Priestley is battling on as darts reaches new heights

Phil Taylor's second place at the Sports Personality of the Year took many by surprise, but for Yorkshire player, Dennis Priestley, it is a sign of the times. Nick Westby reports.

THE Menace may be losing a little of his bite, but the Power is peaking.

The Bull has raged into the second round at the Ally Pally while Darth Maple has already packed up his tungsten and taken the first spaceship home.

Yes, this is the weird and wonderful world of darts; a famous pub game now leading the way in sports entertainment.

Phil 'The Power' Taylor's second-place finish at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday merely highlights its popularity and how far darts has travelled into the nation's sporting psyche.

No longer the reserve of the stocky, working class bloke with a pint in one hand and an arrow in the other, darts is booming.

The competitors may still be predominently from the same social background, but fans of all standings will pour into London's Alexandra Palace over the next two weeks for the PDC World Championships – for which Taylor is favourite to land a 16th title.

And when they tuck their arrows away, the BDO World Championship at the Lakeside begins.

Never the twain shall meet, but the rivalry between the sport's two organisations ensures darts is never off the telly over the festive period.

Nor does it ever really leave the schedulings thanks mainly to Sky Sports, which has hastened the progression of darts by defying logic to combine glitz and glamour with a night at the pub, and making an icon of silver-tongued commentator Sid Waddell. Even Stephen Fry has had a stint behind the mic, such is the game's appeal.

Packed arenas and City Halls – from Sheffield to the Batley Frontier – bounce to the tune of Planet Funk's Chase the Sun in a sport where audience participation is one of the big draws.

Darts even has its own Premier League, a lucrative format for the sport's top bracket that three years ago opened its doors to South Yorkshire's own Dennis Priestley, the aforementioned Menace, who has experienced his fair share of ups and downs in 20 years at the oche.

Twice a world champion – his titles came in both the BDO in 91 and the PDC in 94 – the Mexborough Menace went toe-to-toe with Taylor in the Nineties before launching a renaissance in the last decade that was checked only by cancer.

Now 60, he begins his quest for a third world title tonight against unseeded Bernd Roith of Germany, still confident he has a role to play in the continuing rebirth of darts.

"Phil's achievement on Sunday didn't take me by surprise; there's a lot of darts players out there and a lot of fans who will have picked up the phone," said Priestley, who remains one of Taylor's closest friends.

"It's a very special time for the sport – it has helped us all financially, even for a bit-part player like myself and it's great to still be involved.

"I've always felt that I was slightly unlucky in two respects. I didn't start early enough and so missed the boom in the Eighties and I'm now too old to catch the current boom.

"I was determined to get into the Premier League and I did that. I need aims and goals at this stage of my career."

Priestley is in need of a third wind, for there is no doubt his resurgance was checked when he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2007. Bravely, he was back at the oche within months and says the cancer is now 'under control', though the victories and appearances in the latter stages of televised events have been fewer.

"If I play my A game for six games I've got a chance at the world championship, but at my age I don't know when my A game is going to be there," said Priestley, who predicts Scott Waites, the Halifax bricklayer who shocked the sport by winning the recent Grand Slam, will soon leave the BDO for the PDC.

"I can be brilliant one day, rubbish the next. The consistency seems to have left me."

For the broader picture, darts has to be careful it does not get too big too quickly on the back of increased exposure.

The atmosphere at the main events borders on boisterous, with a host of players, Taylor included, stressing their concerns at the abuse they receive from drunken fans when on the oche.

Mervyn King, a former BDO world finalist and PDC semi-finalist, said this week: "They're turning up with a football crowd scenario, they're not really darts fans, the true darts fans will give respect to the players."

Priestley feels a more even distribution of wealth would help the game grow to the benefit of its protagonists.

"The one thing I'd like to alter about our game is to bring the entry fees down at the regular tournaments," said Priestley.

"The money is great at the top, but towards the bottom end it is expensive for the lads without sponsors.

"It's costing them 200 to enter and then another 100 for a place to stay.

"That's more than some of these guys are earning in a week.

"But the flipside is that money then helps pay for the more high-profile tournaments and big players."

Darts still has hurdles to overcome, but for now, just sit back and enjoy the show.