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OPINION - Luke Littler is appealing to the world’s worst sport fans: he could ruin darts forever

 (AP)
(AP)

Oh, Luke Littler, what have you done? The boy genius didn’t merely get to the final of the World Darts Championship and pocket £200,000, he also inspired an explosion of interest from the world’s worst fans. The same appalling people who almost ruined football 30 years ago have come to ruin the only truly working-class sport left.

If you ask most Londoners which part of town will be the last to resist gentrification, the answer will invariably be Tottenham. Darts is the Tottenham of sport. But now even darts is under threat from the chattering classes entranced by the success of a 16-year-old who looks old enough to be his own father. Every Tom, Dick and Tristan will be chanting that bloody awful song they play in the ad breaks.

Darts’ unique appeal is precisely because it was the final redoubt of the untouchable caste. It’s a Rorke’s Drift of proletarian culture. It didn’t need to reach out to new audiences — it was popular enough until now, albeit with the “wrong” type of people. It made no apologies and did not ask for approval.

So excited about Littler was the Guardian yesterday that it asked its readers: “Tell us, have you recently become a darts fan?” — an invitation so cringeworthy that it did not so much make your flesh creep as give you the sensation of being flayed alive by a set of Wüsthof kitchen knives. This morning The Times was craven enough to offer a guide on “how to talk darts”. Seriously, if you don’t know by now don’t bother.

Darts’ appeal is that it was a redoubt of the untouchable caste — it’s a Rorke’s Drift of proletarian culture

As the tournament began the Telegraph’s William Sitwell regaled readers with his lifelong love of the sport, starting at Eton while he was slumming it with actor chum Dominic West. He not only loves darts, but he loved the TV darts gameshow Bullseye because he thought it was funny. According to Sitwell, “the contestants were often tradespeople: electricians, builders and truck drivers”. He’s right, that is hilarious.

Among Sitwell’s detailed anecdotes of an arrows-addicted past, he gleefully recounts a trip to watch the darts in the “steaming, boisterous confines” of Lakeside, West Thurrock, which would be tricky since the darts at Lakeside was at Frimley Green in Surrey. Lakeside West Thurrock is an equally quotidian shopping centre in Essex. Still, easy mistake to make. To someone of Sitwell’s breeding, all these plebian anthills must look the same.

And congratulations to all the writers who had to Google quotes by Sid Waddell, the much-missed voice of darts for three decades until his sad death in 2012. I met the great man on assignment at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, once described by a Sky Sports pundit as “an upholstered sewer”. The home of the PDC World Championship before it moved to Alexandra Palace, Purfleet is a benighted wasteland by the Thames Estuary. Not the kind of place you’d find a Guardian reader. The Circus Tavern itself is a cross between Phoenix Nights and the Bates Motel, once festooned with a poster-lined pantheon of racist stand-up comedians and strippers.

Waddell was complaining to me about his “rotten guts” while eating a cold pasty. “A word of advice,” he said leaning across the press room (I say room, it was a shipping container). “Don’t eat the pasties.” You don’t get banter like that at Glyndebourne. Darts has been scoped out by the elite before, notably the extremely funny Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch in 1980 (of further note because it was blamed for the downturn in TV interest in the sport that in part led to the creation of the all-conquering PDC tournaments on Sky today). Darts’ underbelly glamour also formed the backdrop to Martin Amis’ satire London Fields, but never has the sport been pestered by the grande bourgeoisie to this extent.

This is cultural appropriation — the darting equivalent of football to David Cameron, whose commitment to Aston Villa was so total he confused them with West Ham because they wore the same colours. Who of these parvenues can remember Paul Lim’s first televised nine-dart finish, or Phil Taylor’s scuffle with Kevin “The Artist” Painter or when Gary Anderson was called out for farting at the oche?

None of this gentrification is Littler’s fault. He’s the real deal. He comes from the right background, wears the right clothes and eats the right food (kebabs). It’s possible that this new star has been responsible for darts’ Italia 90 moment, though it’s just as likely the nobs will forget all about it once the next chavalcade comes along. I know this is reverse snobbery, but sue me. Leave your privilege at the door, please. You can’t just join the illumidarti uninvited. You have to know your place.

George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor