Six of the Best – Fighting The Power.

In darts’ current era Michael van Gerwen is unquestionably the dominant force. Since 1st January 2013, the world number one has captured an astonishing 35 televised major PDC titles of the 70 that were available to him, operating at exactly 50%.

Dominance. Has MVGs level of superiority been matched or even surpassed before?

This achievement is all the more remarkable given there are now a plethora of players capable of producing averages well over the 3-figure mark on any given day, many of whom hold no fear of the main man.

It is hard to envisage a more dominant player, but we only have to rewind a couple of decades to find a level of dominance that is unlikely to ever be replicated. In the early years of the PDC, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor simply ruled darts. Not only was he comfortably the best player, but he had an aura and presence about him that made others afraid to beat him, even when they engineered opportunities to do so.

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Not just wins, Taylor inflicted crushing defeats.

In the 10-year period 1st January 1996 – 31st December 2005, Taylor won 24 of the 32 major PDC titles on offer, at a staggering 75% strike rate. This included nine World Championship wins. Across those nine World Championship Finals he dropped just 22 sets and completed three whitewashes; Taylor did not just beat his closest rivals, he administered crushing defeats that left indelible mental scars. Subsequent to this period, Taylor still enjoyed huge success but with the likes of Raymond van Barneveld and Gary Anderson defecting from the BDO, and the emergence of young talent in the form of Adrian Lewis, James Wade and van Gerwen himself, the darts scene finally began to become more competitive.

So, what of the players who strove to challenge Taylor in that 10-year period up to the end of 2005? There were many fine competitors who put up heroic efforts against him on the oche, almost always in vain. Some even tried to engage Taylor in a war of words, but this rarely worked either. Here we take a look at six of the best who dared to challenge ‘The Power’ in this decade of dominance and assess their levels of success against him.

6. Alan Warriner-Little

A regular in the upper echelons of the PDC in the late nineties and early noughties, ‘The Ice-Man’ will perhaps look back on his PDC career haul of just one major title (the 2001 Grand Prix) as a shade disappointing given his obvious talent. Although never able to beat Phil Taylor in a major, Warriner-Little was competitive in two World Matchplay finals against him. In 1997 he went down 16-11 despite averaging 99, whilst he lost 18-12 in 2000 when averaging 96. He also took three sets off Taylor in the 1999 World Championship semi-final in a high-quality affair.

Alan Warriner. The original ‘Iceman’.

However, Warriner-Little was to suffer three subsequent heavy defeats at the Circus Tavern at the hands of ‘The Power’, two of which did not come without controversy. Defeated 5-0 in the quarter-final in 2000, he did not hang around to shake hands and walked off the stage. Then, in 2003, seemingly frustrated by Taylor enjoying the media limelight at the expense of the other players, Warriner-Little said “They might as well call it the Phil Darts Corporation. I am fed up with everything being about Taylor and nobody else. If he beats me, then I will punch him and knock him out”, but a comprehensive 6-1 semi-final defeat ensued. A final major meeting between the pair came the following year with Taylor prevailing 5-1 in a quarter-final clash.

Although never able to leave a mark on Phil Taylor, Warriner-Little was a player whose talents Taylor respected.

5. Wayne Mardle

‘Hawaii 501’s’ victory over Phil Taylor in the 2008 World Championship quarter-final is the most famous of his career. Although it came outside the period this article is discussing, it was, perhaps, the product of previous efforts that Mardle had put in against ‘The Power’. As is the case for so many, Mardle’s overall competitive record against Taylor is uninspiring. It reads three wins from 32 matches, but there is a story behind the bare statistics. Mardle beat Taylor twice in Pro Tour events in the early noughties, but he will be best remembered for putting up bold shows in defeat against him in televised majors.

In all, prior to 2008, Mardle and Taylor met four times at the World Championship and all the matches were competitive. Mardle averaged in the mid-90s in going down 5-3, 6-2 and 6-5 in the last 16 (2003), quarter-final (2004) and semi-final (2006) respectively, each time getting closer to causing an upset. In addition, Mardle put up a very respectable performance in the only major final that he reached in 2003 when going down 18-12 to Taylor at the World Matchplay, despite averaging three points more than him (97.44), whilst he also took Taylor to a deciding leg at the 2004 UK Open.

A crowd favourite, Mardle saved his best for the big occasion and when he finally did beat Taylor on the biggest stage of all, ‘The Power’ paid tribute to Mardle’s courage in getting over the line; “Fair play to the lad, he played brilliantly in the final few legs”.  

4. Dennis Priestley

It may seem odd to include a player who had a record of played 12, lost 12 against ‘The Power’ during the decade this article discusses, but that does not tell the whole story. Dennis ‘The Menace’ Priestley, one of only four dual-code world champions, actually had a winning head-to-head record over Phil Taylor at the time the PDC was formed and he extended that record further when hammering him 6-1 in the inaugural PDC World Championship Final in 1994. At this point, the pair were genuinely competitive rivals and seen as comfortably the two best players in the PDC. They were good friends and even had an agreement where they would share the prize money they won.

They went on to contest four more World Championship Finals in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000. Taylor won them all. Other than when whitewashed in 1998, Priestley put up stern resistance however, particularly in 1996 when going down 6-4 despite averaging over 101. The following year Priestley hit Taylor with a barrage of 180s to take the first two sets, before Taylor gradually ground him into submission with some ruthless finishing to prevail 6-3. Finally, in 2000, Priestley again started well, levelling the match at 2-2, before Taylor pulled away to win 7-3. 

Perhaps more than anybody, Dennis Priestley can wonder just how many titles he would have won had it not been for Phil Taylor, but he was almost always competitive when they met. The late, great Sid Waddell said in 2009 that “Priestley was the only one who could do anything with Taylor between 1994 and 1998”.

3. Peter Manley

It says a lot about Phil Taylor’s dominance that it has taken us to reach number 3 before we discuss a player who actually beat him in a major tournament in the period in question. Former world number one, Peter ‘One Dart’ Manley, managed that at the 1999 World Matchplay when completing a 17-14 victory with a memorable 128 finish on the bull. This victory came just six months after the pair’s meeting in the World Championship Final, where Taylor comfortably won 6-2. At this point in time Manley was still a newsagent, but he quickly made the decision to turn professional and made an immediate impact in the PDC.

However, Manley’s success against Taylor was to remain extremely limited, suffering 10 defeats in their next 11 meetings, most notably in two more World Championship finals where he was whitewashed 7-0 on both occasions (2002 and 2006). In the 2002 final Manley controversially walked off the stage at the end of the match without shaking hands which led to him becoming something of a pantomime villain with darts fans. His gamesmanship was all part of a strategy though, as he later revealed; “I wasn’t as good as him (Phil Taylor), I never expected to be as good as him, but what I tried to do was bring it down to my level so it would make it an equal game. I tried everything.”

Although rarely successful in terms of results, Manley did have the ability to get under Taylor’s skin as ‘The Power’ would later reveal; “I really got the grit in my teeth when I played Peter Manley. He did wind me up. He was the master at it.”

2. Rod Harrington

On results alone, Rod Harrington’s competitive career record against Phil Taylor has no equal for those who played ‘The Power’ at least five times. It reads seven wins from 16 matches (43.75%). Those seven victories include a major win in the BDO Winmau World Masters Final of 1991.

In the period of time under discussion, The Prince of Style beat Taylor three times in the PDC Golden Harvest North American Cup (in 1996, 1997 and 1999), these victories coinciding with periods of time where Harrington was the PDC world number one (Taylor cherry-picked the tournaments he played so rarely held that honour in the late nineties).

Sadly for Harrington, he was never able to beat Taylor in a PDC major, where he lost on all five occasions they met, twice in finals and three times in semi-finals. The closest he got was in the 1999 Grand Prix semi-final in Rochester where Taylor triumphed 5-4 in a deciding set. Whilst never really threatening Taylor in the other four matches, Harrington performed with credit and was never humiliated, including when averaging 96 in an entertaining semi-final of the 1997 World Matchplay, where he was defeated 13-9.

1. John Part

John Part did not play Phil Taylor until the World Championship Final of 2001, where he was on the wrong end of a 7-0 thumping, with Taylor averaging an unprecedented 107.46. Up to the end of 2005 ‘Darth Maple’ went on to play Taylor on another 18 occasions. He lost 13 of those matches, many heavily, including another three whitewashes. However, of his five victories over ‘The Power’, three of them came in majors. To provide perspective, Part accounted for three of the five defeats (60%) Taylor suffered in majors in that period, and they were all over a long distance. The other two defeats Taylor suffered were shock first round exits in the Grand Prix at the hands of Kevin Painter (2001) and Andy Callaby (2004).

Part’s most memorable victory, of course, came in the 2003 World Championship Final where, after racing in to a 3-0 lead, he found himself 5-4 and 6-5 down. Part could have been easily forgiven for folding, as many had before him. By that stage he had already suffered five consecutive major defeats at the hands of Taylor, including a humiliating 16-4 defeat in the quarter-final of the 2001 World Matchplay and another whitewash at the 2002 World Championship. But Part had got close in the 2002 World Matchplay Final, going down 18-16 in a thriller, and that gave him hope. His strength of character came to the fore and, fittingly, a clinical 77 finish saw him close out a 7-6 triumph over Taylor and lift the biggest title in darts. Further big victories over Taylor came in the semi-final of the Las Vegas Desert Classic (2003), the UK Open quarter-final (2004) and the quarter-final of the World Matchplay (2005). 

It is not that Part was statistically a better player than many of the other top players in the PDC during this period, but he was mentally stronger and did not allow the numerous heavy defeats he suffered at the hands of ‘The Power’ to affect his positive mindset. Part accepted that there would be many days where Taylor was just too strong, but when the opportunities did arise to beat him, Part was the man with the bottle and belief to capitalise.