Ever wondered about the different routes players can take to realise their dreams of becoming a professional? Paul Nicholson explains all in this week's column and also has advice for those starting out.
During lockdown, former major winner, commentator and coach Paul Nicholson has been using his weekly Sporting Life column to share a whole range of practice drills, practice games and mental tips to help improve your prowess at the oche.
But whether you're still a novice of any age itching to play competitively or a seasoned pub or Super League player, what are the next steps to take your game to the next level?
The Asset, who has been playing darts since childhood, has witnessed first hand the different ways of reaching the top in two very different eras and reflects on both to highlight the sport's ever-changing landscape and methods of producing the next crop of stars.
If you are among the readers who want to give it a crack yourself one day - or have a keen child desperate to emulate their heroes - then you'll also find some great advice along the way...
There used to be a ‘blueprint’ of how to get into big-time darts and while this has now changed down the years, some people still go down this old school path.
Back in the day, you’d be very, very fortunate to find a youth county team within your area, and when I grew up in the north east, there wasn’t one. Opportunities to get into the game at a young age were few and far between because there just wasn’t the funding or sponsorship back then to make it viable.
In that scenario you had little option but to wait until you were at least 18 to play in the pubs and clubs, although some would relax their rules around participation over younger players if they had talent.
It’s one of the main reasons there weren’t so many great young players at the time, and those that were – such as Keith Deller from Suffolk - tended to be from the southern counties of England – or Wales - where they had youth systems to come through and opportunities to compete for titles.
For me, I knew I had talent from around 12 but I was restricted to playing at home against my dad or my mate Kris, so I really needed a proper vehicle to take my game to the next level.
I started properly at my local club aged 18, although two years earlier I’d given a fake name and age to get a taste of playing against more adult players. I got into the team, won all six games but then they found out and told me to come back again in 18 months when I was legal!
Once old enough, you’d join a pub team and then prove yourself with them – but it did take time to get used to play competitively in different surroundings.
The next step was to try and get into a Super League team, who would play once a week in a season that would mirror the county season. If you did well in Super League, you’d then be picked for your county so that was the logical next step. For many players it still is but for how much longer, we don’t know due to the problems with the BDO.
I started to play Super League darts for Blyth in Northumberland about 18 months after I started playing local darts and that wasn’t a slow process for me. I was fast-tracked once people could see how good I was at a pub called The Seahorse and other teams wanted me to play for them.
I was subsequently touted by a team in Bedlington, where Chris Dobey lives, called the Sun Inn and I played for them for six years before I moved to Australia. Although geography was the main factor for who people decided to represent, if you could travel to a better team, you did.
I never thought about changing team and I feel those years readied myself for county darts. In my Super League team were the likes of Gordon and Arthur Dobey. Gary Robson, Graeme Stoddart and even Gary Anderson appeared as a ringer for rivals Bedlington Station!
That team Gary turned out for were known for having quite a bit of money and had a guy at the helm called Paul Smith - a fabulous player himself before suffering from dartitis – and he had this ability to find someone to play for him better than anyone else in the north east.
He got this lad down from southern Scotland for one night and he blitzed his opponent in double quick fashion. We never forgot Gary Anderson’s name after that. At the time he was on the fringes and even nicknamed ‘Smiler’, which he perhaps won’t like too many people knowing!
Gary wasn’t the only ringer to be brought in because winning that Super League trophy meant everything to Bedlington Station club. They were the Manchester United of the area and players either dreamed of being part of their set up or wanted to beat them. I was in the latter group because my club – which is now the Netherton club – were their arch-rivals.
Once you’re in the county system, that’s when you found out if you were going to be good enough to make it in the game.
Whether you were Eric Bristow or someone who had just started out, the county system was everything. The B squad played games on Saturday and if you did well in that you’d be promoted to the A team.
During this time you’d still be playing Super League as your bread and butter, but you’d try and play all nine county games in a season – home or away – if selected.
Bare in mind you’d most likely have to hold down a full-time job and get time off work to play county because it didn’t pay anything. You had to fund travel yourself and there was no prize money. It was a labour of love just to get the opportunity of one best-of-five match for a whole weekend.
The next step - if you had any aspirations of trying to make it into big-time darts – would then be trying to get noticed by the national selectors for events such as the Home Internationals. That was very hard to do, especially back then, and if you could break into that who’s who of darting stars then you were seriously good.
On top of doing all the local, county and potentially national darts, you then had to make a choice of whether to go and play in other tournaments for ranking and prize money as well. This was the best way to qualify for the BDO majors.
There were ways to get there through your Super League system via local play-offs around the country, with all the winners then progressing to national play-offs for the Masters or the Lakeside.
But the likes of Martin Adams, Mervyn King, Andy Fordham, Richie Burnett and Raymond van Barneveld would all be playing in ranking tournaments around the country.
That’s why you get a lot of talented county players like Gordon Dobey who don’t ‘make it’ as a profession because they opted against travelling around the country for ranking points. It wasn’t for them and instead they focused their efforts on holding down a full-time job, raising a family and playing Super League and county darts. But that doesn’t mean they lacked ability.
Back then it was almost unheard of to jump straight into the PDC system. There were a couple of players from the north east who did that such as Graeme Stoddart and Steve Raw but you had to choose your allegiance and you couldn’t play both systems.
At the start of players’ careers, it was a much safer bet to stay in the BDO due to the amount of tournaments they staged in the UK, until the PDC started to pump a lot more money into their events and made it more lucrative. When Sky Sports got more razzmatazz with darts, that’s when people saw the PDC were really starting to take over and it wasn’t long before the likes of Steve Beaton, Richie Burnett and Raymond van Barneveld started to switch over in their droves.
That’s where I dreamed about going when I went to bed at night but at the time I couldn’t have afforded to play in their tournaments. It cost a lot to enter them and sometimes a lot just to get there, especially if overseas. When I went to Australia, I looked at the PDC with more vigour and always knew that would be my eventual route in darts as they showcased what the sport was going to be, rather than what it was.
Starting with youngsters and kids, nowadays their parents can take them down to one of many Junior Darts Corporation academies all over Great Britain where they can assess how good they are.
These are safe, smoke and alcohol-free environments where kids come along and gain experiences of playing other people and potentially enter JDC tournaments if and when they’re good enough.
There are representatives at every academy to monitor talent levels and there’s also a shirt system where the colour changes depending on how they score in the JDC Challenge, with black being the best - a bit like belts in karate.
If someone impresses then they will be able to play in JDC tournaments, which earn you points towards qualifying for the JDC World Championship, so it’s a stark contrast to when I was a kid.
Not only is there an adequate system but the age of social media means it’s easy for people to find and get involved.
Once you’ve progressed through the JDC or get too old for it, you’ll then start looking towards the Development Tour but also be the right age to start taking on senior players in local teams and Super Leagues.
Even though the aspirations of playing county and national darts is on the wane, promising players these days will still look to complete in as many avenues they can to progress in the game.
Leighton Bennett is a perfect example of this – he won the Cambridgeshire Open at the age of 12 before he’d even become BDO World Youth champion and now he’s taking the JDC by storm.
The youngsters on the Development Tour today are looking to become full-time professionals on the main PDC circuit as soon as possible. They don’t even want to think about having another job. They want to play darts seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The likes of Luke Humphries and Dimitri van den Bergh were still playing Development Tour darts right up until the day they couldn’t – even though they were already seasoned professionals – because they wanted more titles and money.
Players in this era of darting mercenaries are money hungry animals and for this reason they’ll compete in whatever they’re eligible for.
Of course there are many stories of older players who fall through the ranks and lose their tour cards, so what are their options?
The Challenge Tour is earning a lot more respect than it used to – especially since Rob Cross came through it to win his first tour card - and players are seeing that as a viable way of bouncing back.
It’s a tough breeding ground with a lot of talented players involved, the PDC have been clever in creating a clear, defined process for those at various points in their careers to find a way to the main tour.
Another option, which was chosen by both Andy Hamilton and Wes Newton, was to start their careers from scratch back in the BDO system, while Simon Whitlock felt that playing local darts again would rebuild his confidence even at a time when highly ranked in the PDC.
It worked for Andy because he’s won his tour card back but now it’s hard to tell how long that system will be in place for anyone, given its current crisis.
I’d say the best option in this instance would be to play locally and enter some independent tournaments whilst also competing on the Challenge Tour.
I admire those who have stuck with the BDO all this time as that’s the system they believed in, but I think it’s fair to say most players realise the future is now all about the PDC.
I hold my county days very dear to me and the people I played with but ultimately the county system has to be completely revamped or scrapped, and instead purely look at the tournaments in the PDC system.
If you’re reading this and you’re any age from 24 upwards and have little to no experience playing the game at a competitive level, then it’s not too late.
Get yourself down to a local club, introduce yourself and start playing matches in a league environment.
Eventually, if you want to take your game to the next level, you’ll need to start entering more tournaments around your area and see just how good you are.
These events – especially the ones that have been around for years and years – are easy to find out about online via the darts networks, so there’s no excuses for not giving it a shot.
You may even find yourself up against some players you’ve seen on the TV because some big names past and present still like to enter these kind of tournaments for the love of darts.
When you start winning some titles and build a reputation for being someone who is hard to beat, that’s when you should think about Q School.
The best piece of advice I can give is to forget averages – and don’t let the stats dictate whether you think you’re good enough to give darts a serious crack.
Averages can strangle you and the moment you stop thinking about them is when you’ll improve and blossom.
Too often in the BDO system you’re followed around like a nagging bee swarm by people asking about your average. When you play you constantly think “I wonder what my average is?”
I remember a time playing when I was on for my first average over 90 in a county shirt but I kept missing match darts and lost.
Take the statistics out of your mind, don’t give a damn about them and just focus on playing and winning. As a by-product, the averages will go up, but you should only treat them as a nice surprise rather than a fundamental part of the game.
Averages are a guide for other people. Your guide is winning. They don’t hang averages on trophies. I say keep throwing, competing and listen to as much advice as you can from people who know what they’re talking about.
I’ve been through both the old school and modern-day systems and it’s impossible to say which route to the top is tougher!
There may well be better funnels to reach the top now, but the pool of talent is getting bigger and there’s only so many places available on the main tour.
There’s a fine line between a top Super League player and a professional these days, which is why so many will have the belief that they can make it.
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