‘Eventually, the cream always floats to the top’ is one of the best, and quirkiest, headlines I have ever seen over a sports article. It was a different sport, in a different time, to he rest of what you will read hereafter, but, to paraphrase Carly Simon, no lyrics do it better.
It’s said that you have to lose one before you win one. Whether that be a major horse race or a final in an individual or team sport. If that is the case, whoever switched on the AutoSteer in the tractor cab up top forgot to turn it off at the headlands for the Dunboyne hurlers who have lost seven county finals since they last won one in 1914.
That may will be the longest chasm between drinks anywhere in sport. But, in terms of suffering defeat at the final hurdle of events, Hull dart thrower Michael Smith had what must have been one of the most unfortunate, unwanted records in sport.
That of having lost the nine major finals he had contested on the oche. Prior to Sunday last! Mind you, when he did break through, he didn’t half leave a gaping hole behind him.
Known as Bully Boy – at least partially due to the fact that away from the dart board he is a beef farmer – this time the Bull didn’t need any red rag to rev him up!
The Grand Slam is – apart from the big one at the Ally Pally over Christmas – my favourite tournament on the tungsten tossing schedule. Firstly because the Round Robin format used therein means more matches. And the longer into the tournament a player goes, the longer the matches get.
One oddity of the Grand Slam format is that a player can lose a match or in some cases two and still advance from the group stages. Smith had no such worries on that score, but once entering the knock out stages, he definitely sailed close to the wind on more occasions than he might care to remember.
Particularly at the third last hurdle against Joe Cullen where he looked to heading for, in racing terms, a PU on his CV, only to get a second, third or possibly fourth wind, rattle home and get over the line by the shortest of short heads, 16-15.
On so many previous occasions, darting aficionados have pondered ‘Could Smith finally land his first big one here? Only for the bearded board battering ram to somehow run out of diesel just when it mattered most.
Except against Cullen it appeared the fuel light was flashing a lot earlier than it was usually seen. Though sometimes you just get a feeling. At no stage did Cullen look confident of being able to put his opponent away.
In contrast, the longer Smith hung in there, the more an observer could begin to believe that, after years of banging on the bigtime door, now was the time it was about to open for him.
What nobody could have foreseen, though, was him no much opening the door as blowing it clean off its hinges. It was as if hanging tough against Cullen liberated him and he thought he could handle anything after that.
Elsewhere on these pages, the remarkable journey on which Raymond Van Barneveld went at this year’s Grand Slam is covered extensively. He was eventually halted by Smith at the semi final stage, but mere mention of that fact would only divulge a morsel of the story.
Proclamations beforehand that it would be a bridge too far for the Dutch darting doyen appeared to be on the money when a supremely focussed Smith bolted from starting stalls and into a 5-0 lead.
However, RVB hadn’t got that deep into tournament without showing a considerable quantity of guile and guts and, by God did he show each in abundance, rallying from 0-5 to square matters at eight apiece. He never could get ahead, though, and, eventually, diesel expended trying to lasoo in the bull told when the 55-year-old was wide of the mark with two shots to tie things up for a tenth time at 13 each.
Those misses seemed to empty the five time World Champion physically and so it was that Smith’s walloping of the treble 20 continued as he got home 16-13, earning himself a joust with Nathan Aspinall.
For his part, the latter has made a commendable recovery from a bothersome arm injury which looked like it was going to curtail him significantly. To The Asp’s immense credit it hasn’t but on Sunday evening, Aspinall encountered a force of nature all the flood defences in the world wouldn’t hold.
So Smith has finally got the Major breakthrough he has yearned for and his talent has merited for so long. Now that the Bully Boy has opened the gate, his contemporaries had best thread carefully!