Such was the popularity of darts in the UK at the start of the 1980s that it was hardly surprising come the end of the decade that the nation's love affair with the sport had waned considerably. As with any relationship, you have the initial excitement, the buzz of anticipation during those early days when everything is so new and different, but over time you have to be on your guard that things do not become stale and repetitive, otherwise there may be trouble ahead.
In 1989, darts and television were definitely going through a cooling off period. The BDO World Championships was now the only tournament to be shown live on national television, and although the image of the sport was being addressed - this would be the first World Championships where players could not drink alcohol on stage - the writing was on the wall for the marriage. The messy divorce would arrive in 1993, which eventually would lead us to the world of darts that we see today. In 1989 though, this seemed a million miles away, as the world's best players arrived at the Lakeside Country Club, Frimley Green, Surrey, to contest the 12th World Darts Championship.
The little talk there was before the tournament began, focused on one man - Eric Bristow MBE. This was hardly surprising, as the darting legend himself modestly pointed out during the championship: "Let's face it, when people talk darts they talk Eric Bristow." Bristow's recently awarded MBE in the Queen's New Year Honours list, had certainly put the game back into the headlines. Understandably, Bristow was cock-a-hoop at receiving his award: "I was delighted with the honour and I'll be a proud man when I go to the Palace to receive it." Yet opinion elsewhere was less than enthusiastic.
Bristow's great rival, John Lowe, commenting on the negative reaction to Bristow's MBE, stated: "The adverse publicity this award has sparked off seems certain to backfire on the game. I don't begrudge Eric his award but it has become an excuse for all and sundry to pour scorn on darts." The general point of view of Joe Public, we were led to believe, was that Bristow had earned an MBE for
"only throwing darts", and that a darts player was an unworthy recipient of such a prestigious honour.
T. Higgins of Portsmouth was one of many to voice his views in the letter pages of the Daily Mirror: "Darts star Eric Bristow, TV comedy stars Penelope Keith and Richard Briers and others haven't achieved much beyond getting well paid for their jobs." Perhaps Lowe was right, in that Bristow's MBE had provided an opportunity for the darts bashers to once again clear their throats, but surely if anyone in the sport was deserving of such an award, then it was the five-times World Champion?
From a purely playing perspective, it looked as if Bristow was again the man to beat. Although he had been through the hell of dartitis in the past few years (see the fourth point on my list of sporting what ifs of the 1980s), the Crafty Cockney was beginning to return to form; he won the £42,500 World Grand Prix title in Tokyo in June, 1988, the World Match Play championship in October, and the Challenge of Champions In New York. Crucially it appeared as if the old swagger was back.
"It's true I was struggling with my darts this time last year but that's all behind me. I'm throwing well again and I'm really looking forward to the championship," said Bristow, adding that the Embassy World Championship was the "Wimbledon of darts" (presumably the tennis tournament, and not a reference to the Crazy Gang). Bristow was also in a much better shape physically, his discovery of golf apparently helping him to lose two and a half stone in weight. Certainly the bookies were impressed enough to install Bristow as the 3/1 favourite.
Another man attempting to recreate former glories was Jocky Wilson. The 1982 World Champion was still as popular as ever - from Dexys Midnight Runners to his own computer game - and after teaming up with manager Tommy Cox in 1988, he was starting to reap the rewards. His win at the British Professional, and the MFI World Pairs with Ritchie Gardner in 1988, indicated that he was again ready to challenge for the big one. This along with his record of three semi-finals and three quarter-finals since his previous world title suggested that Wilson would be one of the few men capable of toppling Bristow.
The other two men tipped heavily were reigning champion and world number one Bob Anderson, and two-times winner John Lowe. Anderson was a narrow second favourite to Bristow (best price 100/30) with Lowe at a reasonable 5/1, and it was hard to see beyond the four past World Champions at the time. With 1983 winner Keith Deller not even competing, and fourth seed Mike Gregory at a telling 11/1, Bristow, Anderson, and Lowe, along with Wilson as an outside bet, were definitely the men to follow. And so it proved.
There was little drama in the first round, although world number nine Cliff Lazarenko did crash out, losing 3-1 to Australian Wayne Weening. Anderson easily beat Ken Summers 3-0, and Bristow was just as comfortable in his 3-1 win over Canadian naval officer John Fallowfield. Wilson and Lowe both progressed without dropping a set, as did Mike Gregory and Alan Warriner. It was against the latter that Wilson would enjoy a narrow escape in the second round, as the tournament came to life.
In hindsight, the Wilson-Warriner tussle was probably the key match of the tournament. Wilson raced into a two sets lead, but the 26-year-old Warriner came back strongly, levelling at 2-2. In the final set, Warriner missed eight darts to win the match, allowing Wilson to take the sudden death leg, hitting a 180 and then a 115 checkout. For Wilson the relief was evident: "I'm lucky to be still in the tournament. Warriner is one to watch for the future. But I'm not finished. You watch me go now." Name on the trophy?
One man who was slightly disappointed, even though he moved into the next round, was Anderson. After eight perfect darts in a leg against Weening, Anderson missed a dart at double-twelve which cost him the chance of claiming the £52,000 nine-dart checkout prize (a full £32,000 more than the winner of the championship would receive). Less comfortable was John Lowe, who did not have things completely his own way, requiring three straight legs in his deciding set against Paul Lim to limp into the quarter final. Gregory easily defeated Sweden's Magnus Caris 3-0, with Bristow winning by the same margin against Steve Gittens. "I'm going to win the title," declared an ever confident Bristow.
Of the four men to make the semi-finals, only Lowe would have an easy ride, his 4-0 win over Denis Hickling in stark contrast to the other three quarter-finals. Anderson won in a deciding set against twice runner-up Dave Whitcombe, missing three match darts before breathing a huge sigh of relief: "That was the toughest match I have ever had". Bristow fell behind in sets on three separate occasions against Peter Evison, and in the sixth set Evison had three darts in his hand for a 2-0 lead. Fortunately for Bristow, Evison did not take his chance, and the Crafty Cockney fought back, winning three legs in a row in the last set to squeak through. Another match that went the distance was Wilson's 4-3 win over Mike Gregory, Wilson's second such match in a row. His third was just around the corner.
Wilson's semi-final with Anderson was a seesaw affair. The Scot came out of the traps, to take a 2-0 lead against the Limestone Cowboy, but Anderson showed his true qualities, reeling off four sets on the bounce to put himself one set away from the final. Wilson never gave up though, gradually edging his way back into the match, before forcing yet another final set win. His 5-4 victory over Anderson set up a clash against Bristow, who easily defeated John Lowe 5-1, to reach his eighth final in ten years. Both men were naturally delighted to have made the final, Wilson indicating "I'm thoroughly delighted to beat the world's number one, and I hope I can nick the title tomorrow", and Bristow seemingly happy at meeting his old rival in Saturday's final: "I'm pleased Jocky's in the final because he's a character. There's going to be a great atmosphere."
The final is now remembered as a classic encounter between the two men, but for a long time it looked as if it would be as big an anti-climax as you could imagine. Wilson surged into a five-set lead (needing six sets to win), Bristow unable to finish when chances were given to him, and the resigned grin on his face in both the fourth and fifth sets seemed to suggest that even the great man was not expecting a comeback. The interval at 5-0 helped Bristow though, slowing Wilson's momentum
enough to allow him to win his first set. As Bristow's dart hit double-top, he threw his hands to the sky in a moment of relief, and ruffled Wilson's hair as the two smiled at Bristow's reaction. Before too long though, Wilson would become even more ruffled, and the smiles began to fade.
Bristow took the next two sets, taking time to blow a kiss to the TV camera as he clinched the eighth set. In the ninth, it appeared as if the pressure was seeping into every part of Wilson's consciousness. Standing on the oche with the score at 2-2, Wilson needed 104 to become 1989 World Champion, and after hitting 54 and 14 he had his first dart for the title.
Inexplicably Wilson miscounted, going for double-top when he required double-eighteen. A surprised Bristow stepped in, reducing the score to 5-4, and leaving a dumbfounded Wilson in the background shaking his head. "I don't know what went through my mind. For some reason or other I thought I needed 40. I guess I got too excited", Wilson later commented. In what was turning out to be a thrilling darts match, the pendulum was now swinging back towards Bristow.
Wilson soon moved into a 2-1 lead in the tenth, and nearly took out a 156 for the title, narrowly missing his shot at double-eighteen (although at least this time the Scotsman went for the right double). Bristow bravely took out 130 (20, 60, bullseye) and in such a pressure cooker environment it was heart-warming to see the two men exchange a sporting handshake.
The next leg had a sudden death feeling to it; obviously if Wilson won it then he would be champion, but conversely if Bristow could level the match after being 5-0 down, then surely there could only be one winner? Wilson crucially threw first, and finally managed to creep across the line, missing another championship dart at tops before hitting double-ten at the second attempt. Jocky sunk to his knees, both in relief and delight, before embracing Bristow and then punching the air.
Post-tournament Wilson detailed the secret of his success; cutting back on the booze. "Drink nearly destroyed me," he admitted, adding "I have got the bevvy under control. There is no doubt that has what has made the difference to my darts. The drink didn't do my game any good. There were times when I had one too many. I still have a couple of pints to relax before matches but nothing like before." Tommy Cox, who in Sid Waddell's words knew how to handle Jocky, could take enormous credit for reining in his star man. For eight days in January 1989, Cox managed to get his house in order, allowing Jocky to add a much wanted second world title to his CV.
Jocky's sad death in 2012, although not entirely unexpected, still hurt darts players, commentators and fans throughout the world. But what memories we have of a great character in the game. As one of the faces of the sport in the 1980s, he helped to put darts on the sporting map, and I am sure the players of today, along with us fans, are eternally grateful for that.