Paul Nicholson's reflects on his favourite moments in the World Darts Championship and his own unusual Ally Pally experiences.
The Asset played in eight editions of the sport's showpiece event at the Alexandra Palace from 2009 to 2019 and will again be injecting his expert insight into proceedings as a commentator and pundit for talkSPORT2 over Dartmas.
There’s been so many World Championship classics down the years – such as Barney’s famous triumph over Phil Taylor and when Adrian Lewis hit a nine-darter in his first final with Gary Anderson - so not everyone will agree with my choice, but I’m going for Rob Cross v Michael van Gerwen in the 2018 semi-finals, because when it comes to a last set shoot-out, it doesn’t get more dramatic than this.
Retweet this post on Twitter to be in with a chance of winning a signed set of darts and a shirt from Paul Nicholson!
It was past midnight, everyone missed their last train and knew there’d be a scramble for cabs – but nobody wanted to miss the end. It proved that not only do you need quality darts for an epic, but you need missed match shots to create drama and an electric atmosphere.
MVG blew six of them including five in one leg! It may not have had a nine-darter but it had everything else. It’s the most encapsulating match I’ve ever seen live in person and it also had extra sub plots which add the icing on the cake to the whole story.
Cross was of course making his tournament debut and having got through that titanic battle against one legend, he went on to fulfil his fairytale by annihilating Phil Taylor’s farewell dream with a crushing 7-2 victory and the second highest ever average (107.62) in a World Championship final.
However, I don’t think he would have won that title had he not had the next day off. The MVG clash took so much out of him that he’d never have been able to mentally recover in time to face Taylor the very next evening!
As far as my favourite Ally Pally final is concerned, then I’d have to go for when Gary Anderson beat Taylor 7-6 in 2015, which is made more remarkable by the way he bounced back from that moment at the start of the ninth set when his third dart of a 180 knocked them all out of the board!
Then at 6-6, he defied any sign of pressure to win the deciding set 3-0 to land his maiden world title. His bottle has never been questioned since.
Playing at Ally Pally is obviously an exhilarating experience for darts players but it can also make us crumble with nerves – regardless of whether you are experienced or not!
China’s Qiang Sun famously missed the board completely with one of his darts in a visit after he’d managed to bust 133, and the next year he tripped over the oche and onto the floor.
Take it from me, when you’re having a really nervous performance and nothing is going your way, it makes your heart shrink. It happened to me in my last appearance there against Kevin Burness. Anything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong.
I even bust 31 with one dart by hitting double 15. It makes me swallow my pride when I think of that and these days those kind of moments are clipped up on social media to make fools of us!
As a player, analyst or commentator – there’s no place I’d rather be in darts than Alexandra Palace. It’s iconic, it’s our home and the festive atmosphere makes us feel we own Christmas and New Year. My Ally Pally experiences as a player might not always have gone to plan but my debut in 2009 was turning into a fairytale for me. After brushing Adrian Gray aside 3-0 with one of the highest averages in the first round that year (96.62), there was the ecstasy of beating Adrian Lewis 4-3 by edging the deciding set 6-4. That was the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had in my career - and maybe the best performance – so I wish I could can it up and relive it whenever I want.
I then found myself up against the legendary Dennis Priestley who was a real inspiration to me growing up but for some reason I was remarkably calm. Despite being 2-0 down in sets I then won the next four to knock out my hero with a 97 average and thought ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.” For me at the World Championship, it never did – but it really should have had it not been for one fatal mistake ahead of the quarter-finals with James Wade.
I’d been averaging in the mid to high 90s in every game so far and playing better than everyone except Phil Taylor whereas Wade had only creeped 90 on one occasion. I was full of energy, no injuries and raring to go. I would have beaten James easily if it wasn’t for this one thing I wish I could turn back time and change.
Matt Porter came into the players room and said there was a masseuse here if anyone needed one for any strains etc. A couple of hours before going on stage I said yes because it might relieve some of the lingering nerves, but she was so good, she made me too relaxed! My body went from being finely tuned for a long format match to being like jelly. We both averaged in the low 80s and I lost 5-3. I’ve never known a masseuse being offered to players since then.
As a commentator, I still get those exhilarating moments because I’ve had the opportunity to call some incredible matches. When Fallon Sherrock beat Mensur Suljovic I lost my voice! But I don’t think anything can match the feeling you get playing on that stage.
No darts player begrudges having to put their family Christmas plans up in the air due to the World Championship! I know that sounds really Scroogey or grinch like, but this is our Graceland.
Winning up on that stage makes all the sacrifices you’ve ever made worth it, especially with the money involved today.
There’s a lot of players who travel from all over the world for this potentially life and career changing opportunity, and some get here very early to prepare.
Even if you polled darts players and gave them the option to start the World Championship after Christmas – or have it taking place at the beginning of December and ending around the 23rd - they’d probably all say no apart from one or two.
In the pre-PDC days, everyone used to associate the World Championship with January, but now darts owns Christmas and virtually everyone involved in the sport embraces that.
In 2008 during my World Championship debut, I practiced all of Christmas Day. It was a case of “oh here’s a present, here’s some turkey – right where’s the practice board?! It was all about getting ready for my match with Adrian Lewis.
This is our time of year. Our Graceland, our Super Bowl, our Wrestlemania.
There were around 70 players in my first World Championship and back then if you won your first-round match, you knew you’d be in the ‘post-Christmas’ tournament. It therefore felt as if that match was a final and you could then relax before the whole thing started again on the 27th.
We all loved that concept, but since the event has expanded so much in recent years, the scheduling meant some seeded players would need to win two matches and others – who didn’t begin their campaign until very close to the Christmas break – would only require one win.
Now we have the old consistency back with the scheduling, with all first and second round games being played before Christmas and the third onwards being afterwards. That’s a lot fairer on every competitor, who can all mentally break it down into two different tournaments.
If Peter Wright wins on opening night, for example, he’ll then pack his bags, go home for Christmas and be able to put in even more hard preparation for the second half of the World Championship almost two weeks later.
When I was playing my best darts, I never looked beyond the first game. Back in 2011/2012 when I was playing really well, I thought it does’t matter who I play because they’ve got no chance.
On the flip side, I remember playing against Phil Taylor when he was bullet proof at the back end of 2010 in Germany and I remember thinking “I’m going to need a fourth dart to beat him”.
He was just that formidable at the time and I’ve also played MVG when he’s been at full tilt.
You have to think “what pressure’s on me? None.” He’s the one expected to win because of how well he’s playing so I’ll just have to do my best to stay with him as much as I possibly can and get that one chance I crave.
You've got to make sure you put the pressure on the guy who is top dog. Sink into the background a bit, let them take the pre-match limelight and plaudits, then focus on just doing your best without the pressure.
If the lower ranked guys perform that way then I think we’ll see a lot of shocks on our hands again.