1989 News of the World Championship winner Dave Whitcombe was a leading figure in the world of darts in the 1980s, scooping up four ‘major’ titles and twice reaching the World Championship final. In part 2 of his exclusive interview with dartsweb, Dave talks about darts’ 1980s pomp, his decision to leave darts, the split and the late, great Eric Bristow.
Whitcombe was one of many of darts’ well-established characters in the 1980s, making his vast achievements on stage even sweeter and more impressive. And while Dave was focused very much on his arrows, he has fond reflections on a period held dear by tungsten lovers across the globe. “Darts on TV was probably bigger then than it is now. There were so many tournaments up and down the country, some regional TV only, and many on mainstream TV. Even the internationals were on TV. And all those were the icing on the cake as there were other tournaments of pairs and triple comps also on TV. All that will never come back but maybe some of it could do if the BDO had a guru like the PDC have in Barry Hearn,” Dave ponders.
“But, then again, would the TV be interested after the influences of the PDC? It would be a tough nut to crack. With the state of the BDO these days, anything from them on TV seems like a bonus, and a far cry to what they once were.”
“The BDO have a saying that they are proud of – ‘darts for all’ – but that’s not true. What they should say is darts for all except professionals.”
The sharp decline in television coverage and notoriety that followed for darts in the late 1980s and 1990s is well-documented. But the split that occurred in the early 90s offers somewhat of a silver lining to the highly acrimonious schism in the sport’s history, with huge amounts of sponsors vying for the right to pin their brands to the Professional Darts Corporation’s biggest events. However, Dave wasn’t a part of this breakaway.
“For some of us, darts was becoming very prickly and it was interesting listening to Alan Warriner Little recently in a question and answer session with Chris Mason, where he described his own views on how he was feeling at the time, which were pretty much like my own.”
“Myself, John Lowe, Tony Brown and Cliff Lazarenko had set up the WPDPA (World Professional Dart Players Association) – the forerunner of the WDC – later becoming the PDPA. The sole intention was to have a voice and work with the BDO. But the BDO didn’t want our input, never recognised us and basically gave us the cold shoulder. We had quite a few members and that made it worse in their eyes. Every idea or suggestion we had was killed stone dead by the BDO and they saw us as a threat rather than a help. And soon, county officials fell into the trap of believing the BDO and they too didn’t like us.”
“It soon became clear that certain players were picked on for petty and stupid reasons and I was one of them. I was stopped twice from going on stage for using Unicorn flights with an excuse that the TV doesn’t allow advertising and as I had a picture of a unicorn on my flights and that was supposedly reason enough,” Dave explains of the issues in the sport’s main governing body at the time.”
“At that time, I was hovering about 4th in the rankings. During an international match at Lakeside, I was intentionally left out the draw with a pathetic excuse that it was a mistake. To their credit, a couple of officials did make a song and dance about it, but the deed was done and too late to rectify. A couple of us had our flights cancelled to Denmark, also a mistake they said which again was pathetic. It was getting very petty and all because our little organisation was unwelcome, unwanted and sneered at, and it went on and on.”
“I was actually in the quarter final stages of the Masters another year, and was told categorically that I could not use Unicorn darts. This was 5 minutes before going on stage. So I had to borrow a different set and of course lost.”
“Darts on TV was probably bigger then than it is now”
“I’d had enough and decided then and there to leave. I wouldn’t go to any tournaments to defend my points, stopped playing county so no international selection and walked away. I never made a fuss, never told anyone, I just bowed out.”
“By the time of the split, I wasn’t part of anything, and although Tommy Cox phoned me to ask me to join them a little later on, I declined. The thing was I was not informed of the split as it was happening and knew about an intended court case after players were banned.”
“If I was contacted even a week before the announcement of the split at Lakeside, I would have put my name to it. I would even have joined them in the first 3 months. But to wait until a court case was set and then ask me to sign a contract? I don’t think so.”
“One person wrote in a USA darts magazine that I had opted out of the war. He basically implied I had lost my nerve but this was rubbish.”
“Out of all the split players, I had enough gripes about the BDO as anyone so would certainly have left with them if I was still part of it. In fact, given the chance I would have taken the lead of the charge.”
“Just after the split was when it turned really sour and because I’d never gone anywhere, I knew what was going on and it wasn’t pretty. But that’s another story.”
“Players say Phil Taylor was the greatest but Eric Bristow, if playing at his best now, wouldn’t have gone down without one hell of a fight”
Dave is now a publican, running the Gore Court Arms in Sittingbourne, Kent for over 25 years with his wife Delph. But Whitcombe has flirted with the sport a few times since, including successfully qualifying for the 2006 PDC World Championship. However, from speaking with Dave, it seems there are no plans for a professional comeback any time soon.
“I joined the PDPA a few years later just to see what it was like, how their tournaments were and to get a sense of the set-up. In those early years, it was terrible and backwards compared to the BDO. Most tournaments were held in bad venues, somewhere boards were just screwed to the wall and you had to throw over fixed seating. Others were at holiday camps and no different to BDO minor events of the time. It wasn’t good and nothing like the boasts I’d heard bandied about at how much better they were.”
“Things have moved on 100% now though and the set-up the PDC have is superb. This is definitely the place to be for the professional player and even those right on the brink of going full time,” Dave said.
“I follow darts a lot but don’t watch every game like some do. Sometimes it just seems the same again and again with the same players. But the PDC hold all the cards, have terrific venues and pots of money. This is about as good as it gets for any player. Add to that the superb backroom staff and officials and the cake is complete.”
“The BDO by comparison is way behind and has been for ages. They still hold a key place though for those that like super league and county and many love the different competitions they run. Together with the EDO, it’s great for players to make their mark and progress to a higher level. But once that level is reached, there is no professional system for them.”
“Why they haven’t adopted something like a pro tour similar to the PDC, I don’t know. The BDO have a saying that they are proud of – ‘darts for all’ – but that’s not true. What they should say is darts for all except professionals. That’s where the PDC come in. Sure, there are pros in the BDO but their potential to win money by TV tournaments is minor as there is none.”
One player that Whitcombe shared the oche with was, of course, the five-times world champion Eric Bristow, who sadly died last year following a heart attack at the age of 60. I asked Dave to share his thoughts on Eric’s passing, his memories of him and his reflection on his impact on the game.
“Eric Bristow’s death was a shock. I was at a local darts match when the news of it spread over the internet. I initially thought it was one of those hoaxes you see occasionally on Facebook so I phoned Keith Deller to find out. Keith was away working but I managed to speak to his wife Kim who confirmed it was true.”
“I’d known Eric since about 1973/74. He was a bit younger than me, very loud and very brash – my complete opposite. Over the years, I don’t think I can say we were huge friends as such and on occasion had differences of opinion. We didn’t have malice though and an argument was soon forgotten.”
“If I had lived or come from London or he from Kent, we may well have been big pals and practice partners and I would have got to know him a lot better. But alas that wasn’t the case and even though I saw him very regularly over the years, we didn’t mix in the same circles. Some used to say we were enemies but that’s not true at all. We always chatted and had a few beers together, it’s just that others like Big Cliff and Keith Deller hung out with him more.”
“He will go down as the best player of my era – he was phenomenal when on top form and won so many things. He was also extremely observant of players and, later on, when he worked for Sky, he told it how it was.”
“He was a one-off player and a character that viewers either loved or hated, and while all players say Phil Taylor was the greatest, Eric Bristow, if playing at his best now, wouldn’t have gone down without one hell of a fight. He would have raised his game and relished the challenge, and I think would have stopped Phil from winning all those tournaments.”
Image Credits: Mastercaller and YouTube
Thanks to Dave Whitcombe