Perhaps it was only right that, with Christmas just around the corner, the ultimate pantomime villain of darts was front and centre on the PDC world championship’s return to normality. The event last year was very much darts, but not as we knew it; yes, there were stories and moments we will never forget, and try telling Gerwyn Price that the manner of his first world title was any less meaningful in the absence of a crowd.
Price knows that darts, more than any other sport, thrives from the energy a live crowd can bring. They came in their thousands here in all manner of fancy dress: jockeys, Bavarians, cowboys and even a Homer Simpson or two. They were here for a pre-Christmas party, but after the peculiarity of last year’s tournament they were also here to remind us what normality felt like.
As the prime minister spent another day trying to get to grips with Covid-19, for 3,500 lager-fuelled darts fans inside Alexandra Palace the biggest party on the sporting calendar felt like the kind of great escape we have all craved over these past two years.
The players played their part too, not least Ricky Evans. The opening night had somewhat stuttered its way into life with Ritchie Edhouse’s victory against Peter Hudson, but by the time the world No 38 was dancing on to the stage to the strains of YMCA by the Village People before his clash with India’s Nitin Kumar, the Palace – and the tournament – felt like it had sparked back to life.
Evans wasted little time in dispatching Kumar in straight sets, but if the hors d’oeuvre to the evening’s entertainment was a party the first of the two main courses were anything but, particularly for Adrian Lewis. The two-times champion of the world has tumbled down the rankings in the pandemic era to such an extent that for the first time here, he entered as an unseeded player.
Such is the money at stake in this event, careers can change with one result, for better or worse. Lewis entered this event as the provisional world No 38: a prospect that would have been unthinkable when he was contesting the final against Gary Anderson just six years ago.
So as the decibel levels in the crowd began to rise in correspondence with the alcohol that had been consumed and Lewis went a set behind against the Canadian Matt Campbell, you wondered whether we had an upset on our hands on the opening night. But Lewis rallied, prevailed 3-1 and set up a second-round tie with the man who beat him in the 2016 final, Anderson. That will be some clash. “Bring it on,” Lewis said with a smile.
Then, the main event. Price has spoken of his desire to win this event with a crowd in attendance after last year’s triumph in an empty arena, but he may have reconsidered that as his walk-on music was drowned out by booing as the defence of his title began against Edhouse. That noise was only superseded by the roars as Edhouse, the world No 80 going into the tournament, took the opening set in consecutive legs.
“Edhouse till I die” was the somewhat inebriated chant at one point as those in attendance began to dream of a monumental upset, but one thing we know about Price is that he cares little for theatrics like that. The Welshman motored through the gears after going a set behind and despite a couple of minor scares, he prevailed. Fallon Sherrock could yet await if she progresses to round three. “I hope the rules change again,” Price said later with a laugh when asked about the crowd’s presence.
The final double was met with a trademark roar from Price, and even a smattering of applause from the crowd, who could perhaps appreciate how the champion – much like Lewis before him – responded to the adversity thrown his way on the opening night. That is what champions do.
We will hear that bellowing Welsh roar again as the tournament progresses: we can only hope we hear the same roar from the crowd all the way through to the final on 3 January, too.