (which last year included the inaugural if unoriginally named `Desert Classic’ in Las Vegas) but it reflects the best of the game. The players are not remote superstars, they come and have a drink with the fans. There is a democracy about it.”

Waddell, of course, is famous for a bag full of epithets that would not disgrace an MC in a Victorian Music Hall. “There would be a bigger welcome,” he once said to the lukewarm applause meeting some obscure Canadian opponent of Eric `Crafty Cockney’ Bristow, “for an outbreak of cholera.” But the 60-year-old miner’s son from County Durham is absolutely no one’s fool. A scholar at St John’s Cambridge, a playwright and BBC producer before settling for `The Voice of Darts’, Sid’s move to the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) from the BDO (British Darts Organisation) two years after the great schism which split the game in 1993 was proof that the newcomers would hold sway.

The BBC will do their usual excellent professional job (and, being terrestrial rather than satellite, pull in many more viewers) in the Embassy World Championship which starts this weekend, but Mardle’s verdict is damning. “I had good times,” he said of the circuit he left 12 months ago, “but the best players are over here.”

So too are the ambitions and not just in Las Vegas. Last November a Mr Xing came over from China to meet chief executive Tim Darby and other PDO notables. Back home Mr Xing is the government minister in charge of pigeon racing and kite flying. He is also in charge of darts. Apparently darts is very big in China.

New Year’s Day papers had been full of the news of the 300 million television audience who would be watching the Everton-Manchester City match because each side had a Chinese player. But Taylor-Mardle was to be screened in China too. `The Power’ was feted on a promotional tour last year. Darts is a lot cheaper and easier to organise than soccer. There are plans to have a Beijing and a Shanghai Classic this spring. Sponsors are in a queue.

Back in The Tavern there is no sign of oriental inscrutability. “You’re the one, Wayne,” shouts the shirt as The Mouth of The South makes it 3-2, then 3-3, “every dart, Wayne, every dart.” The six sets have taken almost two hours but there’s no lessening in the tension, the relentless thud of the darts, the soaring voice of the announcer and the desperate mental scramble to register the scores needed for close out.

Mardle took the first leg of the seventh. But it could not last. Three times his darts hit the wrong side of the wire with just double-18 to hit in the third. It was 4-3. He got the first leg in the eighth but then another double betrayed him. The Power swept on.

Other audiences beckon. The pair are now whisked outside through the puddles to go upstairs to the Tavern’s empty dance floor where a cable-jacketed Dutch presenter called Marcel will take them through the hoops. “If I could throw a double, I would be some player,” says Mardle, “I thought I had him rattled but he just pulled away. I guess that’s why he’s the best player the world has ever seen.”

Maybe not a sport but don’t tell Mardle that it doesn’t matter.

………….

Taylor last night beat Alan Warriner 6-1 in the semi-final and will today meet Canadian John Part, who beat Kevin Painter of England 6-4.

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