Evening Standard

Image courtesy of Graham Jepson

No one likes paying a tax bill and when you’ve just settled one for half a million pounds, you’re not going to feel too kindly towards the Inland Revenue.

So when I meet up with Phil Taylor, it’s no wonder he has the tax man in his sights. The 15-times world darts champion accepts that the sums he earns would be like a Lottery win for his army of fans who cheer him on up and down the country. However, Taylor still feels hard done by.

“Some people say we are a sport and some people say we aren’t,” he says. “You don’t pay tax if it becomes a pastime or a hobby. I wish darts weren’t a sport. If we’re not a sport, give me my money back. They got half a million off me last week. Yeah, I earned two million last year. This year I’ll earn at least a million. But I’m fed up with paying tax to the Government. I think the Chancellor has got enough off me now.”

Taylor’s triumph over Gary Anderson in the final of the Players’ Championship this month means another chunk of money will be going into the tax man’s coffers.

“I played Friday, Saturday, Sunday at the Doncaster Dome and won £60,000. In three nights, I earned more money than my dad earned in his whole life. It’s mad.”

Taylor will have a hard job convincing the Chancellor that darts needs a free tax pass. If anything, George Osborne might want to treat the game more like the banks. The Premier League Darts will take the world’s eight best players round the country for the next 15 weeks and has prize money of £410,000. Should Taylor win again – he has been crowned champion in five of the last six – he will pocket £125,000.

“The arenas will be very noisy, very busy,” says Taylor. “Darts is riding high, the hottest ticket in town. There aren’t many places where people can go now. The cabaret clubs have gone. There’s not many artists like there used to be when I was younger. So people come to the darts venues. It’s a dream, really.”

Taylor has lived this dream for two decades, dominating the sport like no other. He has won 70 major titles and so many others that he has lost count. In April, he will unveil his waxwork at Madame Tussauds but the 50-year-old still cannot believe it is happening.

“I pinch myself every day. When I see myself on TV, it’s like watching a film with Bruce Willis in it. You think it’s somebody else. It’s weird.”

That this is not fake modesty becomes evident. He describes how his world has changed from that time in 1976 when, as a 15-year-old, he left school in his home town of Burslem in the Potteries to become a sheet metal worker. His wages: £9 a week.

He had no thoughts of darts as a career, or even a recreation. It was a decade later, at 25, that he started playing with his father in a club league for fun. “It just took off from there. I used to beat people and was asked to play for other teams.”

The real take-off came in 1988 when Eric Bristow asked him to play at his pub, The Crafty Cockney. “I didn’t particularly like Eric,” Taylor confesses. “I thought he was a big head. I’d never met him, of course. This was based on what I had seen on the TV.”

But Taylor quickly realised the real Bristow was very different.

“To be honest, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here now because I hadn’t got any money. He sponsored me, roughly between eight and 10 thousand. He paid for my air flights, my hotel and my entry fees for trips to America, Canada, Finland, Denmark, France.”

Crucially, it wasn’t only financial help that Taylor received. “He taught me a few tricks of the trade: practise on finishing, different ways of scoring.”

Given their history it was apt that Taylor’s first appearance in the World Championships climaxed with him facing Bristow in the final.

Taylor had gone into the 1990 tournament at the Lakeside Country Club as the 125-1 outsider but stunned his mentor, beating him 6-1.

“That first world title has to be the most wonderful moment and to beat Bristow, the No1 in the world, was the ultimate,” Taylor says. “There’s not many matches I remember, but I do remember that one, remember playing really, really well. Bristow was so upset he wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after I beat him.”

The two men made up and Taylor acknowledges the impact the 53-year-old has had on the sport.

“Eric made it a television game, made it exciting, interesting. He was the Muhammad Ali of darts. Me? I’d be more the Joe Frazier, the quiet one.”

Ironically, it was Bristow who advised Taylor to be quiet. “Eric said, ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ Eric always said to me, ‘One tip: don’t be like I was.’ He had a bad time with being a bit too brass. Eric didn’t hit it off with people. He paid the price for being a pioneer.”

The contrast between them was illustrated at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards in December, when Taylor was runner-up to Tony McCoy. This was the second time he’d lost out, the first being to world equestrian champion Zara Phillips in 2006. However, his reception from the Birmingham crowd could not have been warmer.

“That is strange in our country where normally winners are frowned upon. I don’t know why I am liked. I think it’s probably because I’ve just been normal, not been flash or tried to hurt anybody. I’m not one for going out and going to nightclubs. I’d rather stay in and watch a good movie. I’m a quiet man.”

But the quiet man has had his problems. In 1999, after an exhibition match in Scotland, two women, both 23, accompanied him back to his motor home and then accused him of sexual assault. Taylor denied the charge but was found guilty and fined £2,000.

When I raise the incident, he says he can’t talk about it. “Not really, no, because I get in trouble and get back in the courts again, so I have to be careful what I say. There’s nothing I can say, really. It’s part of my life. It’s a load of rubbish. What can you do? The trouble is if I say anything I get in trouble. I can get slammed back in the courts again, so I have to . . . These people are out there. Do you know what I mean?

“You’ve got to be very, very careful of people. I don’t come from that background. I come from a simple background where you trust people.”

Could this be a price of fame, perhaps? “Yeah, probably.”

Taylor’s current fame may now extract a very different price.

The day before we met, he had been in Manchester to film Question of Sport. “I’ve travelled 350 miles north to do that programme. Left there and then it was 200 and something miles to come down to here. It tires me out now. I don’t recuperate as quick. Your eyes get tired, it’s hard to motivate yourself. Sometimes you don’t feel like practising.”

He attributes last month’s loss to Mark Webster in the quarter-finals of the World Championships to a lack of practice. “The more successful you are, the less time you get because you’re busy doing other things all the time.”

He was also not in the perfect frame of mind for the championships as his daughter, Natalie, had given birth nine weeks prematurely to baby grandson Jack. “That was a lot of time spent in hospital,” Taylor adds.

Despite his early exit, Taylor, whose dominance has been such that he has beaten three generations of darts players, can still see himself competing with a fourth generation.

“The first generation was players like John Lowe. The second lot was Dennis Priestley. The third lot was John Part and Raymond van Barneveld.”

The duels with Barneveld produced what many see as the greatest ever darts game. In the 2007 World Champions at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, the Dutchman beat Taylor 7-6 in a sudden-death 13th set.

“I should have won that last leg. I say that although, at the time when he beat me, it was like a bit of a relief for me. We’ve had some good battles. It was always billed like the top two, Tiger Woods and whoever. I enjoyed the matches against him. But Raymond’s a terrible loser, probably the worst I’ve ever seen. He’s ready to slit his wrists when he gets beaten. I’m not really a bad loser funnily enough. I don’t get hurt like that. When I lose I say, ‘Well done,’ and hold their hand up.”

Taylor feels he may be good for another five years. “I don’t really want to do much longer than that. I’ve got a few other things in the pipeline, spending a bit more time with my son, the grandkids. I’ve just bought a villa in Tenerife.”

Then he adds, in a tone which suggests he might do an Alex Ferguson-style U-turn on retirement, “When 55 comes, who knows?”

Taylor is no stranger to sudden changes. Fifteen years ago, he ditched his Crafty Potter nickname after a Sky producer trod on a CD called The Power by Snap and decided Power was a better label for Taylor.

The Power may now feel, “time is taking its toll”. His 8-2 loss to Adrian Lewis at the O2 last Thursday was his worst ever in the Premier League. But he is still the man everyone in darts fears . . . and the one who makes George Osborne happy.


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