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A right Bobby dazzler

From The Publican

12-Dec-2005

The popularity of darts continues to rise in pubs - after all, that's where it began. Phil Mellows spoke to darts legend Bobby George.

Bobby George, the Liberace of darts, opened the door to his Essex mansion wearing jeans and a paint-spattered old shirt. "I suppose you expected all the gold," he says. "But that's not me. That's just for the show."

And what a show it was. A quarter of a century ago Bobby was one of the most colourful and best-loved characters in British sport, most memorably walking onto the oche to face Eric Bristow in the final of the 1980 Embassy World Championship carrying a candelabra and wearing a sequinned cloak.

He lost that match, and despite beating the best in the world at various times, seemed destined to never quite win the coveted title - when he went down to John Part in his 1994 "comeback" final he only later discovered that he had played with a broken back!

Today, Bobby has found new fans as a TV commentator and once again will be sitting alongside Ray Stubbs when the tournament returns to the riotous Lakeside Country Club in Essex for the 2006 championship in January.

This time the BBC is promising more live coverage than ever before - a sign that darts is once again enjoying a surge in popularity and is back in favour with television controllers.

But as Bobby was keen to point out, lounging at the bar of George Hall, the country estate he built himself, darts should not forget its humble roots. "The womb of darts is the pub," he says. "Without pubs, darts wouldn't be the game it is."

He points out that the first major tournament, the News of the World Championship - which Bobby himself won in 1979 to burst onto the darts scene with more fizz than a roman candle - was played in pubs when it started in 1927, stimulating an interest in darts that would see boards installed in most bars.

According to The Publican's 2005 Market Report survey, 55 per cent of pubs still offer darts, a figure that Bobby believes is on the rise once more.

"Darts is picking up again in pubs," he says. "A lot of them are ditching pool because it's too argumentative, there are too many rules. Darts is a simple game, like golf. You have to finish the game in the fewest shots. You can't cheat at that. You have to accept defeat."

Bobby is especially encouraged by the numbers of young people taking up the game - but is worried that they have nowhere to play.

"They have to travel to a sports centre and they rely on their parents to take them. They should be able to play at the pub. Why don't pubs organise family darts events? Or set aside a room where youngsters can play? There are already some pubs doing that and I think others might be surprised at the results if they try it.

"The best place to play is the pub. Playing in pubs gave me a competitive edge - you had to win to stay on the board.

"There's an image that all darts players have got beer bellies, but there aren't so many big players these days," he adds. "A professional player has to be fit because of all the travelling you have to do - and you can't drink and drive.

"Beer and darts do go together. A beer can calm the nerves, and darts is 25 per cent nerves. But you don't have to get pissed and you'll find that binge-drinking just doesn't happen in a darts pub."

When Bobby first picked up a set of darts he was already 29 and played in the Maypole in Barkingside, Essex, before getting into the team at the King George V nearby.

"When I phoned the pub they used to pick up and say 'King George' and I used to say 'speaking'. I thought I'd made it even back then."

And make it Bobby did, taking the same route that has brought every British darts player to the top.

"If you play for the pub you're watched," he explains. "There are a lot of county players in the pubs and good players are spotted, they go through to the Super League and could get the chance to play for their country.

"It all stems from the pub. Every great player has moved up the ladder by starting there. We're all pub players really - and a few of us forget that, I think."

That's not likely to happen to Bobby. He takes his teenage sons, Robert and Richard, to his local, the Lion at Ardleigh, to play. Ricky, the youngest, is only 15 but has already made it into the adult A team for Suffolk - thanks, according to his dad, to the kind of competitive edge you can only find at the pub.

Bobby also plays many less competitive exhibition matches in pubs where he takes on the regulars and occasionally loses. "That doesn't matter too much - I still charge the same price," he jokes.

"If you book me for an exhibition I don't just play darts, I put on a show. Darts has got to be an entertainment," he adds - a conviction to which Bobby George has undoubtedly been true.

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