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“Ever since I’ve been 16, 15, that’s all I’ve been doing, playing darts. Getting in cars, getting on trains, getting on planes, playing in venues, different venues. About the most I go without playing darts is about a week. Even when I go on holiday I have a practice. It’s in my blood.” - Eric Bristow
Darts legend Eric Bristow talks to Gabriel Clarke about his life in sport, from winning three successive darts world titles to losing his nerve through dartitis and last year’s appearance in the celebrity jungle.
With contributions from his protege, 16 times world champion Phil Taylor, darts commentator Wayne Mardle and Keith Deller, who shocked Bristow by beating him for the world title in 1983, the programme chronicles the progress of the ‘Crafty Cockney’ from hustling darts games for money as a teenager to the pinnacle of his sport.
Eric says he used to challenge men to games of darts in pubs in his area of North London, which he would then go on to win. This sometimes annoyed the older men, he reveals: “I didn’t give a monkey’s then, I was a young fit lad, mate. I didn’t worry I didn’t worry about who I went up against, I never ran. You start running, you run the rest of your life. I mean, I used to walk about with a claw hammer, he was my best friend, the claw hammer. He got me home loads of times.
“I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in Stoke Newington for the rest of my life, hanging about with idiots. That wasn’t for me. I wanted to go out and have a look around.”
He developed a style of throwing the dart with his ‘pinkie’ finger lifted, which he became famous for. He says: “Most people hold them like a pen, that just didn’t feel right for me, so that [little finger] stuck out. And so that’s why my dad didn’t want to take me down the pub because he didn’t want his son looking like a whatever. What was funny about it was as I started becoming popular on TV, when I used to go around the pubs and clubs people have got their fingers sticking out. They are thinking maybe it helps them play better, and that used to tickle me.”
As Bristow’s profile grew as a darts player, the sport began to gain in popularity as it featured on ITV’s Indoor League. Wayne Mardle says he came along at just the right time: “Who did I want to win back then? It was always Eric. He was the Kevin Keegan of the time, he was the man.”
Bristow’s innate confidence, which showed at the oche and in interviews, meant he wasn’t always the most popular player with supporters and other players, however. But he says all he cared about was winning - starting with the 1980 world championship against Bobby George.
“I was never going to be like a Jimmy White, who would choke every time. I was going to win it. I was too good not to win it.”
But Keith Deller reveals Eric’s arrogance was designed to get into the other players’ heads: “He didn’t care, it was all about winning to Eric. I would come to the venues and say, ‘See that trophy, lads? That’s going in my car tonight.’ We hated it. We were all saying, ‘You’ve got to get him, you’ve got to take him out.’ End of the night, he took the trophy home.”
As the sport exploded in popularity thanks to the TV coverage, Eric defended his title in 1981 against John Lowe. In 1983, he came up against Keith Deller, who hadn’t been on television before, in the final. The resulting victory for Deller with a memorable 138 final checkout was the biggest upset in darts championship history. While Eric hated the defeat at the time, now he plays with Deller in exhibition matches and says the pair maintain a friendly rivalry - particularly when it comes to signing autographs.
“He winds me up, he still does, he winds me up. He signs, ‘Keith Deller’ and he signs, ‘138.’ So I put, ‘Eric Bristow,’ and I put ‘MBE.’”
After three more world championship wins between 1984 and 1986, he suddenly lost the ability to release the dart at the point where he needed to to hit the board - a psychological condition known as dartitis. That meant he never won the world title again, and had to rethink his life.
“If the game you love doing all of a sudden you can’t do any more, then you have to think, ‘Hang on a minute, I might not be able to do exhibitions here.’ So what do you do at the age of 30 or whatever? Become a postman?”
While other darts players struggled with alcohol, such as Jocky Wilson, Eric says he had no trouble staying off the drink when not playing darts. However, he says he also had the ability to spend the vast sums he was earning: “By the time I was 25 or 26 I would have earned a million but if you looked in the bank account it’s not there because I’ve spent it. Oh yeah, that’s what it’s there for. I don’t want to be the richest bloke in the graveyard. Look at Elvis.”
In 1988, he discovered a darts player called Phil Taylor in a club in Stoke-on-Trent, and took him under his wing as a mentor. Now a 16-time world champion and the sport’s best-known player, Taylor says Eric changed his mindset: “Winning, that’s what he taught me. How to win. I could play well, but I wasn’t a winner.”
Then in 1993, furious at the amounts they were being paid Eric and other top darts players broke away from the sport’s governing body, the British Darts Organisation (BDO), and set up their own, which became the current Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). The BDO chairman at the time has since said the players weren't 'owed a living'. But Eric says: "I feel brilliant that we have split away and opened the door for this lot. We were getting peanuts. They all said we did wrong doing it but look at it now, I mean the money involved. And it's just starting now because it's going to go worldwide."
Away from the oche, Eric was accused of assaulting his wife in 2005, of which he was later cleared. He says: ”It all comes after the darts goes and everything else, and then your marriage goes. I got done for assault which I didn’t do. It was thrown out, it was a load of nonsense, you know what I mean? I lost my house, so I didn’t win anyway, did I?”
Eric appeared on the ITV entertainment show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2012, which meant he found a new set of fans. He says: “I’m known as the jungle man now, not as a darts player. I’m signing autographs for 14 and 15-year-olds who have never even seen me play darts. Crackers.”
He now hopes that he has given something back to the sports he loves: “Hopefully I’ve given something back to darts, which has been brilliant to me. Hopefully I made it a bit popular when I first started, I was part of the breakaway, and I also created a monster, so I think I’ve done a little bit. And if you don’t like it, up yours.”