As Ian White prepares for his 2019 PDC World Darts Championship entrance, he does so as Stoke’s number one player. To the untrained eye, it is an insignificant statistic – the home to the pottery industry and close to 270,000 residents.
Ultimately, however, it is a nod to the enduring brilliance of Phil Taylor. Yet, even beyond the supremacy of one of the city’s most famous sons, the Potteries have become – if not a breeding ground for the sport’s top players – then certainly an unlikely stronghold.
Between 1994 and 2015, a Stoke-on-Trent player managed to reach the final of the PDC World Championship on all but two occasions.
Between Taylor, Adrian Lewis, Ted Hankey and the late Eric Bristow – an adopted member of Staffordshire’s darting circle of dominance, they hold 25 world titles across the PDC and BDO codes in the last 38 years alone. Andy Hamilton, too, is a world runner-up, losing to Lewis in an all-Stoke final in 2012.Embed from Getty Images
For White, who was previously based in Runcorn during his days as an aluminium factory worker, much of the city’s success can be traced back to the enthusiasm for the sport at its amateur levels.
“The local leagues around Stoke are very strong at the moment,” he explains.
“It is a working-class town as well, so a lot of it is darts and dominoes. It means that what you play on a Tuesday night and then on a Thursday is the same standard. It is really high – a few years ago, I’d be playing Andy Hamilton before I got into the World Championships in a local league. “The whole pub would stop to come and watch.
“I think what Phil and Eric Bristow have done means that people do look up to them and to us.
“Even young kids now who are coming through will look up to them as well as the likes of Michael van Gerwen. But when they see us Stoke lads, it does just make these kids want to play darts, which is a really good thing for the local area.”
If there is a burden on White to enhance an already intrinsic link between the world championship title and the West Midlands, it is one that he has not yet felt. It would be out of character for one of the sport’s real personalities, a man in his element both with dart in hand and as a natural entertainer.
“There’s no pressure,” he insists of his role as the bearer of Stoke’s premier tag. Indeed, Lewis, who White credits with much of his PDC career, sits just five places behind White at 16th in the body’s Order of Merit rankings. A back-to-back world champion, he is a man on the rise again after a couple of difficult years.
“Everyone gives me a lot of support,” White says of his adopted hometown. “Of course, they would love the title to come back to Stoke, but over the years they’ve had Phil and they’ve had Adrian, and now they’ve got Andy Hamilton coming back as well on the BDO circuit.
“It is nice that the town – whether you win it or not – continues to show us a lot of support. It is great.”
In 2015, Taylor described White as ‘the best player I practice with’, tipping him to become a multiple tournament winner. Since then, the world number eleven has remained consistent, without taking the crucial final step. He has reached the quarter-finals of the World Championship, World Matchplay, World Grand Prix, UK Open and Players Championship Finals.Embed from Getty Images
The next step, he explains, is locating a level of consistency to give Stoke its next serial winner. Quite what has prevented ‘The Diamond’ from making that move, though, remains a mystery.
“If I knew the answer I would make a fortune,” he jokes. “I think each day is different with your darts. You’re up there on your own – if anything goes wrong, it is only you that can fix it and ultimately, it’s only you that’s making it go wrong.
“It’s not like a game of football where you have a load of teammates. If you’re having a bad game when you have ten other players, you can hide it.
“With a dart player, it’s a struggle. You’re on your own, so it is just a case of different days. You can get up one day and feel great, but then get up the next and not feel too good.”
In November, the 48-year-old arrived at the Players Championship Finals as the top seed, averaging 111 in his first-round game. 24 hours later, he was out, averaging just 85 against Brendan Dolan. It is a discrepancy, he admits, that has left him baffled.
Yet at the same time, White’s frustration is a marker of how far he has come in a career that, for a long time, was compromised by a full-time factory job.
“I used to work shifts and then spend the night going off to a local tournament,” he recalls.
“I used to miss work many times for my darts, but now the PDC has allowed us to make a decent living out of it, and you don’t have to be winning the big majors. You can take piece of the prize money from different events and make a good living out of it.”
It is a far cry from his previous existence and one that has left him both pinching himself and determined to maximise his enjoyment of a life that even a decade ago, may not have seemed a realistic possibility.
“We all respect Barry Hearn for what he’s done for us,” he says. “He has given us this opportunity with all the sponsorships and the big tournaments.
“It is up to us to take that chance. We have to get up there and take what we can – it is magnificent now being part of a sport that is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. How big it can eventually get we don’t know.”Embed from Getty Images
And as the sport continues to grow, so too does ‘Brand White’. His Twitter following has passed the 23,000 mark through a combination of carpool karaoke displays and eccentric tweets, while his trademark dab celebration culminated in a spoof edited video of White dabbing alongside Paul Pogba.
“At the end of the day, I’m just quite a funny person,” he says.
“My step-daughter dared me to do this dab. She told me that it was a dance move and I started doing it at a fiftieth birthday party. She just said: ‘I dare you to do it on-stage at the Grand Prix.’ I went and did it and when I came home, she just said: ‘I can’t believe you’ve gone and done that.’
“But she had dared me to do it, so that’s what I did. Now, everyone calls it the diamond dab.”
It is a curious topic of discussion, but it is one that White takes seriously in his role ass one of the sport’s top players and, thus, one of its ambassadors. “I like to try and give people what they want to see,” he acknowledges.
We are talking between tournaments; before the golden apple of the World Championship, and after a chaotic few weeks for the sport, with both ‘Fartgate’ and Gerwyn Price’s controversial Grand Slam victory having made greater mainstream headlines than the sport normally garners beyond the gravitational field of Alexandra Palace.
If the former was a bizarre episode over a mysterious stench laughed off in all corners, Price’s perceived aggression in his maiden major title win over Gary Anderson has proven a more delicate talking point.
From White’s perspective, quite simply, it is not an approach that he can fathom.
“It’s not me, it’s not Gary Anderson or Barney. We just get on with the game.
“It is very hard, but at the end of the day, it is just the way that things are going at the moment. Personally, I think it’s getting out of hand, but that’s up to the people at the PDC to sort out.
“But if they want that, then that’s what we’re going to get. But that’s just my opinion. In the 1980s and 1990s, people celebrated and stuff but they just got on with the game.
“It is just a different personality to what I’m used to and to what Gary Anderson is used to. Every individual has got their own opinion.
“It is very hard to play against it and to focus, but you do just have to get on with it. Gerwyn Price won the title and he has got it forever now, so it’s up to him. Good luck to him.
“He got booed at the end – I think because of the way he won it. If he had played his normal way and done it fair and square in a way that we were brought up on, he would have got a very different response. He thrives on it though, so it is up to him. There’s not much I can really say about it.”
White, though, is unlikely to be affected. With two of the world’s top ten having already fallen, a good run would raise hopes of a Premier League debut for the latest star off Stoke’s unrivalled production line.
Featured photograph: Twitter / Dunvegan Enterprises