After thinking for a moment, Stephen Bunting recalled his World Matchplay debut in 2014.

“I remember having a really good first game with Peter Wright. It was my debut in Blackpool and I didn’t really know what to expect,” Bunting said.

“It was a privilege to be in the tournament. I remember beating Peter and thinking ‘I’ve got Gary Anderson next’. I’d not played Gary for a long, long time, going back to the BDO Swedish Open I think.”

Anderson brought Bunting’s maiden voyage to an end, winning 13-8.

“It was a really tough game, he put in a lot of crucial finishes at the time. I remember coming away from that game and being slightly disappointed that I didn’t get the win, but I was proud of my performance.”

He’ll be even prouder if he can avenge that defeat in a rematch against the Flying Scotsman. They meet in the first round of the 2018 World Matchplay, and the former BDO world champion is up for the challenge.

“Playing Gary Anderson, you know you’ve got to play well anyway. But I believe I’m ready, I’m playing some of the best stuff I’ve ever played in my career.

“Coming off the back of a semi-final in a European event, my confidence is quite high.

“I always seem to play well in Blackpool, I’m going to go there and just enjoy the game.”

Fun on the continent

The semi-final Bunting referred to was the European Darts Matchplay, where eventual winner Michael van Gerwen stopped him in the semi-finals.

Like his beloved Liverpool, he has had a lot of joy in Europe in recent months, and he certainly appreciates the European Tour.

“It’s always hard to qualify for the European events, never mind play in them. I missed out on a couple early on, I’ve put that right now and I’ve just pushed myself into automatic qualification for the last two (events),” Bunting said.

“As a whole, I think the European Tour is the best thing that’s happened to the PDC. It’s fresh, it’s nice to go to Germany, Holland and all these different countries in front of the wonderful fans.”

Pieter Verbeek/PV-Darts

Photo: Pieter Verbeek/PV-Darts

Big turnaround

Bunting’s form dipped in 2017, but since March his form on the floor has spiked. When asked how he is feeling currently, the response was unequivocal.

“Really good, to be honest. Happy with the form, I’ve been playing really well on the Pro Tour,” he enthused.

“I’ve had good averages, finishing well and in practice it’s going well as well, so I’m looking forward to the back end of the season.

“(The first six months) have been pretty good. My Pro Tour form’s been steady, I’ve had a couple of semi-finals and a couple of quarter-finals.

The St Helens ace revealed that his woes on the oche saw him look for help to turn his career around.

“I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist since late last year. He reset my mind and got me thinking about a lot of positives,” Bunting said.

“The form coincides with practice, I’ve been putting a lot more hours in, playing in the garage and getting ready for these events.

“Since March I’ve had a really good run, I’m going to keep on top of the practice now and the form should stay there, to be honest.”

“Blackpool’s in my blood”

The World Matchplay brings out positive performances in Bunting, but not the results to match. First round defeats to Ian White, Mensur Suljovic and Michael van Gerwen mean that his debut win over Wright is still his sole success at the Winter Gardens. But the Bullet has managed a ton-plus average in two of his last three Matchplay games, and only has good feelings about the event.

“It’s one of my favourite tournaments. I love being in Blackpool, it’s not too far from my house, so I can just stay at home and prepare for one of the biggest tournaments in the PDC,” he said.

“The fans always seem to be on my side, which I like. In the last few years I’ve had some tough draws – van Gerwen last year, Gary this!

“I didn’t feel comfortable with my form last year, I didn’t feel like I was playing well. This year I’m going into Blackpool believing I can win.”

Being from the same neck of the woods as the Matchplay location, Bunting is fully familiar with Blackpool.

“Blackpool’s been in my blood since I was a child. We always used to go on family holidays there, and it’s just really nice being in that environment.

“It’s like our Las Vegas, so to speak! It’s a great place to be, people are always friendly and supportive, and I love playing at the Winter Gardens.

“Some people go to certain venues and just can’t play at those venues, it’s the same with golf or tennis. But that’s definitely one of my favourite venues.”

Lawrence Lustig/PDC

Photo: Lawrence Lustig/PDC

Tough tie

Bunting is well aware that Anderson will be a formidable foe, yet he still backs himself to do well. The Scot has never won the Matchplay, a hoodoo that his former BDO adversary could take advantage of.

“He’s a great player, Gary. It’s going to be a tough game, but on the flip side Gary will see that it’s a tough game for him too.

“If I can come out firing and play the game that I’ve been playing recently, I’ve got a good chance.”

Anderson, the UK Open champion, has been on World Series duty in recent weeks. Victory at the US Darts Masters was then followed by a shock defeat to Royden Lam in the first round of the Shanghai Darts Masters. Bunting, who has been less active, feels that his schedule has been kinder to him.

“It could be an advantage that he’s had that match practice, but it could be a disadvantage that he’s been all over the world and could be tired.

“I’ve been doing the right things, eating healthy at home, sleeping at good times – I’ve been relaxing mainly, but also practicing and putting the hard work in.”

There are often disagreements about whether or not to chart a potential course to a final. Richard North recently intimated that players who claim not to look forward to potential future matches are liars. Yet Bunting insists that he is only focusing on one game.

“I’ve got Gary Anderson in front of me. I’d be a fool to overlook him and look further, I’ve got to take it one game at a time and go as far as I can in the tournament,” said the Bullet.

“It’d be a dream to win the World Matchplay, but I’ve got to beat Gary first, and I’ll be putting all my strength and effort into that.”

Lawrence Lustig/PDC

Photo: Lawrence Lustig/PDC

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Author: Ed McCosh