No fans, but the World Cup of Darts goes from strength to strength. Michael Bridge was in Austria to see just how much the tournament meant to those involved.
As I left the Salzburgarena for the final time on Sunday night, dense fog accompanied my short walk back to my hotel.
However, it didn’t dampen my spirits and I played ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ on my phone. I wasn’t homesick and despite lockdown, I wasn’t anywhere near London Town.
Austria was the venue for the World Cup of Darts and I must admit, a few weeks back, I questioned the necessity of a tournament that doesn’t have any bearing on the Order of Merit and brought 32 teams of 64 players together in one place in the middle of a pandemic.
But just minutes after checking into the hotel on Thursday night, I felt real warmth. The majority of the players competing were present and spirits were high.
In walked Gerwyn Price, followed by Michael van Gerwen. To my right, Scotland’s John Henderson and Robert Thornton were in fits of laughter, clearly delighted at the opportunity of representing their country after Gary Anderson and Peter Wright withdrew.
As I made my way to my room I thought maybe, just maybe, this could be a tournament I’ll look back on with fondness.
All credit to the PDC
The PDC has led the way with giving fans the opportunity to watch darts during lockdown starting with the Home Tour and continuing through to as full a calendar as anyone could have reasonably hoped.
Since darting from home, we’ve seen a safe return to major tournaments with the World Matchplay, the resumption (and conclusion) of the Premier League, the World Grand Prix, World Series finals and a mini European Tour.
All events at the arenas are clearly marked with a tick for the PDC players and staff area and a tick for the broadcast section. All tables at your place of work are spread apart to adhere to social distancing – I even had my own personal bottles of antibacterial gel and 200 disinfectant surface wipes.
Lithuania against Gibraltar kicked off proceedings. Teenagers Craig Galliano and Justin Hewitt made the team and underlining the variety of player on show, Galliano is also on course to represent his country at football – he currently plays for the Lincoln Red Imps.
It’s information like that which intrigued me more ahead of the match and it took just minutes of my first World Cup of Darts to realise just how much it meant to the four on stage as they took on Lithuania. Neither team are from darting hot-beds but it underlines the game’s growth.
Lithuania won the tie and would face England in round two. A 5-3 defeat meant the Gibraltar boys returned home proud of their efforts with plenty to look forward to going forward.
My moment of the opening afternoon came when I had to interview the very relieved pairing of Kim Huybrechts and Dimitri Van den Bergh after a narrow win over the Czech Republic. I always enjoy speaking to Dimitri, nothing but honesty and good humour but this was nothing I’d experienced before.
Both slipped into fun mode. “Is this on Sky?” they asked. “Yes!” was my tone reflecting a ‘pull yourselves together, lads’ approach but it was great entertainment.
“That’s why we love the pairs!” shouted my producer Rory in my ear. I put my microphone to the side and allowed them to sing and dance before we crossed back to the studio. Their reaction was of relief, the relief they didn’t let their country down. Secondly, they were glad to be there.
The surprise of the afternoon came from Canada, as they comfortably beat Northern Ireland’s Daryl Gurney and Brendan Dolan. England’s Rob Cross and Michael Smith beat the Philippines 5-3 and you could see the relief on their faces after the win.
The Philippines included Lourence Ilagan, who hit a nine-darter on the Asian Tour last year. He caused problems throughout the match for Marko, our cameraman as he kept standing too far on the left-hand side waiting for his throw.
After a few orders from match referee Russ Bray, he got the message! After the match, Cross admitted he and Michael aren’t close friends on the tour, but had bonded while away and would be doing everything they could to bring the trophy back to England.
A special tournament
I’m privileged to see the players at close quarters and the joy of playing and for some, winning for your country was obvious. It was special, pairs darts was special and yes – this tournament is special.
All doubts in my mind were erased after just one afternoon session on the opening day. Dinner was laid on for us by staff at the arena – a really nice touch appreciated by us all and before we knew it the evening session started with an interview with Henderson and Thornton.
Both singing and dancing as they made their way to the stage. Anderson and Wright’s withdrawals gave these two the opportunity to represent their country and clearly, they were enjoying every second. After calling them The Proclaimers, Henderson replied: “do you think I could walk 500 miles!”
Comedy is all about timing and that was perfect. A 5-3 win over Japan saw them through to day two. Tournament favourites Wales and the Netherlands were also safely through, Price clearly in the form of his life.
On reflection, I hadn’t enjoyed an opening session as much as that for quite some time. At breakfast the next morning, most of the players were present including a Brazil side that had lost 5-1 to the Netherlands. Diego Portela alongside family members still in good spirits.
Saturday saw another day of great darts. Wales and Australia set up a mouth-watering quarter-final. Jonny Clayton was relieved his partner and captain Price was in such stunning form as their match with Scotland went to a doubles decider.
“I let Gezzy down today”….”No you didn’t!” Price insisting it was a team effort, it was typical of the pair’s relations and Clayton’s time to shine was still to come.
Drama on Finals Day
Sunday began with the news Van Gerwen was in hospital with a trapped nerve in his back.
Dave Allen, head of media at the PDC, told me it didn’t look good. Dutch team-mate Danny Noppert continued to practice alone at the arena. I asked Price about the injury and he was quick to praise Van Gerwen’s persistence in making sure he’d play given the risk of further damage with so many big tournaments to come in the next few months.
The world No 1 did play and didn’t look to be too troubled in a win over Max Hopp in the singles. However, Germany won the pairs to advance. We want to see the best players at 100 per cent and everyone wishes MvG a full recovery ahead of the Grand Slam.
England against Austria in the quarter-final had it all. Great darts, nervous darts and real bite. Rob Cross visibly fuming at Rowby-John Rodriguez after their singles match. “I can’t go into it as I’m too angry to talk….I’m fuming. He’s a good lad but he knows what he was doing.”
A bit too much noise and foot stomping as Rob threw seemed to be the issue. After the pair embraced, they started singing ‘It’s Coming Home’ as they made their way off the stage after securing their spot in the semi-final. Admittedly I joined in too. We were just missing Baddiel and Skinner at this point…
Smith and Cross battled past Belgium to reach the final, Wales too with neither side needing a decider. Price’s trademark “Come onnnnnnnnnnn” every time he hit a 180 or a double was loud enough to be heard back in Wales.
Price’s celebrations continued all the way up to and after the final as they comfortably beat England. As I waited by the side of the stage to interview the pair, I noticed there was so much more emotion here than his Grand Prix win just a month ago. “I’ve won it for my country; it doesn’t get better than this,” said the Iceman.
I also reminded Clayton he no longer needed to rush to Coventry for the Grand Slam qualifiers on Monday morning.
He insisted it wasn’t on his mind, just being a World Cup winner. I left the arena for the final time in freezing conditions, Michael Smith 20 yards in front of me. In just his England shirt, pure frustration and adrenaline keeping him warm as he pondered another final defeat. It’s coming, Michael, it’s coming.
So, as I leave Salzburg via coach to Munich eventually flying back to London, what did I take away from this tournament?
Firstly, the immense pride the players have in representing their country. Secondly, there’s definitely room on the calendar for this tournament. And finally, the standard.
There genuinely wasn’t one bad match. Darts is growing rapidly in all continents and it bodes very well for the future and I’m in no doubt that in a few years time, representing your country will feel like winning a major in its own right.
One big gap was missing…you, the crowds. Roll on 2021.
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