World Darts Championship: MVG's unfathomable brilliance, underdog stories, public enemies & Premier League revamp

We look back on a memorable PDC World Darts Championship
We look back on a memorable PDC World Darts Championship

Michael van Gerwen's unfathomable brilliance, career-changing journeys, the future of darts and a possible Premier League revamp are all among Chris Hammer's reflections from the Alexandra Palace.

A predictable winner may have emerged from the unpredictable PDC World Darts Championship but don't let that take anything away from a memorable tournament.

Over the course of 16 days, 28 sessions, 95 matches, 440 sets and 1850 legs, we were spoilt for drama, underdog stories, career-changing runs and thrilling comebacks - not to mention doses of controversy - that brought the Alexandra Palace crowd to its feet.

In the end it was the man whose dominance had been questioned beforehand who ruled the roost for a third time and, in terms of scorelines at least, did Michael van Gerwen so with greater ease than at the extreme height of his powers.

Here are my 12 talking points, which also cover a few random stories of how players started out in darts, 'celebrate-gate', the incredible comebacks, the 'age factor', women's darts and the tournament's best match.

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How does he do it?

Darts is obviously extremely difficult to master, but I can't think of many other sports - if any - that are quite so easy to get started with. You just need a wall that goes up at least six feet and a room length of at least eight feet. Plus a board and darts of course, neither of which will break the bank. Even if you want to take up something as simple as sprinting in a straight line for 100m, you'll realistically need to go and find a suitable track somewhere.

What point am I making here? Well, it's for the above reason that millions play this increasingly globalised sport around the world, with tens of thousands of them enjoying it enough to join clubs and pub teams.

Obviously a smaller number (this is where I drop out) dedicate enough practice to get to county standard and then it's onwards and upwards to perhaps the BDO or, even tougher still, PDC circuits which consist of individuals as competitively driven as those striving to reach the top in any other sport.

The hours they clock up in similar environments (unlike some other sports it's not as if climate or advanced facilities play a big factor) over many years is remarkable and it's therefore no coincidence that unless someone started as a young teenager, players don't tend to reach their peak until at least their late 20s and, in many high-profile cases - Gary Anderson and Peter Wright to name just two - older still.

So how can one human still be so ridiculously dominant, and still be aged just 29?

I know this question could have been asked last year (before the World Championship) and the year before that and the year before that, but it's more relevant now after a 12-month period in which many questioned van Gerwen's stranglehold over the rest.

Some were even suggesting his stint as the world number one, which started in January 2014, could feasibly come to an end in 2019 but instead, after crushing Michael Smith 7-3, he now enters the New Year with over double the earnings of number two Rob Cross on the PDC Order of Merit - an astonishing £1,603,500.

He made the journey to Alexandra Palace having 'only' won 18 titles in 2018, including the Premier League, Masters and the World Grand Prix, so it was quite a culture shock for darts - when you consider Phil Taylor used to do for so many years what MVG is doing now - to see the other big majors generally shared out.

But his career tally of the PDC majors (you may dispute some of these) - World Championship, World Matchplay, Premier League, Grand Slam of Darts, World Grand Prix, UK Open, European Championship, Masters, Players Championship Finals, World Series of Darts Finals and Masters - now stands at 33 while he's collected 117 titles overall.

He's also now produced a 100-plus average in 19 successive matches on the World Championship stage dating back to the first round in 2016 and contributed to seven of the 19 posted in this most recent edition.

There have been hundreds of pro players down the years who may not have won a single title, let alone a major, but let's focus on the rest of the world's top 20 players currently.

Between them and all their combined years of practice and dedication they've managed 28 majors, spanning over 11 years, and 212 total titles.

How can one man be so dominant, so consistently superior? What does he do differently to everyone else?

This is taking nothing away from Taylor whatsoever, but MVG has also been dealing with a deepening pool of talent in the game, one The Power's influence effectively created, and they all want what he has. The question is, how long before they get it?

Judging by the straightforward nature of his third world title, van Gerwen can be expected to continue feasting on majors - leaving the others to fight for scraps.

Comeback kings

We'll always fondly remember this World Championship as a tournament of comebacks and matches that went the distance, especially in the earlier stages.

By the end of the fourth round there had been a whopping 29 matches which had gone to a decider and on 18 of those occasions a player had come from two sets behind – with arguably the most dramatic of those being Gary Anderson from 3-1 down in his enthralling 4-3 triumph over Chris Dobey.

Seven of those stirring comebacks were ultimately in vain, with the most galling being for Jim Long, who was making his World Championship debut at the age of 50.

After winning his first round match, the 2,500/1 pre-tournament outsider fought back against the seeded Benito van de Pas and even had a match dart before agonisingly bowing out.

Now that happened on the same day as two more comebacks that did end in a joyous conclusion, with Devon Petersen rising like Lazarus after being blown away by Ian White in the first two sets before Nathan Aspinall landed a heroic knockout punch on pantomime villain Gerwyn Price having survived a match dart at 2-0 down.

This was one of the nights I was there and I can truly say the atmosphere was as electric as any football ground I've been to (some darts fans might not think that's a good thing) with the chants to match...

I'll discuss Price's showmanship in a later talking point but after this match, eventual semi-finalist Aspinall explained why he felt so many players were able to conjure up incredible fighting spirit against seemingly lost causes.

Like a domino effect there would be another seven 'two-set down' comebacks across the third and fourth rounds, with the Stockport man again involved in one against Petersen while Anderson managed to defy Jermaine Wattimena's efforts before launching his own turbo charge to beat Dobey.

There was actually a 19th comeback from 2-0 down which didn't go the distance, as Luke Humphries underlined his star potential when producing a scintillating display to stun defending champion Rob Cross 4-2 and reach the quarter-finals.

From then on, of course, all but one of the remaining seven matches were largely one-sided affairs, but Aspinall did to some extent make it 20 'comebacks' from a two-set deficit when levelling up his thrilling semi-final with Michael Smith at 2-2 - although he'd go on to lose 6-3.

As undoubtedly thrilling as it was for the spectators to watch, it was mentally draining (albeit in a fun way of course) for those working in the media centre, with the journalists, PDC staff and commentators working much longer into the days and nights than they would have in a parallel tournament in which players knew how to finish each other off!

I was lucky enough to be down there from Wednesday night to Saturday night, and in five sessions I saw 12 matches that went the distance out of 26 and in eight of those a player came back from a two-set deficit, although only four went on to win. Needless to say I had very short breaks between sessions and didn't get home to my pokey bed and breakfast until well into the early hours. Still, I can't complain. Much.

It's just not darts...

The race to be world number one may only have a single horse in it at the moment, but the battle to be public enemy number one currently has two.

Gerwyn Price comfortably held pole position by a country mile in the wake of 'that' Grand Slam of Darts final with Gary Anderson and, as previously mentioned, the crowd revelled in his demise against Nathan Aspinall.

But he could well have been usurped by James Wade due to his unacceptable behaviour and celebrations against Seigo Asada as well as his unsettling post-match comments, which he later apologised unreservedly for, citing it as a "hypo mania episode which can happen to me at any time".

It didn't seem to hold much weight with the crowd, who booed him through his next two matches and took great delight when he finally bowed out to Ryan Joyce after missing match darts. His sportsmanship towards the affable Geordie, who was a 1,000/1 tournament outsider enjoying a dream debut, was also criticised at the end of this clash.

It'll be interesting to see who wins the 'boo-off' when Wade and Price meet in the Premier League this season - or indeed any other televised event.

For Wade it won't be easy to take having worked his way back up to major-winning form at the back end of 2018 by winning the European Championship and World Series of Darts Finals.

By contrast Price certainly seems to revel in it and clearly feels the negative crowd interaction can help get the best out of his game.

The Welshman's pumped up reactions divide opinion when it comes to whether it's good for the sport and there are suggestions the success he's enjoyed could prompt up and coming players to adopt a similar approach. Not only in a gamesmanship sense, but also to grab some limelight - although you'd need to back it up with performances of course.

Aspinall admitted he had to psych himself up into a player he wouldn't usually be to face Price and feels that would be a blueprint for others to follow when coming up against the former rugby player - although he also warns nobody can consistently succeed with so much of the crowd constantly against them.

Gary Anderson and Mervyn King were among the players who expressed their concerns about this kind of 'showmanship' amongst youngsters creeping its way into the game and it's certainly a debate that won't go away.

Oh, why can't everyone be like Dancing Devon and Dimitri?

Seeds shocked

In the quarter-finals of the 2016 World Championship, seven of the eight players were seeded. In the 2017 edition, all eight were seeded, with the top three seeds (MVG, Anderson, Wright) reaching the semi-finals. Twelve months ago, six of the last eight were seeded.

This time, such was the carnage in the earlier rounds, only four made it this far, although three of the world's top 10 made the semi-finals and of them, only Gary Anderson was ever in real danger.

Although we had quite a conventional-looking final that many would have predicted at the start given 10th seed and highly fancied Michael Smith was in the 'softer' half of the draw, it's fair to say this tournament strengthened the belief that any one of the world's top 100 can be pretty much beat any other on their day, or at the very least give them a real scare.

From a betting point of view you might elect to simply back underdogs in every future game. However, I did a mentally tiring bit of research after round four and calculated what would have happened had I put a quid on every underdog. The result was, disappointingly, a loss.

There were eight 'upsets' in round one, 12 in round two, six in round three and two in round four. There weren't any after that so I didn't need to re-calculate. Overall that's 28 odds-against winners from 95 matches and the biggest price was Toni Alcinas at 6/1 to defeat Peter Wright.

Dream debuts

We all love a good underdog story and we were treated to quite a collection at Alexandra Palace.

Nathan Aspinall's journey lasted the longest and few could have predicted the former trainee accountant for a toy company would go as far as the semi-finals in his debut World Championship.

The 27-year-old from Stockport, who did actually win his maiden PDC title earlier in the season, has now risen from 73 in the Order of Merit up to 34 thanks to the £100,000 he banked from a memorable run which included those aforementioned comeback wins against Price and Petersen as well as impressive drubbings of Kyle Anderson and Brendan Dolan.

He produced another wonderful display in the semi-finals, averaging over 100 in a 6-3 defeat to Smith, and if he can keep his momentum going into 2019 then we'll definitely be seeing a lot more of him in televised events - who's to say he won't kick on to much bigger things?

Ryan Joyce, a former packer of women's clothes at Matalan, was my personal favourite underdog journey and I feel a tad shamed by the fact I predicted he'd lose ahead of each of his matches, including his opener against Anastasia Dobromyslova.

I thought perhaps the pressure and worry of potentially being the first man to lose to a woman on this stage would affect him on his Ally Pally debut, but he passed that test with flying colours before thrashing Simon Whitlock, producing one of those comebacks against Alan Norris and then edging out James Wade in a gripping deciding set.

A quiet man off the oche as well as on it, the 31-year-old seemed shell-shocked each time he came backstage to face the media - something he won't have been used to given he's played in so few big tournaments - and the amount of money he kept winning often left him lost for words.

Hardly surprisingly considering this was the end of Joyce's first season on the PDC Tour and by just winning three matches - let alone four - in just his second televised PDC event he'd earned more than the previous 12 months combined. His success also helped him move up from 78 in the world to 51, which is significant considering he'll need to be inside the top 64 by the end of next season to retain his tour card.

It was quite heart-warming to discover how he spent his festive break preparing for the biggest match of his life against Wade... by helping out at a local tournament. Nobody could begrudge him the success he enjoyed in London.

Last but by no means least is the softly-spoken heavy metal fan Ryan Searle, whose hair is the only giveaway of his music preference.

The 31-year-old from Somerset quietly went about his business on the oche in the same way he did off it, although his come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Mensur Suljovic in round two grabbed the headlines.

Like Joyce, Searle couldn't quite believe the sums of money he was earning which is truly refreshing in sport where so many of the world's top stars that we see plastered over the media - in any discipline - seem so blase about their fortunes.

The new world number 50, who was 61st before his run to the fourth round, was also keen to point out how his £35,000 for a few matches' work was poles apart from his previous life as window cleaner and would not only help take his career on an upward curve but also give his family more security.

Underdog stories and career-changers

Moving seamlessly on, it wasn't just the debutants who caused surprises and enjoyed unexpected runs that will open more doors in their careers - or indeed just stop them closing.

Look no further than Devon Petersen, who arrived for his sixth appearance at Alexandra Palace down at 70 in the world rankings and only here because he made it through an African qualifying event.

Unbeknown to anyone, he'd spent the previous month working with Wayne Mardle on a new approach to his game and the advice was clearly career-saving as he claimed the three wins he needed - all as underdog - to retain his Tour card, moving up 10 places in the rankings.

The popular South African, who came so close to going as far as the quarter-finals, also produced one of those memorable comebacks against Ian White and afterwards gave some insight on how you can dig yourself out of a lost cause.

We can't omit Brendan Dolan, who'd endured a horrible 2018 yet somehow turned back the clock to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in his long career and played some pretty high standard darts a long the way. Fitting for a player dubbed History Maker, who catapults himself up to 40 in the world after an alarming slide.

We'll touch on Luke Humphries more later but it's significant to mention now that his amazing run - in conjunction with Petersen's - effectively knocked Paul Nicholson out of the world's top 64 and consigned him to a return to Q School.

The Asset had earlier lost to Kevin Burness on his World Championship return in round one but remained at Alexandra Palace to work as a pundit for TalkSport2's radio coverage.

To Nicholson's immense credit, you'd have never guessed around the media zone how much personal pain he was feeling by seeing players upset the odds and effectively deal a real blow to his own playing career. He's genuinely a top man and his enthusiasm for the game as a whole is infectious.

Young stars and experienced heads

A World Championship final between two players under the age of 30 for the first time since 1983 was a fitting way to round of a tournament which highlighted the impressive youngsters rising through the ranks - even if neither Michael van Gerwen nor Michael Smith are 'up and coming' stars.

One man who does fit that category is 23-year-old Luke Humphries, who trail-blazed his way through his quarter of the draw, including stunning wins over both Rob Cross and World Youth champion Dimitri Van den Bergh, until he ran into Smith.

He's spent his season not only topping the PDC's Development Tour Order of Merit for the second year running but also committing himself to both the main Pro Tour and European Tour in a bid to get match practice and experience against the world's elite.

Nevertheless, few expected him to handle the pressure and atmosphere of the World Championship stage quite as well as he did and there can be no doubting he'll be going deep in plenty of big majors in the years to come.

However, the hype around the youngsters shouldn't discourage the older generation from feeling they can still cut the mustard at the top of the sport.

Paul Lim was back aged 64, albeit in defeat, Steve Beaton reached his 28th successive World Championship at the age of 54, while 52-year-old Mervyn King was appearing in his 23rd and averaged close to 100 in a victory over comparative youngster Jan Dekker.

I put it to Humphries, following his second-round win over Stephen Bunting, if he could possibly have the energy to play on for as long as the likes of Lim, especially given the sheer number of tournaments these days.

We can't forget the 'middle-aged' group of players - and none of those should ever give up hope of reaching the upper echelons if they've not done so before. A prime example of this is Steve West, who at 43 has only relatively recently found the formula to be a world-beater at PDC level despite years of playing the game.

He defeated Michael van Gerwen at the recent televised European Championship and looked on course for a place in the fourth round at the worlds until Petersen had other ideas. A first professional title is surely not too far away.

Starting out

I'm always fascinated by stories of how darts players began their journeys and the age they decided to take it up.

At this tournament alone I found out the two best players in the North East - Chris Dobey and Ryan Joyce - were both roped into it by their mates and Luke Humphries was urged out of early 'retirement' at the age of 20, while at a recent exhibition Glen Durrant and Lisa Ashton told me they didn't start until their 30s.

But perhaps the best story of all was from Paul Nicholson, who also tried to convince me it's never too late to try and make a career from darts.

More games please!

This year saw the tournament expand to include 96 players - 24 more than usual - and 95 matches while there were more sessions of play than ever and, as a result, thousands of extra fans through the door and more hours spent in front of the television for those watching at home.

What's not to like?

Well, the scheduling was quite inconsistent at times for some players, with Gary Anderson perhaps being the perfect example. He played on the opening night, won, went home, returned a week later to beat Jermaine Wattimena, went home for Christmas and then came back five days later.

Then there was Toni Alcinas, who stunned Peter Wright on December 16 and didn't return back for his next game with Benito van de Pas until after Christmas! It's no wonder his momentum had gone.

Adrian Lewis felt the tournament was too drawn out as well...

Regardless of what everyone thinks, this format is here to stay.

Matches of the tournament

And the winner is, erm, either Michael Smith v Nathan Aspinall or Gary Anderson v Chris Dobey.

Can you decide?

I think I'm going to give the edge to the Flying Scotsman's triumph given the nature of his comeback and Dobey's stunning display against the odds, which saw him hit the most 180s in a World Championship last 16 tie. It really was a 'Hollywood' blockbuster to complement his nickname.

Also up there in contention for places is Anderson's nerve-jangling 4-3 triumph over Jermaine Wattimena, who had a match dart after coming from 3-1 down only to see his attempt to finish off what would have been the most dramatic of 170 checkouts miss the bull.

It was a pity that this year's UK Open, World Matchplay and Champions League of Darts winner couldn't follow up all these memorable wins with a performance to match against van Gerwen and the fact he left his undeniable mark on the tournament will be of no consolation.

My other favourite was Aspinall's triumph over Price but I've already gone on about that enough, while other honourable mentions go to Petersen's clash with White and Dave Chisnall's comeback from oblivion against Josh Payne, plus even Rob Cross' opening night triumph over Jeffrey De Zwaan, who averaged 106!

Global game

It wasn't too long ago when the players you'd never heard of at the World Championship weren't always up to much.

But visits like these are almost consigned to the history books given the rising standards of the game around the world.

The contingent from the PDC Asian Tour such as Noel Malicdem, Seigo Asada and Lourence Ilagen were all fantastic to watch while other international qualifiers including New Zealand's Cody Harris and Lithuania's Darius Labanauskas also showed off their talents with victories.

Obviously there were a few players who were unable to trouble the scorers but the reason the PDC has expanded the game so fantastically well is because they've always given opportunities to players like Craig Ross to have a taste of the big time.

Female first

Linking to the above point about growing opportunity, this World Championship marked the first time that two women were able to qualify for the biggest darting stage of all.

And wasn't it fantastic to see how darts fans embraced both Lisa Ashton and Anastasia Dobromyslova, willing them on to make history in their respective matches.

Compare this to the dinosaur attitudes you get from male football fans about the attempts women are making to grow their game, mocking them at every turn.

Although neither won their contest, Ashton did raise the roof by averaging over 100 in winning the first set against Jan Dekker and there will be a lot of female players inspired by what they saw and the realisation that this sport will give even more chances in the years to come.

Betting. No change that, 'Betting mishaps'

Sadly my performance as a darts tipster was almost as disappointing as many of the seeded players' performances this year. Darts is no easy game to predict at the best of times given how closely matched players and in this particular tournament there seemed no rhyme or reason to which shocks were going to happen or which out of form players were suddenly going to decide to turn up when it really mattered.

I wouldn't have said, even with hindsight, that there was much evidence to suggest the three star debutants in Nathan Aspinall, Ryan Joyce and Ryan Searle would have gone as far as they did and the same could be said of Jamie Lewis, Devon Petersen and Brendan Dolan having done precious little on tour in 2018.

It was also frustrating to see players that had enjoyed pretty decent seasons such as Joe Cullen, Simon Whitlock and Krzysztof Ratajski - to name but three - fall at the first hurdle, even if their demise added to the drama.

I'd tipped Ratajski to be a surprise winner of a very tough quarter at 20/1 but he was one of the many to blow a two-set lead while Cullen, my big outsider selection for the title at 100/1, couldn't have been worse on his doubles had he tried as he bowed out 3-0 to Dolan.

Rob Cross, a 22/1 tip, was going great guns until he capitulated when leading Luke Humphries 2-0 in round four although I take some consolation from the fact that my sole surviving pick Michael Smith did at least reach the final, albeit not on each-way terms.

In the end, those odds-against prices on Michael van Gerwen were indeed an absolute steal and congratulations (through gritted teeth!) to those who filled their boots.

Premier League revamp

I'll keep this brief because I'm sure my idea is full of holes.

Obviously there's been a lot of discussion as to whether Raymond van Barneveld deserved a spot in the 2019 Premier League given his poor form across 2018, culminating in an early exit at the World Championship.

But with it being his retirement year - not to mention his his crowd-pulling powers, especially in Holland - you can see why the PDC have included him.

This does mean players more deserving of a spot from a playing perspective have missed out while the onus on keeping as many as the world's top 10 in there means there's no room for rising stars like Dimitri Van den Bergh - which I personally think is a shame because it's a great chance to showcase the future of sport.

Ultimately the Premier League began when there weren't that many names who could put bums on seats and entertain the crowds as much as they can now, so a field of 10 seems pretty slim to me; times have changed.

My suggestion would be to have two divisions of 10 players, with the worlds numbers one, three, five, seven and nine in one of them and those ranked two, four, six, eight and 10 in the other. The other five players in each group would be a selected mix of rising stars and whoever the PDC and Sky Sports fancy.

Each division would play on alternate Thursday nights and they'd play each other once, meaning the regular season would last 18 weeks - but the players wouldn't be as burned out due to playing fewer games. The top four in each division go through to a quarter-final night and seven days later it would be Finals night.

You could give me lots of reasons why that's a bad idea I'm sure, but I'm open to tweaks and suggestions!

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