Darts, like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, hit the bullseye when it comes to self-regard

Let’s talk darts. Actually at this time of year there isn’t much other option but to talk darts. Not much else on unless it’s roofed, or far away in the sun. When minority sports complain of a lack of media coverage they should keep in mind how, remarkably, the same volume of news coverage occurs each day however busy the calendar. Right now, beach-tiddlywinks would get a slice of the page. It could hardly be worse than beach-darts. Now there’s a thought – Phil ‘The Thong’ Taylor.

In fact there are plenty who would argue with the use of 'darts and minority sport' in the same breath. Apparently in terms of viewing figures the PDC World Championship that began in London's Alexandra Palace on Friday is telly gold; it entices as many viewers as the Ashes cricket. And if you added up everyone who actually plays darts, lay them down toe-to-head, you'd actually wind up with a long, beery, flabby and mostly male line of ill-fitting polyester.

That's the thing with darts. Hitting the caricature bulleye is like shooting a fat man in a barrel. And that's even with its supposedly retro-cool credentials. Stephen Fry proclaiming himself a fan of the game might bring a sheen of middle-class credibility, but it's hard to erase the suspicion that that same enthusiasm might be of the ironic variety: like it is fun, but hardly a sport, really.

I’ve a rule about what constitutes a sport. Fundamentally it revolves around sweat. A sport has to produce some. And meat sweats don’t count. It’s hardly an exact rule, more a prejudice really. Snooker for instance sneaks in under the bar. Golf doesn’t, mainly because it’s a big enough bastard to take a pot-shot or two. But darts?


Steady hand
Yes, I know it's a real test of nerve and skill and a steady hand, but so is pottery and you don't see Sky moisturising any potters with a soapy flood of frantic publicity.

Yet there’s no getting away from the game’s appeal in this part of the world, something that fundamentally appeals to the soul of men – and it is mostly men – whose idea of a good time is to disappear into a pub for a day, only breaking the monotony to fling ‘arras’ into a board.

Now by all accounts, darts is also becoming a big deal in, of all places, Mongolia, where the populace pass long, cold, lonely nights presumably trying not to puncture holes in their yurts while dreaming the ultimate professional dream of making the Ally Pally and its self-consciously determined hard-sell.

But it’s the comparative rarity of such a far-flung impact which might inadvertently help explain the passionate grassroots appeal that darts continues to exert back in Blighty, the land after all which gave the game to the world.

Because unlike football, and rugby, and cricket, and just about everything else that England gave to the world only for that world to come back and gallingly be better at, darts has mostly not strayed very far from home at all. It might be the World Championships over the next three weeks, but even a cursory look at the top-ranked players reveals an overwhelming presence of St George’s flags in the nationality boxes. There are a few Scots, and Welsh, and Irish, a smattering of Dutch, and a couple of Belgians.

The only substantial figure – and no, that isn't another fat joke – that hasn't sprung from cold, wet and resolutely indoors Northern Europe is the Aussie, Simon Whitlock. That appears to leave the rest of the world happily content to view darts as little more than a bar-room diversion instead of an obsession.

Obsessive devotion
But quibble as much as you like about whether darts really is a sport or is, in the memorably understated words of one player's wife, a "different kind of exercise," there's no getting away from the obsessive devotion it does generate. For many years now, its primary focus has been its greatest ever champion, someone many in darts, and even some outside, believe deserves to be regarded as the greatest sportsman in the world.

Most of us look at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and then look somewhere else. Rarely can the recipient of so much idolatry have remained so ordinary -looking for so long. The short, squat figure has the requisite tattoos, and has been praised as the game’s Bradman, Federer and Pele, but still steadfastly looks like the sheet-metal worker he once was. Which would be admirable, except that Taylor can also cut a rather bumptious figure, less than shy about cultivating that rather grandiose view of himself as a global sporting superstar to rank with those iconic names that reverberate around the world with rather more force than a man whose previous nickname was “the Crafty Potter”.

In fact, when once asked to name his ultimate opponent, the 16-times champion famously declared he would like to take his chance against no less a figure than the son of God – “I’d love to meet Jesus”.

To which one can only say, wouldn’t we all, but hardly as an opponent.

However there’s a neat symmetry to darts having Taylor for its headline act. Darts isn’t short of self-regard either, possibly in proportion to its chippy readiness to argue the toss with anyone who might dare question its status. Sick of the gags, it bigs itself up, vehemently insisting it’s the real thing, to an extent in fact it can leave you wondering if it protests just a little too much.