FA Cup of Darts magic, rivalries with Phil Taylor, sportsmanship and what makes a UK Open champion? Paul Nicholson's latest column explains all...
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The second big televised major of the season takes place this weekend as 160 players head to the Butlin's Minehead Resort for the UK Open.
In his latest Sporting Life Darts column, major winner and leading pundit Paul Nicholson shares his own 'FA Cup of Darts' memories, including his unforgettable rivalries with Phil Taylor and Gary Anderson, as well as providing expert insight into the unique challenges that every player will have to overcome if they're to lift the prestigious trophy.
It may well be a lottery to pick a winner, but the Asset also provides some outsiders that a worth a small flutter...
MAGIC OF THE CUP
What I love about this event more than anything else is the open draw, which mixes all 128 of the Tour Card holders with those who have earned a spot via the Rileys qualifiers as well as the Challenge Tour.
The top players in other tournaments that have a seeding structure are protected somewhat from harder early games, but going into this event, it’s very different.
The likes of Michael van Gerwen, Peter Wright, Nathan Aspinall and Gerwyn Price can get anyone at any point and because the draws are made after each round, there’s very little mental preparation for who you’re facing.
For the punter and viewer, that’s what makes this so exciting. If you asked darts fans what their favourite major to watch is, a lot would say this one purely for the unpredictability factor.
We have to wait months to see who each player will face in the World Matchplay, Grand Prix and the other big majors, but here they will find out within hours – or even less – of each match finishing.
I think every player looks forward to testing themselves in different atmospheres and that’s exactly what happens at Butlin’s Minehead, where there are three different arenas.
The main stage will have crowds of up to around 4,500 fans on both of the weekend days and that’s where all players will crave to be, but then there’s also a second board in a different area with its own smaller stage, while boards three to eight are all in one room.
The very big names will almost certainly play all of their matches on the main stage but the majority of those who reach the latter stages will probably have tested themselves in all three environments at some point.
BOUNCING OUT FROM BOARD TO BOARD
Players must embrace the multi-board nature of this event and playing in a variety of environments. In previous times when it was held in Bolton, every single board was in the same hall and therefore a lot easier to manage.
In Minehead you have three different rooms so my approach was to always make sure I knew where I was going before anything else! If you don’t, you’ll find yourself flustered and more anxious going into a game. Most players know what it’s all about by now, but for the debutants it can be confusing.
I remember a time in Bolton when two players turned up late and missed their time slot, although that was mainly down to traffic on the M6!
But in virtually all cases if you miss your board and time then you only have yourself blame. Overall, if you can get through to Saturday afternoon with a lot of familiarity of all three areas then it will stand you in good stead for the remainder of the tournament.
If you get drawn against the very best players, the likelihood is that you’ll be put on the main or second stage.
I remember back in 2015 when I qualified for the tournament as one of the highest ranked players, I got the nightmare draw of facing Michael van Gerwen in my very first match on the main stage.
If you get drawn against someone positioned around 20th in the world there’s more chance of playing on the outer boards – so you’ve got to be mentally ready for three different atmospheres unless you are a headline act.
POWERING UP THE RIVALRY
The match I had with Phil Taylor in the 2011 UK Open when I waved him off will always be one of the matches I’ll be remembered for and I don’t regret anything about it at all.
At that time in my career I felt pretty fearless and thought of myself as the best player in the world.
I’d won a Players Championship event seven days before that UK Open, where I ended up reaching the quarter-finals, and then the very next one a week later.
While the draw was being made I was sat eating in Nandos after beating Gary Anderson 9-8 in a tremendous match during the afternoon session. My manager at the time then told me I’d be playing Phil and I just thought, ‘yeah, OK.” I did not care who I faced and there was probably a small part of me that wanted to play him.
But it wasn’t me waving Phil off the stage that started the rivalry. He tried to get in my head so I thought the best way to keep him quiet was beat him in a dramatic match and that’s what happened. We all know Phil learned a lot of his psychological tactics from the great Eric Bristow, who was able to flummox some players with just four or five words before stepping onto the oche.
I thought of myself as quite psychologically savvy not long after coming to the PDC and I could see some of Phil’s tactics coming. But what really made me angry on this occasion was him putting his hands on my waist and jiggling me around before getting onto the stage. You’re not supposed to touch players unless they invite contact through a handshake or hug for example.
I did not like that at all and refused to acknowledge what he was doing. I kept my sunglasses on and earplugs in and thought “you are going to lose right now because you’ve really hit a nerve.” I may have got the better of him on that occasion but during my era, Phil was by far the best psychological tactician I will ever see.
I loved playing at Bolton a lot more than Minehead. Having every board in the same room was what the UK Open was all about for me and would love to experience that atmosphere once again.
But obviously with the amount of ticket sales and fans you can fit in at Minehead, that won’t happen in the UK Open at least.
DERAILING THE FLYING SCOTSMAN
I also had a bit of a rivalry with Gary Anderson that all started at the UK Open, where we just couldn’t dodge each other!
The first time I went there in 2009 I played him in his first ever UK Open match, which I won 6-4 with a 132 checkout on the bullseye, and I’m not sure Gary spoke to me for about two years after that because I did celebrate quite profusely!
But what Gary didn’t know was that I was going through some bad personal times and that match meant a lot to me.
We played each other again 12 months later when he won by the odd leg and there was controversy in that one too because I reacted to the crowd.
The following year I beat him 9-8 but that was played in very good spirit – so all in all we had three very different exchanges and I’m pleased to say I came out on top in that particular trilogy!
For some reason when I played in the UK Open the crowds have either been incredible for me or the complete opposite.
The year I was fined by the DRA for an obscene gesture towards the fans was another misunderstanding in my career. I put a W up towards the crowd to signify ‘Whatever’ but they took it to mean something else which you can probably guess and they didn’t believe me.
At the time there were members of the crowd who knew I was going through some tough personal times and one ‘fan’ in the front row even said ‘no wonder your wife left you’ and that hit a particular nerve and made me snap. Thankfully Russ Bray held me back! We’re all human and like everybody else we have those moments where we react to something we later wish we hadn’t.
I’m obviously not the only player who has had issues with the crowd and you only have to look at Gerwyn Price and his social media activity to see how he was genuinely hurt by some of the things said to him. Everyone has to remember the players are human beings in a very difficult, cut-throat sport with a lot of money on the line. Sometimes players are competing for their careers, lives, mortgage payments etc so the pressures of some atmospheres will get to you.
If you speak to most players, if they are having difficult times away from the oche, it can spill into their performances. When everything is going well on that front – as we’ve seen with Nathan Aspinall – you can play with an extra five or 10 per cent in terms of freedom.
BEAST FROM THE EAST
My last appearance at the UK Open came in 2018 when Storm Emma cast a huge shadow over the event, forcing it to be played behind closed doors with no crowds.
After dramatically beating Terry Jenkins 6-5 with two double eights from 32 having blown a 5-0 lead, I went to one of the outside boards to play Richard North and the temperature in that room was about minus one! To compound the freezing conditions, the heating in Minehead had broken so some players were wearing woolly hats and hoodies while the practice room was also like a fridge. It made everyone very angry to play in those conditions.
At that time in my career, I didn’t think of myself as one of the best players in the world anymore but as someone who could strike from the back if I got a few wins under my belt.
Now I’m there as a commentator and a pundit but I still love being a part of such a special event.
This year is made even more special by the presence of two female players in Lisa Ashton and Fallon Sherrock, and they will both deservedly grace the main stage on Friday afternoon.
However, with Lisa playing first up I’m not sure there’ll be a packed crowd because most fans tend to roll in later during the afternoon and into evening session.
The atmosphere could therefore be relatively quiet and potentially play into Lisa’s hands if she’s feeling a bit edgy, although Mike de Dekker isn’t a great draw considering how he’s 180-ing for fun this year.
Kyle McKinstry has every right to feel a bit nervous against Fallon because of how well she’s playing on the big stage of late but the format is short is at this stage of the competition and very hard to call any game.
FIGHTING SPIRIT THE KEY
In terms of the qualities needed to win this event, if you look at previous champions there’s certainly a lot of tenacity among them all.
Nathan Aspinall is known for his tremendous battling spirit but for me Robert Thornton’s success was the greatest in UK Open history.
He beat some of the best players ever including Gary Anderson, Dennis Priestley and Dave Chisnall before defeating Phil Taylor in the final, and the manner of those victories made it even more special.
So you’ve got to look at tenacious players but picking an outsider this year is harder than ever because everyone is raising their game on the floor, while it’s also unpredictable because there’s not much big stage form to go off this season.
Michael Smith is coming into great form now and when you consider he got to the semi-finals last year despite barely being able to walk, there’s no reason why he can’t go one or two better this time.
I think the UK Open can suit a veteran like Mervyn King, who knows how to reach the latter stages of major tournaments, or Glen Durrant now that he’s settled into PDC life.
Last year Glen lost in the early rounds in what was his first PDC major but he certainly has both a ‘floor’ game and the stage presence to cope with this event.
Another name to watch out for is Jeff Smith who I believe will want this more than anyone. It’s his first big major since earning his tour card in January and with all the travelling he does from Canada, there’s no doubt he has the required tenacity – as well as the talent – to go far.
As far as those at the top of the betting are concerned, Gerwyn Price has a lot going in his favour. Not only is he arguably playing the best darts in the world right now, but because you get quite a lot of fans from South Wales attending the venue, he’ll be more popular here than at many other places he’ll play in.
This is one of the main reasons Gezzy has done well in Minehead before, reaching the 2017 final and last year’s semis.
NINE-DARTERS A PLENTY
We haven’t seen a nine-darter in the UK Open since Michael van Gerwen’s perfect leg between two 170 checkouts against Rob Cross in 2016 – but I think we could get more than one this year.
Not only on the main stage but also on the outer boards when you consider how many the players have been hitting on the Pro Tour already this season, we’re averaging more than one every weekend while Michael Smith obviously hit one in the Premier League.
I’m going to pitch for three in total and one in each room!
PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW (Thursday March 5)
- (11/10) Rob Cross v Daryl Gurney (7/4) (draw 3/1)
I saw Rob Cross very close up this weekend while commentating at the Belgian Darts Championship and he’s beginning to look more energised with his weight loss, while his balance is also improving. The one thing he lacks is consistency but he’s still delivering some very good legs. Daryl wasn’t actually in Belgium at the weekend because he had an exhibition booked with Adrian Lewis and Dave Chisnall, which I believe he won, and I think Rob is perhaps the more mentally sharpened for this clash.
- (4/5) Gerwyn Price v Glen Durrant (5/2) (Draw 3/1)
Gerwyn is arguably the best player in the world right now and there were times at the Belgian Darts Championship when he looked invincible. The one time he was tested by Dirk van Duijvenbode in the semi-finals, he responded with finishing I haven’t seen in years – a 160 checkout and two from 140 identically on double 10. He’s ready to win every match he plays and must feel like the Hulk who nobody can stop. Glen had a stutter last week and he’ll struggle if Gerwyn can maintain the same 100+ averages that he has been doing.
- (7/4) Nathan Aspinall v Peter Wright (1/1) (Draw 7/2)
Nathan has a very good record against Peter and recently hit a nine-darter against him as well as recording his best ever match average. I don’t think he’ll be getting too carried away about going to Minehead as the UK Open champion because he knows his focus on Thursday nights has to stay on the Premier League if he’s to keep himself well clear of the elimination battle. He also looked very sharp again at the weekend – as did Peter Wright – and I’m really not sure where this one is heading other than a 12th leg.
- (8/11) Gary Anderson v Luke Humphries (5/2) (Draw (7/2)
Luke Humphries did have that great Premier League night last year when drawing with Gerwyn Price but he’s got to be careful not to go down the same route as John Henderson in Aberdeen. The adrenaline hit when he gets on stage has got to last like it did in 2019 and he also needs to hope Anderson has one of his off days, which isn’t that unlikely given his inconsistency. However, although Luke hasn’t been playing poorly this year in terms of averages, he hasn’t been picking up wins and that’s the sort of thing that can tick away at you in your brain. I’m going to give this one to Gary by a couple of legs.
- (4/1) Michael Smith v Michael van Gerwen (4/9) (draw 4/1)
I watched a lot of Michael Smith’s darts en route to the Belgian Darts Championship final at the weekend and it was definitely the best he’s looked for over a year. He showed great stability and poise while some of those clinical 100+ checkouts he produced under pressure shows me that he’s very close to being at the top of his game. For him to be 4/1 is mystifying considering how well he played to beat van Gerwen on Sunday. MVG’s domain is the European Tour and he didn’t play badly – Smith was just excellent so that price makes my eyes pop out of my head!