Former major winner and leading darts pundit and commentator Paul Nicholson has become Sporting Life's latest columnist, bringing you his expert insight throughout the 2020 season.
In this fascinating bumper first instalment, the Asset reveals his experiences of playing in this year's PDC Qualification School and his idea for a potential reform, while he also reflects on the recent Masters, previews the forthcoming Premier League Darts campaign and shares his thoughts on Michael van Gerwen's new darts and the dramatic weight loss of Rob Cross.
Paul concludes with his best bet for Thursday night in Aberdeen and an eye-catching treble which comes in at 19/1!
'Queue' School needs reform
I went into Q School with a fair amount of experience of what it’s all about having come through it three years ago but it has changed exponentially since then. The first thing I saw when I arrived was a queue out of the arena door!
I’ve not seen anything like it at any event I’ve ever been a part of and it’s quite simply outgrown its current purpose.
It does need to change. Previously we had just one arena but now there’s two – a practice arena and a playing one. That’s a great idea which they’ll keep but there was just an insane amount of players.
They should call it 'Queue' School. There were queues to get in, queues for the practice boards, queues for the refreshment areas. It was a test of patience and resolve.
I said to my room-mate Jeff Smith, who fabulously won a tour card on day three, that we just have to adapt. When you see something different you’ve got to say “this is the deal and this is how we’ve got to get through it.” There were players with the opposite mindsets, branding it a farce, but if you have that attitude you’re beaten before it’s started.
I did lose to Fallon Sherrock on one of the four days – she was fantastic in our match, averaging in the mid-90s, and played better than I did. But overall I was delighted to have played in it and enjoyed the challenge.
I played some really good games but ultimately came up a bit short and I can’t wait to go back next year, which I will.
There were people there who shouldn’t have been – like those consistently averaging in the 60s or less.
Some of them paid the money to compete purely to tell the lads back at the pub that they went to Q School and tales of the matches they played in. Under the current rules that’s completely legitimate but in my opinion we need to make Q School a more manageable two-stage process.
I would say the stronger contenders, who have either come through Q School and qualified before or had a tour card in the past, should automatically go to a ‘Q School Finals’.
Whereas those who have never come through it before – or haven’t even attempted to – must go to a ‘Q School Eliminator’ before the finals and that should rid the process those who go just for their own ego. There’s so much interest in the event worldwide now and so much at stake that we have to ween out those who don’t deserve to be there for the final stages. You just can’t manage all those people each day for four days. Not only is it tough for the players but also the staff involved in the logistics of staging the event.
Fitting finale for Wright, but Smith time will come
Peter Wright has started the season where he left off with another major trophy at the Masters. You could see from his performance and demeanour against Michael Smith in the deciding leg just how much easier it was to be under that kind of pressure after finally getting the result he craved at the Ally Pally which followed so many near misses.
He looked in so much control and you could almost predict that Smith was going to be the one to shake on that final double. Even in his post-match interview Smith said he "hoped" it would go in whereas Wright probably knew his would.
If you’re looking for more fitting signs, it was the same double eight he missed to beat Michael van Gerwen in the Premier League a few years ago that he hit against Michael Smith. What goes around comes around.
I've always lived by the saying that if you keep knocking on the door someone will probably open it – but if they don’t you'll have to knock it down. We’ve got to the stage now where Michael Smith has been knocking on the door for a long time but now he must knock it off its hinges.
Yes he will feel disappointed right now but he can be encouraged by making the final – which has already booked his place in the Grand Slam of Darts. Did he play well, yes. Could he play better, absolutely.
There are lots of improvements to be made and it could be a very good season for him.
Getting a good start is important but it’s not imperative as far as the Premier League is concerned because you’ve got more margin for error due to the format.
Some of these guys work so hard throughout the year – especially from August until January - that they crave a holiday while others want to reassess like Rob Cross.
Practice is really important to get yourself in a sharp groove and the Masters is that first test. We’ve had early indicators as to who looks good and who doesn’t, but it only gives us a small about of information. By the end of February we’ll know who is sharp.
Changing darts is no quick fix
I’ve always said that if you’re going to change equipment you do it the day after the World Championship – and that’s what Michael van Gerwen has done.
What people have got to understand is that MVG wasn’t going to use that same dart for the rest of his career – he was always going to change at some point.
For Phil Taylor to come out and say how much this could affect MVG is quite audacious considering the manufacture changes he had – going from a pencil dart to a bulbous bullet dart!
He needs a grace period of getting used to these new polished, sharp darts for maybe two or three months to get them a bit worn down and used to being thrown under pressure. Is he going to be the favourite for the Premier League right now? Yes, given his standing as world number one and his CV.
Is he going to win it? Well, it’s too hard to predict that as it’s three months away!
But he’s done the right thing in changing at the very start of the season and I think he knows he’s got a lot of practice and work to do, as well as from a mental point of view following his World Championship and Masters defeats.
There’s going to be so much talk about these darts if he gets beaten most weeks early on and although it probably won’t be plain sailing at the start, I do back him to get back on the winning horse sooner than later.
When van Gerwen went to Winmau and started the design idea of his range being designed by him, the ones he was going to use were meant to be very similar to the previous model he was using before – and they are. They may have more shaved off the nose of barrel but ultimately it’s the same type of dart.
But when Michael was using his old darts and hitting huge 110+ averages, they were massively worn in and at the point where he could use them at their best.
He was playing well with them when they were sharp and the grooves were sharp but after they had worn down a little bit he had that feel in his fingers that he was invincible with them. Tungsten is durable so it takes time for that to happen.
The process of changing manufacture is pretty easy these days because the engineering excellence means they can make whatever dart you need. Michael has what he needs, it just may take time to get used to them.
Wright's tinkering pays off...at last
From the world’s best players to your good local ones, it can take years to find that’ set of darts that make you that little bit better for whatever standing you’re competing in.
I found the right set of darts for me when I was 28 years of age and I’d been playing since the age of four! We all have to go through the tinkering process and find out what works for you and what doesn’t.
What’s confusing about Peter Wright is that he can throw almost anything – and you can’t say that about many players. I can’t throw a small bulbous dart with a short stem and a flight that’s the size of a third of a golf ball! I can’t throw things like that but Peter Wright can.
He can therefore find the positive in any set up but ultimately he had to find the one that worked for him on a consistent basis.
We all knew it was a pencil style dart and a larger flight that worked for him but the strangest change was him using a longer stem. All his other big victories were with a shorter stem. The barrel is great, the flight we’re not surprised by, but the stem being longer is a shock. But ultimately he’s found the right one.
That said, even during the Masters he changed the weight of his darts midway through his match with Joe Cullen! It just goes to show darts players can be very strange creatures. We think about every kind of detail we can to make us play better. Peter has done almost everything possible to a dart to find the right one to win a world title and finally he’s managed it.
There are a lot of parallels with golfers – some of whom will put lead tape on the back of their clubs to get an extra one or two grams on their irons.
Will weight loss wobble Cross?
Phil Taylor is a great example of weight gain and weight loss throughout different points of his career. Phil’s balance during his throw was probably the best that we’ve ever seen due to his low centre of gravity and I’m not sure it was ever really affected by his changes in size.
However if you look at other players who have lost a lot of weight, they’ve had genuine issues with their balance. Ron Meulenkamp for instance lost an unbelievable amount for his benefit and his challenge has been both throw changes and holding his front foot balance.
If you look at Rob Cross’ stance and throw, he’s not the most balanced anyway with his back foot coming off the ground and now he’s lost two stone very quickly. If he starts coming forward when he throws due to the effects of weight loss then he could have a problem and he’ll need to nip that in the bud very quickly.
In general, as far as players looking at how they can get an extra two or three per cent out of their performance via means like improved diet, weight loss and hydration - we have a long way to go. That says to me the standard can rise even more but only if all the players invest more in their own health and well being.
Chris Mason is beating his drum repeatedly because he thoroughly believes we're nowhere near what we can achieve.
Will the Iceman cometh again?
I have no doubts we’ll see the very best of Gerwyn Price again this season. He did have his first good World Championship but the events after set one of the semi-final against Peter Wright set the tone for his disappointing performance.
Even Gerwyn admits he didn’t play the situation well and that’s something he’ll learn from but if anyone doubts him then they’ll be mistaken. The guy is almost bulletproof when it comes to situations and knows how to handle them most of the time.
He is more prepared for this Premier League more than he’s ever been, including the logistics, travel, practice regimes and breaks he needs to take. He’ll be very dangerous this season.
I’m not sure the lack of boos is a good thing for him to be honest. If you think about the amount he got last year it didn’t do him any harm and he seemed to enjoy hitting those winning doubles a little bit more.
I can say from experience that if you’ve got a couple of thousand people booing you when you’re aiming at that double and it goes in, you feel 10 foot tall. That would have swelled his confidence every time he did it.
The important thing for Gerwyn is to make the play-offs for the first time and if he does, he’ll have every chance of winning the title. Consistency is the key to reach the O2 and I’m going to put my neck on the line and say he’ll finish in the top four.
What he’s really craving right now is that night in Cardiff when he’ll be lauded as the best player Wales has to offer right now and he deserves it. I wouldn’t want to be Daryl Gurney that night!
Flying Scotsman back on track
There are question marks over Gary Anderson after his 2019 but if he can settle back into the logistical side of the Premier League like he has done before then there’s no questioning his credentials of reaching the play-offs again.
I think the Masters gave us a lot of indicators to think Gary is ready for one last push as he comes towards the end of his career.
I don’t think we have too many more seasons with Gary on our TV screens because he has dropped the hint many times in recent years that he’s only going to do a few more. I’ve never believed him but I think in a couple of years he’ll want to stop competing and instead watch his kids grow up and enjoy the exhibition circuit with the likes of Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld.
He’s ready for a big push for more titles before it ends and he’ll be very dangerous over short formats like the Premier League which are made for him to be explosive.
Even though Peter Wright is older, Snakebite played in a world championship in 1995 then took a break for a long time. He only found his mojo at the highest level of the game over the past six or seven years whereas Gary has been doing it for the last 15, constantly playing in tournaments and the exhibitions around the world.
I know he knocked the European Tour on the head a couple of years ago but he’s had to manage his schedule for family reasons and his children.
I think Peter enjoys playing darts more than him but Gary is more of a mercenary when it comes to the money. He wants to make hay while the sun shines, with this pot of gold in the sport right now.
Aspinall a shining light
The amount of talent, drive and passion for winning that this boy has shown over the past 12 months is so infection and no amount of success he has can be a surprise anymore.
Just talking about him puts a smile on my face – he’s just a perfect brand for darts. He’s the right age, has the right type of game and has a brilliant attitude.
Playing and beating Gary Anderson at the World Championship was a real moment for him. How often do you get the chance to beat one of the greats of the game on that stage and he knew how important that was.
He is learning as he goes and pocketing all this valuable experience. Even at this early stage of his career he was not happy with losing to MVG in the semi-finals of the World Championship – yet two years ago he was delighted about just being in the tournament.
Now he wants to win everything he’s in and genuinely believes he can.
Fans like players who provide drama and Aspinall certainly does that – he’s got an exciting throw and an intensity in his eyes.
He does tend to get involved in a lot of battles and looks as though he’s working hard on every dart so what he’s got to try and do throughout the Premier League season is try and make it look easier. If he can take his foot of the accelerator so to speak in order to conserve mental energy yet maintain his standard, then he’ll become even more dangerous.
Duzza still dreaming
Glen is certainly not a young star having hit the bullseye in terms of years so when he came across to the PDC he knew that if he doesn’t make hay now then the opportunity will pass him by.
Under that kind of pressure last year, to climb into the 20s of the rankings thanks to his three major semi-finals was amazing and this pick was a no brainer.
The PDC knew if they didn’t choose him this year then the chance to do so may slip by although he will probably be in the next one as well because his ranking can only rise considering he doesn’t have any money to defend this year.
I’d like to see him lift a huge TV title to solidify his reputation in this system having won everything in the BDO.
I’ve known him for over 20 years and if only he’d done this sooner – and by that I don’t mean just the PDC. He spent years playing in local tournaments before he started travelling in the BDO system, which he should have done in his early 30s.
He could have then become a BDO world champion a lot earlier – perhaps around 2010 – and crossed to the PDC then.
He knows he should have done this sooner but he’s well equipped to make the most of this now despite his age.
He’s one of the most mentally strong darts players on this planet and that’s what’s going to see him through.
Gurney with a point to prove
Gurney had a great 2019 and l love what he brings to the game...except his walk-on song which I despise!
He'll still be disappointed that he didn't win the World Matchplay because he was playing that well at the time - his performance against Peter Wright in the quarter-finals was one of the top three from anyone in the entire season.
But that defeat to Rob Cross in the semi-finals, when he led 14-7 only to lose 17-15, did derail his season and knock him off his stride.
Although he's been selected on merit, he will have been sweating on his Premier League spot on January 1 but it's probably good that he has a point to prove again as the big outsider. He will work harder on the practice board and during the Pro Tour events and perhaps the pressure is off him a bit.
I've been the rank outsider in tournaments before and it didn't bother me - I just wanted to focus on the opponent I was up against and how I could maximise the amount of chances I was going to get. So I don't think Daryl will be bothered about his starting odds either.
His only focus now is playing Gary Anderson in Aberdeen and if he can get something there, it'll get his tail up.
Premier League week one verdicts
- Michael Smith (6/5) v Glen Durrant (13/8)
Difficult game for Michael after what happened at the Masters and historically he's not done too well in Aberdeen because that's where he was on the end of the world record average from MVG. But I think this is a coin flip match and depends on how Duzza handles his first 'proper' debut having previously been a Challenger last year.
- Gary Anderson (1/1) v Daryl Gurney (15/8)
The Aberdeen crowd pound for pound is the loudest there is and it's going to be even louder in this bigger arena. Gary Anderson looked pretty sharp at the weekend and he'll be ready for this challenge and get the win. No doubt about it.
- Michael van Gerwen (4/5) v Peter Wright (5/2)
Peter Wright looked relaxed yet focused at the weekend which is the perfect formula for a darts player. If you can get any odds on Snakebite being the outsider for this one then you should grab onto them with both hands because he's in a winning habit right now and doesn't care who he plays. Wright started brilliantly in the final against MVG at the Ally Pally and if he does that again then he wins again, simple as that. MVG is still getting used to his new darts so I'm going for Wright.
- Nathan Aspinall (4/5) v John Henderson (5/2)
It's a big challenge for Nathan because he will be a bit edgy about this experience even though he knows he has nine weeks to elongate this debut season. John Henderson had a lot more form under his belt when he got that heroic draw against MVG here last season - but this time he has no events behind him. He'll be a little bit cold whereas Nathan has a lot more darts under his belt in a competitive environment and I think he'll sneak this one but only just.
- Gerwyn Price (1/1) v Rob Cross (15/8)
I'm expecting big things from Gerwyn Price and he's ready to explode into this season whereas Rob isn't in the same sharp form. Not only do I think it'll be a relatively routine margin of victory but my bet of the night is Price to win and hit the most 180s at 11/4.