When we, admittedly belatedly, got ‘All’ the stations in at home, one of the first things I watched on Sky Sports was a Rugby League match. Wigan were playing somebody or other, but I can recall Martin Offiah and Kris Radlinski being stars of that Warriors team.
Quite a bit of the 13-a-side oval ball game was taken in at that time. Very quickly it became apparent that Wigan and St Helen’s and Leeds were among the leading lights therein.
All these years later, the same triumvirate are still very much to the fore – with, as far as I know – St Helens currently sitting atop the pile in the Super League.
For once though, the commendable conquests of the rugby team are, in the short term at least, going to have to yield superstardom to another sporting legend from their locality.
You see, eventually the cream rises to the top. But, given the volunminous levels of disappointment Michael Smith has endured over the past decade, it would have been understood if, in this case, it had gone sour and curdled.
However, comparable to what a lad once told me about using sanitation facilities whilst imbibing, it appears that once Bully Boy broke the seal winning his first major TV title another was sure to follow behind it fairly quickly.
That is not to say the his conquest of the sport’s flagship event was processional by any means. Far from it. In fact, having dealt with the admirable challenge of Tyrone’s Nathan Rafferty, Bully Boy was very fortunate not to be added to Martin Schindler’s list of conquests.
Thereafter, having avoided being an unwanted star on Schindler’s list, Smith had it surprisingly handy against Joe Cullen. The latter has been one of the most improved players on the circuit in recent times – bagging his own maiden televised title along the way – so that Smith was able to defenestrate with his challenge should’ve been seen as statement enough of his intent and capability of taking the title.
From a spectator viewpoint, Smith’s quarter final against another man who has had a very welcome return to form, Stephen Bunting, had mouthwatering prospect written all over it.
Headlined by but not limited to the fact that, pound for pound, the pair are two of the most prolific maximum hitters in the game. Bunting raced upsides favourite Smith for long spells of the match, but, ultimately, the profligacy of Peter Griffin’s doppleganger on doubles – compared to his opponents laser-like accuracy – allowed the latter ease through on a 6-2 scoreline.
On the other side of the draw, even before the action got underway, Michael Van Gerwen was seen as the one to beat. Because of the exorbitant standards by which MVG is judged, in the past couple of seasons it was considered that he had regressed, even slightly, from his aura of unbeatability of the early to mid 2010s.
Granted, it didn’t help his situation that he (a) missed last year’s Championship due to Covid-19 and (b) underwent surgery for a Carpul Tunnel Syndrome injury earlier this year. Even allowing for all of the above though, the manner in which he cruised through many competitions most recently has been awesome from a spectator’s viewpoint but has to have been daunting in equal measure for his fellow competitors.
With the greatest of respect, that he easily disposed of the challenge presented by Welsh youngster Lewy Williams wouldn’t have lit any flares, but the manner in which MVG overcame the obdurate Mensur Suljovic which really put the beacon on in the lighthouse.
Even though it was relatively early in the Championship, the clash deserves standing as one of the matches of the entire tournament. Early on therein, it appeared the Green Machine was going to have things fairly comfortable until the affable Austrian took out 160 to get himself right back into the contest.
Having managed to manoeuvre past Mensur, up next for the three time winner was a Dutch darting derby against one of yours truly favourite players, Dirk Van Duijvanbode. The rapidity with which the Aubergenius throws is what really appeals from a viewing perspective. Thankfully, there’s nobody like the infuriatingly monotonous Justin Pipe on the circuit now.
That said, unfortunately DVD was struck by struck by the same malaise which has afflicted so many players when tasked with facing Van Gerwen. Whether it’s down to stage fright or what is neither here nor there, but, whereas in other matches they could literally pin doubles around corners, against that particular opponent, they wouldn’t hit a barn door at ten yards.
All of which meant that Van Gerwen enjoyed a surprisingly handy victory over his fellow countryman. Van Duijvenbode may have lost out on this ocassion, but given his current career trajectory it surely won’t be long until a certain vegetable is being chopped and cooked on stage in celebration!
For now though, Van Gerwen and Smith appear to have stolen a march on the rest of the darting field. If you require further convincing about same, look no further than the fashion in which both men obliterated their opponents at the penultimate hurdle.
Now, Gabriel Clemens didn’t play badly by any means. From recollection he pegged at least 10 maximums, but, if that was the German’s tally, it meant that Smith rattled off at least twice that amount as he absolutely laid siege to the treble 20 section.
Mind you, if the feeling was that Smith had been on top in his semi final, the manner in which the bald green giant choked the life out of Dimitri Van den Bergh’s prospects before they had even manifested themselves with the most astonishing display of finishing I’d seen on a dartboard… Up to that point!
Ironically, it was actually the Belgian who made the better start, taking out a 170 finish as early as the third leg. Perhaps unbelievably though, that was literally as good as it got for the World No. 15.
What followed was one of the most mesmeric, clinical displays of finishing the one seeing eye here has had the pleasure of seeing in any sport.
MORE THAN MARDLE LOST FOR WORDS
So to the Final. The showdown for the Sid Waddell Trophy. Specifically, the one most observers had predicted and, yes, longed for, from the moment the draw was done.
Would it be Smith finally getting the accreditation he has long deserved? Or would it be the official endorsement of Van Gerwen being back to his imperious best?
This first set seemed to side totally with the latter as he completely blasted through it. However, there was something about the manner in which Smith hit back that suggested he wasn’t to be discounted.
Few, if any, however, could’ve predicted the manic majesty of what was to transpire when the two combatants returned to the oche after the first stanza. Put in this way, there was more than Wayne Mardle lost for words.
I wasn’t properly attuned to tungsten things when Raymond Van Barneveld beat Phil Taylor in what has been widely regarded as the greatest Final ever played, in 2007. Indeed, that contest hasn’t even been watched yet, but, however good it may have been, it will have to be some viewing to top the second set of this one.
How often have you seen players 6, 7, maybe 8 darts into the perfect leg only to miss the D12 by inches? Granted, there was the time MVG did hit the greatest score when cricketer Freddie Flintoff was on commentary with Sky, and bent the wire on the aforementioned double immediately thereafter.
And, lest it be forgotten, that the divisive Mr Price did, in fact, hit two of them during a Premier League night in Germany. Even so, when the two Michaels got the first six in here, expectation was that something would thwart the extraordinary.
Thus, when Van Gerwen did ‘wire’ the D12 there was almost an expectation that the same fate would befall his opponent. But no. Smith’s pinning of the requisite score not only gave the greatest two minutes of arrowsmith action ever seen the ending it deserved but also gave the clearest indication to that point that, as the crowd predictably chanted, that darts were, in fact, coming home!
Such was the frenetic pace that the majority of the match was played at, there was an inevitability that at some point there was bound to be a diminishment of the output from the two the gladiators. And, maybe for the first time ever, the drop in pace actually suited the combative Dutchman as it was the only stage at which the St Helens man seemed to even slightly lose focus.
Yet sometimes you just know. From a punting perspective, I was convinced from a long way out last year that the eventual victor was indeed the participant to beat. Therefore, one is extremely grateful to the turf accountant who had the bearded one available at 9/2 before a dart was thrown!
Now that Smith has netted the sport’s Holy Grail having hit the crossbar on numerous occasions, it is highly unlikely to be his last.