Patrick Chaplin: Players Past & Present

John Lowe - Nine Darter

John Lowe has called his now legendary nine-darter, achieved on 13th October 1984, as ‘two and a half minutes of magic’. Indeed he has recorded the historic event in detail in his autobiography Old Stoneface published in 2005. In the following article, first published in Darts Player 85, Mat Coward recalls how John did more than achieve a perfect game.

NICE ONE, JOHN

When John Lowe pierced the heart of that double eighteen, on October 13th 1984, in exotically-named Slough - and in doing so allowed millions to breath naturally after a gap of several minutes – he managed something that nearly all top darters dream of but can never realistically hope to achieve.

No, not throwing a perfect game. Now that the psychological barrier of that all-important first time has been breached, I wouldn’t be surprised to see nine-darters becoming, if not actually commonplace, at least glorious occasional visions on our TV screens. What the Captain did with those darts that was so special did not become clear until the next day and the day after that: he made the papers.

He made the radio and television as well of course. (Only once before have I heard a darts result given out on BBC Radio 4: that was after that unforgettable match in which Keith Deller out-finished Eric Bristow). The newspapers are a little better, but not a lot. Even the News of the World, Fleet Street’s most constant friend of darts, gives scant coverage to events other than its own – although both the NoW and the Sunday Mirror did darts fans proud on this occasion.

But many other papers never cover the game at all if (it sometimes seems) they can possibly avoid it. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, is well-known for the comprehensiveness of its sports coverage. Die-hard socialists can be seen studying this famously Tory journal with great attention on almost any summer’s day. They’re not reading the editorials, but the cricket reports. The Telegraph is the only national daily that gives a full report on every first-class cricket match, a few others besides. It also covers such goings-on as ice-hockey, real tennis, bobsleighs, basketball, skiing, amateur swimming, volleyball, and yachting – as well as just about every other sport, major or minor, that you can possibly think of. Darts, though, has to produce a world championship just to rate a listing of the results, and something pretty unusual (say, a nine-dart 501) to warrant an actual report.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the Morning Star. This avowedly working-class daily usually manages to avoid any mention of what is surely the workers’ sport. Admittedly, the sports editor only has one page a day to play with; but then the greater part of it is taken up with horse-racing fixtures. Now, how many people, in all honesty, follow the gee-gees as a sport? Perhaps racing would be better suited to the Money Page than the Sports Page. (I was especially pleased to see, then, that the Star gave John’s game a good four inches, even if they did allow themselves a bit of a dig, commenting that each of Lowey’s nine “golden arrows” earned him “£11,333 – far more than most people could earn from a year’s hard work”.) The Guardian, that membership badge of the concerned middle-classes, (which on this occasion came up with “former carpenter John Lowe took his earnings to a staggering £115,000 in three days”) does not, in the general run of things, consider darts worthy of its columns. And as for the Times…! Even on this momentous day they gave considerably more space to a report on a “three week tour of Australia by the British orienteering squad”!

So why doesn’t darts command the same media attention as other sports, even those which are less popular? I suspect there are several reasons. One is undoubtedly snobbery. Darts just does not have the glamorous appeal, for an outsider, of other, more exclusive games – its participants, even the very best of them, are not the lithe-limbed athletes, the sweating heroes that receive such adulation on the track or the field. Darts is not, for all the skill and stamina demanded of its champions, an obviously visual or even very physical game: or at least, it must certainly appear that way to non-players. And then, of course, darts is just too common. Anyone who has ever sipped a pint in a British pub has seen the game in action; and familiarity, it seems, breeds contempt.

But the real clue to this puzzle lies, I think, in the fact that our sport did make headlines on this one occasion – when, unusually, big money was involved. What fascinated journalists most about Lowe’s marvelous achievement was not that he had performed in his chosen field at a supreme level – it was that he had copped so much from doing it. The figures, not of his scoring, but of his sudden engorged bank account, guaranteed him a place in the headlines.

The sad truth of the matter is that in sport, as in so many things: only money moves the media!

© 1984 Mat Coward

Nine Darter's page

Historian’s Note:

Thanks again to Mat for allowing me to re-publish one of his early articles on darts (see also the Book Review section, ‘Darts With The Lid Off’). ‘Nice One, John’ is certainly an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the press towards darts nearly twenty five years ago. This caused me to reflect on press reporting on darts today.

The tabloids enthusiastically pay homage to the great sport of darts, particularly during the period of the World Championships, but seem to play the sport down for the remainder of the year. Years ago these newspapers would have run a weekly darts column. Nowadays such columns are only survive in some provincial and local newspapers.

Darts always struggled to make it into the ‘heavies’ yet this gradually changed and today the one that stands out as a great supporter of our sport is the one that Mat described merely as ‘!’ – The Times.

How The Times has changed!

This has been primarily due to the enthusiasm of two reporters for the sport of darts, namely Giles ‘Sport on Television’ Smith and Mel Webb; the latter succeeded by the equally enthusiastic Gary Jacob. The Times’ Kevin Eason, another supporter of our sport, providing fascinating pieces in his ‘The Insider’ column and surely would have provided more if not for the pressure on editorial. Kevin was the only sports reporter (anywhere I believe) to give the ladies’ game any mention during the 2008 World Championships by featuring a small but worthy piece about Hampshire’s Steffi Smee after she beat No. 1 seed Francis Hoenselaar in the quarter finals of the Women’s World Championships at Lakeside. Congratulations all round!

The newspaper that continues to be less supportive of darts is the Daily Telegraph. OK, the situation is definitely better than 25 years ago. There were a few articles spread across the four or five weeks of darts during the winter of 2007/2008, the best being Jeremy Wilson’s article ‘Shepherd marches into final’ published 31 December and his ‘Webster flushed with success’ piece which celebrated Mark Webster’s Lakeside triumph. However, you could not describe the coverage as enthusiastic, more like just another job.

Strangely, the newspaper that was arguably responsible for modern darts, the News of the World now publishes more articles about fishing reports than it does reports of darts. The People, whose Lord Lonsdale team trophy was fought for for many years, casts darts a cursory glance from time to time.

How do we get newspapers interested in darts? Funnily enough it was The Guardian that ran a piece earlier this year in celebration of John Lowe’s nine-darter. The trouble is that nine-darters are not news any more. The perfect game is hit with such regularity that it surprises no one and attracts little or no newspaper coverage and less and less (or no) prize money.

Perhaps, as John Lowe suggested in his autobiography Old Stoneface, it is time to move the goalposts and consign 501 games in major tournaments to history and introduce games of 701. As Mat said back in 1984, ‘only money moves the media’. The achievement of an eleven-dart 701 must surely attract a big money prize (for three consecutive maximums and a two-dart 61 finish) and thus become big news everywhere.

Surely then the Daily Telegraph

© Patrick Chaplin 2008