The ‘Crafty Cockney’ who ruled the darts world in the 1980s
Obituary Eric Bristow: Five-times world champion’s charisma attracted legions of fans to the sport
England about to throw a dart Caption: Embassy World Darts Championships, England, 9th January 1982, Eric Bristow in action during the 1982 Embassy World Darts Championships, England. Photograph: Getty Images
Eric Bristow Born: April 25th, 1957 Died: April 5th, 2018
During the 1980s darts was in its golden age, fuelled by new sponsorship deals and lucrative television contracts. Presiding over it all was the “Crafty Cockney”, Eric Bristow, world champion five times between 1980 and 1986 and a character whose gaudy charisma was central to the sport’s colonisation of the post-pub TV schedules.
Bristow, who has died of a heart attack at the age of 60, was supremely confident, flash but intensely professional, and though there were plenty of talented rivals such as Jocky Wilson and John Lowe, at his best he was unbeatable. When he won his third world title, in 1984, the commentator Sid Waddell , renowned for his flights of verbal fancy, declared, “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow’s only 27.”
While his delivery was slightly camp, little finger daintily crooked, there was an abrasive edge to Bristow’s wide-boy persona. He loved to wind up opponents with frowns and mocking gestures and he developed what was often a love-hate relationship with the crowds.
During one big match in 1982 he came under what a darts magazine called “the most sustained barrage of jeering witnessed at a darts match”. Each volley of abuse was followed by a treble 20.
He acquired his Crafty Cockney nickname after visiting an English-style pub of that name in Santa Monica, California, and his first world title soon followed.
As well as the darts circuit at home in the UK there were foreign tours, including a trip to the Falklands to entertain the troops.
He revelled in his cheeky man-of-the-people image. When he was appointed MBE in 1989 he accidentally broke protocol by turning his back on the Queen as he retreated. Remembering royal etiquette, he wheeled round and said, “Sorry, darling.” She burst out laughing, he reported.
He was born in Hackney, north London, in 1957, the only child of George Bristow, a plasterer, and Pamela, a telephonist, and had a happy childhood in Stoke Newington. George was a sports lover who exposed his son to golf, snooker and pool before buying a dartboard when Eric was 11.
Bristow passed his 11-plus and attended Hackney Downs grammar school. Though he was good at mathematics – handy for calculating check-outs – he was not a model pupil and left at 14, later admitting to criminal activity such as joy-riding and burglary.
Darts soon took over, and he was playing for a local team by the age of 14. Within a year he was making more in prize money than the £12 a week from his job as a proofreader in the City – “I was earning £120 a weekend,” he recalled – and he gave up work to concentrate on darts.
He threw for England just before his 18th birthday and won his first world title in 1980. But his career stalled towards the end of the decade when he began to suffer from dartitis, a condition similar to the yips in golf: at the critical moment, the player is unable to release the dart and follow through.
He was afflicted for eight years, and although he briefly regained his number one world ranking he had been replaced at the summit of the sport by Phil “the Power” Taylor, whose own rise owed much to Bristow.
During his time out of the game, Bristow had mentored and coached Taylor, sponsoring him to the tune of £10,000. Taylor would go on to win 16 world titles, and Bristow later joked, “I ended up creating a monster.” In 1990 the monster beat his creator in the world championship final.
In 1993 Bristow was one of the leaders of a 16-man breakaway that saw the sport split in two, but his last big occasion on the oche was an epic world championship semi-final defeat to Taylor in 1997. He finally retired from competition in 2007, devoting himself to exhibition matches and roadshows, and in 2012 he finished fourth in the jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
In 2008 he published an autobiography, The Crafty Cockney, but his career as an acerbic and often controversial pundit was derailed in 2016 when he was sacked by Sky after tweeting insensitively about the sexual abuse scandal in football.
For several years from the late ’70s Bristow was in a relationship with Maureen Flowers, at that time the UK’s top women’s darts player. Then in 1989 he married Jane, with whom he had two children, Louise and James. They divorced in 2005 and he was latterly in a relationship with Becky Gadd, whom he had met at a roadshow. She survives him along with his children.