BOBBY GEORGE – A DIAMOND GEEZER

Bobby George is a true ‘no-nonsense’ individual. He’s a beer man, not a wine lover, he prefers an Indian with a pint of lager to an a la carte meal with a cheeky little Chardonnay and, above all, he’s a true showman who, alongside Eric Bristow back in the eighties, changed the face of darts and made the sport more engaging for the man (and woman) in the street.

As the regional finals of the John Smith’s People’s Darts Championship get underway in clubs around the country, Club Mirror thought it was time to ask Britain’s most enduring and endearing darts player a few questions about life, darts and time travel. This is what he had to say...

How did you start playing darts?
I went fishing in Ireland with a friend who played darts. We got into a boat and it was choppy so we couldn’t really fish and decided to go to the pub instead and play darts. I’d never played before. My mate Malcolm Ellis pointed to different parts of the dartboard and challenged me: double 16 and so on. I never missed one and he asked me how I did it. I said I didn’t know. The next day we tried to go fishing again, but it was still too rough so we went back in the pub and played darts at 10p a game. We were on all day and all night and it became a challenge to get us off. Malcolm said I should enter the Super League and I said ‘what’s that?’ We went along and he lent me his darts. A bloke called Johnny Squires was picking a team for the Hainault Super League. I used to dig tunnels and its not like running or throwing the shot, is it? Malcolm told Johnny that if he didn’t put me in the team, he wasn’t playing either. So they put me in and had a tournament that night and I won it. They all patted me on the back and bought me a beer - they didn’t do that when I plastered a wall or dug a tunnel. Two weeks later I won the Essex Masters and then after that I won it three times in a row.

Were you surprised by your success?
I suppose I was a bit big-headed. After the Super League at Hainault I went to watch the Monday night players, the locals, and they’re good. But I said that if they were good I’d be the best in the world because they’re crap. I won everything in the area, but remember that in those days it was not like today. In my day you had to play good players for money because all you had was the British Open, the World Masters and the News of the World. There was no Embassy and the News of the World was the world championship - three legs, 501, a difficult game, and eight feet from the oche to the board, that’s three inches longer than it is today. They say it doesn’t make a lot of difference, so I said ‘you ask your wife’. And the dartboards had tiny little trebles, not like today.

What other big name darts players were on the circuit?
Jockey Wilson, Eric Bristow, all of them, but it was nothing big then; there was no world championship on the telly. I wanted to improve so I went to the King George V pub in Gants Hill where you got all the best players. I’d won the Essex Masters, but it’s like learning to drive; passing your test doesn’t mean to say you can drive. It takes two years to learn how to drive after you’ve passed your test, do you know what I mean?

And did you do well?
I’m beating them up - that’s a saying in darts; it don’t mean you’re beating them up, it means you beat ‘em bad, they never got me near me!

And at this stage, you were still doing your day job?
Yes, I was still digging tunnels and I went into the pub and Ronnie Haywood - he’s not with us now, but he was a good darts player - he picked up a cigarette lighter, I’ll never forget this, he put the lighter down and on the lighter it said ‘News of the World World Darts Championship’. I picked it up and he said he’d won the region, but was beaten and that’s how he got the lighter. I wanted to know more and he told me it was like the world championship. “You win that and you’ve won everything,” he said. I told him I would enter it and win it. He said it was his ambition to take the News of the World trophy out of the building and hold it up in the air. I told him I’d win it and he could take it outside and put it up there.

And what happened?
I was beaten the first time round, but in 1979 I won it in style by never dropping a leg. I’m talking about from the start of the tournament to the final. I never dropped a leg; it’s difficult to do, you’ve got to be so lucky.

How did you feel after that?
I felt great. I thought I’d done it and then I got back the next year. You see, with the News of the World, it wasn’t difficult to win if you were there, but it was getting there. Most of the tournaments were like that: you had to play loads and loads of games on the floor and then you’d jump up on the stage; and once you were on the stage you had a chance to win.
Today, the system is different. They put the good players on the stage at the beginning because they want to make sure they’ve got the top players on the box. In my day, everybody started on the floor and when you won something you really were the champion because you’d played a lot or rounds to win it.

Even after your legendary ‘79 win you had to start over?
Yes, with the News of the World you had to start again.

In 1981 you almost died. What happened?
I was playing in the British Pro and after a couple of rounds I had terrible stomach ache. Jockey [Wilson] went and got me a double brandy - I had a room with Jockey - and I said I couldn’t drink it, which didn’t bother Jockey as he loved it and drank it straightaway. He was only trying to help me, but it would have killed me stone dead. I almost bled to death, I had some sort of disease of the spleen; it grew and it burst and I nearly pegged it.

You spent a long time in hospital; what was going through your mind?
I went from 19 stone down to 11 and I was thinking at least I’m alive, although they said I wouldn’t be throwing any more darts. I was picked for the World Cup that year and I couldn’t go because I ended up in hospital, but I got over it.

And then Eric Bristow beat you in the final of the World Championships...
That’s the way it goes, but then I won the Butlin’s World Grand Masters. People think it’s a holiday camp, but it was all the best players and hard to win. I won it a few times.

How did your career as an exhibition player begin?
I decided to approach Courage one Friday afternoon as their head office was just down the road from where I was laying some granite floors. I told them I was after some sponsorship and that I had an idea: I’d get a stage set and go round their pubs and clubs and they could sell more beer off the back of it. They asked me what I was after and I said £200 a night - which, in those days was good money. The bloke I met asked me if I’d won anything and I told him this and that; I said I was in the News of the World final on Saturday and that it was on ITV. He said he’d take a look and I said, ‘are you interested or not?’ as I would get an MC, proper stage gear, all the artwork done and he said he’d let me know. Then I won it without dropping a leg and he called me on the Sunday. I said the price had gone up and he said, ‘I knew you would say that’.

So you gave up the day job?
Yes, I gave up the day job and I’ve been doing this now for 35 years. It’s amazing and I’m so lucky. I realised that there was a road in darts in those days and it forked. You can turn right and play all the tournaments and win trophies, or you can turn left and play darts for people who want to see you play. You’ve either got to win to get paid or you get paid straightaway. I took the route with the M on it: Money Lane, not Penny Lane.

What did the job involve?
I used to go around all the clubs, put up the gear, make the stage set, sort out the electronics, it was a proper show, not Mickey Mouse. I had an MC and I had to work hard putting up the banners. We had branded John Smith’s tablecloths and beermats. I didn’t just go into a pub with a set of darts; I did a show. We had Bobby George glasses, Tshirts, everything. I was with Courage for years, they gave me very good money and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today, because they did it properly. They were probably the first brewery to sponsor a darts player.

One of many labels you’ve been given is ‘darts’ first millionaire. Has it changed your life?
Obviously, you can do things that you couldn’t do before, but money isn’t everything - and you can say that when you’ve got a few quid! That used to annoy me a few years ago when people said the money meant nothing; it does, you can go on holiday, you can have a nice home, buy things you want, so it does help, but its not everything. I’ve been all round the world, I’ve met people that I’d never ever meet, I’ve been to places I’d have never gone to and I’ve learnt a lot about different cultures through travelling.

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met?
I’ve met a lot of people, but Engelbert Humperdinck came here [to George Hall]. He’s a darts man. Dart mad. He doesn’t do anything other than play darts; it’s a hobby. He was at Frimley Green doing shows and all our photographs were on the wall and he said he’d love to play Bobby George, so I arranged it and he came here. The BBC found out and thought they’d do a little feature and he was a bit worried because they can take the piss, they can edit things. I said don’t worry about that, son, I wouldn’t do that; he was a right down-to-earth guy and a good darts player. He told me all about how Elvis had copied his sideburns. I’ve met other people, but because he liked my sport I remember him more than most people. He was on the top of my stairs; singing Please Release Me, Let Me Go. F**king funny!
I played Chris Evans the other week, he was alright. As we say at John Smith’s he was no-nonsense, not up his own arse, but some of the stars are disappointing because they’re not the sort of people you think they are. There’s some nice people, but there’s a lot of arseholes too. Paul O’Grady’s mum used to play darts and he said that when he was young, he used to go in the pub and she’d make him sit in the corner and get him a Coke and a packet of crisps. He said all the darts players were really good to him.

Is it true that you and Eric Bristow changed darts?
Well it changed, the whole game changed. Whatever any one says, me and Eric changed darts. It was a quiet sport, there was no shouting but we got the audience more involved waving their lighters and singing our names.

You brought more personality into the game?
Well, yeah, not just the game, the build-up to it, the entertainment value, and Eric went along with it and then a year later I introduced the music. I was the first guy to introduce the music. I used to use Gary Glitter’s My Gang, but switched to Queen’s We Are the Champions. Now that is a great song, that’s the best song for a darts player. It’s a four-minute walk-on and they all sing it with me.

It has been said that you’ve changed darts.
Yes, I changed it into the razzamatazz and showbiz that it is today with the flashy shirts and jewellery and that’s progressed to tattoos, nicknames and walk-on music. I was the first to have walk-on music. These were the things that I got slagged off for doing from other players who said in the early days that I was bringing the game down, but the rest is history.
They’ve all got their nicknames, they’ve all got their music, their shirts - we used to play in teeshirts. Eric had ‘Crafty Cockney’ on his back, that’s a pub in Santa Monica, but basically, a lot of them were just playing, so I had the sequins, then I had the cloak, I got the jewellery - I don’t wear the jewellery all the time, only when I’m working.

And what about the politics of darts?
The game has changed a lot. If you’re a professional darts player and you want to get on television, you used to have to go through round after round, right? It’s changed now. When you’re good you go straight on the stage more or less, so they broke away and it all got a bit nasty: ‘you’re PDC, you come from another planet, you’re BDO’, but it’s not the darts players, it’s the commentators. They breathe hatred into the people at home: ‘oh, he used to be a good darts player, but he’s with the big boys now,’ because he’s come from the BDO. There’s no need for that.
They said Barneveld [Raymond van Barneveld] was no good, but he goes over with the PDC and wins their world championship, beating Taylor in the final. They said Webster was no good, but last year he was third in their world championship. They’re all darts players and they all come from the same mum: a pub or club. The PDC hasn’t got a world champion. Every world champion they’ve got was a BDO world champion first. I’ve got nothing against the PDC, they’ve done really well getting the sport on the television - on Sky - and people are watching it; it’s great for both sides, but it’s about time they stopped the slagging off.

Are there younger players coming into the game?
Yeah, loads. I tell you what, there’s some good youngsters now. Years ago, a young darts player was 30 to 40 years old, today’s he’s 18. It’s got that spark especially when you go abroad. We used to be the world of darts - Scotland and Wales and England - but now we’re not. There are 60 odd countries - I can’t name 60-odd countries - but there are over 60 countries playing darts, which is amazing, innit?

Do you get involved in encouraging youngsters?
Well, I can’t really do that because I don’t have the time. Twenty years ago I went to schools to teach the kids how to count using a dart board. It’s taken people years to work out that the dart board can be used to count, it’s amazing, you could write a book on how to count on a dart board.

You’re not a wine man, then?
If you said to me, there’s 10 crates of wine over there, the best wine you can buy, or 10 crates of John Smith’s or Foster’s or whatever, I’d have the beer. Wine to me is like vinegar. I was not brought up with wine. If you’re brought up with it, then you’re brought up with it, but I was brought up with a set of darts and a beer.

Do you get involved in encouraging youngsters?
Well, I can’t really do that because I don’t have the time. Twenty years ago I went to schools to teach the kids how to count using a dart board. It’s taken people years to work out that the dart board can be used to count, it’s amazing, you could write a book on how to count on a dart board.

Has darts always been associated with beer and fags?
Drink, smoke and play; that was the game. Darts came from the pub. Our culture is to play darts in the pub, you don’t go to the butchers to play a game a darts, so it’s got that image, but it’s gradually going because overseas players play in schools and social clubs where there’s no drink. But I keep saying ‘you can take the game out of the pub, but you can’t take the pub out of the game’. I was brought up with a pint in my hand. My birthday is on 16 December and when I get my birthday card, what’s on the front? A beer and a set of darts, darts goes with beer...it doesn’t go with a crusty roll. If the beer goes, it’s not darts, it’ll ruin the game.

You’re not a wine man, then?
If you said to me, there’s 10 crates of wine over there, the best wine you can buy, or 10 crates of John Smith’s or Foster’s or whatever, I’d have the beer. Wine to me is like vinegar. I was not brought up with wine. If you’re brought up with it, then you’re brought up with it, but I was brought up with a set of darts and a beer.

What’s the best training for a darts player?
It’s quite simple really: look where you’re throwing and throw where you’re looking. You have to practice and you’ve got to have the gift, I mean, there’s some great dart players, they practice day in and day out; now I can’t do that because my body won’t allow it and I’ve got too much to do. I haven’t got the time.

And how to you keep on form?
It’s difficult. I can’t play as well as I used to, but I could play the best players in the world now and I could beat them, but I can’t do it everyday, that’s what I’ve lost. I haven’t got the time and I don’t want to walk up and down looking at a dart board all day. I want to go and entertain. I don’t care if I get beaten. I go to an exhibition or I do a function; I’m not there to beat anyone, I’m there to play them.

Looking back, are you glad you made the decision to become a showman rather than continue as a professional darts player?
I’m glad I made it in one sense, but I regret it in another; because they say I never won this and I never won that and he’s won this and he’s won that. They say I never won the Embassy or the BDO World Championships, but I was world champion before that started and they don’t want to give me the credit for all that, you know what I mean?

But, looking back, you made the right decision?
I’m not being big-headed here, but who would live in a house like this?

You sound like Loyd Grossman.
He came here once.

Did he?
Yeah. They did Through the Keyhole. David Frost: now he’s an interesting guy; a very clever man. He does his homework, like you have, and he knew everything about me.

Do you enjoy being you?
I would love to be myself all the time, but I can’t because I call a spade a spade and you can’t do that nowadays. A politician once asked me if I’ve ever thought about being a politician? “You talk good and people like you,” he said, but I can’t, because I can’t lie.

Are you enjoying being a BBC darts pundit?
The BBC has helped me a lot to address myself when I talk and be myself. The only thing is I don’t swear on the television. I have to practice not to swear.

It must be difficult.
Very difficult. I want to do a BBC late programme so I can teach everybody to swear properly. You see, there’s swearing and swearing.

Tell me about the John Smith’s People’s Darts Championships
John Smiths has put a lot of money into my sport and they’ve helped make it what it is today. The People’s Championship is proper darts, it’s not bullshit darts, it’s for the guy in the street, the same as me; three legs, 501, you’ve got to be good and it’s great for our sport. They spend a load on advertising, there’s even a full-sized me with a set of darts. I was at the Magnet Club near the brewery the other day. I walked through the door and bumped into myself, it made me jump. I said to Heineken UK, if you’re going to do it, you must do it properly and they did. They got the flights, the Tshirts, all the shirts with names – proper – and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a calendar event and I hope they’ll keep doing it. They’ve created something new and I think it’s a good idea.

Have you seen some good players come out of it?
Oh yes, so many good players. The first guy who won it was called Teapot Jones. He lives in Wales. I’ve played him hundreds of times and he’s a good darts player, and a bit of a character: no teeth, looked like a teapot when he threw a dart.

What’s your experience of club darts?
I used to play at the Grove Social Club in Chadwell Heath. It burnt down the other week. I’ve done a lot of darts there. Clubs are very good, but it’s difficult for pubs to get good players because of the money. They’re good for training, but clubs promote the game a lot better.

What advice would you offer People’s Darts finalists?
I can watch them play and tell them what they’re doing wrong, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The best advice is to play as you did to get into the final and you’ll be alright.

Is it easy to play in front of an audience?
Yes, you just see the board. You look to your right and you see the MC, you don’t see anything else.

Do you have any role models?
Nobody. In my day, there wasn’t anyone to look up to.

Who do you rate at the moment?
Taylor, Adams, there’s loads of them. Everyone always says that the best players ever are the guys at the top right now. You get that in football, everyone’s the best player ever, but they’re not the best player forever.

 

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