HE WAS 16 years old when he first began to twig that the game was taking hold of him in the same way it took hold of his father and his uncles before him, all of them dotted about Ardrossan and Saltcoats and Stevenston, all of them throwing darts for fun.
“Aye, 16,” says Robert Thornton, now 46 and smiling at the memory of his younger self.
“I got up out of my bed, had my breakfast, went back upstairs and started throwing darts. Next thing I know my step-mum is shouting me for my dinner. I said, ‘My dinner! How long have I been standing here?’ Twelve hours. Paid for it, mind. Could hardly move my arm the next day.”
Generations of dart-throwing Thorntons. The next one has just come in the room. Young Alan is three and is already capable of doing a few hours at the oche – or what passes for the oche in his grandfather’s front room, where the dart board hangs by the window and the mark is found by lifting a rug to one side. Thornton does three hours a day: Games; finishes; round the board in doubles. On the mantelpiece beside him is the crystal vase he took home from Ireland having won there last weekend. Beside that is the UK Open trophy, his biggest prize of all. It was last year but only seems like last night. Did Phil Taylor 11-5 in the final. Darts from another planet, he says. Took seven legs in a row from the great man. He’s no statto, but he doubts Taylor has ever lost seven on the spin to anybody in his life. Not even in his nightmares.
“Trophies,” he says. “I want some more. My hut’s full with them. They’re in holdalls and everything. But the more you have the more you want. Och, things are good. I’ve made good money over the last year and a bit. Won 40 grand for the UK. Finished fifth in the Premier League and got 45 grand. Another ten grand last week in Killarney. Wasn’t always the way. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was making blinds for a living. Venetians and that. Used to come home every night with my fingers all plasters. I was a blinds maker and then I was an unemployed blinds maker. Got laid off. There’s not much call for a blinds maker round about here. So you could say darts saved me.”
Saved him, but almost killed him, too. This weekend, Barry Hearn is taking the darts circus to the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh and a new tournament called The Masters. Three days of madness. Only the world’s top 16 players have been invited and, with a ranking of 11, “The Thorn” will be in at the heart of it.
That is something of a minor miracle given where he was two years ago, not so much down the rankings but almost down a hole in the ground.
It’s fair to say that Thornton has had his woes in life. When he was in his 30s he spent a year in a wheelchair after doing his back while trying to pull a buried plant pot out of his back garden.
“Thought it was full of dirt. Turned out it was full of concrete. Did terrible damage to myself. Had to learn how to walk again. So that wasn’t great.” The thing that almost did for him two years ago was pneumonia, brought on by his desperate desire to prove himself among the elite of the Professional Darts Corporation.
Up until 2009, Thornton was playing low-level darts and was happy with his lot. Down his local pub they’d encourage him to head for the big time but there was something within him that said no. Eventually, he said yes, and went for it. One year, he played 110 tournaments out of 110 and set in motion a chain of events that would see him in the back of an ambulance with “tubes and stuff” sticking out of him.
“I didn’t realise what darts was doing to me. I had tournaments in Australia, Canada, Atlanta, Vegas, Britain, Holland, Germany, Austria, everywhere. Flying out and flying back in. I used to come in the door from a tournament, drop the suitcase off at the front door and pick a new one up at the back door and away again. Always had a suitcase ready. The wife thought it was curtains that time. She was sat in the ambulance with me. I was getting injections in my stomach because they thought I had blood clots. Injections, inhalers, nebulisers, drips going in here there and everywhere. My veins had collapsed, they ended up having to take blood from in between my knuckles. I was running myself into the ground. Thinking I was invincible. When you’re playing well you’re wanting to go everywhere and win but you don’t realise what pressure you’re putting on your body. I realised almost too late. It just hit me. I took a cold going out to Canada and I thought I was over it and caught another one on the way back. I was sitting in the house one night and took a coughing fit and coughed up this big red thing that didn’t look very nice. The wife phoned the ambulance and probably saved my life putting me on a nebuliser right away. She had one for her bronchitis. She put me on it before the ambulance arrived.”
Thornton was out of the game for six months, which was a good result given that he thought he might never throw a dart again at the highest level. From the depths, he has found something in his game. Serenity, maybe. Peace of mind. That victory at the UK Open in June last year was the result of great darts but also a relaxed mind.
He says he has balance in his life now. He knows what’s important and what isn’t.
“When I came out of the hospital it left me with a slight tremor in my right hand so I couldn’t throw. I thought I wouldn’t be playing again. So I went to Bolton for the UK and I didn’t expect to win. The draw is done every night and I couldn’t have had a harder draw had my worst enemy picked it.
“First round, Mark Webster. Aw, brilliant. Playing brilliant at the time, Mark. Beat him 9-7. Then I beat Gary Anderson 9-7. The draw comes out and it’s Dennis Priestley. I thought ‘Come on, you gotta be having a laugh!’.
“I was 5-1 down and came back and won 9-5 and I’m going ‘Wow’. I get Wes Newton, Dave Chisnall and Taylor in the final. It cannae get any harder.”
It wasn’t just winning the UK that meant so much, it was beating Taylor, the pre-eminent player of the last two decades. The great untouchable.
“You get the adrenaline buzz and you get a little scared before you walk on but, once you’re up on that stage, the adrenaline and concentration kicks in. I always get nervous. I shake all the time. People tell me they can’t see it on TV but I can see it when I pull my dart back. It kinda calms down after a bit. But I’ve always shook. Even Phil shakes. Aye, he does. If you watch his hands very closely there are certain players he plays against and he shakes. A little bit. I’ve seen him shaking against me. I’ve seen him shaking against Adrian Lewis and James Wade. If he’s under pressure he shakes a little bit. Bites his flights. That’s a giveaway.”
The top boys are heading for Edinburgh now. What will it be like there? Raucous, for sure. Thornton talks of the Glasgow crowd being the most mental on the circuit. Gets lively up in Aberdeen also. Ally Pally has been the most intimidating. Thornton is booed at the Ally Pally. Time was when he’d react with some language that would only rile them further. Now he tries to hit doubles all day long and then give them a wave afterwards.
“The thing is that some will give you grief and then afterwards they’ll say ‘Can I have your autograph, can I have your flights?’ And I go, ‘No, you cannae!’ Haha. It’s all part of it. Glasgow is nuts. Nuts!
“I don’t know what Edinburgh will be like but it will be a great tournament. My biggest problem is that I lose concentration in matches sometimes. I get too far ahead and I get bored and I start looking about. I have the bottle, though. I know I won’t bottle it. Put me in a tight finish and I have all the bottle I need. I love it.
“Darts has changed my life. I’d do it all over again – apart from the almost killing me bit. Aye, that wasn’t so clever.”
n The Masters will be played at the Royal Highland Centre, November 1-3. Tickets from pdc.seetickets.com