Does Phil Taylor need the game more than it needs him?
Greatest darts player of all time has nothing left to prove, but he will not quit
Can Phil Taylor step away from the game that made him? Photo: Sean Dempsey/PA
Phil Taylor does not remember how much his father made working at Platt’s tile factory in Stoke-on-Trent in the early 1960s, but he knows it was not enough. Like tens of thousands of other men in Stoke, his father worked in the potteries for which the city was famous, and expected his son to one day do the same. His dad got paid on a Friday, and the money rarely lasted the week.
For the first few years of Taylor’s life, his family lived in a dilapidated terraced house in Tunstall, a rundown area of Stoke, that his parents bought for £100. The whole family – Phil, his mum, his dad – slept on the ground floor because upstairs was condemned. Half the windows were boarded up; his father used to joke that they did not need a window cleaner, they needed a sander. Some days, when Taylor was very young, he and his mother scavenged for scrap metal to sell. When his family scraped together enough money to buy a television, the installer could not find anywhere to plug it in: the Taylors didn’t have electricity. Eventually, they ran a wire to a neighbour’s house and borrowed a plug socket.
Half a century later, on an ice-cold night in January, Taylor stood and waited on the stage at Alexandra Palace in north London, with three darts in his left hand, in the final set of the final match of the 2015 PDC World Darts Championships, with more than a million people watching on television, trying to win £250,000. He did not need the money – or at least, he did not need it in the way a poor man might need it. Taylor had utterly dominated the sport of professional darts for 25 years. He had won 16 world championships – an achievement unlikely ever to be surpassed, except by himself. (Nobody else has won more than five.) He continued to make more money than any other darts player – more than £2m a year. But he was 54, and he did not win as often or as easily as he used to. He was getting old. His eyesight was weakening. He was going through a divorce. His mother was dying. In the press box and in the players’ lounge, many wondered whether he would soon retire from the sport altogether – or why he had not already.
The darts that Taylor held in his hand mattered more than any others he had thrown that evening. There are various formats in darts, but at the Worlds, you win a leg by getting your score from 501 down to exactly zero quicker than your opponent. A perfect leg, rarely seen, uses only nine darts: seven treble 20s, followed by a treble 19 and a double 12, for instance. (Taylor has achieved this feat more than any other player, although he has never thrown a nine-darter at the Worlds.) The first player to win three legs wins the set, and the first player to win seven sets wins the match. Players throw three darts at a time from the oche – a line 7ft 9¼in from the board – and must finish on a double. (So, if you need 40 to reach exactly zero, you must land on a double 20.) The finishing is the key. The best professional players are adept at hitting treble 20, the highest score on the dartboard. It is the shot they practise the most. The difference between the good and the great is the ability to stay cool enough to locate the right doubles at the right time.
Right now, Taylor needed a double 16. It had been a topsy-turvy match. He and Gary Anderson, a cocksure Scotsman, had played some of the best darts anyone had ever seen in a world championship final. The score was six sets all in a first-to-seven-sets match. Taylor had lost the first leg of the final set, but now had three chances to tie the set at one-all. If he did so, most observers assumed Taylor would go on to win the match. Winning is Taylor’s superpower. There has been nobody like him for winning, in any sport – except, perhaps, for the Irish jockey AP McCoy, one of Taylor’s heroes, who has won more races than any other jockey in every season of his professional career, 19 years in a row.
Anderson retrieved his darts from the board and Taylor shuffled forwards to the oche. A grandfather with thinning close-cropped hair, stooped shoulders and a portly physique, Taylor may not look like a professional athlete, but he is perfectly designed for darts. He is almost the exact height from the floor to the bullseye, with a quick arithmetical brain, a tenacious attitude, and a smooth, deliberate throwing action that he has fine-tuned over tens of thousands of hours of practice – a motion he describes as “like butter”.
Taylor is unusual among professional players in that he holds his darts at the back of the barrel, rather than gripping around the widest part. To make this unorthodox grip more comfortable, he roughens the back of the barrels with sandpaper. Now, as he moved into position – his right foot flattened against the throwing line, his shoulder square on – he ran the fingers of his left hand around the sanded parts.
He transferred one dart from his left hand to his right, raised his right arm to the perpendicular, and threw. At the moment of release, Taylor’s eyes widen dramatically, as if somebody has plucked a hair from him. His throwing expression appears particularly startled at big moments, as if he is imploring the missile to be true.
The first dart landed just outside the double 16. Sections of the crowd groaned. Others sang “There’s only one Phil Taylor”, to the tune of Walking In a Winter Wonderland. Two opportunities remained. Taylor went through the same routine again, without visible irritation. Eyes wide, he threw. Miss again. Groan again. He had one more chance. If he missed, Anderson would come to the oche with three good chances to win the leg, leaving Taylor down 2-0 in the final and deciding set.
In his pomp, between 1995 and 2006, when Taylor lost only one world championship in 12 years, these darts used to sail in. At pressurised moments in big matches, everybody knew that Taylor was ruthless. If he had three chances at double 16 to win a leg, he would win the leg. Trying to beat him in this period, the commentator Sid Waddell once said, was like “eating candy floss in a wind tunnel”. But now his instruments were less obedient, and his rivals had taken heart.
One dart. Taylor still had an opportunity. His two previous efforts had landed just outside the wire, meaning he could kiss the barrel of one of those two errant darts with his third, and steer his final dart into the double 16. Arm cocked, eyes like dinner plates, he threw.
* * *
There is no doubt that Taylor is the finest darts player of all time. If you win three times as many world titles as anybody else, and have a winning record against every other player, you are the best. But some observers have also described Taylor as Britain’s greatest living sportsman, and many find that label laughable. At the divide in opinion about Taylor is a question of what darts really is. To its detractors, darts is not really a sport – it’s a pub game, a pursuit for overweight men with negligible athletic talent.
Bubbling underneath these discussions is the question of class. Unlike most of the sports we watch on television, which developed on the playing fields of Victorian private schools, darts is a working-class game. Some suggest it started centuries ago as a pastime for sailors and soldiers, who would throw missiles at marks on an upturned barrel, or the bottom of a tree. Whatever its origins, the sport became standardised in the working men’s pubs of early-20th-century British cities.
Darts has been looked down upon from its inception. To the authorities in Edwardian England, pub games were dangerous because they encouraged gambling. In 1908, a publican was summoned to Leeds magistrates court, charged with allowing a game of chance – darts – to take place at his bar. According to a widely circulated tale, which has undoubtedly seen some embellishment, the publican brought along a local darts champion called William “Bigfoot” Annakin. A dartboard was produced. To show darts was a game of skill, Annakin threw three 20s, and challenged the clerk of the court to do the same. None of the clerk’s darts hit the target, and only one stayed in the board. The landlord won his case.
Darts used to be an intimate spectator sport: a few blokes watching their friends throw. As it has moved out of pubs and into arenas, it has become an increasingly odd live experience. The contest takes place on a raised stage, and the players throw with their backs to the audience. In the great hall at Alexandra Palace, as at most darts events, almost nobody can see where the darts land. (They can hear them, though; the action unfolds to the irregular thunk-thunk-thunk heartbeat of darts landing near a microphone.) Fans rely on the announcer onstage and a live feed from several enormous screens to know what is happening. Before the advent of this technology, audiences were sometimes kept abreast of the action by a large wooden board, into which pegs were placed to indicate the destination of each shot. Now, going to the darts is like watching darts on television in the rowdiest tent at Munich Oktoberfest.
Darts has remained a working-class game, despite the increasingly large proportion of metropolitan ironists who attend the two-week world championships: advertising executives in wigs, city traders dressed as Big Bird. Most of the spectators are white, male and unfit to drive. The place swims in lager. Fancy dress is encouraged. Communal singing is mandatory. When Prince Harry first watched the Worlds in 2011, drinking his lager from a plastic pint glass, it was proof for some that darts had finally “gone posh”. A more convincing analysis was that Harry, like many privately educated young men before and since, had “gone darts”.
As a spectator sport, darts has never been more popular. Many tournaments sell out months in advance. Viewing figures for darts on Sky television beat every other sport except for football. Those numbers spike when Phil Taylor is playing, because “The Power” is still the biggest star in darts – and, despite his everyman looks, its most recognisable figure. Shortly before this world championship, Taylor told me that he had given little thought to retirement.
“The game still needs me,” he said.
‘The game still needs me,’ Taylor said. Darts, however, is preparing for life after Taylor. Barry Hearn – Taylor’s manager and the chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation – told me that Sky’s audience used to drop by as much as 40 percent when Taylor’s matches finished. Now, that figure is only around 20 percent. There is a group of younger players with large followings. They include the ebullient, bald Dutchman, Michael van Gerwen, or “MVG” to his fans; Adrian “Jackpot” Lewis, Taylor’s protege from Stoke, who won two world championships in 2011 and 2012; and Gary Anderson, Taylor’s opponent in the final in January.
Hearn told me that Taylor was in denial about the ageing process. He was, Hearn said, “on the shores trying to send the waves back, and you can’t win” – King Canute at the oche. “We’ve got to get it to the stage where the game gets bigger and bigger and the other personalities get bigger, so that we’ve got a replacement,” he said. “I mean, that’s a fact of life. You know, sooner or later Phil will lose the appetite.”
* * *
In mid-December, shortly before the start of the world championships, I visited Taylor at home in Werrington, a town on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent. He was going through a divorce from his wife, Yvonne, the mother of his four children, to whom he had been married for 23 years. They no longer lived together. Instead, Taylor stayed in a four-bedroom, newly built house on a close a few miles from where he grew up. The house, he told me, was one of 14 he owned, including the large house in Stoke his wife still lives in. Most of Taylor’s properties are in the Midlands; one is a villa in Tenerife; one is a holiday chalet near Blackpool. Each property was bought for cash. He has never had a mortgage.
A burly man named Shaun Rutter, who was missing half his right ear, answered the door. Rutter is an old friend from Stoke who now lives in the spare room of the house, helps out with odd jobs, and practices darts with Taylor. He invited me in and asked if I would like coffee. The house was immaculate, like a show home. Taylor cannot abide clutter. (He mentioned more than once that his house was filling up with ladders sent to him by his sponsor, Werner ladders.) There were some pictures of his children and grandchildren around, but not much darts memorabilia and no trophies.
Taylor sat on a large corner sofa, in tracksuit bottoms and a polo shirt from under which a parcel of his white flesh protruded. He has struggled with his weight for years, and is a faddy dieter. He often embarks on “juice” programmes, eating nothing solid for weeks on end – with dramatic but unsustainable results. (Sid Waddell believed that one of Taylor’s crash diets, in 2003, cost him that year’s world championship because the weight loss unsettled his balance.) His many tattoos were on show, including the vivid red “Power” stamp on his right forearm and the “Glory” on the left. (His nickname, “The Power”, was given to him in 1995 by a Sky Sports floor manager who liked Snap’s dance tune of the same name; Taylor was previously known as “The Crafty Potter”.)
A vast flat-screen TV took up several square feet of wall in between two display cabinets and was at that moment tuned to Bargain Hunt. Taylor muted it. He has a friendly, boyish demeanour and we happily chatted about this and that: Taylor’s new movie-streaming software, the weather, the work he and Shaun had recently done to the wiring in the house. Without prompting, and without a discernible change in register, he told me that his mother, Liz, was gravely ill. Taylor had moved her into a nursing home a third of the mile from the Werrington house, somewhere she could get 24-hour care. He visited her every day. “Mum’s getting older and she’s going, you know what I mean?” he said. “She’s like your right arm, she is. You know, she’s not well. She’s not going to get better anyway.”
From there, Taylor’s life story tumbled out. He was born in 1960, the only child of Liz and Doug, a ceramics worker. For the first years of Phil’s life, the Taylors lived in the terrace in Tunstall, before the house was the subject of a compulsory purchase order and demolished. The family were then moved to a more comfortable council house. Taylor has good memories of his early years. It was, he says, a “bit like Coronation Street. But the houses were knackered, you know, nobody had anything. Nobody had any money. All the men went to work, the ladies stayed at home, looked after the kids and what-not. And the front doors were open.”
Taylor progressed through school with no great distinction, leaving when he was 15. In the 1970s, there were still many mines and potbanks where young men could find work. The mines did not appeal to Taylor. He had hoped to become a policeman, but the cut-off height for entry into the local force was 5ft 8in, and he missed out by a quarter-inch. He finished school on a Friday and started on the Monday as a sheet-metal worker, earning £9 a week. (His mother worked next door, in a pottery, and Phil told me he got the job because the boss of the sheet-metal factory fancied her.) After a couple of years of being a “general dogsbody” he progressed to being an engineer, and then working on the lathe in a ceramics factory making beer pumps and toilet handles.
Meanwhile, Taylor was discovering that he possessed a natural talent for darts. His mum and dad had a board in the house and both enjoyed the game. From the age of 10, Taylor started to play with his father, whose pub team regularly won the local leagues. But he could trounce the older men. “I used to say, how come you lot keep winning everything? I used to beat them easy. I was only a lad.”
Taylor didn’t start playing regularly until his mid-20s. In his late teens and early 20s, he was more interested in spending his weekend evenings in the discotheques of Stoke. It was in this period he met Yvonne. But after he took a second job behind the bar at a pub called The Huntsman, three nights a week, he began to play for the pub’s team in the Working Men’s Club League.
Occasionally he would have a drink and a game at The Crafty Cockney, a pub in Stoke that was owned by Eric Bristow, a Londoner who had for a long period been the best darts player in the world, but who was suffering at the time from “dartitis” – a condition similar to the “yips” in golf, where players become almost too nervous to throw the darts. Bristow was trying to cure himself by practising in marathon sessions. He said Taylor could keep him company.
“I needed someone to practice with, eight hours, 10 hours a day,” Bristow told me recently, in his slurred accent. “I invited a couple of other people, but they couldn’t do it. They were knackered. People can’t play eight hours a day … Phil could. And he got better.”
Soon, Taylor was playing darts for his county, Staffordshire. Bristow decided to sponsor Taylor to play at professional tournaments in north America, advancing him several thousand pounds for flights and hotels, in the expectation that Taylor would repay him when he started winning. It was the start of a complicated and sometimes fractious relationship between the two men that continues to this day. “We’re like brothers,” Bristow said. “We argue but we get on all right.”
Bristow could be a hard taskmaster. In the early days, when Taylor was at his first overseas tournaments, he would sometimes call Bristow up to tell him that he had been beaten in the final of a tournament. Bristow would tell him to call him back when he had won something, and put the phone down. “Second place is no good,” he told me. “Anyone can come second. I had to get his mind strong.”
More damaging to their future relationship was the issue of money. (“It’s all money with Phil,” said Bristow. “He’ll be the richest man in the graveyard.”) When I spoke to him, Bristow rebuffed one aspect of the Taylor story that has become almost folkloric – that Bristow was assiduous in recouping the loan from his protege. The narrative goes that he would turn Taylor’s pockets out as he was walking offstage with prize-money at championships. It is a story Taylor has told to Jonathan Ross, as well as to other interviewers. But Bristow told me that Taylor had never paid him back the loan. (Taylor says: “It’s completely untrue. And if I did owe him money I’d be the first to know.”)
Taylor went on to achieve much more than his mentor. When he beat Bristow in 1990 to win his first world championship final, Bristow got a call from his own father, who said: “Never teach someone how to do your job.” But 25 years later, Bristow says he loves it when Taylor wins big matches: “It’s a part of me winning up there.”
* * *
When Taylor says the game needs him, he is barely exaggerating. His rise and the rise of darts have been inseparable. In 1960, when Taylor was born, darts barely existed as a professional sport. Since 1927, there had been a de facto national championship, sponsored by the News of the World, but there was no meaningful circuit. The idea of being a full-time darts player would have been laughable.
Colour television changed and made darts. In 1970, ITV began showing the annual News of the World championship, and from 1972 a wonderful programme called Indoor League featured darts alongside a number of other pub games including bar billiards and shove ha’penny. It was clear that while shove ha’penny might not have a big future as entertainment for the masses, darts – with its close-ups and its frequent high-stakes shots – was made for TV. One of the sport’s champions was Sid Waddell, a Cambridge-educated son of a Geordie miner and a producer of Indoor League. Waddell became the voice of darts and perhaps the funniest commentator in television. (Of Eric Bristow’s fourth world title, Waddell famously said: “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow’s only 27.”)
From 1973 onwards, a new body called the British Darts Organisation (BDO) began to formalise darts competition. By the early 1980s, about 14 tournaments were covered on the BBC and ITV. Prize money at each tournament wasn’t life-changing, but because of the large viewing figures, players could make money by performing in exhibitions. Suddenly, the idea of being a professional darts player wasn’t so silly. The British public warmed to darts’ effervescent characters: the short, bibulous Scot, Jocky Wilson; Bristow, the arrogant, chain-smoking popinjay.
By the end of the 1980s, however, viewing figures had dwindled and advertisers had fled. Sponsors were put off by the reputation of darts as a game for fat, boozy men. When Taylor started his professional career, television coverage of darts had shrunk to a single tournament: the Embassy world championships. In 1992, a downbeat Waddell told a reporter from the Daily Mail: “I think the game has had its day as a TV sport. I do not see any light at all in the gloom.”
The players were frustrated. Tournaments were well-attended, but the stars found it difficult to make money. Taylor won the 1990 and 1992 Embassy, but often competed in America in this period, splitting prize money with his friend Dennis “The Menace” Priestley to mitigate the cost of travel. Priestley remembers the two men would share a room for the duration of a cash-prize tournament, and then dump whatever money they had won on the bed on the night the competition ended and evenly split the dollars between them.
In the early 1990s, a group of 16 of the world’s best players, including Taylor, formed a breakaway organisation that became known as the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). They began to hold their own world championships, broadcast by Sky. When the sports promoter Barry Hearn walked into the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex during the 1995 world championship, he looked around and said: “I love it. I smell money.”
Before he had his first whiff of darts, Hearn had transformed snooker, another working man’s sport, and had helped to make its best players rich. He changed Taylor’s professional life in the same way. Hearn would soon become the sport’s dominant impresario, and – from 2001 – the chairman of the PDC. He also became Taylor’s manager. “Every second of every day, 24 hours a day – I completely control him,” Hearn told me when we spoke in January.
Hearn said that Taylor’s importance to the success of the breakaway league could not be overestimated. He was, said Hearn, the sport’s “flagbearer”. When I asked Hearn why Taylor had been so much better than anybody else on the circuit, he gave me a straightforward answer: “He works harder.” He also believed he knew what motivated Taylor. “Phil loves a pound note,” said Hearn.
Certainly, Taylor is unusually driven. After his experiences with Bristow, he thought it was normal to practice for several hours a day. Back then, very few other darts players threw so many darts. (Now, Taylor’s rivals have adopted his professionalism.) There was even a board in the bedroom Phil shared with Yvonne. Some nights he refused to go to bed until he had hit a particular milestone: three 180s, for instance. On the day he was married, he played a county darts match in the afternoon before returning for the wedding reception in the evening.
If Hearn is right, and money is Taylor’s chief motivation, why is he still playing? He could continue to earn good money as a darts pundit or ambassador of some kind. Taylor often complains about the demands placed upon him by his schedule. But when we met for the first time last year, Taylor told me that his commitment to practice had not dipped – despite the stress of his divorce and the worsening health of his mother. In fact, he said that darts had helped him navigate these crises, because of the intense concentration required to play well. When I was at his house, he and Rutter began a marathon practice session in the spare room. Taylor said that process of playing darts was “escapism” for him. While the physical process of throwing darts may be soothing for Taylor, it does not explain his willingness to continue as a pro. He could just throw darts at home.
When you see Taylor in public, it is clear that his sense of self is intimately connected to darts. He is a genuine celebrity, unable to walk down a street without being asked for an autograph or a selfie. His professional success is only part of his appeal. In an era of Ferrari-crashing Premiership footballers, Taylor seems attuned to earlier, more modest generations of British sportsmen: Stanley Matthews, Gordon Banks, Steve Davis. He rarely drinks alcohol. He is polite. Although he has a terrible memory for names, he covers by calling people “bud” or “buddy”. (If he really should know the person’s name he calls them “Reggie”.) He hates to say no to autograph-hunters, and has developed a code with his driver to prise him from difficult crowd situations: if he asks for “oatcakes” then his driver will intervene.
Taylor wants to stand for something beyond darts. Not only has he, unlike most professional sportspeople, actually worked at low-paid manual jobs, but he sees no shame in having done so. In fact, he revels in his background. Taylor told me a story about his mother, Liz, who had always wanted more children, but was never successful. (He remembers her saying to him years later: “I only had one, but I had a champ.”) She miscarried on four occasions. Taylor said that each time, the family’s neighbours stepped in to help: “One would come in and do my mother’s washing. Another one would look after my mother, another one would feed me. Another neighbour would give me dad his tea when he got in.” This decency has stuck with Taylor. It’s one of the reasons – along with his distrust of mortgages – that he still considers himself working-class. To him, the classification is more about your state of mind than your bank statement.
Taylor balks at any suggestion that he has forgotten his roots. When he beat Chris Mason in the early rounds of the 2007 PDC world championships, he left the stage fuming at the obscenities Mason had uttered in his ear at the end of the match. In a post-game interview, he said he would walk away from darts if he was subjected to any more of the same treatment. “I’ve never heard such filth in all me life,” said Taylor. “I ain’t going to have it.”
Taylor, who had played in pubs and clubs all his adult life, had assuredly heard filth like it. His anger on that occasion stemmed from what Mason had recently told the newspapers – that Taylor was a “Bertie Big Bollocks” who flaunted his wealth over the other players. This characterisation infuriated Taylor. He told the interviewer: “They don’t work hard enough. You’ve got to put the effort in. You’ve got to make sacrifices … I’m just a working class man who’s done well for himself.”
Taylor may have done well out of darts, but he admits that his success has corroded his family life. “It’s hard to keep a marriage when you’re on the road all the time,” he told me. And, despite his unwillingness to leave the spotlight, his existence now seems oddly lonely. Because of the volume of requests he receives, he changes his phone number often. The people who spend the most time with him are connected to his work. Rutter’s presence in his house suggests he does not want to live alone. Sometimes, when Taylor is on the road, he will share a twin room with his driver Bob Glenn – a shaven-headed Midlander who used to work for Eric Bristow – just for the company.
* * *
Taylor’s third dart left his right hand. Whatever its destination, he had proved many people wrong at this world championships. Throughout the tournament, the view in the press tent was that this was his last opportunity to win a world championship, but that he was not playing well enough to challenge Anderson or Van Gerwen in the final. In the third round, against the fiery Belgian player Kim Huybrechts, Taylor had come close to being knocked out of the tournament. (Backstage, one journalist could be heard on the phone taking instructions from his editor: “Right, nothing if he wins, eight pars if he goes out?”) But Taylor rallied that night, and on every subsequent night. He seemed to win matches through willpower alone.
His opponent in the final, Gary Anderson, had played magisterial darts for two weeks. In the semi-finals, Anderson had dominated many people’s favourite for the tournament, Michael van Gerwen. Afterwards, the Dutchman was so upset he kicked the tarpaulin of the press tent – a moment of frustration that was captured by a Dutch photographer and led to a confrontation. The two men were eventually separated by officials after the photographer agreed to delete his picture. There were no such fireworks after Taylor beat his longtime rival, Raymond van Barneveld – a tall, bespectacled Dutchman with a broad belly and the wistful manner of a publican running an unprofitable establishment. Backstage, the two old friends embraced and Taylor said, very quietly: “Well played, Barn.”
On January 4th, the night of the final, Taylor said he felt relaxed. Deep in the bowels of Alexandra Palace, cordoned off from the players’ bar, is a practice area where only competitors and one guest are allowed. Taylor warmed up on the boards there for two hours while his driver, Bob Glenn, kept him company. When the call came, Anderson walked out of the practice area first. Taylor and Glenn followed, up three flights of stairs underneath a mirrored ceiling, through some large double doors and then a black cloth curtain.
After Anderson had walked onstage to House of Pain’s Jump Around, accompanied by two security guards and a brunette “walk-on girl” in a tight gold minidress, it was Taylor’s turn. He shuffled to the end of the walkway, fans calling his name, and his eyes scanning the room. John McDonald, the announcer, bellowed: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, here he is: the record-breaking, history-making, 16-time champion of the world … It’s Phil … The Power … Taylor!” Snap’s The Power played, artificial lightning flashed, and Taylor smiled and fistbumped his way down the runway to the stage. He looked faintly embarrassed by the attention. There is just no way for a 54-year-old to bump fists convincingly.
The action onstage was mesmerising. Darts is a repetitive sport. Like taking penalties in football, it is what sports scientists call “a closed skill”. So much of its drama is related to expectation. Everybody knew Taylor had hit double 16 thousands of times in his career. But could he do it this time, with the tournament on the line? Truly great darts matches are contests of self-control. Can one player react to brilliant darts thrown by the other? Taylor told me that the secret to his success as a match player had been to “play the man not the board”. Every time his opponent scored big, he forced himself to do the same.
By the time Taylor reached the deciding set with three darts for double 16 to tie the match, he felt that he had played Anderson into a corner. Much later, after the match had ended, he would tell me that in this moment he thought: “I had him by the bollocks.” But Taylor missed his first dart, and then his second. When his third landed a millimetre or two wide of the double 16, he stood still for a moment and stared at the errant missiles. It was as if they had somehow done him wrong. Anderson quickly punished the mistake. Taylor lost the final leg, the final set, the match, and the world championship.
When Anderson threw his winning dart, Taylor turned and slumped his shoulders, and methodically put his darts back in a little leather wallet. It was a few seconds before he could bring himself to congratulate the victor. This was only the fourth world final he had lost in 20 he had contested. As he walked off stage after the trophy ceremony – which must have salted the wound for Taylor, as his hero AP McCoy was handing out the prizes – he told me: “It’s me own fault.”
The final finished late. It was well after midnight by the time Taylor had completed his duties with the press, at which point Glenn drove him home to Werrington. They arrived at two in the morning. The next day, Taylor went to see his mother at the hospital, before packing a bag for New Zealand, where he had been booked to go on an exhibition tour. The plane left at 9pm from Heathrow.
Two weeks later, while Taylor was in Australia, his mother died of a lung infection at the age of 74. He cut short the tour and came home on the next flight. She was buried on Wednesday February 4th at St Mark’s Church in Basford. It was, said Taylor, “the worst day of me life”.
It would have been understandable if he had taken some time off from his professional duties. But the next day, he travelled to Leeds to compete in a Premier League event. His match was against Adrian Lewis – a fellow Stoke man and double world champion whom Taylor had mentored through his early career. During the match, the crowd, who knew about the week their hero had endured, sang “There’s only one Phil Taylor” with feeling. Taylor responded by thrashing Lewis with the best darts he had played in months. At the end of the match, Lewis planted a single kiss on Taylor’s head.