Eric Bristow was just 11 when his father bought him a dartboard and, with it, a ticket to a life he could only have dreamed of.
Bristow, who died after a heart attack, went on to become a five-time world champion, a household name beyond the oche and an unlikely reality television star in his later years but might easily have pursued a different path.
Born to plasterer George and telephonist Pamela, he grew up in Stoke Newington and found himself attracted to the area’s more roguish elements.
In retirement he cheerfully admitted to some low-level gang crime in his youth, being given the cane on his third day at Hackney Grammar School and admitted carrying a claw hammer in his trousers in case of trouble.
That such exploits became a hazy memory rather than a way of life owed much to his mastery of the arrows.
George Bristow, who believed there was a sport for everyone, exposed his son to golf, snooker and pool before he struck gold with darts.
By 14 Eric was an active member of a local team and by 15 he was making more from tournament prize money than he was from his first paying job as proofreader for an advertising agency.
Bristow’s technique – pinkie finger outstretched in the manner of a refined tea party – initially marked him out for mockery, though it never lasted long as he outflanked all comers.
At 30 he had done it all: a quintet of world crowns between 1980 and 1986, countless other trophies and trinkets, an MBE on the way and a heavy dose of mainstream popularity, fed by his regular triumphant appearances on the small screen.
Throughout his rivalries with Jocky Wilson and John Lowe he lived up, and played up, to his nickname “the Crafty Cockney” – a sobriquet he lifted from a bar he frequented in Santa Monica.
Having spent most of his 20s as the world’s No 1 player the only way was down and a long battle with dartitis – an inability to release the arrow and a near cousin of golf’s ‘yips’ – ensured it would not be an easy ride.
He found relief in his personal life, marrying wife Jane in 1989 and becoming father to Louise and James over the next four years. His family later grew to include a half-brother, Kevin, whose existence had been a well-kept secret until he was 45.
Despite being a founder member of the breakaway PDC (the Professional Darts Corporation/World Darts Council) in 1993, he was no longer an elite performer, a semi-final run in the 1997 PDC World Championship a stirring but isolated return to form.
He was beaten on the day by Phil “the Power” Taylor, whom he had first met as a gifted young player in his adopted home of Stoke. Taylor benefited from the older man’s financial support, name recognition and mentorship in his early years, long before becoming the star he is today.
In nurturing the most decorated champion in the sport’s history, even losing to him as he landed his first world crown in 1990, Bristow’s already distinguished CV gains added legacy.
Bristow transitioned comfortably into life away from competitive darts, working for Sky television as both commentator and spotter, working the exhibition and autobiography circuit before being cast in ratings hit I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here where he charmed viewers sufficiently to finish fourth in the show, striking up an unlikely bond with Made in Chelsea’s Hugo Taylor along the way.
After his time on the show, Bristow said: “I’m known as the jungle man now, not as a darts player. I’m signing autographs for 14- and 15-year-olds who have never even seen me play darts. Crackers.”
The lustre of his public persona was dulled in 2016 by an ill-advised tweet relating to the sex abuse scandal in football, an episode for which he apologised but still cost him his Sky job.
Paying tribute, Professional Darts Corporation chairman Barry Hearn said: “Eric will always be a legend in the world of darts and British sport. He was a tremendous player and a huge character and even after his retirement fans would travel for miles to meet him and see him play.
“He was never afraid of controversy but he spoke as he found and was honest and straightforward which is what people admired about him.
“We often talk about the absence of characters in sport but Eric Bristow was a character with a capital ‘c’. He was very much a man of the people. He understood what crowds wanted to see – he was controversial, he was a maverick, he spoke his mind and upset a few people from time to time, but the man in the street warmed to him because he was very much one of theirs.”
Reflecting on his darts career, Bristow said: “Hopefully I’ve given something back to darts, which has been brilliant to me. Hopefully I made it a bit popular when I first started, I was part of the breakaway, and I also created a monster, so I think I’ve done a little bit – and if you don’t like it, up yours!”