Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Keith Deller: 1983 World Darts Champion

Sporting legacies are all well and good, but there is something to be said for that one occasion in a sporting career where everything seems to click for the competitor involved. A one-off performance when all falls into place, or a tournament where for some reason, the participant can do no wrong, and is fully in the zone. So for every Davis or Hendry, there will always be a Joe Johnson; Sampras may have dominated Wimbledon, but for two glorious weeks in 1996, Richard Krajicek reached levels that he probably didn't know existed in his game; and Bristow may have ruled world darts in the early to mid-eighties, though for one magical week in 1983 in Stoke-on-Trent, Keith Deller, a 23-year-old from Ipswich, shocked the darting world by becoming the first qualifier to win the World Championship, and the youngest winner at that.

Deller was on the face of things a breath of fresh air to the game. Young, baby-faced, and relatively slim, he did drink alcohol, but not to the levels of the other players, as so famously mocked by the Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch (indeed Deller temporarily became known as the Milky Bar Kid due to the fact that milk was a favourite tipple of his). A relative unknown to the dart viewing public in 1983, he had actually been on the circuit for three years, and was regarded highly enough by many in the game, including Bristow's dad George, who backed Deller in every round of the 1983 championships, bar the final.

Bristow was of course the complete antithesis of Deller: a double world champion, a drinker and smoker, and the man who put cocky into cockney. In reality, Bristow was darts, and every man, woman and dog expected him to make it three titles at the Jollees Cabaret Club between January 1-8. After a deciding set win against Scotland's Peter Masson in the first round, Bristow repeated the dose with a 3-2 victory over Dave Lee in round two, and a 4-3 victory against Dave Whitcombe in the quarter finals. Normal service however was resumed in the semi-finals, as Tony Brown was hammered 5-1, and the watching millions (estimated at between 8.4-10 million for the final) sat back waiting for the young upstart to be brushed aside by the Crafty Cockney.

Deller on the other hand had to contend with much bigger obstacles en route to the final. A 2-1 win over Nicky Virachkul in the first round and a 3-1 win over Les Capewell in round two, set up the none-too-tasty prospect of 1979 world champion and world number 3 John Lowe in the quarter finals. Lowe, 14 years Deller's senior, and a man who had been round the block more than a few times, was unable to shake the younger man off however, and Deller triumphed 4-3 to book his place in the semi-final against 1982 world champion and world number two Jocky Wilson. If Deller was to reach a final on his debut, then few could argue that he had enjoyed an easy passage along the way.

Crucially Wilson missed a nine-dart finish in the third leg of the first set, a moment Bristow has since admitted probably cost the Scotsman a place in the final. Don't forget, the nine-darter back in the 80s was almost seen as the holy grail of the game, and no one had ever successfully accomplished the impossible dream on television (Lowe would be the first to do so a year later at the World Matchplay, winning a cool £102,000 in the process). The missed double-18 may have just been one leg in the marathon semi-final, but the impact of the miss lived with Wilson throughout the match. Deller's 5-3 victory earned him a place in the final, where Bristow would understandably be the hottest favourite in the tournament's short history. Commentator Sid Waddell neatly summed up the task ahead for Deller with one of his famous soundbites: "He's not just an underdog, he's an underpuppy." In short, Deller was not at all fancied to beat Bristow, although critically Bristow, behind all his bravado, knew the youngster was well worth his place in the final, and had his full respect. After all, a player who had knocked out two previous world champions was not to be under estimated, and Bristow was well aware of this.

All started well for Deller, as he raced into a 3-1 lead, in the best of 11 final. But Bristow hit back immediately, winning the next set, and in a deciding leg in the sixth set, Bristow hit a crucial double-16 to level the match at 3-3. The impetus seemed to be with the double world champion, although if Deller was feeling the strain he was hardly showing it. Surprisingly Deller won the next two sets, and at 5-3 the impossible was starting to look a reality.

Sometimes the hardest part of winning is dragging yourself over the line (ask Mike Gregory) and six missed doubles for the world title (double-16, double-9, double-4, and three at double-2) left Deller vulnerable. Bristow didn't need a second invitation to take advantage of Deller's temporary blip, winning the next two sets to take the world final into a deciding set. After a week of intense competition, all would boil down to one final set, a test of who could hold their nerve more. If this was the case, then surely Bristow would be holding the trophy yet again come the conclusion of the final set. This looked even more likely when Bristow took the first leg against the throw, to lead for the first time in the match. All the momentum was with Bristow and it finally looked a bridge too far for the underdog.

Somehow Deller found something from deep within his reserves to throw a 12-dart leg (100, 140, 140 and 121) and won the third leg to yet again move within one leg of claiming the world crown. With the scores at Bristow 121 and Deller 138, Bristow stepped up to the oche, hit 17 and treble-18, leaving one dart at bullseye. "Bullseye" stated Waddell, as the camera zoomed in on the centre of the board. But Bristow wasn't interested, instead hitting 18 to leave double-16 (his favourite double). "Played the percentage shot" added Waddell swiftly after Bristow's strategy became known. With Deller on 138 it probably was the correct thing to do, although Bristow was gambling: "Living dangerous, Bristow - he's banking on Deller not doing this" noted Waddell. And he was spot-on.

Only Bristow knows what went through his mind as he turned and saw Deller's first dart hit treble-20, but as I'm sure I once heard on Blackadder, it probably rhymed with clucking bell. When Deller then hit treble-18, Bristow's heart must have dropped through his stomach and hit his feet. To the general astonishment of the millions of viewers, Deller needed double-12 for a remarkable out shot and the biggest prize in darts. "But the shot's on for the title" uttered Waddell in an understandable tone of both disbelief and anticipation. As the final dart hit the intended target, Deller leapt around, both arms aloft in triumph, looking elated and slightly startled at the same time. "I am telling ya, I'm telling ya, I've seen nothing like it in my life" shouted Waddell, and it was hard to disagree with the excitable voice of darts.

The emotion experienced by Waddell and Deller was shared throughout the viewing nation. Deller, reflecting on his win, pointed out that "Loads of spectators were crying their eyes out with joy - even men." The new face of darts was expected to rake in big money, the Daily Express' Christopher Hilton commenting that "He could earn upwards of £100,000 this year." But through all of this euphoria and hype, Deller seemed remarkably well grounded: "I want to show I'm more than a flash in the pan and that I can keep on beating the Eric Bristows and and Jocky Wilsons." Very mature words from someone so young and raw.

Yes, a darts player holding a pint of milk!

Deller did indeed experience a relatively successful 1983 after his world title win: he won the Double Diamond Masters, and reached the final of the Isle of Man Challenge, British Matchplay and the British Pentathlon (losing the former two to Bristow and the latter to Lowe). Inevitably though, the strain of being world champion started to catch up with him: the constant trudge on the exhibition road, the appearances on This is Your Life and Surprise, Surprise, the Stringfellows visits (as explained in this Observer article from 2006). Once you have reached the peak it is often harder to gain the motivation to go back to the base of the mountain and start all over again (the 2003 England rugby world cup winners and the 2005 Ashes winning team are good examples of this). In 1984, Deller turned up to defend his world crown and was promptly dumped out of the tournament in the first round by Nicky Virachkul - the very man who he'd beaten in the corresponding stage the year before. Although Deller's career didn't take a complete nose-dive, his fortunes at the World Championships were grounded: first round defeat in 1984, 1987 and 1988, a quarter final in 1985, second round in 1986.

Bristow dusted himself down and proceeded to win the next three World Championships. But then the dreaded dartitis struck, gaining a notable scalp, and Bristow was never really the same dominating force again. It says a lot for the man and his natural ability that he would still reach the final in 1987, the semi-final in 1988, and three more finals between 1989-1991. The man who had done so much to put darts on the map and television, was one of the driving forces (along with Deller, Lowe, Wilson and others) in the darts split of 1993, which did so much to improve the lot of a darts player at the time, and indeed to this day. Unfortunately Bristow wasn't really able to fully take advantage of the benefits in moving to Sky, but his semi-final performance at the 1997 PDC World Championships provided his fans with one last hurrah.

It is a sad statistic that Deller only won three further matches in the Embassy championships after his 1983 victory. Even sadder still was the time I saw him walking on to the stage for the 1998 World Matchplay semi-finals to the D:Ream song 'Things Can Only Get Better', with the MC trying unsuccessfully to get the crowd to replace the word 'Better' with 'Deller'. But, this embarrassing moment aside, Keith Deller deserves our full respect. OK, his star never shined so brightly after his 1983 annus mirabilis, he never did get close to ever claiming a second world title, but at least he did it once, and there are countless players, past and present, who would dearly love to have done that. To win the world crown is one thing, but to beat three world champions along the way proves that it wasn't lucky. After that first glorious week of 1983 things were never likely to get better (or DELLER!) for the 23-year-old from Ipswich, but - to quote Barry Davies - frankly who cares?

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