Stephen Bunting describes comeback from darting low point: "I was going into venues, feeling like everyone was laughing at me"
Ahead of his Premier League Darts return, Stephen Bunting opened up on his rollercoaster darts career.
The St Helens thrower faces Rob Cross in Liverpool, five years after competing in the Premier League for the first time. Bunting enjoyed a meteoric rise to BDO champion, and then to Premier League inductee.
Speaking to the PDC's YouTube channel for the 'My Story' series, the Bullet recalled the unique challenge.
"I think it was tough in some situations.
"When I played Peter Wright in Glasgow, the crowd was really against me, but I suppose you've got to take the rough with the smooth," explained Bunting.
"When I played in Liverpool, I played Phil Taylor. And I found it hard because I so wanted to impress my home fans, but at the time I was playing the best in the world.
"Just getting used to the Premier League, I really enjoyed it. Hopefully we can get back into the Premier League as a proper player, not a contender."
Bunting avoided elimination on Judgement Night, and went on to finish eighth. It turned out to be his only year in the Premier League Darts to date, as the former world champion and Kim Huybrechts were left out in favour of Robert Thornton and Michael Smith.
The 34-year-old then suffered a major dip in form, and has no doubt that being shunned had a knock-on effect for him.
"I would say it definitely contributed to it. I always remember Rod Harrington saying: 'If you get in the Premier League, you get two years'.
"So I thought to myself, if I don't get relegated, I've got a really good chance of being back in next year. I was really looking forward to my next year.
"When the picks were made and I didn't quite get my second year, I was really disappointed. It was a massive downer and it really affected my form, to be fair," Bunting revealed.
For Bunting, the nadir of that drop in standard is clear.
"The last three World Championships, barring this year," he said.
"Going out in the first round - generally deflated, don't feel like you belong.
"I went to see a sports psychologist, which really helped me. He trained my mind to not think about that, to think more positive.
"I was going into venues, feeling like everyone was laughing at me. It was a really strange situation to be in, getting home from weekends at the darts and being in a dark place, not talking to family and locking myself away."
Bunting's World Championship was much more positive this year - he beat Jose Justicia and Jonny Clayton before being knocked out by Michael van Gerwen. He felt nerves up on the Ally Pally stage; something which he says permeates through every PDC competition.
"When you're playing on the biggest stages around the world, nerves always affect you. Any players who say they're not affected, even the best players in the world, would be liars," he explained.
"People's nerves affect them in different ways. I remember that when I first got to the PDC, I used those nerves positively. As it went on, it got in top of me."
Making a change
As form waned and success became harder to grasp, Bunting found his mental health suffering. The breaking point turned out to be far from the big PDC stages.
"I'd been talking about it for a while. It was just a local night - I went to a local league, 301 double-off. I was awful, and couldn't hit a double. After that I got straight on the phone to my manager and said 'I needed to get this sorted'.
It was at this point that the two-time major semi-finalist sought professional help to turn things around.
"[The main change has been] just to stop analysing, really. I used to analyse every single dart when I was younger. Now, if I hit a bad score, just rectify it the next visit.
"It's little things like that - and being happier at home, doing things with the family, going out for meals and going to the football. Just making myself happy away from darts as well as in darts."
On the up
If watching his beloved Liverpool conquer the football world wasn't enough of a morale boost, his recent performances have Bunting feeling in a much better place.
"I feel like a totally different person now. I'm back in the scene, and I feel like people are scared of playing me again.
"Now I'm back as a contender, really looking forward to playing in Liverpool again. I believe my form's better than ever, and my confidence is high again," Bunting said.
He faces Rob Cross at the M&S Bank Arena; undoubtedly a tough prospect, and one that will get the nerves jangling again. But Bunting is a different man to the one Taylor thrashed at this venue five years ago. Just getting the call to come back as a contender has the Bullet ready to fire on all cylinders.
"It's another catalyst for me - I'm so happy to be a contender in the Premier League. There's probably a few players that could've been picked for Liverpool.
"It shows the PDC's belief in me; I can't thank them enough. I can't wait to get up on that Liverpool stage and show what I can do."