I’ve never been very good at sports.
As a dedicated fan of most games and sporting events I suppose I’ve always had a little stab of regret that I’ve never found a discipline that I can excel at.
I used to be a half-decent runner when I was younger and thinner. I was also a reasonably skilful football player in my teens, but my attempts at playing for a junior team as a schoolboy were cut short when I was regularly overwhelmed by the physicality and aggression of bigger and stronger peers. Miserably hugging the left touchline of the pitch I was reduced to a state of terror by the piercing yells of I’ll break your fucking legs McCambridge (and that was from the players on my own team).
The truth is that I never possessed the size, speed, co-ordination or basic competitive spirit which would make me proficient in any game.
And yet I have achieved one sporting triumph which I will remember with pride for as long as I still possess my memories and ability to reason. A result which defies all logic, which is so unlikely and freakish that it can only be described as truly astonishing.
The year was 2011 and the sport was darts (yes I know some people don’t think it is a sport). All of the best players in the world of arrows had come to Northern Ireland for the Premier League. For the uninitiated the Premier League is a hugely successful roadshow event which tours arenas in the UK, including the Odyssey in Belfast. Staggering amounts of beer are consumed as thousands of raucous fans cheer wildly at players who are so far away that they appear as distant specks on the stage. It is big, big business.
In that year, ahead of the Odyssey appearance, the organisers staged a small promotional event at the old House of Sport building in Belfast.
In attendance was Raymond van Barneveld, affectionately known to fans around the world as ‘Barney’. Barney is probably the most popular darts player in history and one of the very best. He is a five time world champion and in 2007 won the most famous darts match ever played when he beat the legendary Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in an epic world final.
Barney is also one of the nicest men it is possible to meet, generous with his time and utterly without ego. He is a national hero in his native Netherlands, where there is none of the snobbishness which some people still have towards darts in the UK.
On this occasion the organisers wanted Barney to play a few short challenge legs against local fans and personalities. They had run into trouble finding a journalist prepared to face him and, knowing that I was a darts fan, a local PR company asked if I would step in.
I enthusiastically agreed.
There was just one problem, and one that I did not disclose when I was asked to compete. I am rubbish at darts. Utterly terrible. Since my childhood I’ve always had a fascination with the game but it never transferred to any aptitude at the oche.
It is true that I spent hours hurling darts at boards in my younger years but I would regularly miss 20 or 30 consecutive shots at double one. I was nowhere near good enough to be even a bad pub team darts player. I was really that inept.
And by the time I agreed to face Barney I probably hasn’t thrown a dart in a couple of years. All the undeniable factors pointed to it being a massacre, rather than a match. I would have as good a chance of knocking out Carl Frampton, nut-megging Lionel Messi or outsprinting Usain Bolt as beating Barney on a dart board.
Undeterred, I set out for the House of Sport feeling strangely optimistic. I remember texting my brother, another darts fanatic, to tell him that I thought I was going to win.
But all of my positive thoughts rapidly evaporated when I arrived at the venue. A crowd of around 100 Barney fans had turned up to see their hero and I was immediately paralysed by nerves. After introducing myself I was invited to take a couple of practice throws. Standing at the front of the small crowd my legs and arms felt alien and I was unable to even hit the board.
Now the relationship between darts and alcohol is well known. I’m not much of a drinker, but, stupefied by the situation I found myself in, I quickly made my way to the refreshments table and downed a full bottle of wine quicker than I had ever done before in my life. It was the only way that I could control my nerves.
Then the event began. Barney was to play a leg of 501 against against three game local challengers. For a professional, a leg of darts can pass in a few quick minutes. It wasn’t a proper match, just a fun challenge. Not to be taken seriously. Except by myself.
The list of victims were the then Lord Mayor of Belfast Pat Convery, Irish rugby international Stephen Ferris and me.
The Lord Mayor was up first and, bizarrely, played while wearing the mayoral chain. He was there only in a ceremonial capacity and clearly did not know one end of a dart from the other. On his first three darts he hit the board once.
But any thoughts that Barney would go easy, based on the low standard of the opposition, were quickly set aside when on his first turn he scored a maximum 180. Fans had turned up to see him and he obviously felt a responsibility to play properly.
The Lord Mayor was swatted aside in a few moments before Ferris came to the oche. The rugby player was clearly a decent amateur, playing at a standard way above my own. But still Barney beat him handily without breaking sweat.
Then I was invited to the oche. Barney was relaxed and enjoying himself by now. We chatted for a few moments before he invited me to throw first.
I attempted to calm myself and adopted a darting pose. I threw my first arrow. It sailed high over the top of the board, impaling itself on a thin strip of rubber which had been erected to protect the wall. No score. My second dart went even higher, missing the protective strip altogether and impaling itself in the plaster. I took a moment, composed myself again and threw my third dart into the middle of the single 20 bed. I was delighted.
At this point I can only assume that Barney had already decided I was not to be taken seriously because his own standard fell well below what I expected and he threw some mediocre scores. Still, within a couple of turns I was more than 100 points behind and he was well on his way to victory.
I think it was on my third visit that I hit a treble 20 and two singles for a score of 100. This was as good as it ever gets for me and I was thrilled that I had at least shown Barney and the small crowd that I had some level of competency. Idiotically I pumped my arms in the air and Barney laughed gallantly. On my next turn I hit 86 which kept me in touch.
Then Barney moved to finish the leg and the match on his next turn. He left himself 32 and with his third dart aimed at double 16. His throw was true and the arrow bent the thin wire of the double bed. But it was on the wrong side of the wire. It could not have been any closer, but it was on the wrong side of the wire. I was to have another turn.
What happened next is so truly bizarre and unlikely that every single second of it is still stark in my memory, as if chipped there in solid stone. All I can say is that this is exactly how it happened.
The scorer told me I needed 90 to win. I had never checked out a score this high in my life. I know I never will again. I stepped up to the line.
Now, there are several ways to check out 90. The conventional route is to go treble 18, double 18. The flash route is to go for bullseye (50) and then tops (40). What happened next was neither conventional nor flash.
Barney was having fun and urged me to go for the bull. I was hardly likely to ignore the five time world champion so I went for it…and threw possibly the worst dart in history. The bullseye is right in the middle of the board. My dart sailed into the middle of the treble 17. In darting terms I wasn’t even in the right continent.
However, treble 17 is 51 and some quick subtraction told me I was now left with 39. I still had a chance. My darting brain told me that if I could hit single 7 I would have a shot at double 16 to win.
I aimed at single 7…..and my dart flew into the treble 7.
This was now approaching a level of high farce and I was so confused and disorientated that I could no longer compute what my score was. Barney, generous as ever, stepped in and whispered in my ear that I had 18 left.
It took me several seconds to locate the 9 bed in the board. I steadied myself and, without thinking about it, released my last dart.
In that tiny moment all the planets were aligned and all the gods of misery and bad luck had nipped out for a fag break. The arrow soared like Poseidon’s trident….straight into the middle of the double 9 bed. Nobody, not even Barney, could have thrown it better.
There was a moment of stunned confusion before the crowd realised what had happened. I had won, I had somehow beaten Barney. I had thrown one of the worst checkouts ever and managed to beat one of the best players ever. There was a smattering of applause and laughter from the spectators.
The photograph at the top of this blog is one of my favourites and was taken just seconds after I had thrown the winning dart. The expressions on the two faces tell it all. Mine is of delighted and embarrassed incredulity, Barney’s is of amused astonishment. He almost seems to be saying Hang on, I thought you were crap.
Barney was charitable with his time and posed for photographs with me afterwards. The truth is that over a short single leg a very bad darts players can beat a very good darts player with a little bit of luck. But I was a very, very bad darts player and I had beaten a very, very good darts player.
At the time I was working in the Belfast Telegraph and I wrote a little story about the experience for the paper. It created a few small ripples and I was invited onto radio a couple of times to recount the tale, which I happily did.
My feat also secured an invitation to the VIP box at the Odyssey to watch the Premier League the following night. For once I could actually see the players and their darts hitting the board without having to strain my eyes to glimpse the big screen while being covered in beer by excited fans all around.
The Belfast Telegraph artist was commissioned to draw a cartoon. It depicted me returning to work, after beating Barney, only to discover that Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor had been drafted in to occupy my desk and do my job while I was off throwing darts. It was a nice touch and I still have the original drawing.
It’s several years later but I have never been involved in another darting match or even thrown a dart at a board since. There didn’t seem much point because I know it never gets any better than what happened that day in the House of Sport.
But I did have one more encounter with Barney. A couple of years later I travelled to Wolverhampton to watch a darts tournament. I was standing outside a bar when I noticed Barney walking past. I quickly intercepted him and mentioned our clash in Belfast.
He clearly had no memory of the incident or idea who I was but was, as always, friendly and happy to talk.
It was not surprising that he didn’t remember the incident. After all he has thrown countless darts and will have played thousands of these little challenge matches. Doubtless there will be other amateurs who struck lucky and got the better of him over a single leg. Although perhaps not many quite as useless as me.
But what means little or nothing to one participant can mean a lot to the other. Just for a few moments on a rainy afternoon in Belfast years ago I knew what it felt like to beat a world champion. That’s good enough for me.