In the second of his two-part blog, Luke Nicoli continues his look at the history of the PDC World Matchplay and why it’s one of the most highly-anticipated events on the calendar…
While punters failed to be lured in that inaugural year by drinks promotions, discounted tickets and even a kids club – where youngsters would get the chance to meet their heroes – the players were enthused not just by the £42,800 prize money on offer, but also the format. The first to 16 legs was the order of the day, breaking free from tried and tested ‘sets’, which the TV companies had grown tired of.
“One criticism from the broadcasters was the fact that there had been no innovation in the format of the game,” Robert Pringle added. “So the remit we gave ourselves was to try and find something a little more interesting, and the angle for the Matchplay of playing ‘legs’ rather than ‘sets’ was born.
“It added another dimension because you could see exactly what was needed by a player to get over the line. In sets, if a player can see he’s going to lose a set, he can take his foot off the pedal, regroup and attempt to come back stronger in the next set, but in straight legs you don’t have that luxury and that’s why the pros like it.
“What they didn’t necessary like was the idea of having some of the winning prize money supplemented by driving away a low-budget car – certainly not inaugural champion Larry Butler (pictured), who hailed from Dayton, Ohio!”
“In our formative years we had to be creative in the way we operated financially, simply because the capital wasn’t there,” Dick Allix points out. “We offered a Proton car for the first Matchplay winner but regardless of the cost of shipping one over to Larry in the States, a right-hand drive wasn’t much use to him!”
“As we didn’t have bundles of money, we didn’t want to give him the cash alternative but, following a bit of haggling on both sides, a compromise was reached and Larry headed home a happy man without his motor.”
Now 61, ‘The Bald Eagle’ remains the only American to have won a PDC event and, in recent years, he has returned to the BDO. Currently ranked joint 97th it’s fair to say his more competitive days are behind him, with the World Matchplay inevitably his career highlight, having come from 7-3 down to beat Dennis Priestley 16-12.
“I’ve won many titles in America but the World Matchplay is the one I’m most proud of,” Butler told www.theweeklydartscast. “I used to take a break after every five legs for a smoke and a couple of sips of beer behind the stage, but after going 7-3 down I was really down and went straight into the men’s washroom and yelled at myself in the mirror. From that point on I played a lot better. But it was so much easier back in 1994; I was obviously a lot younger and the joints didn’t hurt as much!”
While events increase and new venues emerge all the time, the World Matchplay has been one constant on the PDC calendar for 25 years, a staple diet for darts fans up and down the country. Herts-based Alex Muir has been one such regular for the past decade. “As a Scot who now lives down south, Blackpool is like a second home to me in the summer anyway,” laughs the 40-year-old. “Us Scots take over the place at this time of year and that’s why you see so many at the darts and I always see the same faces – often cheering on Gary Anderson.
“I also go to Ally Pally but I like the World Matchplay more. While there’s still that same party atmosphere, you get a sense that the people are more into the darts in Blackpool rather than just having a good time. It’s also a nice place to get some refuge from the sun and, of course, us Scots appreciate our architecture and historical buildings. You can just smell the history inside the Winter Gardens.”
“It certainly has that Victorian splendour,” Allix adds. “You look upwards and it’s like the Sistine Chapel. The décor is splendid but the roof does have a tendency to leak so I always tell people to bring their umbrella if it’s raining!”
Since 1994, the World Matchplay’s total prize money has grown to £700,000 – a clear reflection of the strides made in the PDC. However, there have only been eight different winners: Phil Taylor (16), Rod Harrington (2), Michael van Gerwen (2), Gary Anderson (1), Larry Butler (1), Peter Evison (1), Colin Lloyd (1) and James Wade (1).
Since 2018 the players compete for The Phil Taylor Trophy, and Allix hopes to see more engraved as the PDC’s strength in depth continues to grow. “Phil has dominated and rightly has the trophy named after him but I hope, moving forward, that we see more winners as it keeps darts exciting.
“Nobody wants to see the same faces picking up the trophies all the time and I’m sure the place would be rocking as much as it’s ever done if we saw a new name on the trophy this year.”