‘You sacrifice your life for it,” Phil Taylor says on a gloomy late afternoon in Stoke.
The last grey streaks of light are fading as the greatest darts player in history sighs and considers the personal cost of creating a legacy built on a record 16 world titles. The latest world championship starts on Thursday and Taylor shrugs. “These players on TV now have got a lot to thank me for. Without me they wouldn’t be there. But my time is coming to an end.”
Taylor seems introspective and weary – without much of his old cheek and sparkle. But this is the man who, beyond his extraordinary capacity to win final after final, year after year, dragged darts out of cramped pubs into huge arenas around the world filled with thousands of singing fans, gleaming television lights and prize money piled in the millions. Is the scale of his achievement, and all it took to create, in danger of being forgotten?
“Of course it’s forgotten,” Taylor says. “Players now don’t have that dedication. They can’t have. You can’t know the dedication it takes to win 16 world titles until you do it yourself. I didn’t know what John Lowe had to do before me. I respected him because that’s how I was brought up – but I respect him more now that I’ve done it myself.”
Lowe won three world titles but, strikingly, each was in a different decade – 1979, 1987 and 1993. Taylor has also been world champion in three separate decades, winning his first title in 1990 and his 16th in 2013, and his prize money alone amounts to more than £7m. But he looks quizzical when I ask if he feels any connection with players on the current circuit.
“That’s a strange question,” Taylor murmurs. “I like them, don’t get me wrong. A few are arrogant and I don’t want anything to do with them. But most are all right. But they’re a different generation. They talk about things and I’m like: ‘What are you on about? Instagram? Snapchat?’”
Taylor’s face scrunches up in confusion. “They say to me: ‘Are you on Snapchat?’ I look at them and say: ‘Are we talking to crocodiles now? I haven’t a clue what you’re going on about.’ They’re surprised: ‘Are you really not on Snapchat?’ I say: ‘No! I’m 56 years old. I’ve survived without Snapchat.’”
At least there’s good old Twitter – where Taylor has more than 311,000 followers and, on his profile page, a pinned tweet which, slightly coyly, says: “I am now on Instagram, guess I need some followers. Come join me.” Taylor snorts cheerfully. “I never go on Twitter or Facebook. Bob does it for me.”
Bob Glenn, Taylor’s burly personal assistant, smiles. “We’re all right, aren’t we, Bob?” Taylor says. “We don’t get too many idiots … just the odd one.”
The death of Taylor’s mother and a costly divorce from his wife, Yvonne, after 23 years, have taken their toll. In the world championship last year he lost against Jelle Klaasen and said: “I’m not mentally right. But I’ve got over this year now. I’m getting divorced in February .”
He nods when I remind of his mood after that defeat. “I’m a lot better this year. A lot stronger mentally. My mother dying last year was a big thing. It took me a long time to get over that. The day of her funeral was the worst day of my life and I had to play darts that night. Looking back it was probably a good thing, or I would have been sitting at home crying my eyes out. I would say: ‘I’m off to Australia now, Mum,’ and she’d say: ‘That’s all right. You get your job done and I’ll see you when you’re back.’ That’s how me mother was.”
Taylor still seems wounded to have lost his mother – and his father almost 20 years ago. “My dad was only 57 when he died. That’s one of the things that makes me worried. You never know what’s around the corner. I don’t want to go at 57 and not having done anything but played darts.”
Was his dad’s death a shock? “It was, really. He was never ill. But then neither am I. He had cancer and was gone in six months. I was about 38 so my dad had seen me win loads but he was tough. When I was a kid he’d say: ‘You go out there and bloody earn your living.’ I left school on the Friday and started working on the Monday [making ceramic toilet-roll handles]. That was the way I was brought up. And my wage packet had to be closed. You couldn’t undo it. My mother would say: ‘You’ve undone it. What have you taken?’ All the money had to be there. I was earning, in them days, about £12 a week and that was Saturdays as well. Six days a week for £12. And I got 50p pocket money. I was 15-and-a-half.”
Taylor shakes his head. “But life is a lot harder for kids now and it’s going to get tougher. And the lack of respect is going to get worse. I think it’s terrible what’s going on. The way kids talk to their parents, and telling old people to F-off. My mother said: ‘Philip, I’m glad it’s coming to an end for me because I don’t like the world any more. I’d hate to be young again.’ I would say then: ‘Don’t be daft.’ That was 30 years ago but now I understand what she meant. When I was a kid you could say I want to become an electrician or a plumber and you could find a job. Ask any kid now what they’re going to do when they leave school and they haven’t got a clue. And back then if you wanted something you saved up to buy it. My mum and dad would say: ‘You want it, save up. Or get an old one.’ Life was more innocent. You had everything to look forward to. But youngsters today have nothing to look forward to. They’ve got cars, colour TVs, phones, iPads and everything.
“I go into town and see kids of six carrying £600 phones. It’s not right. You go on aeroplanes and they have iPads worth a thousand pounds. What have they got to look forward to? The simple things have gone. It’s rare to see kids playing football in the street. We always used to meet up, around 30 of us, and play football. Brilliant. We played all day and came in absolutely fucking starving: ‘Mother, what’s for dinner?’ Six rounds of bread-and-butter and chips.”
Taylor chuckles nostalgically. But his affection for the past is framed by his bemusement with modern life. Does he have any hope the world will become a better place? “Something will turn up. I don’t know whether Donald Trump will sort the world out. Something’s got to happen – or there will be a civil war.” Was he surprised by the US election? “I said to Bob: ‘I think he’s going to win even if it was 60-40 to Hillary [Clinton]. I did think he’d get in.”
Is he saying Trump’s election is a positive outcome? “I don’t know whether he’ll be good, bad or indifferent. We get all these politicians voted in and nothing seems to happen. They make all these promises. We’ll see what happens with Donald Trump.”
Taylor, more personally, has already adjusted to the legal ruling which meant he had to pay about half of his fortune to his ex-wife. “That’s life. It was about £3.5m all told. The judge said she was there from the beginning. So you accept it. I don’t begrudge her.”
How is his relationship with his wife now? “I haven’t seen her as I don’t think she’s in the area any more. She might be in Tenerife. It’s only money. My kids and grandkids are healthy and that’s all that matters. People think that being rich is all about having money. But the times I’ve had the most money is when I’ve been unhappiest. Money brings jealousy and bitterness.”
I try to inject a more upbeat mood by asking if Taylor still feels the old world championship tingle with the tournament only days away? “I am this year, more than ever. It’s coming to an end for me, now, so yeah. I’ve had about two weeks to get ready which is unusual but I’m scaling down my schedule 100%. I can’t keep this up at my age.”
How many nights has Taylor been away this year? “It’s easier to count the nights at home. Sixty or 70 at home the entire year. I’ve been around the world twice lately. The appeal is not there any more. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed it. But I’m getting to be an old feller. I’ll keep playing – just much less. My kids grew up without me really and my seven grandkids are getting older. One is almost 15. I want to spend time with them – and I want to go on holiday. I’ve not had a holiday in 20 years. I want to go to Italy and see Rome and Sicily. I’ve never been. I want to go to Greece because I’ve never been there either and I’m going to Malta. I’m going to them three next year.”
The world championships come first and Taylor will play the winner of a preliminary round between John Bowles and David Platt. “That’s a good little first round. Dave is from the West Midlands but emigrated to Perth. Good player, nice guy. John Bowles is an ex-rugby league player.”
Has Taylor ever lost in the first round of the worlds? “No! Shut your gob.”
He grins when I point out that, in the next round, he is likely to play Kevin Painter – whom he beat in an epic world championship final in 2004. “I’ve had some good games with Kevin. But you know more about the draw than I do. I haven’t got a clue. Bob just tells me who I’m playing next. That’ll do me. I concentrate on the game in front of me.”
Taylor looks more animated now. “I’d love to play proper in the worlds. Go there prepared, rested, and click.”
The favourite is Michael van Gerwen – followed by Gary Anderson who has been world champion the past two years. Taylor twice beat Van Gerwen, the world No1, convincingly in Cardiff in the Champions League of Darts less than three months ago. “I can still perform when it counts. Cardiff was one of them weekends when it all clicked. Players know if I go in there and I’ve got myself ready they’re in for a battle.”
Taylor looks at the black sky outside and, briefly, allows himself to anticipate the unlikely but giddy prospect of rolling back the years and winning one last world championship. “A 17th world title would be the icing on the cake. It would be the sweetest one of all. I would love it. So I need to rest and eat healthy. Go to bed nice and early because you’re playing catch up when you’re my age. But I’ll give it a right good go one more time.”
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