Interview with Keith O’Neill – founder of Republic of Ireland’s first ever darts academy

Republic of Ireland Junior Darts Academy.
Dave McNally interviews Republic of Ireland Junior Darts Academy founder Keith O’Neill.

With darts thriving on an unprecedented scene here in the British Isles and across Europe, I managed to catch up with Keith O’Neill, who has set up the first ever Republic of Ireland darts academy to look after the future of darts on the Emerald Isle.

Despite not having the luxury of darts being recognised as a sport in Eire, Keith has battled on to give the youngsters every opportunity to hone their skills and prepare them for professional darts or to encourage more youngsters to take up the sport for the pure enjoyment.

Keith explained: “We are the only darts academy on the island of Ireland who are affiliated to the Junior Darts Corporation (JDC), sponsored by Unicorn Darts, adopting the DRA playing rules and playing in an alcohol free environment.”

It’s certainly something to shout about and a huge achievement for an association that is still finding its feet. Keith went on: “Yes, I realise it is in its infancy, but the response has been very positive so far with 13 local juniors taking part on a weekly basis. If we could get more information about the academy out there I am sure we could build on that.”

The lack of acknowledgement by the government has made it particularly hard to get funding for Keith and the darts academy, but this has made him more determined than ever. “Here in Ireland; darts is not recognised as a sport so therefore there are no grants available for funding from either the government or the Sports Council, and basically just not being taken seriously,” Keith added.

Despite the archaic view of the powers that be, the academy has been largely well received by both the students of the game and their parents, as Keith points out: “Indeed, it has had very positive responses from parents of the students that are already involved, they’re very happy to have their children engaging in group sports that help them interact with other kids, plus there is the educational aspect of helping them with their maths in a clever way that allows the kids to learn without them really knowing it, in a way that is fun.”

Putting in relentless hours on the academy has been like a full time job for Keith, but he was quick to point out that there has been help along the way. “Steve ‘Bomber’ Brown is the founder/chairman of the Junior Darts Corporation (JDC), and has designed the grading system we use at the academy. He was also available to give advice and help along the way as were many other people in the world of darts who have set up academies in the UK, pointing out any problems or simply giving their time to the project.”

So now that it is set up, what’s it all about then Keith? “We are based in Tullow, County Carlow. We are open every Thursday from 7:30pm – 9:00pm and it is currently the only junior darts academy in the whole of the Republic of Ireland. We run an eight weekly tournament, five times a year to coincide with our grading system. We also run a memorial youths tournament and an all-Ireland world junior darts qualifier; we also enter teams into a major all-Ireland team event once a year.”

So it looks like the foundations for growth are already in place, to sustain the academy and grow? “My long term goal for opening this academy to begin with was and still is; to produce a world darts champion from the island of Ireland. The talent we have in Ireland is amazing but they just need people to open doors for them.”

So is Keith thinking of producing darts players like Premier League football teams who churn out top quality youngsters on a regular basis? Do you hope to have a conveyor belt of up and coming academy talent? “That is exactly what I am trying to do; we have a darts school (for new members) and then the darts academy. New members are welcome and all progress depends on grades that you complete throughout the year. There is no limit to how far these youngsters can go and hopefully they will find their way onto the professional circuit.”

Apart from learning about darts, do you also offer advice on technique and pitfalls etc? “The darts school starts off with the basics such as the set up then looks at the players grip and stance. After this we will look at aiming, where to aim, target area etc. Then it’s onto the movement of the arm; we look at pull back and the throwers follow through.”

Keith adds: “We also look at aspects of the game that come natural to top players, but need to be learned at an early age and that is simply the mathematics of the game. The academy then focuses on getting your grades higher as well as darts etiquette, learning checkouts and how to actually run tournaments yourself.” This seems like a great idea to spread the game further if students can eventually go on to run tournaments themselves, getting more people playing the sport and developing it further.

Well aware of the fact that the academy is still young, does Keith think there are any youngsters out there who could go a long way? “This year we have Thomas O’Neill and Kian Cullen that have qualified through our grading system to represent Ireland at the World Junior Darts Championship being held in Bristol UK in December 2017, which we are very proud of. They are being joined by four qualifiers that have qualified through the qualification tournament we held at the academy.”

Finally Keith, is it a selection process or can anyone get involved? “Anyone can get involved, whatever their level or ability but qualification for our teams is from your ability only.”

Thanks to Keith O’Neill @ Republic of Ireland Junior Darts Academy for taking the time to speak to Darts World Magazine.