SPORTS TALK: The Crafty Cockney – the greatest of all time

by James McCarthy- April 21, 2018

I have very few sporting idols I look up to.

Wayne Gretzky is one. Ed Werenich is another. I’ve met both of them, Gretzky at a community arena one summer day when I was seven and I’m pretty sure I either shrieked like a giddy schoolgirl or soiled myself, and Werenich at, of all places, The Beer Store on Kingston Rd. in Scarborough, Ont. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, Werenich was an amazing curler whose day job was working as a firefighter for the old Scarborough Fire Department. He gave me his autograph, which I promptly folded up and stuffed into the ashtray in my dad’s car.

Eric Bristow was the first true superstar of professional darts and made it mainstream. photo courtesy of the Professional Darts Corporation

One of my other idols was Eric Bristow, the greatest darts player who ever lived. Sure, Phil Taylor has won pretty much everything there is to win in darts and is the most dominant of all time. Bristow, though, was the guy who brought darts into the mainstream and was the first superstar of the game.

I remember watching Bristow on television for the first time in 1984 when the World Professional Darts Championship was on CTV. He blitzed everyone that year and beat Dave Whitcombe to win it all. I was hooked and Bristow was my favourite.

I had always been a darts fan, watching my grandfather and friends in the basement of the old house we lived in when I was a wee yin (that’s what Scottish people call youngsters). I begged The big yin (Scottish patter for older people) to let me play and even though he wanted to let me, my grandmother would have none of it.

Being that he’s my grandfather, he would sneak me downstairs and let me throw a few on the promise I didn’t breathe a word to grandma. Naturally, I didn’t and that’s where I started to throw like Bristow did – gripping the dart with the index, middle and ring fingers with the thumb as support and the pinkie finger in the air, a la proper garden party ladies lunch tea drinking with a cucumber sandwich on the plate.

That’s when I realized the point of a dart hurt like a son of a prairie dog. When you’re four years old, you don’t wrap your hand around a dart unless you know what you’re doing, like the Crafty Cockney did.

His nickname came not from where he was from – he was born in the Hackney borough of London – but from a pub in Santa Monica, California, he went to in 1976. He was given a shirt by the pub’s owner, which he wore in a tournament, and the name stuck.

Part of what made Bristow who he was came from the way he approached the game. He knew he was good and made sure everyone around him knew it as well. That’s what drew me to Bristow – the three C’s: cocky, confident and controversial. He never knew when to shut up, a character trait I acquired as a kid (ask the bigyin). Whenever he won or did something big, he made sure to play it up, another character trait I acquired as a kid (ask the bigyin … or my wife in this case).

He was particularly hated in Scotland, the home base of the late Jocky Wilson, one of his great rivals from the 1980s. One match I read about was when Bristow played Wilson in Scotland in a champions challenge type of affair. Bristow stepped up to the oche, set to throw his three darts, when a can of beer came flying past his head and onto the floor in front of him. He picked up the beer, took a swig, and promptly threw a 180, the highest score on a dartboard. Who else but Bristow could do that?

Bristow won five world titles in his career and five World Masters championships from 1980 to 1986 and he could have won so much more had it not been for the dreaded dartitis. You probably don’t know what dartitis is, so I will explain:

Darts players have a rhythm when they throw and it’s something they work on for years. Dartitis is a psychological condition where a player tries to throw a dart but can’t. They don’t know why but their head and hand just won’t let them release properly.

It’s thought to be a form of dystonia, which causes muscle spasms and contractions, but whatever it is, it ruined Bristow. He eventually recovered but he was never the same. If dartitis hadn’t wrecked Bristow’s throw, he could have easily won so much more and Taylor may not have been as dominant as he eventually became.

Speaking of Taylor, Bristow had a hand in the making of his legendary career. When Bristow was recovering from his dartitis, his then-wife suggested he find a player who he could mentor. Taylor ended up being that player and Bristow gave him £10,000 to help start his professional career on the promise that it be paid back over time. It was because Taylor would go on to win the first of his 16 world championships in 1990. He beat Bristow to do it and I’ve always wondered whether Bristow had a bet on that game.

Darts saw a major split in 1992 when Bristow and 15 other top players left the British Darts Organization to form the World Darts Council, which we now know today as the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). It was a bold move, one which came at great cost to everyone involved, but one which the top players saw as the only thing that would save professional darts. The PDC is now seen as the top professional organization on the planet with a tour that pays out tens of millions of dollars every year.

Bristow would have reveled in what the PDC has become: sold-out arenas, fans singing and dancing with every match, money the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. His last great hurrah was a semifinal run at the 1997 PDC World Championship, considered by many to be his send-off. He still did the exhibition circuit, ever the entertainer, always in demand, never shy about being Eric Bristow.

The Crafty Cockney died on April 5 after being part of a VIP show involving the PDC’s Premier League Darts in Liverpool, England and it sent shockwaves through the darts community and all of Great Britain. His death was announced during the final match of the evening between Peter Wright and Daryl Gurney and you could tell it hit them hard. Wright could barely finish the match; he was in that much pain over it as was everyone else. The crowd began singing There’s Only One Eric Bristow in honour of him as well.

There was only one Eric Bristow and there will only be one Eric Bristow. He was what made professional darts tick for a long time. Anyone who plays professional darts owes him a huge debt of gratitude because had it not been for Bristow, darts would not have turned into the juggernaut it is today.

I can imagine it now – Bristow playing Wilson in heaven with late referee Freddie Williams calling out the scores with the late Sid Waddell and Dave Lanning on the commentary.

That’s one game I would pay to see.

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