Nobody knew what would happen when Gary Anderson dropped out of the Premier League Darts.
Luckily, the PDC knew that the Flying Scotsman was likely to withdraw, and they had a plan in place. The internet was abuzz with theories on who would enter the Premier League Darts class of 2019 instead. In the end, the solution surprised everyone.
Nine ‘contenders’ stepped in to replace Anderson, with each appearing for one night only up until Judgement Night. Rather than the next top players in the Order of Merit being selected, a mix of rising stars and homegrown heroes were picked.
The plan came in for some fierce criticism at its conception, though those defending it pointed out that it was a nice change of pace, given that eight of the nine regular participants had been involved in 2018.
We’ve taken a look at how the nine – and the ‘contenders’ idea – have got on.
It was Bedlington ace Chris Dobey who kicked things off for the contenders, which added a little bit of pressure. Playing in front of an 8,000 strong support in Newcastle really piled it on. But ‘Hollywood’ revelled in the atmosphere, shocking Mensur Suljovic and flying into a 5-1 lead. The comeback shown by the Austrian was a sign of things to come, and it looked like Dobey could lose from a near-unassailable position. In the end, the pair settled for a draw. The reception Dobey received, and the quality of the match, made for a positive start.
Though not a local, Glen Durrant captured plenty of attention in Glasgow. The three-time back-to-back BDO world champion was among those tipped for a regular spot. As far as an audition goes, his wasn’t the worst. Unfortunately for Duzza, Daryl Gurney wasn’t in the mood to let him shine. A spectacular show of finishing meant that Durrant, whose average was just a fraction short of 100, failed to get any sort of momentum. The way he has played before and since, the Teessider could yet return to the Premier League.
Steve Lennon enjoyed the boisterous support of the Dublin crowd on Night Three. With the Irish faithful behind him, Lennon soared into a 3-0 lead over Peter Wright. He had struck an 11-darter and a 105 finish, and was in total control. But then the cracks started to show, and Wright reeled off six legs on the spin. A comeback was threatened, but in the end Snakebite stopped the party with tops and a hard-fought victory.
At the time Luke Humphries met Gerwyn Price in Exeter, punters were tipping the Welshman to win the UK Open. He was coming off the back of successive Players Championship weekends and, but for one dart missed at the double 12, would have had a nine-darter in this match. But Humphries was ready to upset the odds. Finishes of 161 and 103 helped the World Championship quarter-finalist to claim three legs on the spin. He went 6-5 up and had a shot at the win, but Price battled back for a draw. Humphries’ average of 101.3 was the highest recorded by any of the nine contenders.
The undoubted highlight of the entire contenders scheme came in Aberdeen. Looking down the list of contenders, John Henderson did not spring out as the one likely to make the biggest headlines. As well as being an unassuming, middle-of-the-road player and character, the world number 20 had to play Michael van Gerwen.
The Highlander’s walk-on, bagpipes and all, was positively spine-chilling. He was raucously backed by the Aberdeen faithful, even when van Gerwen opened up a 3-0 lead. Henderson was averaging three figures, but the world number one was threatening to break Premier League records. But the big Scot dragged himself back into the game, and the crowd started to believe.
Hopes appeared to be dashed when van Gerwen broke to make it 6-4. But Henderson wasn’t fazed, and he struck back immediately before a nerveless 57 finish secured a draw. A 97 average and six 180s was a good return from the man who stole the hearts of both the Aberdeen faithful and darts fans watching around the world.
A lot was expected of UK Open champion Nathan Aspinall in Nottingham. One thing working against the Stockport native was that he didn’t have the same sort of home support that others enjoyed. Another was his own inability to score as prolifically as usual. A 158 finish was a highlight, but Aspinall was largely underwhelming as Michael Smith grabbed a vital win.
If Aspinall’s performance wasn’t the biggest disappointment, Max Hopp’s surely is. In front of a passionate Berlin crowd, playing Premier League cannon fodder Raymond van Barneveld, the German ace had a chance to win in style. Instead he never got going, wilting under the spotlight. It’s not what we’re used to seeing from Hopp, who normally produces his best on the German stage. A ton-plus finish early on stood him in good stead, but Barney punished some poor finishing and stole the limelight with a 170 checkout.
Not even a distracting draft could prevent Dimitri van den Bergh from claiming a draw in Rotterdam. It could have been so much better, too. The world youth champion led James Wade in the early stages, but the Machine came roaring back to make it 4-4. Checkouts of 140 and 121 had stood the Belgian in good stead but, like for three of his predecessors, he had to settle for a draw. Van den Bergh was the second contender, after Humphries, to average three figures. He may still be ruing the one dart he had to take victory.
You can’t help but wonder if Jeffrey de Zwaan would’ve beaten almost any other Premier League Darts opponent. The Black Cobra was largely excellent, and converted four of his six darts at a double. But he was playing Rob Cross, bouncing back from a chastening defeat to Mensur Suljovic. Cross knew from a World Championship tussle in December how to keep de Zwaan at bay, and again he succeeded in doing do. Rotterdam threw its weight of support behind the young Dutchman, who could well be back regularly in future.
Contenders assessed – is the format a winner?
Critics will point to the results. Four draws and five defeats is elimination form. It has been argued in corners that because the contenders initiative failed to produce even a single winner, an elite competition like the Premier League Darts would do better to revert to the previous format.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. The overall average for the contenders was in the mid-to-high 90s. Dobey, Lennon, Humphries and van den Bergh could all have won their ties. Even Durrant and De Zwaan can point to the fact that even the slightest slip-up from their opponents would have made it a very different story.
Vincent van der Voort was one critic who changed his tune after watching the contenders in action. He sums it up better than anyone.
”In my opinion, the Premier League has lost some glamour. Week in week out, we see the same names. Then it’s not special anymore to see Daryl Gurney against Gerwyn Price. I was more looking forward to see how Dimitri van den Bergh and Jeffrey de Zwaan would play in this competition,” surmised the Dutchman.
And he’s right. The Premier League is not a major. Entertainment is the bottom line. And for the packed crowds, no clash between Peter Wright and Mensur Suljovic, or James Wade and Raymond van Barneveld, was ever going to top the appearances of John Henderson or Chris Dobey.
The contenders plan can be marked down as a success. Whether the PDC bring it back next year is another story entirely.
Author: Ed McCosh