Neil left his native Glasgow to study an economics degree at the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 2010. Not discouraged by the experience he continued his education to a master’s level at Leipzig University in Germany, where he completed an inter-disciplinary degree in social sciences by 2012. He remained in the Eastern German city for a further two years working as a researcher for the institute he studied at, improving his German in the meantime. With stints in between times working at the Scottish and European Parliaments, he has often considered going further into politics. He has just recently returned to his native Glasgow.
I’D sat at home through enough darts matches to know the drill: its rules, its format and its customs.
I’d even searched on YouTube to gain a sense of who were these thousands of people would come to peer at the action from afar, having paid up to £25 a pop, no less.
A fair-weather, “I’ll watch if there isn’t anything else on” fan I may be, but a fan nonetheless. I’m not so much a stranger to the darts family, but the guy across the road who knows your name but never actually bothers to personally introduce himself.
So, when presented with a free ticket to an afternoon session of the best 16 players in the world, I was as much piqued with interest as compelled by a sense of duty to go.
The weekend event was over two days and split into four sessions. My berth came in the first of those four sessions – which may go some way to explaining the freebie.
The Unibet Masters was held at the tenuously named “Royal Highland Centre”, but I could detect nothing related to Her Majesty or the scenic uplands in this warehouse of a venue near Edinburgh Airport.
It had a capacity of around 1,000 people, around a third of whom had bought tickets to watch tubby men throwing little arrows at a wall for four hours.
The “spectators” (the use of inverted commas will become clear) were organised along tables facing one another, with the players on a platform well above the crowd.
With the players’ backs to the crowd, I was straining from around 30 metres to see this miniscule target. It felt like an eternity away and that was sitting just 10 seats from the front – the benches stretched 150 seats back.
Given the awful perspective, along with everyone else I made use of the two huge monitors either side of the stage which beamed the live TV coverage.
What emerged was a weirdly un-live mediated event, eyes fixated on the television coverage while the players strolled back and forth on the periphery of my vision.
The live performance I thought I’d come to witness was taking place, but I could only join in by watching the television. Just like you do at home.
I felt distinctly detached as I watched the monitors, with none of the intimacy one finds when watching live sport. The crowd followed suit in the main, although their love of darts seemed to be the love of a jolly good time more than the sport.
The long wooden tables, the carnival atmosphere and the steady stream of beer reminded me of Oktoberfest, where, just as in Munich, the audiences choose to ignore the entertainment on offer, preferring to make their own.
As an armchair viewer, you hear the commentators describing the “madness of the crowd” and the “electric atmosphere“, and one can’t help but sit back and lose yourself in their antics.
In fact, they are having a laugh amongst themselves. With the gentrification of football, darts has gone some way to taking the place of the old football terraces for atmosphere with its songs, its camaraderie and attendant humour.
One gent dressed up as a Tellytubby jumped across two tables to compliment another, who had matched him in audacity to come as The Undertaker.
Another rather large, ginger-haired man came dressed as a Queen Bee, in a skimpy little dress which exposed more than you would care to imagine.
Most memorable was a guy who made himself known to one of the players by continually shouting his name and, upon making eye contact, screaming a rude word and making a gesture that eliminated any sense of doubt as to what he meant.
This particular darts lover had a tattoo inscribed “Hope” on his neck. Whether it was intended as an ironic statement or not I didn’t dare ask.
In among the patrons there was the odd spectator taking an active interest in what we had supposedly come to see. One could spot them as being more quiet, sober and happy to remain seated.
They were the ones who had gone as far as donning replicas of the darts stars’ shirts and, during legs, demonstrating their impressive mental arithmetic by calling out the best way to a finish. I now know the best route to complete a 122 check-out: one treble 18 and a single 18 leaves a bull finish.
Taking a break from the action for a while, I ventured outside to the smokers’ bay for sunlight and, ironically, fresh air. The fans were high in spirits (no pun intended) and were not afraid to let you know.
Significantly, there was no mention of the darts in any of the conversations, and it felt more like being outside at a roaring house party rather than any sports event.
Scottish rugby legend Gavin Hastings walked slowly by, looking as if expecting to be greeted with a pleasantry. None was forthcoming. It said something about the distance between your average darts and rugby crowds.
When I returned to the action, I decided to take closer order. I stretched my arm over the barrier for a high-five during the walk-ins for the likes of the “The King”, “The Hurrricane” and “The Wizard of Oz”. I’m afraid it was less than stimulating.
I had come to the conclusion by then that darts is one of the rare sports which adds nothing by being in attendance. When you must rely on monitors rather than the naked eye, there is a feeling of being short-changed.
Darts organisers are fully aware of their real audience, those in their living rooms. The elevation of the stage allows for a background shot of the many spectators when the players are throwing; the placement of microphones in the crowd gives the impression of a noise level much louder than reality; the roaming cameras capture close-ups of “darts mad” fans; and the repetitive assertions of the commentators of an “incredible atmosphere” serve to provide the best possible product for the television audience.
As a live spectator, I felt somewhat undervalued given the build-up I had been given in the commentators’ box, even as a non-paying attendee.
On every table there were betting slips encouraging me to place a wager with the main sponsors. It was also possible to buy a t-shirt declaring “Stand Up If You Love The Darts”, which must have come as a bitter irony for the lads who were given a “final warning” for standing up too often, despite not blocking anyone’s (non-existent) view.
I, too, perpetrated this crime on one occasion, which led a steely-faced man with an earpiece to prod me in the direction of my seat with the stern recommendation to “move it”.
The number of dark-suited security guards with no hair and even less personality had me thinking there was a risk of some form of riot kicking off, for what reason my imagination can still not fathom.
Does having attended my first ever darts match make me more of a fair-weather fan? Possibly so, but I think I prefer it as a fair-weather fan and don’t have any plans to change that.
As I filtered out after the afternoon action, a group of mates were planning what to do in between then and the beginning of the evening session. One guy piped up: “More of the same boys. Let’s get oan it.”
At least they knew why they were there.