August 2011 edition
The First World Champion
The first ever world championship of darts set the stamp for all future tournaments, and made many of its participants into household names. But as Roy Delaney discovers, its venue wasn’t as familiar as you might think
Ask the question: ‘Where were the first World Darts Championship finals held?’, a lot of people will immediately pipe up with: ‘Why, The Lakeside, of course’. A few smarter types might think for a bit and tell you: ‘Jollees in Stoke!’. The odd clever-clogs might even suggest it was The Circus Tavern in Purfleet. But all bar the most obsessive minds in darting trivia would be able to tell you the real answer. ‘The Heart of the Midlands Club? In Nottingham? Are you sure?’ But it was here that the game’s great and good gathered together to decide once and for all who the best player in the world. And it changed the game forever from the very first match onwards.
The spark for the tournament came when snooker promoter Mike Watterson had noticed parallels in the massive explosion in darts with his own sport, and coaxed the sponsor of the World Snooker Championships, Imperial Tobacco, to cover both events under their Embassy brand. He claims to have come up with the idea while he was sitting in the barber’s chair.
At the same time, the BDO, in its fifth year, was looking to create a landmark tournament to go alongside the World Cup and the World Masters. Once they got the BBC on board, all the ingredients were set to create a tournament that would go on to find the very first world champion of darts.
So it was that on 6 February 1978, sixteen of the world’s best players came together at The Heart Of The Midlands, a hefty cabaret club in the centre of Nottingham, all ready to battle it out for the £3000 purse, but more importantly, to be the first name on that now-famous trophy.
Hot favourite for the title and number one seed was a confident 20-year-old called Eric Bristow. The Crafty Cockney had been making a name for himself in the televised tournaments of the day - as much for his gift of the gab as for his unique and deadly throw. The young pretender was king all bar the crowning, so what better way to launch your brand new tournament than with a showcase match showing off the probable winner. That was the plan at least. But as we all know, darts is a game that takes such plans and rips them to bits. Surely a surprise couldn’t be on the cards?
Bristow was up against the unfancied American Conrad Daniels. The game on the other side of the pond was at its peak, with many top players heading over for the big tournaments - despite that, few thought Daniels would even take a leg out of the rising star. But those who’d seen him win Yorkshire TV’s Indoor League tournament a couple of years before knew that his darts packed a terrific punch, and the quiet man from New Jersey rode out an easy 6-3 winner (this inaugural contest was, incidentally, the only year the world championships were played in the match play leg format).
Little more than an hour into the tournament and the number one attraction had already been knocked out. Bristow was supposed to herald an new era in the world of darts. Young, brash and comparatively good-looking for the game, many feared the interest in the contest would wane in light of his absence. They needn’t have worried.
The rest of the first round saw some fantastic play. Second and third seeds John Lowe and Leighton Rees looked dangerous and made light work of their opponents, the two Alans - Evans and Glazier - fought out a ding-dong battle that saw the Welshman ride out the 6-4 victor, while an all-Swedish affair saw Stefan Lord (who’d go on to win the New of the World later that year) edge countryman Kenth Ohlsson 6-3. The only other surprise came in the battle of the Browns, where Aussie Tim took out the English eighth seed Tony in a cracker of a match.
With only 16 players taking part, the third day saw all four quarter-finals take place. This stage also saw the start of an innovation that has stayed with all major darts coverage to this day. Viewers had been complaining that they couldn’t keep up with the matches, so the familiar split-screen system of showing both the player and the board was piloted by the BBC, to great and lasting success.
The very first match to be played using it was an all-American clash between Daniels and Thai-born Nick Virachkul. But the man who knocked out Bristow couldn’t keep up the pace and Virachkul rode out winner 6-4. The second game saw an unofficial Welsh championship play off as Leighton Rees locked horns with the unpredictable Alan Evans. In an eventful match that saw some powerhouse scoring, Rees won 6-3. In the bottom half of the draw, Stefan Lord bested the fourth seed, Scotsman Rab Smith, while Old Stoneface made light work of Tim Brown to complete the semi-finals.
Day four and we were at the business end of the tournament. The matches were bumped up to best of 15 legs, and the evening would also see a play-off for third place. The first semi-final proved one of the best of the whole tournament, and the first it its history to go all the way. Nick Virachkul put up one heck of a fight, but the genial Welshman was just too strong for him, and edged the match 8-7.
The second semi though was an entirely different matter, as Stefan Lord did little to trouble John Lowe, who won comfortably by a score of 8-4. Lord’s poor luck today continued when Virachkul shaded him to take the £1000 cheque for third place.
So this was it. The match to decide the very first world champion would be England versus Wales. Lowe versus Rees. Lowe, of course, was by now the big favourite. He’d only lost six legs on his march to the final, and four of them were against Stefan Lord. Rees, on the other hand, had been in a couple of big, punishing battles against Evans and Virachkul, and few thought that the big man would have the stamina for one last push to the title, as the trophy match been had bumped up to a hefty best of 21 legs. But somehow the man from Ynysybwl in the Rhondda Valley found the strength and punished Lowe in the final rubber, beating him 11-7 to take the title and become the very first king of all world darts.
It was a perfect start to a tournament that would go on to become one of the best loved events in British sport. Sadly though, the poor old Heart of the Midlands club wasn’t deemed quite up to scratch for the second running of this ambitious tournament, and it would move the short journey down the A52 to Jollees in Stoke, where it would stay until 1985. But the club would live on to have more glories, although under a completely different guise. Inside two years it had become Rock City, and to this day it remains one of the best-loved venues on the British rock circuit. But few of those gig goers will know about the massive history the grand old place had in the history of world darts.
Venue: Heart of the Midlands Club, Nottingham
Date: 6-10 February, 1978
Prize Fund: £10,500
Winners Purse: £3000
1 - Eric Bristow
2 - John Lowe
3 - Leighton Rees
4 - Rab Smith
5 - Alan Evans
6 - Stefan Lord
7 - Nicky Virachkul
8 - Tony Brown
1 Eric Bristow v Conrad Daniels - First round
The shock of the tournament and a fitting way to start the long and tempestuous history of the championship. Some thought The Crafty Cockney only had to turn up to win the title. However, New Jersey native Conrad Daniels was no mug and beat the heir-apparent by a comfortable six legs to three.
2 Alan Evans v Leighton Rees - Quarter-final
The first great match of the world championships was a barnstormer from start to finish. Evans came out of the blocks flying, hitting a 180 with his first three darts, and taking the leg in a very respectable 13 throws. However Rees soon shifted up a gear, and won the sixth leg with the first ever televised 10-dart finish. This knocked the stuffing out of Evans, and big Leighton sailed through the remaining legs with ease.
3 Rab Smith v Stefan Lord - Quarter-final
Despite being little remembered these days, Smith was in the form of his life in 1978. The previous year he’d won the British Matchplay, beating Eric Bristow in the final, and a string of other big wins under his belt, so his fourth seeding was well deserved. But the quiet young Swede surprised many in a display of power darts that took him to the semi-final with ease.
4 Nicky Virachkul v Leighton Rees - Semi-final
In a terrific tussle, this pair duked it out toe-to-toe in the only match of the whole competition to go to a deciding leg. In a baking hot Heart of the Midlands Club there was concern that Rees wouldn’t be as comfortable with the heat as the Thai-born Virachkul. But he held out and shaded the match by a single leg.
5 Leighton Rees v John Lowe - Final
Lowe’s journey to the final seemed like a gentle stroll in the park compared to the two punishing battles Rees had undergone in his matches with Evans and Virachkul. So the Derbyshire star was the hot favourite take the title. But the Welshman was in top form, and had reserves of stamina that no one had expected, and in the end became the first world champion in history with a convincing 7-3 win.