Desmond Kane

Sid Waddell checks out as Britain’s greatest commentator

Desmond Kane
Desmond Kane

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Sid Waddell during another one of his gloriously unique commentary stints

After a life celebrated among the ranks of double tops and double vodkas, the funeral of the fabled darts commentator Sid Waddell seems a fitting juncture at which to raise a glass or two to toast a gregarious Geordie who was obviously never happier than when tanked up on tungsten.

Waddell, the son of a Northumberland miner, was as much a figure of fun as the men he commentated on. There was a memorable sketch by comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC's satirical Not the Nine O'Clock News poking fun at the pint-laden, smoke saturated environs of the 1980s. The comedian Rowan Atkinson impersonated Waddell's Geordie tones over a sketch analysing two characters shrouded in a fug of smoke trying to outdrink rather than outscore each other. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Waddell was in his element when darts was lapped up by millions on terrestrial television. With Waddell at the helm, it worked as easily as a nine darter.

They no longer sink pints or suck the life out of tabs - at least not for public consumption - but darts has retained the charisma that makes it such an alluring game. Much of the credibility lies in Waddell's ability to bottle the drama and theatre of the moment with his gilded and unique Geordie soliloquies. His death at the age of 72 after a battle against bowel cancer was tragic. Here truly was a bloke born for his vocation in life.

Sounding like Oz from Auf Wiedersehen Pet but educated at Cambridge University, the perceptive Waddell, armed with his Modern History degree, seemed to be in danger of spontaneous human combustion as he relayed the happenings to a panting army of frazzled darts fans in their living rooms with the shaky camera homing in on another 180. Those remain gloriously fascinating and manic times when watching darts was a deadly serious business for the masses.

I remember watching in agony as the late Jocky Wilson, a true national sporting titan in Scotland, saw Eric Bristow recover from 5-0 behind to trail 5-4 in the 1989 World Championship final before finally seeing it out 6-4 for his second world gong. "That spinning, drive of the dart is working for Jocky now," cried Waddell, making it sound an infinitely more technical sport than a sloshed Scotsman trying to throw the dart straight.

In the age of four television channels, Waddell was the equal of his peers. One can include Dan Maskell, David Coleman, Murray Walker, Ted Lowe, Reg Gutteridge and Brian Moore in that list.

Perhaps it was his working class roots and darts that were natural bedfellows. Waddell brought darts to life in a way that is difficult to fathom when one considers it is a pub game involving, as he put it, "fat men throwing things at the wall".

With darts dying a slow death on BBC at the outset of the 1990s, Waddell joined the elite players in leaving the British Darts Organisation before heading for Sky Television to try to maximise their earning potential, a move that seems groundbreaking some 18 years on.

As the game moved with the times in the 1990s, players were banned from their taking their pints on stage. Waddell's commentary remained staggeringly entertaining. Waddell's unfettered brilliance was not solely restricted to a microphone or darts. He was an author, writing the biographies of Lowe, Jocky Wilson and Taylor and penned a marvellously entertaining children's programme called Jossy's Giants about a kid's football side in Newcastle which he later described as his finest piece of writing.

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Jocky Wilson - world champion in 1982 and 1989 - with cigarette in hand

In his most recognisable role, Waddell was a figure who remained at the top of his game through the era of Leighton Rees, Eric Bristow, John Lowe and Wilson in the 1980s through to the days of Phil Taylor and Dennis Priestley in the 1990s and on to the riveting Taylor, Raymond van Barneveld and Adrian Lewis rivalries of the past decade. He was once referred to darts players as "athletes" without a dollop of sarcasm.

A couple of years ago under the sweltering desert sun of the United Arab Emirates, a place where alcohol, at least publicly, is frowned upon, I found myself armed with only a mobile and a notepad interviewing Taylor, the 15-times world champion and the greatest player to pick up a dart in combat, in temperatures more stifling than the oche of the Lakeside. All very surreal.

Taylor was safely holed up safely back in the comparative cool of his native Stoke-on-Trent. As Waddell would have put it, I was sweating like a pudding in the pot while Taylor spoke about the need for darts to evolve or die in the 1990s.

"I was probably three or four times world champion, and had only about 40 grand in the bank. Yet in the past five or six years the prize money has increased massively," said Taylor. "We're playing for over £5 million this year, which is an incredible amount. That's part of what keeps me going. I'm very fortunate that I've been able to look after my family, and hopefully provide a good future for them."

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Darts continues to boom as the sport's greatest player Phil Taylor lifts another trophy

Taylor helped carried darts forward from a pub sport to one which commands huge audiences and finances, a position that was endorsed when he finished second in the BBC's sport personality of year. It could be argued that Waddell did every bid as much to popularise the sport.

The snobs will say that darts is not a sport, but anybody who watched the dressage at the Olympic Games knows that the competitiveness of sport comes in all shapes and sizes. If golf is considered a sport, darts is a sport.

Big Cliff Lazerenko once gave Jocky Wilson the middle finger live on television after the Scot refused to shake hands. Waddell said of Lazarenko: "Cliff is off and looking for something yellow in a tall glass — and I don't mean daffodils."

The Waddellisms kept coming and coming year after year. "Bob (Anderson) came on like the Laughing Cavalier, now he looks like Lee Van Cleef on a bad night..." or "the congregation is restless and High Priest (Eric Bristow) is at the oche."

Unlike some of the players, Waddell did not require a few looseners to get him going. He was the life and soul of darts, high on life and high on his sport, which made for a heady brew. It would not be flirting with overstatement to suggest that Sid Waddell checked out as British television's greatest commentator. He was noisily the most unique.

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