The 80s was a memorable era of arraz. The emergence of some of the game’s leading figures and the boom in TV tournaments led to the game becoming internationally renowned. One of the players to grace the oche over this period was Dave Whitcombe. A two-times former World Master and 1989 News of the World Championship winner, in part 1 of his interview with dartsweb, Dave reflected on his introduction to the sport, his decision to leave work on the dockyards in 1975 and his victories at the 1982 and 85 World Masters and 1989 News of the World Championship.
Whitcombe was a prominent figure in the 1980s glory years. His record says it all; twice a World Masters winner, a British Matchplay champion and a News of the World victor just some of the accolades that stick out from a decade-plus career at the pinnacle of world darts. But it very nearly didn’t happen for the Kent-born thrower. And given his fairly unremarkable start to life on the oche, it would have been very easy for a despondent Dave to hang his arrows up for good. However, he didn’t, and now fondly reflects on the period.
“I started as an apprentice electrical fitter/armature winder in 1969 aged 15. During the lunchtimes, a few of the men went to the local pub and I tagged along, even though I obviously wasn’t old enough to drink alcohol. One of the men I worked with, Graham Stone, played darts around Gillingham and Rainham and got me on the board. He used his own darts and I used the pub’s set. I lost every game over the next 2 years.”
“However, when I was 17, I bought a set from the local sports shop (brass in those days) and a paper board for home, and decided that I was going to beat Graham at least once so practiced as much as I could. At 18, I was getting pretty good and joined the local league in Chatham and practiced every day resulting in me winning the league singles title. Remember, all this was on a Doubles board – the Trebles board had not yet been adopted in the whole of the Medway towns,” Dave told me.
The so-called ‘Man with No Nickname’ continued his rise through the darting ranks in the following years. And, by the mid 1970s, the former two-times world finalist had decided it was time to focus on the arrows. “In January 1975, a few lads I played with asked me if I wanted to go in the Surrey Open. One of the lads was Chic Love, himself a Kent and England international. This was my very first time entering a competition on a Trebles board and I was lucky enough to win it, my last 3 opponents being Eric Bristow, Leighton Rees and then Alan Glazier in the final.”
“After that, Chic Love got me playing super league and county. I was also traveling to London on weekends, playing in comps there and winning more money of a weekend than I was earning in the dockyard. By mid 1975, I decided that working full time was not worth it. I obviously couldn’t have done this though if I was married as priorities are much different, and anyway, if I stopped winning, I could always go back to work.”
Dave was quickly establishing himself as one of England’s best too, becoming an English international, as well as impressing at county level with Kent, a region for which he won an impressive number of accolades, “I won ‘man of the match’ all 9 times one season for Kent, got in the England team and was winning many county opens, around 1977/78. The times were very good, but they always are when you’re doing well. More tournaments were appearing on TV and, at one time, sponsors were queuing up to hand over money, players starting to get recognised everywhere.”
Amongst Whitcombe’s most notable achievements were his two Winmau World Masters victories in 1982 and 1985. The prestigious BDO major, second only to the World Championship, was by no means an easy event to win, and the ex-England international’s unenviable route to the two titles included clashes with Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson in 1982 and Bob Anderson and Irishman Ray Farrell in the final in 1985. “Those two events were huge,” said Dave, reflecting on his victories. “The first one was, of course, my biggest win, and, unlike today, we all started on the floor – there was no straight seedings into stage play then. I think it’s not as good today and hasn’t been for a long time. I’m very much for seeds, but not to put seeds into the later stages of tournaments,” he commented.
“Then, the finals were on World of Sport, which at the time was the largest sports programme in Great Britain so there was a massive audience. I don’t think the viewing figures today will ever reach those heights of yesteryear. Both were played at the Rainbow Suites in Kensington, and this was a great venue, not only for the Masters but for the British Open as well, which doubled as a banquet venue for the meal and entertainment in the evening.”
“As a standalone tournament, over 2 days, this was actually better in my opinion than the Worlds, which was spread over a week. At the time, it was my favourite title victory but not overall in my career – that had to be the News of the World.”
And the 64-year-old came close to winning darts’ most coveted title too, on two attempts, reaching the final of the BDO World Professional Darts Championship in 1984 and 1986 respectively, losing to Eric Bristow on both occasions. At each championship, Dave was seeded third and had some impressive scalps, defeating 82 and 89 champ Jocky Wilson in the 1984 semi-final and 1988 world champion Bob Anderson in the last four of the 1986 competition. However, Dave is slightly rueful of his final performances and now, in retrospect, understands why he couldn’t quite cross the line.
“My only regret is not being able to relax in either final and not having the right frame of mind. Both times, I knew a lot of officials, players and friends who thought I would do it and I couldn’t get that out of my head. What happens is you are trying way too hard and that brings pressure, and it blew up in my face. There are no excuses, though, but that’s how it was,” Dave responded.
“I didn’t play bad in either final though, but not to the standard I was capable of. Reflecting on it is not worth it because you can analyse it until you’re blue in the face and ignore the real reason which is, on those days, I was just not good enough. You not only have to play at your best, you also have to be focused on nothing else. I’ve never been able to do that, and if I have, it certainly hasn’t lasted long.”
As Whitcombe, who left the darts circuit in the early 1990s, already mentioned, another of his big major victories was the 1989 News of the World Championship. The tournament, now defunct, saw players battle it out over the best of 3 legs and is regarded as the first English national darts competition. And, as Dave explained, unlike now, where most pros are qualified for TV majors well in advance and, quite simply, only have to turn up with their weapons in tow, the ‘News of the World’ was quite starkly different.
“It was the first darts I’d ever seen on TV back in 1972 and, believe it or not, I decided there and then I was going to win it,” Whitcombe said of the competition. “But it took me 17 years to achieve it and I nearly ran out of time because it stopped in 1990 before being revived a year or two later as a one-off.”
“I loved the tournament. The short format meant you had to be out the blocks straight away and not fluff your doubles. It was played in various stages – pub, local, area, county, regional and grand finals. I’d got to the finals 3 times via London and Home Counties, and twice via Eastern Counties when I lived in Clacton-on-Sea and Ipswich. Again, pressure got to me in 1980 and I lost to Stefan Lord in the final.”
“There was no seeding for the tournament and, even in the grand finals, the draw was done on stage every round, much like the PDC UK Open. I played Denis Ovens, Jocky Wilson, Arnie Bunn, and then Dennis Priestley in the final. I would have hoped for an easier draw but that’s how it is. Dennis Priestley was the favourite in the final and why not; he had played really top darts that day, beating one opponent in 13 and 12 darts, but I managed to get over the line and pip Dennis 2-1.”
“This tournament or one very much like it could make a comeback but the problem is fitting it into the calendar. There is so much going on these days that I doubt anything like it will ever happen again. It’s a shame as it was one of the best.”
Image Credits: Betting Pro and Patrick Chaplin’s website
Thanks to Dave Whitcombe
Part 2 of dartsweb’s interview with Dave Whitcombe will be published soon.