Former major winner and leading darts pundit and commentator Paul Nicholson is one of Sporting Life's new star columnists, and will bring you his expert insight throughout the 2020 season.
In his second instalment, the Asset focuses on the recent successes of Gary Anderson and Nathan Aspinall while he lifts the lid on how players of contrasting standards handle the Pro Tour, which got under way this past weekend, the pressures of defending prize money and whether hitting nine-darters is getting too easy!
Paul concludes with his predictions for Thursday night's Premier League action in Nottingham, featuring Fallon Sherrock, and an eye-catching treble which comes in at 7/1!
FLYING START FOR ANDERSON
If you know Gary – or have watched him - as long as I have, you begin to notice some patterns. He tends to start seasons quite well and he always seems to play better on the Saturday.
He puts all his effort into it and if he wins it, then Sunday is just a bit of a bonus. The way he played in winning the first Players Championship event of the season on Saturday just goes to show he’s still got everything in the tank to trouble anyone in the world. He played supremely well and wasn’t troubled.
Even at his age and match form over the past six months compared to others, I think he’s going to pick his spots this season and be very, very dangerous whenever he really fancies it. I think Gary knows there’ll have to be a mix of two different games this year.
He has to peak for certain big events, specifically the ranking ones like the UK Open and World Matchplay where he’s defending all that Order of Merit money from winning them two years ago, but also perform well on the Pro Tour events where he has multiple matches each day.
I don’t think many people know what he’s going to do with the European Tour – there are great opportunities for him to rake in some of the prize money he needs to maintain his ranking. But if he doesn’t go back to it then there’s more pressure to play well on the floor and the big TV tournaments.
Can he intensify his form at the right time? If he keeps playing like he did on Saturday then I’m not going to bet against him because he’s done it so well during his career, especially the last 10 years.
PRIZE MONEY PRESSURES
I know from personal experience, when you’re coming up to a point where a lot of ranking money is going to drop off your Order of Merit ranking, the pressure is on to perform.
But the right attitude is to treat it as though it’s already gone and focus on raking back as much as you can. It’s different for every single player and how they approach it.
I know there are certain players who see it on the horizon, they panic and think “wow I’ve got to win £100,000 here to maintain my ranking.” But that’s the wrong attitude. You can’t affect what happened two years ago – only what happens from here on in.
Gary knows this from experience. He knows £100,000 is coming off in the summer at the Matchplay and he could win that back by summer if he continues like he did on Saturday.
You just need to take each tournament as it comes and have the same drive to succeed that Gary has – and most players aspire to. I think Gary wants to play for another two years and maintain his ranking so he has the option of picking and choosing what events he enters.
He doesn’t want to be ranked outside the world’s top 20, play in every Pro Tour event and go back on the European Tour – he likes the luxury right now of going to all the majors, playing in whatever he likes and having a fantastic living. He can still do this if he keeps up his form.
SILENCER NOT SO QUIET NOW
As a close friend of Jeff Smith, I wasn't surprised one iota to see him reach the final of his first Players Championship event since earning his Tour Card at Q School.
His form has been great over the past couple of years so when he came to Q School this time he had a different attitude to whatever I’ve ever known from him. He looked ‘ready’ – and that’s when players win. When they are ‘ready’.
Jeff is not scared of anyone. When he saw his tough draw against Peter Wright, Chizzy and Nathan Aspinall on Saturday he would have relished it - and he beat them all in deciding legs.
Of everyone with a tour card, I'd say he'll want it the most. For a start he’s the one who’ll be doing more travelling than anybody else given he’s based in Canada so he’s also juggling with the idea of relocation within the next six months.
To get to the UK from Hampton New Brunswick is very difficult – it’s a minimum of two flights, possibly three, and all the competitions that carry ranking weight are in Europe. Winning £7,500 in the very first weekend of the season has made life a little bit easier for him and now everyone will sit up and take notice about how good he is.
There’ll have been other players competing that day who wouldn’t have known about his talents, but he is that good. He’s hungry to succeed, he’s hungry to compete and now he’s got the opportunity he’ll go from strength to strength.
He’s working with Darren Webster and I can’t think of anyone any better to whip him into shape and keep him sharper than the Demolition Man!
When you come through Q School you feel that you’re 10 foot tall and all you want to do is get on the circuit and test yourself against the best players in the world. Anyone can do well at Q School but it doesn’t guarantee success. You’ve got to go deeper to find what pedigree you have.
But when it comes to Jeff – and Glen Durrant 12 months earlier – they had pedigree beforehand and were ready to get into the big mixing bowl of the world’s best because they have experience as well as brilliance.
THINK LESS, GET BETTER
Nathan Aspinall's fourth career PDC title on Sunday was just another sign that he’s getting better, which is pretty frightening for everyone else when you consider what he’s done in the last 12 months, but even he was stunned by his 117 average against Peter Wright.
Hitting a nine-darter following it up with a 12 to win the match is obviously going improve anyone’s average but for him to raise his game that much and record those kind of stats – as well as backing it up with a title by thrashing Gerwyn Price - shows the level of comfort he’s got within the system.
He doesn’t really have many worries right now – no money problems or issues in his personal life. We’re looking at someone who is happy, playing well, practicing hard and relaxed. That’s a very dangerous mix for everyone else to compete against.
As analysts we often say that when dart players have less to think about, they get better. Someone like Nathan doesn’t now have to worry about qualification to the big majors or even European Tour qualification.
He can just turn up on any day and play, whereas at least half of the players on the Pro Tour weekends are thinking "how much do I have to win today to get myself in position for something. What do I need to do to qualify for this or that." Nathan is free of those concerns.
TIME TO SHRINK THOSE TREBLES?
There were five nine-darters hit across the weekend, including Aspinall's, and at this rate last year's record-breaking tally of 47 is under real threat already! Everyone is getting better and players are putting in more practice, there’s no question of that. And the more nine-darters people see, the more they believe they can hit some too.
If you think about someone like Keegan Brown – he’d never hit a nine-darter in the PDC before the weekend so it’s not as if we’re seeing the same players hitting them multiple times like Chizzy, Anderson and MVG.
Apart from the work ethic of a wider group of players, I think the equipment is better and there’s more people clued up as to what darts will help them score heavier. More players are grouping their darts closer together, hitting more 180s and giving themselves more chances to hit perfect legs.
On top of that, the treble segments are bigger than they used to be so there’s bound to be more maximums and more chances nine darters. We might only be talking an extra millimetre but in darts that’s a big difference.
The dart boards may come into question - a bit like compression of balls in golf if the PGA and R&A look at reducing the driving distance – if we start to see as many as 60 or 70 nine-darters in a season.
I have no doubt the PDC will have to look at the size of the trebles and doubles in the future.
In previous times we used to talk about the nine-dart curse due to the ridiculous number of players who used to lose a match after hitting one - but this weekend four of the five players won.
In Players Championship events you’re not going to get that same huge adrenaline spike that you would in front of a crowd on TV because you’re not allowed to celebrate. There are rules in place so if you cause a distraction to your opponent or someone on the next board you will be talked to or even reprimanded.
So you have to try and stay calm within the zone and that’s probably a key reason for this.
They’re getting used to hitting 10 darters, 11 darters and big finishes while also conditioning themselves in this ‘library atmosphere’ and stay in a calm zone.
I’d be interested to see how many players hit nine darters on TV or steamed matches on the European Tour in front of big crowds and go on to win their matches. It’ll be an interesting comparison to make in about six months’ time.
SWOTTING UP IN LIBRARY PAYS OFF
It’s really important for players to get used to different types of volumes going into their ears, from the lively atmosphere of the stage – whether it’s big TV majors or the European Tour – to the library settings of the Players Championship tournaments.
If you speak to any elite player they will say that if you’re playing well on the Pro Tour at these events events then that will stand you in good stead for anything.
A lot of these guys can play in any atmosphere but it’s playing multiple games in one day against the best players in the world that conditions you to be sharp for any other challenge you’ll face throughout the season.
I don’t think the importance of these events have diminished over the past few seasons at all, despite to rise of the European Tour.
The balance between the two are as perfect as they’ve ever been. Will we get more European Tour style events – probably yes – but we need the bread and butter style competition that allows players to get sharp and play around six or seven matches in one day. That’s when you really find your form.
If you compare Nathan Aspinall’s final with Gerwyn Price compared to the first that he won against Ryan Searle around 18 months ago, the nerve levels were poles apart.
The level of financial comfort for some of the players allows them to be more relaxed in those situations.
If someone who is 55th in the world gets to a final and loses, they’ll be devastated and thought about it for weeks because that could have been their one big chance for the entire season. But Gerwyn Price instead looks ahead to the Premier League with £6,000 and just chalks it up as a rival playing better than he did.
The elite players just don’t have the same worries as those scrapping for prize money, trying to qualify for tournaments and tour cards – the type of nerves these players are under is completely different.
In the big TV events you have a lot of grandeur, noise and distraction. At the floor events it’s sterile. If you get into good form in that environment, you feel unbeatable. Nobody was going to beat Nathan Aspinall – it was one of the best full day performances in history.
When I won my second Pro Tour title in 2011 in Crawley – nobody was beating me that day. I was confident, I had no worries in the world and I was the best player on the day. I won the final comfortably because I always knew I was going to. You don’t get those days very often.
Sometimes you’ll think you have a very good chance but on those special days you just feel everything has clicked into place and you know you’ll win – and that’s what I think happened with Nathan.
Overall, you need a stage game and the Players Championship game.
You’ve got to be able to perform in silence and then with a bit of oomph when you get in front of those fans. Aspinall is a great example of a player who has two great games at the moment – with or without the oomph.
If you can cultivate both then you’ll boss this sport – just look at Michael van Gerwen, Gary Anderson and Peter Wright.
PREMIER LEAGUE: WEEK ONE REFLECTIONS
The game between John Henderson and Nathan Aspinall was full of nerves apart from that 170 checkout. It was hard for John to top what happened last time and didn’t play well. Aspinall took his chances, was solid on his doubles but won’t be happy with his average. The key moment game in the seventh leg when he took out 374 in seven darts and from that there was only one winner.
Daryl Gurney was producing some great two-dart checkouts early in the match to put Gary Anderson in trouble but the more that Aberdeen crowd got on his back, you just sense he was getting cheesed off. He coped well by not reacting but eight darts missed for a 5-3 lead was where he lost the match. From there – and this bit wasn’t his fault – Anderson won the next three legs in 37 darts!
We sometimes talk about players with a trademark type of game and when it comes to Glen Durrant you think mid-90s average and being ruthless on the doubles. Against Michael Smith he averaged 95.01 and hit 78% of his doubles! He’s super dangerous and doesn’t need to average 110. His clinical two-dart finishing is enough to destroy anyone and he’s now fit into this Premier League like a round peg into the ground.
Peter Wright could have been 5-0 up against Michael van Gerwen, especially given the way he’s been playing in recent weeks, but the four 100+ checkouts from MVG and the way he responded from a poor start deserves a lot of credit. He was the one under the pressure in this match with his new darts against the world champion so it all makes his comeback win even more impressive.
Gerwyn Price's match with Rob Cross was very strange and they may have been affected by a flat atmosphere, with a huge number of fans deciding to leave. At halfway, Price would have thought ‘how am I not winning this match’ but by the end he would have been grateful with a point. I do worry about Cross, even though he managed to average an erratic 100 and 60% on his doubles. After losing all that weight he did look off balance at time and threw some wild darts.
WEEK TWO PREDICTIONS: NOTTINGHAM
- Cross (11/8) v Aspinall (11/8) (draw 3/1)
How can you have Nathan Aspinall at the same price as Rob Cross in the form that they’re both in?! Nathan is currently a furlong ahead of Rob so if people aren’t lumping their 50ps on him I’ll be flabbergasted! He’s playing better more consistently and in my mind he’s a heavy favourite. It’ll also help that he won’t have any waiting around in being first up – he can just pick up where he left off on Sunday.
- Price (5/6) v Smith (2/1) (draw 10/3)
I think we need a different type of response from Michael Smith right now. He’s not playing poorly but he needs to show more focus. When he plays his best, he doesn’t shake his head and doesn’t chew the ends of his darts or put the point inbetween his teeth. When he shows more focus and willingness to take on the chin those odd bad moments, then maybe he’ll be more dangerous. All sportspeople have times of frailties but at the moment Gerwyn Price is battle hardened and perhaps the Masters final is lingering on Smith’s mind. This will be a tight game but my gut says Gerwyn Price.
- Anderson (7/4) v Wright (11/10) (draw 3/1)
We knpw Anderson played very well at the weekend and was impressive against Daryl Gurney in Aberdeen but it mustn’t be overlooked that Peter Wright also threw some good darts in both tournaments. While he didn’t get a title, he fired plenty of averages north of 100 and just had bad luck that everyone seemed to turn up against him! This will be the game of the night, with both players averaging around 105. A draw may be the call here.
- Durrant (2/7) v Sherrock (11/2) (draw 11/2)
Women’s darts is in a better place now than it’s ever been – Lisa Ashton won a game on the Pro Tour at the weekend while Fallon Sherrock, since the world championship, managed to qualify for the UK Open. She’ll have the crowd with her and Duzza won’t be looking forward to this one. However the worst player for Fallon to face is Glen because he is very respectful, won’t react to the crowd and has an abnormal amount of focus in these situations. I think Fallon will have her moments, get the fans on their tables and if she can handle this, then maybe she can handle anything in darts. I for one can’t wait. It’s a clash of generations, it’s a clash of the sexes and I want her to win this match for women’s darts because they deserve more publicity – but I just think Glen will be too strong.
- Gurney (5/1) v MVG (4/11) (draw 4/1)
Michael van Gerwen proved that when his back is against the wall, he’s still got the swinging power of Anthony Joshua to get himself out of trouble. Gurney will love the fact he did the regular season double over MVG last year and be out for a third in a row. Last week however, as picked up by Wayne Mardle, he seemed to struggle with a late release of the dart and his rhythm was horrendous – so that’s something he will have worked on this week. Usually it’s his tempo and pace of play that’s his strong point so if he’s as erratic again then Michael, who is out for revenge, will be too strong.