Perhaps we should have believed Peter Wright when he told us that this time things would be different. Perhaps, knowing what we do now, we should have paid a little more attention when he told us on the eve of his first world title that his darts finally felt comfortable in his hand, that his game finally felt in working order, and that he finally felt ready to rule.
The trouble was that to do so would have been to fight the overwhelming tide of logic. For one thing, Wright turns 50 in March, an unlikely sort of age to launch a grasp for greatness. A record of 10 defeats in 11 major finals hinted strongly at his ultimate level: a contender, not a conqueror. Seven of those defeats had come against Michael van Gerwen, the triple world champion, one of the greatest players in history, and his opponent here. This was the logic that Wright calmly and courageously ripped to pieces at Alexandra Palace on Wednesday.
For Wright has now scaled the highest peak of darts. His 7-3 victory over Van Gerwen was a stunning upset, for all the reasons described above and many more. Against the heaviest scorer in the game, the toughest temperament on tour, and his own wretched history, Wright played with a remarkable evenness of outlook: hitting his clutch doubles and weathering waves of pressure that would have broken a lesser spirit.
As he slotted in double 10 to become the oldest first-time world champion in PDC history, Wright’s implacable facade finally broke. The tears began to flow. He went for a big swing of the fist, but was almost too exhausted to complete it. Over the past few weeks he has cultivated an air of nonchalance that those who know him will tell you was merely a suit of armour, protecting his fragile confidence from the slinging fortune of outrageous arrows.
Now, he could finally admit – to us, and to himself – how much it had all meant. He spent a decade in his 20s and 30s barely playing serious darts at all: unemployed, itinerant and despondent. The colourful Snakebite persona was his way of breaking with a destitute past, but it made him a target for abuse and derision too. Van Gerwen once famously called him “a clown”. No longer will he simply be the guy with the spiky hair and silly trousers. He is the guy with the spiky hair, the silly trousers and the biggest prize in the game.
“Finally got the monkey off my back,” he said afterwards. “You should never give up. It doesn’t matter how many times you get beaten. From the beginning, I believed.”
Meanwhile, as the pyrotechnics and the crowd exploded, Van Gerwen quietly sheathed his darts. What now for him? Probably, as is his way, more wins and more precious metal. Equally, though, this tournament has exposed him in a way few others have done. Rarely has he been at his best, and while an average of 103 in the final was perfectly passable, it was a fraction of his true capacity. More worryingly, the number of crucial missed doubles – including set darts at 4-3 and 5-3 down – hinted at a curious desertion of his fabled killer instinct. He remains the man to beat. But until he can reel off multiple world titles on the spin, his grip on his era will remain tantalisingly less than total.
“I can only blame myself,” he said. “I made too many mistakes. Every important shot, I missed. If I played my best game, he wouldn’t touch me. I’m a big boy, I can handle this and I’ll be back stronger.”
As for Wright, nobody could possibly accuse him of doing things the easy way. He has had a ferociously tough draw, culminating in wins over the top two players in the world in Gerwyn Price and Van Gerwen. Indeed, he barely got through his first match against Noel Malicdem of the Philippines, scraping through in a sudden-death leg. Perhaps that engendered a certain blitheness in him; or as the former world champion John Part so succinctly observed, the point when you’re “so scarred you’re not afraid of getting cut any more”.
This, ultimately, will be the most significant consequence of his feats here. The money is nice, but won’t change him. Being world champion won’t radically affect his status within the game: everyone already knew how good he was. But as he approached his sixth decade, Wright himself was surely beginning to confront the idea that he might never reach the top rung of the sport.
That this might ultimately be his fate: to go down with the Warriners and the Evisons and the Painters as one of the makeweights of their era. Not any more. On a boisterous night at the Palace, the sport’s ultimate outsider finally belonged.