Can Michael van Gerwen be bigger than Phil Taylor?

One need not go back far to remember a time when darting dominance was not even a matter of opinion. A new millennium brought with it a level of celebrity without precedent for athletes, but also a saliva-inducing array of talent across the individual sporting disciplines. For this was a time when Tiger Woods could sculpt David with a pitching wedge, Roger Federer could cut the holes in Swiss cheese with a tennis racquet, Rocket Ronnie O’Sullivan could perform key-hole surgery with a snooker cue and, crucially for the arrows fan, Phil The Power Taylor could thread the eye of a needle with a dart.

The Power flowed through the darting world from the early nineties to our current moment in the teenies with a surge of energy which is arguably unparalleled in modern professional sport. Following the formulation of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) in 1993 after the famous split from the British Darts Organisation (BDO), Taylor spearheaded this new brand as home to the best players of the pair with stellar performances which were at the time almost impossible to play against. Taylor’s 14 PDC World Championships were won in a period of just 19 years from 1995 to 2013, including eight in succession from 1995 to 2002. Only John Part, Raymond van Barneveld and Adrian Lewis were able to prise the trophy from Taylor’s highly skilled fingers during this run, and it was only a matter of time before Phil had his revenge. Barney may have come out the victor in the 2007 classic sudden death final at the Circus Tavern, but the Power-cut proved to be only temporary, as the repeat fixture in 2009 ended 7-1 to a reinvigorated Mr Taylor.

There is certainly an aura around The Power which will remain until the final time he slides his flights into the grooves of his darts. Andy The Viking Fordham recently stated that he didn’t get on with Taylor, and critics may say that Phil’s conduct in interviews and general demeanour reeks of arrogance. However, there is little doubt that the metaphor his fanfare laden walk-on offers – of a long-reigning and respected king in the presence of his subjects – is fitting for a man who has sustained success over a stretch of time longer than the entire career span of athletes in most other sports.

But are there holes in the Taylor narrative of unrestricted and merciless domination? If we look at the facts, throw in a little interpretation and place these alongside The Power’s recent comparative difficulties in big tournaments, can we see past the monumental shadow caused by the iconic dartist from Stoke-on-Trent and catch a flicker of sunlit glare from the bald head of a young, newly refined, hugely talented titan?

The darting faithful can now be heard singing ‘Oh Mich-ael van Ger-wen’ more often than ‘There’s only one Phil Taylor’.

This new icon is, of course, Mighty Michael van Gerwen; a Dutchman currently streaks ahead of his rivals in the world rankings and huge favourite to collect a second victory at the World Championships in January. MvG has shrugged off the frustrating inconsistencies of youth in the same vein as he did his spiky ginger hair to become one of the game’s greats at just 26 years of age. Both his ferocious style and electric charisma have also made him a favourite among the darting faithful – who can now be heard singing ‘Oh Mich-ael van Ger-wen’ more often than ‘There’s only one Phil Taylor’. Of course there are still a lot of darts to be thrown and missed in the career of The Green Machine and it is well documented that only fools make predictions, but the blistering form of the Dutchman is showing no signs of slowing. The image of MvG’s retirement with five Sid Waddell Trophies in his cabinet could be considered a conservative estimate, and any more than this would certainly spark long debates about his many merits in relation to the seemingly untouchable Prince Phillip. Should MvG achieve something like this, there is an argument to be made that could eclipse The Power.

The split in darts took place at a time where the game was in undeniable decline, and a major reason for the official division was the opinion of some players that the BDO was no longer operating in their best interests. Viewing figures and the number of top-quality players in the professional game were already significantly lower than in years gone by; made only worse now that they were split between two rival factions. The baby PDC undoubtedly had two of the game’s biggest stars in Taylor and his rival, Dennis The Menace Priestley, but the level of competition the two men faced was virtually non-existent compared to the variety and quality of present day players. This was true to such an extent that it was almost guaranteed that The Power or The Menace would win every tournament with a significant cash prize at stake, and it wasn’t long before they realised it made financial sense for the pair to split winnings down the middle. Though Rod The Prince of Style Harrington and Peter One Dart Manley upset the party for a year each in 1995 and 1999, respectively, five of the first seven PDC finals were fought between Taylor and Priestley. Taylor came out the victor in four of these, one of which was a 7-0 whitewash, and it soon became clear that he had outgrown his biggest adversary.

The prospect of winning £300,000 as World Champion in 2016 is certainly a more attractive prize than the £12,000 Phil Taylor received in 1995, and this has made genuine fame and fortune for young stars a possibility.

Once The Menace had been dealt with, Taylor was undoubtedly the best around for almost two decades. But the problem with this is the inevitable hangover from the decline in the game failing to nurture exciting young players to turn fully professional. Darts was not a sport able to flex any great financial muscle at the time, but instead offered a thin, poverty-stricken limb which could only provide sustenance for the elite few players. Most players would have at least part-time jobs as well as competing in tournaments; a necessity which of course had an effect on their ability to progress and upset the established order. Drawing Taylor in the first round of tournaments at this stage effectively meant another month of eating value beans from the can for the lesser players, and it has only been in recent years with the injection of capital into the PDC under Barry Hearn’s presidency that professional darts can compete with other sports in terms of prize money. The prospect of winning £300,000 as World Champion in 2016 is certainly a more attractive prize than the £12,000 Phil Taylor received in 1995, and this has made genuine fame and fortune for young stars a possibility.

With no one player able to push him particularly hard until van Gerwen, it can be argued that the biggest challenge of Taylor’s stint at the top was mostly one of maintenance and not of significant improvement. Wladimir Klitschko until recently went 11 years unbeaten and held three world title belts, but nobody ever compared him to Muhammad Ali because Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston, with respect, posed a much bigger challenge than David Haye or Bryant Jennings. Taylor’s defeat to Gary Anderson in last year’s world final had a feeling of great significance for Taylor’s career, as The Flying Scotsman battled back from crowd heckling and an incredible string of ‘Robin Hood’s to best the old lion unable to take advantage of the younger man’s wounds.

Van Gerwen is the biggest new talent the game has seen for some time, but he is only a drop in a pool of fresh blood. Darts has evolved from being a game that only your dad would play into a sport where talent is nurtured from childhood. Players 25 and under like Michael Bully Boy Smith and World Youth Champion Max Hopp are the future of this sport; challenging the old guard with confidence, talent and, most importantly, a love of darts. This was true to a much lesser extent in the generation immediately following the split in darts, and is why any player able to dominate the field like van Gerwen is at the moment has the right to be considered a darting great. A world title is obviously never easy to win and one can never simply write them off for any reason, but when looked at within the context of the state of the sport when they were won, perhaps 5 could indeed be better than 16.

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