3 years since I’ve been to the Fylde coast to observe the Tower lit up at night, since seeing the original Sooty puppet in a plexiglass case at the start of the North Pier, and since seeing tungsten flung at a board of bristles by men in silk shirts and casual slacks.
Must mean darts is back on the radio, then! Indeed it is - and whilst Her Maj gets 2 birthdays a year, darts nuts get 2 Christmases a year. You get the proper festive season with the World Championships at Ally Pally, but the 2nd Christmas comes slap bang in the middle of July with the World Matchplay, as 32 players topping the merit lists bid for the prize that only the Worlds beats in its prestige.
When talkSPORT 2 covered the 2018 Matchplay, the world of darts was still seemingly trying to come to terms with a darting world that no longer featured Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor at its zenith (he’d finally retired at the start of the year). To that end, they named the Matchplay trophy after him, as he’d won it 16 times (that’s like getting to keep 5 Jules Rimet trophies and making a start on a 6th for the mantelpiece), but here and now, it does seem like the sport truly has cast off his invincibility and the field is so open to dominance like never before.
After a 1-year decamp to the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes for last year’s behind-closed-doors Matchplay, it’s back to the spiritual home of the opulent Winter Gardens setting for this seaside rendezvous. Actually, Queen played their first headline show here back in March 1974, but ‘Seaside Rendezvous’ wasn’t even written for another year, so that little play on words didn’t really work, there. Never mind.
Ideally, I’d have liked to have seen a bit of Blackpool itself on Saturday afternoon before getting to the venue ahead of the first session, but the M6, M62, M61, M65 and M6 again saw to that, initially. However it took me almost as long to get from the M6/M62 link to the hotel car park as it did to subsequently find a parking space at the hotel. No matter that it was a vast sprawling car park…there wasn’t a space to be had as I hopelessly drove round and round like a dodgem (without hitting anything I must stress). Chris Mason came outside to laugh at me and try to offer assistance through his chuckles, but no spaces were materialising and I started to understand how hamsters in a wheel feel, going round and round whilst getting precisely nowhere.
An hour passed - seriously, it was a whole hour - before an older couple vacated their space and I was in there like a robber’s dog. I wasn’t the only guest struggling to park up - the ‘afternoon tea’ brigade had been in situ for a while and were taking up room that residents needed, but after more laps than the British Grand Prix, I admit my relief outweighed any sympathy for their plight. ‘I’m alright Jack’ is the phrase, I believe.
Quick shower and change after unpacking and then the 10-minute walk from hotel to venue, which would normally involve a stroll along the prom prom prom. But it was rammed to be fair, and offered no shade, so I elected to walk the next road in from the coastline as it were, which did offer shade thanks to, amongst other places, the 25 karaoke pubs I passed (that’s no hyperbole, I swear).
After all the health tests had been passed at the Winter Gardens’ media entrance - you know, temperature check, lateral flow test, “barf out, gag me with a spoon”, that sort of thing - I met up with my talkSPORT 2 colleagues who would be on the team for the next 9 days. I’ve already mentioned Chris “Mase The Ace” Mason, who has played this prestigious tournament before, reaching the semi final in 1998. He would arrive later on, but Paul “The Asset” Nicholson was already there to greet me. Nicho played here 5 times and never once enjoyed it, only getting past the first round twice. He explained to me that, despite the beautiful carved cornices and surroundings of the ballroom, there was something he just didn’t fancy about the place. But he loves coming here as our pundit.
Producer Matt Gubbins has elected to drive up on the Friday and encountered far worse traffic than I had - 8 hours from London to Blackpool…but he found a parking space quick enough. He had all the broadcast equipment set up in our commentary position which was in a fabulous spot - side on to the stage, affording us a perfect view of the players in profile as they throw. Not only that, but our little commentary booth had…wait for it…air conditioning! First time’s a charm.
Mark Wilson is my fellow commentator here - our man in the North, who’s as adept doing darts commentary as he is with rugby league or football. I hate those versatile talented types ;o) Wils is, like many within talkSPORT, a proper team player, and fantastic company, but I’m not looking forward to trying to match him pint for pint if we have a night of scoops later in the week.
I also met up with Abigail Davies properly, who’s the talkSPORT 2 backstage interviewer for us this year. I met Abi briefly during the football season - you’ll have maybe seen her on Sky’s Soccer Saturday show doing in-vision updates from matches. She’s also the girlfriend of our legendary colleague Dan Darts Dawson, who’d providing talkSPORT with updates whilst we witter away on the other channel. Unfortunately for Abi, knowing she is a Swansea lass only made me swiftly bring out the Welsh accent - a dialect honed from years of being in dodgy Glam bands from Cardiff & Newport. She humoured me - at least on night 1 she did, anyway. She has 8 more days of me to endure.
The action on the oche certainly didn’t need to be endured. Great to see fans back in, albeit in reduced number as per guidelines, but as with the football crowds I’ve witnessed in recent times, a reduced capacity does not mean reduced noise. Far from it - the punters made plenty. After all, there was a ‘local’ lad to cheer on first in Dave Chisnall, who resides just up t’ road in Morecambe. He stuttered a tad but eventually saw off Vincent Van Der Voort with some great finishing, but even with the best 3-dart average of the night in 97.7, you feel Chizzy will have to work on his general scoring to go deep into this.
Jonny Clayton looked a tad sharper up next against the Aubergenius Dirk van Duijvenbode, and he’s only set up a titanic Welsh tussle against World No.1 Gerwyn Price in the next round, as the Iceman comfortably beat Jermaine Wattimena 10-4. That should be something special in Round 2.
The quirky thing about defending Matchplay champion Dimitri van den Bergh was the fact that he was aiming to retain the trophy without having set foot in the Winter Gardens once before the first night! (Pandemic and all that) - a lovely touch from the PDC to have Dimitri come up on stage before the first match of the evening to lift the trophy he won in front of a crowd, rather than when he lifted it in front of several cameramen and Wayne Mardle in the Milton Keynes bubble last year. He shimmied through easily enough, too, against Devon Peteresen.
And so to the walk back up the seafront to our home for the next 9 nights. Passing hen and stag parties aplenty, plus the odd, erm, ‘altercation’ in the street. You know, a frank and open exchange of views…the sort you should avert your eyes from.
Yeah, that sort.