Paul Nicholson looks back on how the coverage of darts has changed through the years in his latest column and discusses who could fill Dave Clark's shoes at Sky Sports.
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Dave Clark’s decision to step down as Sky Sports Darts presenter has left some huge shoes to fill and in this week’s column, Paul Nicholson discusses the major contenders to replace him.
The Asset, who is obviously one of the leading commentators and pundits in the game today, also uses the opportunity to reflect on the role other legends had to play during the evolution of darts coverage down the years and where it stands today.
Lanning the legend
When we look back at when darts commentary really took off, there’s only one place to start and that's with Dave Lanning.
When I sit in my office, I sometimes close my eyes and think of his iconic voice because it’s like a comfort blanket. When I found out he’d passed away I was in floods of tears but this wasn’t my own grief. It was my grief for the game because of what he represented to the very last words he uttered as commentator.
He was fabulous when covering other sports too but the way he put his English across, never wasted a word and was so factual without being too statistical.
We were granted someone very special when darts started coming into our living room and when he needed someone to help bring things up a notch, we were then gifted Sid Waddell, who was bonkers.
The fact you could have both Sid and Dave in the same commentary box makes you realise how fortunate darts was to have them bringing the sport forward in an era where we also had Tony Green of course.
Darts also had other top-class sports presenters like Tony Gubba, Dougie Donnelly, Hazel Irvine and Dickie Davies but for me, there was nobody better than Dave.
We’ve had many great ones since but I don’t think anyone will ever be able to hold a candle to Dave and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to think that.
Sid had a very working-class upbringing in Northumberland but he knew very quickly that he was very smart and sports orientated. I think he knew long before the sport took on the razzmatazz that we know today, what made a great darts commentator before everyone else did.
This is why he was able to bring other commentators from different eras into his world and inspire the future voices to be themselves and show their passion for the game. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if it’s different from the calmer approach you’ll see in other sports.
As well as his bonkers nature, his eloquence and smart brain that was educated at Oxford combined with the proud Northumberland dialect was a fabulous mixture that was profoundly darts.
Sid did commentate on other things but darts was his baby and forte.
The networks could have quite easily brought in a seasoned sports commentator to do the darts at that time to take a lead role – such as John Motson or Barry Davies – but I don’t think it would have worked because they wouldn’t have had that same passion for the sport.
For a long time we had the same voices of darts, even if they switched from one network to another, but I think the introduction of John Part in the mid to late 1990s shook things up brilliantly just when there needed to be some variation.
He was obviously a leading player at the time, which was in itself a new phenomenon to the commentary box, but his way with words and intelligent Canadian vernacular really cut through with great effect. The way he called Ted Hankey’s 170 finish to win the 2000 Lakeside title was perfection and everyone then realised it didn’t have to be the likes of Sid Waddell, Tony Green, Dave Lanning and John Gwynne who could do this job.
He’s so intelligent, articulate and knows everything there is to know about the game. And to become such a great commentator at the same time as winning multiple world titles gave me the inspiration to juggle a media career too. Steve Beaton and Alan Warriner did it too but John was the figurehead in a movement we’re seeing more and more of today.
I’ve had the privilege of working with John Gwynne and although he’s one of the more seasoned campaigners now, he’s still an excited kid at heart who can’t hide his passion for the game, which he loves just like his football and cricket.
You can’t fake the passion of John Gwynne, Sid Waddell or Dave Lanning. If it wasn’t for their enthusiasm and how it resonated with the millions of viewers in the 90’s you wouldn’t have that style of commentary now.
We always knew Wayne Mardle was a bit of a character to say the least from his playing days so what he does with his brand of commentary certainly isn’t an act. It’s quintessentially Wayne.
Rod Harrington went from being a double World Matchplay champion and world number one to being a great commentator and also a PDC board member! That’s a lot to juggle, as well as his family life, and he does it fabulously well with an abundance of integrity.
The amount of stats we now have at our disposal almost makes darts like the NFL, but while this does mean we have plenty more to talk about, if we only focused on stats then it’d be very boring.
With the current crop of commentators in the game across various networks, we’ve not only got a nice mix of generations, but also a good split between pundits who just do darts and those who are all-rounders. John Rawling, for example, does boxing as well but his chemistry with Chris Mason on ITV works fantastically because they have a genuine bond.
It also became very obvious very quickly that Wayne Mardle and Rod Studd were the perfect partnership for Sky Sports and it’s no accident that they always seem to get the final word on the big events. Rod is a great sports commentator and Wayne has the eye for the technical side of the game as well as his boisterous style of presentation.
I’ve worked with a plethora of people across various networks but for me, Jim Proudfoot is one who stands out the most and he genuinely makes me proud about what I’m doing.
The most underrated commentator right now is Dan Dawson because he’s got personality, he’s a bit whacky and extremely knowledgeable with his statistics. He’s fast becoming the voice of darts and I’m astounded as to why he doesn’t do more big-time events.
People associate Dan’s voice with the future of the game, which is important, and I love working with him on the PDC network.
The best piece of advice I was ever given came from Dave Clark shortly before I was about to commentate on the 2014 World Championship final between Michael van Gerwen and Peter Wright with John Rawling for BBC Radio Five Live.
He used to work in radio and knowing I didn’t have much experience at the time, he looked at me in the eyes and said: “Make sure you paint a picture with your words for the audience and that way they’ll know what’s going on.”
It was a real teaching moment from a future PDC hall of famer and those exact words still go through my mind every time I take to the commentary box. It helped me immensely that night and we enjoyed a tremendous broadcast.
Before Dave of course, Sky Sports and darts were very fortunate to have Jeff Stelling in the chair for a while during a time when the sport was really making its move, but then he went on to become the voice of Soccer Saturday.
So it just goes to show how incredible Dave was for almost two decades that nobody ever thought for a second about replacing him. He may not have been a voice of darts at the start of his journey but it wasn’t long before he worked his way into our hearts and stayed there. As well as being flawless at his job, he’s such a lovely man and his true zest for life, darts and sport in general always shone through, not to mention his sense of humour.
It’s a real shame that he’s decided to step down even though the entire darting world respects and understands the reasons why, and right now we don’t know who will replace him.
Whoever does it will have huge shoes to fill – almost like how hard Manchester United have found it to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.
The person who gets the job will need to be very sympathetic to the past of this game but needs to bring their own brand of presenting moving forward. You can’t mimic what’s gone before but they do need passion for darts if they don’t want to be found out.
Who will replace Clarky?
If you look at the current presenters and talent that Sky Sports has in its stable, then Rob Studd would be a natural choice. He’s stepped into that role before, he has a passion for darts and we all love his voice. He’d be able to do it standing on his head, but would he prefer to do that full-time rather than the commentary box? I’m not sure.
When David Croft comes in at Christmas time he always does an impeccable job and he’s been around darts for a long time. Let’s not forget that he used to work at the Lakeside before he went to Formula One with Sky, so his pedigree is there. Would he give up his incredible globe-trotting job with F1 for darts?
Laura Woods would also be a fantastic choice but look at her other commitments right now! She does football presenting with Sky Sports and TalkSport having rocketed up through the ranks over the last 10 years and although she’s a bit of a workaholic, I don’t think she’d want this role full-time.
Michael Bridge is another strong contender. He’s worked on Sky Sports News like Clarky did but also has experience of presenting the Darts Show, which could put him in the box seat. It may just boil down to whether he wants it – and if he does, I think he’ll get it.
Jacqui Oatley has also done an incredible job leading the excellent ITV 4 coverage of darts, and she knows what it's like to fill big shoes having taken over from Matt Smith, who is a top professional in any sport he covers.
After many years as a football commentator and presenter for the BBC and ITV, Jacqui has recently become presenter of Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports, you'd have to think she'll now be on their radar for the darts coverage.
Away from Sky, one of the best candidates available is Dan Dawson because of his knowledge and pedigree for presenting for the PDC, doing The Darts Show as well as commentating.
His experience has built up so much over the past few years while he also has the whacky sense of humour to carry certain pundits in the direction that makes darts the product we want to watch. The one thing that goes against him is that he doesn’t currently work for Sky and they usually promote from within when it comes to the big presenting jobs.
So it just depends what Sky want to do. Will they continue with their usual strategy – even if it’s a new non-darts face from Sky Sports News - or look outside the company? Only time will tell.
They’ll want it to be a long-term appointment with the support of Laura and Crofty. Whoever gets the job, however, will have the pressure of not ending up like David Moyes at Man United!
As I’ve already eluded to, presenters, commentators and pundits in darts have predominantly been British, male and those who aren’t active players.
So while John Part originally broke the mould in terms of nationality and being a player, we now have the likes of Devon Petersen, Mark Webster, Laura Turner and myself continuing that trend that must continue.
Mark in particularly has am encyclopaedic knowledge of what players have done in their careers and often pulls out a stat that I’ve not even been aware of, let alone the knowledgeable TV audience, and then he can relate it to the game seamlessly!
The sport has sorely needed female voices for a long time so it’s fantastic to hear Laura Turner more on Sky Sports – she’s insightful and her execution is improving all the time as she gets the increased chances that she deserves.
I did my first ever radio commentary with John Rawling for BBC Radio Five Live during the first Michael van Gerwen v Peter Wright World Championship final.
It got raved about to the point we thought it was the start of something special but for whatever reason, the Beeb decided not to pursue it.
Talksport then snapped it up and they now report crazy numbers for when they cover it, especially during the World Championship when it’s almost impossible to watch it all on TV over the three and a half weeks.
There was a time around 2018 when I was getting myself back into the reckoning in the rankings where my priorities were pretty much 50:50 in terms of playing and media work.
When I lost my Tour card I then realised that my media work was now 80% of my career and playing was just 20% through exhibitions and smaller tournaments.
Now, I feel that the media takes up all my time and because I love it so much, my plans as a player going forward are to be confirmed.
It all depends how Qualifying School goes because January will be my last crack at it.
Media is going to be my long-term vision and the work I predominantly do with the PDC allows me the freedom to impart my style on commentary.
I don’t know what my opportunities for other networks are going to be like in the future but I like to think my passion for the game and particular brand of articulation will stand me in good stead.
My first piece of golden advice for TV was given to me by Stuart Pyke while doing a World Series event in New Zealand with him and he said: “Let the action build the moment.”
Since then I believe I've become the best player-pundit in the world and I don’t shirk away from that, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. I started out playing darts because I believed I could be the best – and at one point I thought I was. Everyone should think like this about their own abilities because the confidence you have on the microphone should come across in the commentary.
There’s no hiding place on the radio and if you’re unsure of yourself, the listener will know about it. Talksport had the confidence to let me take the lead role and the fact I lost my voice during the Fallon Sherrock matches at the World Championship showed my passion!
The world is always changing and in the rise of social media we’ve been able to find out through interaction that a lot of darts fans want a mix of wackiness, stats and predictions which means as pundits we’re on the chopping block all the time!
The more I get right the more it makes me look good out of the first seven matches at the World Matchplay I got them all right…until Michael Smith proved me wrong! However, I like to be wrong sometimes because that is what keeps us grounded.
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