Eyes moist, red mohican sparkling in the lights, scalp painting glistening with sweat, Peter Wright won his second PDC world championship in one of its tensest and most absorbing finals. He did so not by outscoring Michael Smith but by outlasting him, not by blowing him off the board but simply by resisting, holding his nerve and holding his throw against one of the heaviest and most relentless treble-hitters in the sport.
As an exhausted Wright celebrated a 7-5 victory, Smith stood at the back of the stage: distraught, disconsolate, destroyed. He looked up at the lights, down at his feet, off to the side. He buried his face in his shirt. He turned and stared at the blue sponsor’s backdrop. Anything to avoid glancing at the Sid Waddell Trophy that was being placed on a plinth in front of him, the trophy that has now twice eluded him at the final hurdle.
He believed it was his time. We all felt it, too. He had beaten the defending champion Gerwyn Price, the dangerous James Wade, the breakthrough star of the year in Jonny Clayton. When he is on song and in rhythm, when the 180s flow from his fingers like piano music, there is barely a player on the planet who can live with him.
And perhaps, ultimately, only a player like Wright could have thwarted him. Late in the game Smith was 5-4 up with a break of throw, an advantage that felt decisive. Instead Wright endured, much as he has been enduring his whole career. Darts never came easy to him. Life never came easy to him.
Even in his moment of triumph, the boos from an uncharitable Alexandra Palace crowd continued to sting his ears. But here he was, the last man standing and now legitimately one of the greats of the sport.
Long before a dart had been thrown in this final, Alexandra Palace was already a heaving hive of fervour and festivity, as grown men bellowed their viral load across the Palm Court arena and the old songs were revived with relish.
You were reminded again just what a befuddling challenge it must be to throw pinpoint darts in this environment, amid the pounding music and the hollering of the referee and the ambient smell of lager and takeaway. Many wither on the big stage. For those who succeed, it must be akin to performing open heart surgery on a nightclub dancefloor.
But both men had been here before. Wright had broken his duck by winning the title two years earlier, and at 51 years of age was somewhere near the peak of his powers. An introvert dressed as an extrovert, Wright is a creature of paradoxes and contradictions: the showman with a chronic shyness, the court jester who throws with a sniper’s precision, the relentlessly consistent scorer who changes his darts between tournaments, between matches, sometimes even – as here – in the fifth set of a world championship final.
Three years earlier, Smith had been demolished on this stage by Michael van Gerwen, breaking a hand midway through after punching a door in frustration. And for a while it felt like the experience might be a terminal one. His scoring had always been peerless. But in times of stress the arm would tense and the doubles would drift. As if he couldn’t quite take the final step.
As if he was finally being forced to contemplate what it meant to win. Such was the fate that befell him here. He has now reached seven major televised finals, and lost the lot.
The action was as loose and easy as ever, but the body language looked a little strained, the gaze a little pained. The canny Wright was taking his time between visits, forcing Smith to think as much as possible.
The contrast between them was stark. Smith flings his darts as if they’re laughing emojis: one, two, three, who cares? Wright, by contrast, throws them as if he’s trying to construct the three parts of a perfect sentence.
The first two sets were scrappy, and Wright won them both. But as Smith settled, his sheer weight of scoring began to impose itself.
He swung himself back into the match with a sumptuous 167 checkout. Two-all became 3-3 became 4-4 became 5-5. One hour became two. Even the crowd seemed to tighten a little, as if aware that the time for frivolity had passed.
On the stage, both players were betraying barely a flicker of tension or nerves, even as they knew – as we all did – that they were fooling absolutely nobody.
And finally it was Smith who cracked, missing a crucial bullseye to hold throw in the 12th set. Wright checked out 81 for a 12-dart finish, and before long the last rites were being administered.
Smith had recorded a higher average (99 to 98). He had hit 24 180s to Wright’s 17. But as the old truism goes, darts is not simply a game of scoring but of timing. And as Smith blinked into the Palace lights, pyrotechnics lighting his face, he could be forgiven for wondering when his time might come again.