Chris Dobey had never seriously thrown a dart until eight years ago. His sport – when he had a spare moment – was football. Bornin Bedlington, a former mining town north of Newcastle, the game was in his blood, as were the black and white stripes of the region’s famous side.
By his own admission, he competed at a decent level as he grew up, turning out in the Northern Football Alliance leagues each week – a couple of tiers below the Northern Premier League.
However, Dobey is solid proof of darts’capacity to change lives. He gave up football – and his job – to dedicate himself to darts. Before joining life on the tour, the 28-year-old worked in traffic management, laying out cones in preparation for roadworks.
It is a far cry from his new existence, ranked inside the world’s top forty as he heads into the biggest fortnight of the sport’s year. This time, of course, with an expanded 92-competitor field and a record-breaking £2.5 million in prize money available, it is – in both sheer size and value – the most significant competition in the PDC’s history.Embed from Getty Images
And as Dobey mulls over his own personal pride ahead his third appearance at the flagship tournament, it is difficult to do so without a nod to a previous career that could scarcely have been more different.
“It was a very tough job,” he reflected. “There was a lot of plodding on. I have to appreciate what I have now because of what I was doing before.
“When I was working on the roads, some of the weather we worked in was terrible. And then on top of that, rotating from 12-hour night shifts does really kill all your routine. Trying to fit in three hours of practice after a shift is very hard. It was for the best that I stopped to focus on my darts.”
Indeed, as Dobey prepares for a first-round tie with Russia’s Boris Koltsov, it is hard to argue with his assessment. On the PDC Order of Merit, Dobey has made £115,000 in prize money alone, a statistic that – eight years after picking up his first dart – only seeks to highlight what the sport offers in terms of both accessibility and opportunity.
In Koltsov, however, Dobey faces an experience entirely different to that which he saw twelvemonths ago. “He’s a good player,” he said of the Russian. “He’s not here for nothing.”
Last year, though, drawn against Phil Taylor in the 16-time world champion’s final tournament as a professional darts player, he admitted that the situation was difficult to come to terms with.Embed from Getty Images
“It was weird knowing that I could be the last person to ever play him,” he confessed. “I could have been the answer to a quiz question in years to come.
“It put a lot of pressure on myself, but I knew that I had to avoid listening to that and just to focus on my game. For some reason, on the night it just didn’t click – as I say, it was unfortunate but it’s something I have to put right this year.”
A 3-1 defeat to the sport’s most famous face perhaps fails to tell the full story. Dobey recalls crucial darts missed at doubles at key times in the match. Yet at the same time, he is quick to acknowledge that even sharing the oche with Taylor in what could have been his last game remains a privilege to cling onto.
“It was a really good experience, but also a bad one at the same time,” he looked back. “It’s not nice to lose on the big stage, but to play Phil at his last World Championships was a special moment for me because you knew going up there that you were never going to have the opportunity to play him again.
“It was great to play him but, to be honest, I left the stage fairly gutted really. I missed two crucial darts and I never started the game as well as I should have done. I probably got into the match a bit too late sadly. I learnt so much from that game, which should hopefully prepare me better going into it this year.”
For all Dobey’s disappointment, it was a defeat that came with a silver lining; ‘the future of darts’ was the compliment bestowed by Taylor onto his young shoulders as the eventual runner-up spoke after his first-round victory.
“It was nice to hear Phil say something like that,” he admitted. “I do feel like there is quite a lot on my shoulders, with everyone saying that Phil Taylor said this or that about you, but I know and I believe in my own ability and I’m fully aware of what I can do.”
Nevertheless, he is aware that it is a tag that comes with a certain pressure, with the sport’s top echelons increasingly awash with burgeoning talent. For one, his own Dunvegan Enterprises stablemate Michael Smith is four months younger than Dobey.Embed from Getty Images
Yet, a relative newcomer to the sport, as Dobey pointed out, it is difficult to compare him by age to his peers.
“I am a bit of a latecomer in that I have only been playing on the tour for four years and I have only been playing the sport at all for eight years. If you look at it that way, I am doing quite well for someone that is only eight years in. I can’t complain about where I am at.
“Michael Smith has been playing since he was about 12 and has had a lot of experience in a lot more tournaments than I do. I never played youth darts in my life. I have come in and gone straight into the deep end and have mixed it with the likes of Gary Anderson, Michael van Gerwen and Raymond van Barneveld.
“The first year on tour, it was hard not to just think: ‘Wow, I’m standing in a room with all of these guys.’ It is crazy to see what I’m doing now.
“I haven’t done too badly. I took a few scalps in my first year – I beat Van Barneveld. That was a real high. And then it clicked a bit more in my second year and that is really what has kept me on the tour. As long as you have got a tour card,you have always got a chance.”
And as Dobey arrives in London, he does so in good form, having reached the quarter-finals of last month’s Players Championships.
As our conversation came to a close, he reflected on Rob Cross, the current world champion and a man whose journey into the sport has followed a similarly unusual pathway.
“His story does give me a lot of confidence,” Dobey said. “It has given me a belief in myself from having just seen what happened to him.”
Featured photograph: Twitter / Chris Dobey