The Nag's Head darts team, Summer 2011
For a city with something of a heritage when it comes to sharp-tipped projectiles, it is more than a little surprising that there has never been a top-class darts players from this neck of the woods. Instead, Nottingham’s arrowsmiths have had to look further afield for tungsten-tipped inspiration. As far as Stoke-on-Trent, in fact, which, for a town with an almighty post-industrial hangover, is positively frothing over with oché-bestriding talent, including, of course, the greatest player in the game’s history and one of Britain’s greatest-ever sportsmen, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.
Perhaps all this is about to change, though, as the Nag’s Head on Mansfield Road get set to hit the Yorkshire town of Wakefield on 17 September for the Northern Regional Finals of the Punch Darts Classic, a tournament open to all 3,000 pubs in the Punch Taverns chain. It has proven a popular event, too – indeed, it is reckoned that darts as a whole, following a dip from its mid-80s, can’t-beat-a-bit-of-Bully peak, is now the UK’s largest growth sport (and no, wags, that doesn’t mean that you start playing and then you grow. Large).
For those that argue that darts is not really a sport, Nag’s Head Bar Manager, Chris Frame, originally of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, asserts: “if they can make archery a sport, then darts is a sport too”. Under Frame’s captaincy, the team has so far seen off the Tap and Tumbler on Parliament Street, Lenton’s Happy Return, and, in a fiercely contested local derby, Mansfield Road’s very own Rose of England (otherwise known as “them lot down there”). They have also had two walkovers – ascribed by Frame to the opposition “fearing us” – and now join thirty-one other hostelries up in Wakefield, hoping to be one of the eight pubs that will make it through to the national finals, where they would join eight more winners from each of the other three regional heats. Bum-squeaking time, then, for the men from a reputedly haunted venue.
Rich Walsh kicks it PDC-style
The Nag’s Head team includes Andrew Fulton and Richard Walsh, both of whom are semi-pro and registered with the Professional Darts Corporation (not ringers: you are allowed two per team at county level or from the PDC), as well as landlord, Lee Harmston. Despite taking eight players to the final (no coach; three cars), only six are nominated for the actual game, a decision made entirely on form, although still perhaps a bit tough to take for the reserves. Even so, teamwork will be key, since the format demands they play two games of triples (three players per team throwing alternately), then three of doubles, before finishing, Ryder Cup-style, with six legs of singles, meaning that half-a-dozen legs are required to win the tie outright. Unity should not be a problem, however, as Frame says the team – dubbed “Nag’s Army” and sporting obligatory matching tops with nicknames emblazoned across the back [see below] – are best mates who socialize together away from the oché, and for whom winning would be “the best thing we’ve ever achieved”.
“We’re not going up there assuming we might go out in the first game,” he continued. “We’ve not put in all the hours of practice to think we’ll go out in the first game.”
Chris and Jonny on the oche
There will be plenty of prizes on offer in Wakefield, including a case of beer for anyone hitting a maximum 180 on the day (not easy: Frame has “twenty or thirty” in his entire life), while there is a whopping £10,000 available on Finals Day for anyone achieving the sport’s Holy Grail: a nine-dart finish. Were they to go all the way and win the entire tournament, Nag’s Army will pocket £2,500, and, intriguingly, will play an exhibition game against a team of celebrities on the main stage at the Alexander Palace prior to an evening session at the PDC World Championships in January (“duh der-der-der-der, der der der, d-d-der d-d-d-duh-der, oi oi”). That’s the big one on Sky with Taylor, van Barneveld, Whitlock et al, not the…well, glorified pub competition on BBC.
Perhaps among the celebrity team will be the novelist and pub sport aficionado, Martin Amis, for it was he, in London Fields, that wrote a hilarious and affectionate pastiche of darts – the simplest of games (by which I mean lacking in nuance, not skill), not that you’d think so if you were to tune in to the preposterously verbose rantings of its most famous (and barking mad) commentator, Sid Waddell (as a fellow émigré from the Geordie People’s Republic, you’d never hear Frame criticize a fellow Tynesider). In the novel, Amis’s utterly loathsome anti-hero, Keith Talent, a professional cheat, is working his own way through the rounds of a prestigious darts tournament where he hopes to play his hero, Kim Twemlow, author of the bible, Darts: Master the Discipline, a fictional text that singles out four key darting principles: “the address of the board,” “gracing the oché,” “sincerity of the dart,” and “clinicism”.
Anyway, should the Nag’s Head show the necessary clinicism (“scoring for show, doubles for dough,” boys!!) and throw with enough sincerity, then Frame says that his walk-on music for the final would be ‘Chelsea Dagger’ by The Fratellis, accompanied by Cheryl Cole and Su Pollard, one for each of his home cities. Given that the Nag’s Head’s address is 140 Mansfield Road (“one haaandred and foowteee”), the omens must be in their favour. And a victory would no doubt demand the sinking of more than a few doubles and trebles…
The Nag’s Head squad in full and their nicknames
Christopher ‘Dreamboat’ Frame
Andrew ‘Taz’ Fulton
Richard ‘Scarface’ Walsh
Lee ‘Ronan’ Harmston
Martin ‘Bumfluff’ Atkinson
Johnny ‘Jah-Jah’ Page
Chris ‘The Grinch’ Curtis
Ady ‘Frank’ Spencer