Luke Littler’s genius shines through even in World Darts Championship final defeat by Luke Humphries

Never will so few words be written about a world champion, which is unfair on Luke Humphries, the deserving new king of darts. He is now the world No 1 and, aged 28, has produced the most remarkable of breakout seasons, winning three major titles including this world championship, the biggest prize of all.

And yet even in victory – a brilliant victory in which Humphries located an unbeatable level in the latter half to blow his opponent away – he was upstaged by a 16-year-old boy. Luke Littler started nervously but he came to life in the second set, and when he went 4-2 ahead in a race to seven, Alexandra Palace expected him to go all the way. Instead Littler’s level dipped and Humphries’ play transformed. He began thudding 180s for fun, rattling off five successive sets to win an epic battle 7-4.

In that half-hour period of dominance, when Littler threatened to become the youngest ever world champion of darts, it was hard to know what exactly we were witnessing. Was this just a freakish coagulation of things, a miracle akin to Leicester City winning the Premier League? Or was this something greater, the first flourishes of a Tiger Woods or a Roger Federer, albeit on a diet of omelette and pizza: were we watching the beginnings of a genius?

It is one thing to hold breathtaking talent in your fingers, but it is the enormous personality wielding that skill which makes Littler special. The talent and the personality are intertwined, of course, one breeding the other. He bounced on to the stage in front of 3,200 spectators like a rock star to his adoring fans. And up there, he made Humphries play darts from the gods to take the crown and the £500,000 prize.

When the winning dart hit the double eight, at the second time of asking, Humphries slumped to his knees and punched the ground. He began to well up. The 28-year-old has been accused in some quarters of being a boring character not suitable to be darts’ figurehead, but that does a disservice to who he is and what he’s overcome: anxiety that at one stage made him consider quitting the game. He also transformed his body into that of a lean athlete, which he is convinced has given him the energy to go deep into the biggest tournaments and keep competing.

He began this final on top. Littler started shakily: his first three darts tallied 44, which you or I might be able to amass with a blind chuck. He could barely make a treble, and Humphries breezed through the first set without much hard work before stepping out of the arena for a short break. Littler stayed on stage and practised, stretching his back and loosening his arm like an aching grandparent.

Humphries returned to win two more quick legs, but then came a moment that changed the momentum of the match. They exchanged 180s, the crowd roared, Humphries missed a dart to clinch the second set and Littler suddenly enacted killer mode. He snatched one leg back, then rattled off two stunning finishes, firstly on 142 – treble 20, treble 20, double 11 – and then on 120 – single 20, treble 20, double 20 – to steal the second set. Humphries stepped off stage once more with a wry smile, knowing Littler had finally arrived.

Humphries won the third set and Littler took a scrappy fourth, before a more composed fifth set went Littler’s way too, and he led for the first time on sets, 3-2. Now the panache was showing in Littler’s game, starting successive legs with 180s, making treble 20 his home. Humphries became discombobulated, changing his route around the board mid-throw and losing his way. At one point, his third dart knocked his second out of the treble 20 bed, reducing 180 to 60. Littler clinched the sixth set a moment later to lead 4-2.

Luke Littler set the world of darts alight despite losing out to Luke Humphries in the World Championship final (PA)
Luke Littler set the world of darts alight despite losing out to Luke Humphries in the World Championship final (PA)

But Humphries raised his game, hammering in 180s of his own, and then came what, in hindsight, was the turning point. In the deciding leg of the seventh set, Littler had double two to clinch it and move into a potentially unassailable 5-2 lead. He missed, squeezing the wire from the wrong side, and Humphries made double 10 to reduce his deficit on sets to 4-3. He began playing unbeatable darts, averaging 113, 114 and 109 in successive sets, and he never looked back.

At the finish, Littler embraced his opponent. He took a moment to grimace and stare at the blank board, perhaps envisaging that missed double two at 4-2 up. His time will come again.

“I had to get this done now because he’s going to dominate world darts soon,” Humphries said afterwards. “He’s an incredible talent. I had to win this one tonight, and he’s going to win plenty, for sure.”

Littler’s performance over the past two weeks did not come entirely out of the dark. He was hitting 20s in nappies, made his first 180 aged six, and his first nine-dart finish at 13. By then he was beating professional players, making them question whether darts was really the sport for them.

He won the youth world title in November. But he had not gone deep in any professional tournaments, and no one predicted what was to come here. He whitewashed former world champion Christian Kist in the first round with the highest three-dart average of any debutant. He thrashed all comers, including the great Raymond van Barneveld who was winning world titles before Littler was born, and the 2018 champion Rob Cross, who played close to his best and yet barely laid a glove.

Littler looked utterly at home throughout. Each day he ate his ham and cheese omelette, played on his Xbox and then went out on stage. Sometimes it took him a leg or two to find his rhythm, but he always found it, and the most ominous part was that he knew he was going to. By the end, so did his opponents, and Humphries was the only one that could live with him.

What now for Littler? Plenty of sporting prodigies peak as teenagers and never replicate that form. They start out confident and fearless, and then their world changes. Everyone wants a piece of them, coaches try to refine them, and they lose their edge. Perhaps in that sense losing this final holds some advantage. Littler-mania will die down and this teenager might retain some grip on normality for a while longer, at least.

And yet to witness how he carried himself on stage was to be convinced that there is more to come. The calmness with which he spoke afterwards revealed someone who knows as much, and who has unfinished business at Alexandra Palace.

"It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “The one negative was I lost too many legs on my throw so Luke could break me. But fair play to Luke, he deserves it. I got to the final and might not get to another for the next five or 10 years. I can say I’m runner-up but I just want to go and win it.”