There are few fixtures in the darting calendar that offer as much potential to change lives as the 4 days of Q-School. 853 players, 31 cards: a survival of the fittest in which only the best can find success. Come through, and the possibilities are endless. Just look at Glen Durrant. After early losses in both the opening days of the event last year, the pressure was on. An inspired run on the third day took him within a game of securing a card, losing 5-2 to Reece Robinson. With permutations racing around his head, Duzza went within one dart of being denied a place on the Pro Tour in the last 128 of the last day against Matthew Dennant. He recovered, won the game and got to the last 16, winning enough points to make it through on the Order of Merit. The rest is, as they say, history.
Within that 800+ strong field is a huge variety of stories, characters and backgrounds. Some go with little but a name and nationality, an unknown quantity that could well, unexpectedly, sneak through the draw and pick their way through fellow challengers. Some go with proverbial targets on their back, major titles or even newfound global fame. That’s certainly the case for Fallon Sherrock, who made the last 32 of the PDC World Championship last month and found herself catching the attention of international media. Many fit the latter description, and an ever-increasing number as some fail to stay on the tour and hit challenging periods of their careers.
Kevin Painter – giving it another go
Kevin Painter is one who is heading to Wigan with a backstory many of the first-timers preparing to face him and others would dream of. A world final in 2004 and a Players Championship Finals crown in 2011, as well as an enviable run of 21 consecutive World Championship appearances between 1998 and 2018. Painter lost his card in 2018 after falling out of the world’s top 64, and was a victim of a very cruel system last year, just narrowly missing out on his card.
“I just lost out on countback because I got a bye on the last day, which I don’t really understand. As well, my last two opponents on the last day, Gavin Carlin and Kirk Shepherd, both knew they already had enough points to get a card so they’re playing with a totally different mindset to me. If you have the points surely you should just drop out.”
“I’ll be honest, it’s not something I enjoy, especially someone at my age,” Kevin said of the experience. “It’s alright if you are a youngster or just starting up in the game but for players like me it’s not going to suit you. You’ve just got to hope you get through in the first couple of days and get out of there, which unfortunately didn’t work out last year.”
Q-School, as much as it is a delight for the fans, isn’t a perfect system, as Kevin explains There is certainly a debate to be had about its suitability for picking the best talent to feature on the Pro Tour. Some players may play despite not being 100% in order to play on the Challenge Tour, and the huge number of players that compete means that the quality which may have been demonstrated by Tour Card winners of the past like Glen Durrant and Jamie Hughes isn’t consistent throughout the whole draw, questioning its validity as a direct channel between the wide variety of amateur tours and participation and the professional tour. But it remains the one chance, barring exceptional showings in the Challenge and Development Tour, players have of getting on to the main PDC tour.
‘The Artist’ is in an unusual position coming into this Qualifying School. Last year, after being unsuccessful in his attempt to win back his Tour Card, he competed in the professional circuit’s sister tour, the Challenge Tour. But, for similar reasons to Q School, found it tough. “I found the two events a day – with hundreds of people – really hard. It’s just not for me. I packed it all in after the third weekend. And the first few become so important as it’s a few months before the next events, so it puts a lot of pressure on those first few.”
For Kevin, something in particular is fuelling his hunger to get back on the Pro Tour, and it is maybe to be expected for somebody who was at the top of world darts for numerous years. “I’ve really enjoyed this year. The only thing I miss is the competition, which just isn’t the same in local competitions. And that’s the main drive for me to do Q-School – I don’t particularly need the money and could maybe even do without life on the Pro Tour, being away all the time, so it would be great to see if I could get another couple of years. And doing exhibitions and the like has meant I have been able to play a lot of new players which has been great.”
So no pressure or burden of expectation coming in to this one? “I think pressure comes when a lot of people say, ‘You’ve played on the tour’ and maybe expect you to get a card. But they’re long days and it really can be like a lottery – if you get a few decent draws and get through the first few rounds then you’re in the event. I didn’t play very well the first couple of days last year which I think worked against me in the end and I ran out of time. I’m not one to go there and expect myself to get a card and it all just depends on how it goes. I think the experience can only really count as you get deeper in the days.”
Martijn Kleermaker – unhappy BDO star seeks new opportunities
A Q School competitor in a different boat to Kevin is Martijn Kleermaker. He is somewhere between the long-time pro seeking a return to the tour and the novice looking to strut their stuff. He is one of a number of recent BDO World Championship competitors to be heading to Q School. Martijn is participating in the European Q-School in Germany, for players on the continent and those not from Europe who opt to participate in that over the UK event. The BDO number 5 will be hoping he is one of the lucky ones to come through, and impressed at the BDO Worlds, despite falling to Paul Hogan in the last 16, who registered the best average of the event in his match against Kleermaker.
“I think I played pretty well in both matches. Two times, I recorded a 90+ average but Paul was just amazing against me. The whole match I had the feeling I could win but he didn’t miss at all. It was a great experience to play a match like that on the big stage and I will take it with me in the future.”
One thing that dampened the experience however was the crisis that enveloped the BDO over prize money announcements and general bad feeling that lingered around the event after the severing of ties between the WDF and BDO and suggestions just 15% of tickets had been sold by the time the Worlds started. “As a front man, you have to make sure that everything is clear for the players. Des hasn’t delivered in that regard given the issues over prize money. And in the O2 [the event’s venue], he is not there with the players but sits in different place. That’s not normal – he has to take his responsibility or go away. It’s easy like that. But while you’re playing you don’t think about it and you just want to play your best game.”
The Dutchman knows he will have to face an extremely strong field in his attempt to get on the PDC Pro Tour. But he is feeling confident, “I think I’ve got a good chance if I play my best game. I’ve really improved this year and I feel I have to go to Q-School because at this moment we don’t know what’s happening at the BDO. I really want my tour card and to play against the best players in the world. That would make me a better dart player as well.”
Ultimately, only a select few will leave Wigan and Hildesheim with the golden ticket to the PDC Pro Tour and a gate to a new land of opportunity. But before then, there’ll be plenty of drama, twists and turns and new stories wrote. Let the battle commence.
Image Credits: PDC, Mastercaller and Darts News
Thanks to Kevin Painter and Martijn Kleermaker