Paul Nicholson selects his five favourite darts matches in history, including the greatest World Matchplay final in history.
After paying tribute to his five darting heroes in last week's instalment of his Sporting Life column, the major winner and leading pundit goes back through time to pick out some incredible battles on the oche.
The Asset not only reflects on what made each match so special from a standard point of view, but also explores the surrounding storylines at the time and how it affected the players involved.
GARY ANDERSON 21-19 MENSUR SULJOVIC
- 2018 World Matchplay final
This is, without doubt, the greatest World Matchplay final of all time. And that’s some statement given the competition for this honour!
You had Gary Anderson desperately bidding to add this prestigious title to his CV for the first time coming up against Mensur Suljovic, who headed into the event claiming he didn’t like playing in Blackpool!
He was wandering around on the promenade wearing black trousers, black bomber jacket and eating an ice cream saying he didn’t even like it there.
But then he goes on this tremendous run just to reach the final, where he finds himself 14-10 and 17-13 down and in real trouble before mounting an incredible comeback to take us into extra legs.
All of a sudden it looked as though Anderson was somehow going to lose after everything he’d gone through in the event, including that nine-darter in a fantastic clash with Joe Cullen that featured ‘fly-gate’.
What you’ve also got to remember is that Gary despised playing Mensur due to his slow style and his record wasn’t good against him at all having also lost in the previous year’s Champions League final.
This was one of the last players he’d want to face to get this elusive Blackpool crown.
But despite having a dart in the bullseye for the match falling out - which further added to the drama - he produced some incredible shots that solidified what makes Gary Anderson such a legend.
He was so close to losing but had the tenacity to find some breath-taking quality at the bottom of his pocket when he needed it most to get the job done.
The year belonged to Anderson, who also won the UK Open and Champions League for the first time in his career, although there’s still a big fat hole on his mantlepiece where the Grand Slam of Darts should be.
As gut-wrenching as it was for him to lose to Gerwyn Price, I think that will keep the ambition and motivation burning inside him for the next few seasons, while he also wants the World Grand Prix to complete the set of big majors.
As for Suljovic, questions are being asked whether he can challenge for the big majors. His career has been a slow burner having made his Lakeside debut way back in 2002 but at 48, there’s still no reason why he can’t peak again.
ROB CROSS 6-5 MICHAEL VAN GERWEN
- 2018 World Championship semi-final
This is one of the two games in my five that I was actually there to witness by the stage having just called the first semi-final between Phil Taylor and Jamie Lewis for TalkSport.
For me, this has to go down as the best game I’ve ever seen live in the flesh and I doubt I’ll ever see another as good as this.
It was a three Michelin starred seven-course taster menu that left you wanting even more. There was brilliance from start to finish and, of course, the missed match darts from the losing player that always adds to the drama.
Rob Cross had barely been a professional for a year and here he was taking on the best player in the world, with both players averaging sky high and landing blow after blow.
In his short career he’d already suffered some narrow defeats to MVG but when he erupted like never before after a memorable 161 checkout on the bullseye midway through the match, Michael must have felt he was in trouble.
Rob just kept going after him with this aura of fearlessness until he hit that winning double.
His performance was mesmeric and although his average wasn’t quite as high as what he managed when thrashing Phil Taylor in the final, the game was twice as good.
Despite using all that mental energy to come through such a titanic battle of this quality, it was remarkable to see him raise his game to new levels against Taylor and prove it was certainly no fluke.
It helped that he had a day of rest after his semi-final to recharge the batteries – as did Taylor – and his youth also helped him recover quickly.
When you look back at his route to the final, in which he survived match darts against Michael Smith and also came through an incredible battle with Dimitri van den Bergh, he may have felt at this point that it was written in the stars for him to lift the trophy.
He may have enjoyed a little luck along the way, like most champions do, but this was the best tournament he’s ever played from start to finish and he was able to time his best moments for when they really mattered.
Although Rob has since ticked off the second part of the Triple Crown by winning last year’s World Matchplay, I think he’ll have recently looked back on what he did during this World Championship in a bid to get back to his very best.
After his early exit at Ally Pally back in December, he quickly acknowledged he needed to lose some weight and get back to the physical shape he was in two years earlier.
He’s since shifted a lot of it and we’re starting to see signs that his performances are heading in the right direction. It might take many more months to get himself back to where he wants to be from both a health and playing perspective but he’s made a start by nipping things in the bud.
By looking at himself in the mirror and saying “this isn’t good enough, I need to do something about it,” Rob has done what some other players refuse to do.
We will see more majors and tournament wins from Rob once he’s found his balance.
ROBERT THORNTON 3-2 PHIL TAYLOR
- World Grand Prix last 16, 2012
I know there are a lot of players, pundits and fans out there who will think that all of the greatest matches they’ve ever seen happened at World Championships.
The majority of them are but my third Phil Taylor match in this series came in the second round of the 2012 World Grand Prix.
I personally remember this so vividly because I was in the practice room that night of October 10th preparing for my match the following day against Colin Osborne. I’m throwing some darts but when my good friend Robert Thornton walks out onto the stage, I sit down and watch it.
After five sets of double start darts, I’m sat on my chair with my jaw on the floor!
To this day I defy anyone who thinks they can find a better double start match than this – it exceeds even the time when Robert and James Wade both hit nine darters in the same game.
Thornton averaged 96.67 and Taylor made 95.71, which is the fifth highest losing average in the tournament’s history – and was the highest ever at the time.
We often add on 10 to give you a reflection of what the averages would be if it was a standard game so those marks emphasise the brilliance of starting, the brilliance of finishing and the amount of 180’s in-between.
Double-start darts can be seen as something of an art form and when you get two players who are very comfortable with the format going head-to-head, the standard can be sensational.
It’s just a shame this match was only best of five sets because if it was best of 11, I guarantee it would have been 6-5 either way with both players maintaining their averages.
The victory gave Robert the confidence to become a specialist in this format and there’s no doubt these memories would have served him well during his triumph over Michael van Gerwen in the 2015 final.
As darts players, we lose more often than we win so you need to grasp onto the victories that really make your heart swell and fill you with belief.
Very much like John Part in the 2003 World Championship final, Robert was able to keep Phil Taylor at bay by the smallest of margins and that’s what made it so nail-biting.
I didn’t want it to end so if there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t remember it, please give it a watch because it is that good. You won’t regret it.
Phil has always had a lot of respect for Robert, who also beat him at that year’s UK Open, because he had such tenacity and wasn’t afraid of any reputations that stood in front of him.
He loved to play against the big names and be the likeable underdog - the tenacious terrier that was never going to get off your heels.
After beating Phil it was difficult for him in the next match, which he lost, because he came up against one of his closest pals in Mervyn King. He was always better against opponents who would bring out that extra spice rather than his friends.
What next for Robert Thornton?
In the 12 years I’ve known Robert, I’ve learned you can never back against him beating anything – whether it’s pneumonia back in 2011 or resurrecting his career on more than one occasion after tumbling down the rankings.
In recent years his Tour Card was on the line but he responded with a great run at the Grand Slam to save it so he’s definitely got that survival skill.
Even though it gets harder to pull off these great runs as you get older, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one more chorus from Robert in the latter stages of his career.
It has been harder for him than most players in their late 40s and 50s because his wife has been very ill and he’s had a lot of things going on in the background as well as his loss of consistent form.
He will continue to fight for as long as he possibly can but regardless of what the future holds, he already has a Hall of Fame career in my eyes and will always be remembered for what he did in the World Grand Prix both in 2012 and 2015.
JOHN PART 7-6 PHIL TAYLOR
- PDC World Championship Final, 2003
This is one of those ultimate ‘where were you’ matches of the ages.
I vividly remember sitting in my flat with my room-mate Gary, and while he was pottering around playing on his X Box, I just couldn’t keep my eyes off this final.
I can say categorically from the very first dart who I wanted to win this final and that was John Part.
It had nothing to do with a dislike for Phil Taylor – just that he’d won it for eight years in a row and we all wanted someone else to reach the top and give the rest of the world belief that the Power could be beaten.
However, John’s victory was so special because of the way he did it.
Some analysts and pundits may say John wasn’t one of the greatest players that ever lived but there can be no doubting he’s right up there as one of the best grafters, scrappers and efficient when he needs to be.
That was proven by how many clinical shots he took out in that match and how many times he was able to palm off Taylor and keep him at a distance throughout what would have been 13 mentally draining sets.
Even when Phil fought back from 3-0 and 4-1 down to lead 5-4, John showed great character to get his nose back in front before holding his nerve unbelievably well in the decider. He only needed one match dart when taking out 77 to end Taylor’s reign.
That came just two years after losing 7-0 to Taylor in the 2001 final - and 6-0 in the follow year's quarter-final - so it was crucial he got some sets on the board early on, which he did, and his confidence grew very quickly.
John is a very clever man – not just on the dart board – and probably one of the best counters we’ve ever seen and shown us all new ways of doing things. He had a game plan for that match and executed it with intelligence and good throwing.
It said to the world that no matter how good the talisman is, if you do your thing right and play to your strengths then you can end up with a world title by beating the very best.
The confidence other players got from that final probably hasn’t been documented enough.
When you think about when and where John has won his world titles, they are all iconic and for this reason alone is perhaps the most underrated player of all time.
He won the first Lakeside after the split and was subsequently the first overseas player ever to become a world darts champion in either the BDO or the PDC.
His next one comes at a different venue by beating Taylor and effectively doing what Barney would achieve four years later with more fanfare. Everyone talks about Barney’s title against Phil in 2007 but John did it first!
Then he goes and wins at a third venue when the World Championship moved to Alexandra Palace, coping far better to the transition than anyone else.
This again shows John’s mental toughness compared to others and when he was tested, he produced the highest average of the tournament.
But of all his three world titles, the one in 2003 is the one he holds so dear and it’s easy to see why.
PHIL TAYLOR 6-5 MIKE GREGORY
- BDO World Championship Final, 1992
At the Lakeside in 1992, there was a number of potential winners including defending champion Dennis Priestly, Phil Taylor, Alan Warriner, John Lowe, Eric Bristow, Bob Anderson and of course Mike Gregory, who was arguably the best player in the world that season.
There was a plethora of talent around at a time when the sport was on the brink of changing forever and although all the players wanted to win this title, they were starting to think they weren’t getting the exposure they really deserved.
And the 1992 final - which is my favourite match of all time - was the proof that things needed to change in the world of darts.
At the time, there was no disputing that this was the greatest game ever played. There may have been some since that people think are better, like Barney v Taylor in 2007 or Painter v Taylor in 2004, but this is still up there as the best in my eyes due to the rumblings in the background and the direction it helped send the sport.
The sheer quality of the match was mesmerising and Mike’s six missed match darts to become world champion in the deciding set added to the unforgettable drama.
Mike was arguably the best player during that season and Taylor was fortunate to win his second world title in that manner but you have to give him credit for the incredible way he finished off that deciding leg.
The standard from both players was off the charts at the time, with both players not far off 100 averages, which were like gold dust back then, while it captivated the TV audience in the same way the 1985 World Snooker Championship did between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor.
They both went late into the night, went right down to the wire and were the first ‘epic’ finals of their respective sports.
I don’t think there was any final in the previous stagings of the World Championship that were anywhere near to being that good.
During that final, Mike Gregory elevated his celebrations to a level that we’d never seen from him or anyone else before. Back then you didn’t really celebrate legs and sets at the drop of a hat like you do today, so for them to be doing that just further added to the drama, tension and meaning of the match.
Gregory was riding a wave of adrenaline he’d never felt before and the way he celebrated during his fightback from 2-0 down and his push towards the cusp of victory made people think “wow, this is how dramatic and exciting darts can be”.
As a 12-year-old kid I was like a zombie starring into the TV screen captivated by what I was watching and I could not leave it.
When Gregory was on the match darts you could sense he was edgy and throwing with hope rather than 100% belief it would go in.
But when Taylor eyed double top to win it, you knew from his face that it would go in. That was the difference.
I think most players have been in a situation when the title dart seems so hard to hit.
When I was confronted with one at the Players Championship Finals, I managed to do it at the first attempt because I was in a zone with no feeling of missing or any negative thoughts.
However, in the World Cup final when I hit single 16 to leave double top for the match – and consequently double 10 – I felt the importance of it all and was therefore more nervous than ever before. It also played on my mind that I’d missed a similar checkout a few years earlier to reach the World Cup final.
If you have positive reinforcement in those situations, like Phil Taylor did, it’ll help but the mental scaring for Mike Gregory will have stayed with him for the rest of his career.
Mike Gregory: What happened next?
Mike Gregory would never become world champion and despite managing to win other titles, his career will always be remembered for his heartache and his controversial decision to go back to the BDO from the PDC.
In the Blood on the Carpet documentary about the split in darts, Mike said that going back to the BDO was the best way for him to provide for his family.
At the time he felt it was the right decision – and nobody can argue with that because that was his choice to make – although in hindsight we can all say it was the wrong one.
He didn’t really do anything else of any major note after his return to the BDO but I get the feeling had he managed to hit any of those six match darts, he could have gone on to win a couple more big ones.
The grandeur and belief he would have taken into future events would have been pivotal and maybe that status would have kept him in the PDC.
But that’s the beauty of sport’s sliding door moments.
Return here on Thursday for Paul Nicholson's third iconic match...
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