Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Life as the Limestone Cowboy – Bob Anderson talks darts, javelin and Eric Bristow

Posted on 3 November 2018 by Nick Friend

“That damn horse gets more publicity than I do,” Bob Anderson chuckles. “None of it was my idea. I think horses are fabulous creatures, but there isn’t one alive that likes me. For a cowboy to say that, it’s pretty hypocritical. That horse was incredible — an ex-police hunter, 17 hands. I was far more bloody nervous than he was.”

It is quite a line; a curious snippet of a curious chat that — at various times — slips from John Wayne to Phil Taylor to an Olympic javelin career. The horse, the cowboy, the police-hunter — this is far from an archetypal darting chinwag. But then, Anderson, now 70 years old, is far from your archetypal darts player.

The horse in question arrived on the scene at the 1995 PDC World Championships, with Anderson strolling onto stage alongside the stallion at the sport’s historic Circus Tavern arena. The walk-on lasted less than a minute, with Anderson trotting nervously ahead of his equine companion.

Yet, the moment’s enduring popularity — a combination of both legend and infamy — has allowed the spectacular entrance to stand the test of time. The footage is grainy, the Tavern setup a reminder of an entirely different era; the whole episode could well have been shot on a potato — it is closer to a moving picture than high definition. Yet, few moments in the sport’s history could claim to have veered much closer to the lofty heights of viral acclaim.

As has become the norm in the age of social media amid an obsession with short-clip video, any clip — no matter its length or inconsequence — possesses a unique capacity to define its subject. Anderson laughs as he recounts the everlasting association. “I still get people coming up to me asking if I’m the guy that walked on with the horse,” he says.

“And then I get others saying: ‘Were you Bob Anderson?’ I just reply: ‘Yes, and I still am!’”

Indeed, he still is — even thirty years on from claiming his one and only world title, where he beat John Lowe in a tight final. The tale of the horse — a pièce de résistance in the Professional Darts Corporation’s early efforts to add an entertainment element to a sporting product — has, in a sense, ensured that Anderson’s is a name that remains synonymous with the sport’s new generations.

The advent of the idea came in the birth of the Limestone Cowboy, as christened by Sid Waddell. It was a nod to two major aspects of Anderson’s life; the Limestone hills of Wiltshire, where he lived at the time, and the films of John Wayne.

Though the inimitable Waddell would also describe him as ‘Wootton Bassett’s answer to Burt Reynolds’, it was Wayne who captured Anderson’s own imagination, leading to the Winchester-born athlete’s calling, complete with vaquero attire and the walk-on music, fittingly, of Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy.

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It was a distinctive appearance for a man whose route into the sport places him somewhat apart from his peers. To search for a modern-day equivalent most probably reaches Gerwyn Price, who cut short a career in professional rugby to take up the sport full-time.

Anderson’s circumstances differ most profoundly in that it would be injury that would cut short an athletic career on the brink of the 1968 Olympic Games. The Mexico City Games are, one might reasonably argue, among the Olympic movement’s most significant.

It was there — fifty years ago — that Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two black Americans, raised their black-gloved fists as they stood on the podium. It was an iconic stand for civil rights. Dick Fosbury won gold in the high jump in a performance that would bring the Fosbury flop to the world. George Foreman would win heavyweight boxing gold.

That Anderson was an elbow injury away from joining them is an intriguing thought. It is one that contravenes the stigmatic agenda still held by an albeit shrinking minority of the makeup of the darts player.

Alongside his athletics career, county cricket trials at Gloucestershire came and went, while life as a bustling centre-forward saw similar auditions at Southampton, Exeter City and Brighton and Hove Albion.

Anderson went on to enjoy a solid non-league career, playing for Woking, Lincoln United and Farnborough Town among others. Yet, darts would become his calling — first, when a slip saw his Olympic dream come crashing down, and then when a broken leg ended his football career.

There is, perhaps, an irony in that a crippling elbow injury would take Anderson from the javelin to his eventual vocation, throwing far smaller spears.

“I broke the bone while throwing a javelin for a photographer in the pouring rain,” he explains. If there isn’t resentment, there is certainly a tinge of regret in Anderson’s’ voice.

A natural sportsman, the Olympics are the holy grail, an amalgamation of all the sports and all the disciplines, all squeezed into one fortnight-long festival.

“I’m one of these people,” he laughs. Regardless of what I’m doing in sport, I have to do it to the very best of my abilities or I can’t forgive myself.

“That injury was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. I was three weeks away from representing England for the first time against the Combined Universities, when it happened.

“The late Ron Pickering and Tom McNab would come down from London once or twice a week for training — they obviously saw something in me.”

Linford Christie dedicated his 1992 gold medal to Pickering, while McNab mentored both Daley Thompson and Greg Rutherford.

“I suppose you could say I was a bit of a prospect,” Anderson says of his coaches, whose reputations highlight quite the level at which the ‘Limestone Cowboy’ was operating.

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That he would become a world champion 20 years on from his disappointment is testament to a sporting natural. Yet, if his 1988 BDO World Championship title was Anderson at the peak of his powers — he would win three consecutive World Masters titles during the same period — it is talk of captaining his country that sparks the greatest radiation in his reminiscent enthusiasm.

“Playing for England was the biggest thrill of my life,” he recalls. “Being made captain in 1992 was the pinnacle of my career. I led an England team that was a who’s who of world darts.”

Anderson is not lying. Steve Beaton, Mike Gregory, Dennis Priestley, Phil Taylor, Martin Adams, Rod Harrington, John Lowe — they are just seven of the side’s fifteen, with 25 World Championship crowns between them. Eric Bristow, struggling with dartitis at the time, did not make the cut.

“Nobody came up against us,” he laughs. “When they did, they went the way of the others.”

Sport has an unusual way of providing redemption. There are few industries more brutal, where failure is more starkly laid out, where misfortune can end a career. Yet, it also offers a light at the end of its tunnel.

For Anderson, in a sense, captaining England — the ability to represent his country once more — was it. “Captaining England was my proudest moment,” he says. “All the victories I’ve had were obviously very important and very meaningful to me, but as far as personal pride goes, leading that team out as captain was the absolute pinnacle.”

With Taylor’s retirement after his World Championship final defeat to Rob Cross last year, only Beaton still plays professionally on the PDC circuit from the team of 1992.

However, of the sixteen players who split from the BDO to set up what is now known as the PDC, Taylor’s departure signalled the end of that era. It is a time that leaves Anderson — one of the founding members — with a bittersweet palate, even a quarter of a century later.

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The sweet comes from a growth in the sport’s popularity that few could scarcely have predicted when Anderson, one of seven previous world champions, announced the split. The acrimony of what was, at the time, seen as a treacherous defection has never fully disappeared. It has for Anderson, at least in part, been replaced by an enormous sense of vindication.

“It’s still a subject that holds a considerable amount of bitterness to this day,” he confesses of a complex and rancorous period.

“The governing body at the time did its best to put me and my colleagues to the wall. It was a bitter time. I still have a dirty taste in my mouth from some of what happened. I’m glad to say they failed dismally, and I’m equally glad to say that we succeeded massively.”

Of course, in amongst the success that Anderson speaks of, it has become easy to forget that beyond the razzmatazz, an unparalleled strength in depth and the extraordinary playing levels of today, there was an era when Bristow, Lowe and Jocky Wilson were king.

“There was a real golden age of darts before what we are seeing now,” he balances.

“But I think darts has now moved with the times. I’m a founding member of the PDC and I’m very proud of that, and the standards that are now being achieved today are far outweighing the standards that we achieved. But that is a natural progression.

“The prizes are now so much greater that the donkey is going to run faster. It’s the old saying. Before I retired in 2008 when I turned 60, Barry Hearn turned to me and just said: ‘The money’s going to come just too late for you Bobby.’ That’s the story of my life! And good to his word, the boys are now earning a tremendous living.

“When I look back at why the PDC was formed, we wanted to create an avenue somewhere for those talented enough to go. And by golly, we’ve done that.

“I’m very proud to have been a part — albeit a small part — of what is now a fantastically successful venture.”

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Is he surprised by the success of a product that has seen its annual prize money skyrocket in recent years? “Not at all,” he explains. “Once it was sold in the right way, it could only go up. The fact that Barry Hearn has come in and steered the ship so brilliantly, he said he would create this incredible enhancement and he has done so.

“The boys now can hold their heads up high, knowing that they can earn a very good living in a very tough sport. They can do that now — they definitely couldn’t do it before.”

In 2006, the sport’s annual purse sat at £2 million. Twelve years on, the World Championship alone hands out a £2.5 million fund to the 96 participants.

It would be easy for Anderson to resent it — a key cog in setting the wheels in motion for what now continues to thrive.

“This is the age-old question,” he ponders. “We’d all like to be 30 years younger. Knowing what I know now, I’d love to be back in my pomp right now, but some things are impossible. You just have to look back at what you achieved with pride and enjoy what you’ve got.”

There is a certain pertinence to Anderson’s words as our chat draws to a close — the importance of enjoyment and appreciation. The darting world lost Bristow in April following a sudden heart attack. He was Anderson’s best man at his wedding to wife Sally.

He pauses for a moment as he considered the right words to eulogise his late friend.

“Eric Bristow was the first darting celebrity,” he says, his voice filled with touching emotion. “He was the one who was mentioned by anyone when you asked them for the name of a player. He still is.

“He was larger than life, was Eric. He’s sadly missed. It was a massive blow and one that came as a massive shock. It did really just serve as a reminder that we are all mortal.”

Featured photograph/ Twitter / Unicorn Darts