England’s Josh Payne claimed his 2nd senior PDC title last Sunday with victory in Players Championship 12.
He edged out World No.2 Peter Wright 6-5 in a thrilling final to cap off an incredible day for the 24 year-old from Gravesend.
Over 2 years since he first tasted victory in the professional ranks, Payne was visibly emotional after pinning double top at the 5th time of asking in the deciding leg.
Reiterating his desire to ‘make a big mark on TV’, he admitted battling hard to return to this level of competition following a tough time on the circuit last season.
So can the talented youngster now take his career to the next level?
From Pleasure to Payne
Much was expected of Josh when he shocked James Wade to win in Barnsley as a 22 year-old, back in April 2016.
Payne ran through Gerwyn Price, Wes Newton, Kevin Painter and Mensur Suljovic- all current or former top 12 players in the world rankings- en route to the final, before downing 7-time Major Champion Wade 6-5 to take the title.
Unsurprisingly, he quickly became the newest ‘next big thing’. Learning to deal with these expectations is difficult, as is performing when all eyes are suddenly upon you.
His achievements gained him entry to the prestigious World Matchplay in July, as well as the Players Championship Finals and eventually the holy grail of the World Championships at the end of the year.
Transitioning from floor tournaments to the grandest stages the sport has to offer is incredibly hard.
Thrust in front of the cameras and with thousands of fans packing the arenas, Josh struggled to adapt. First-round losses at the Matchplay and the Worlds sandwiched a 10-2 thumping by World No.1 Michael van Gerwen at the Players.
No further appearances at Premier events have been forthcoming.
In fact, Payne failed to register a single semi-final appearance on the Pro Tour for the next 24 months and his burgeoning career had come to a shuddering halt.
So just how has he turned it all around to once again take a place in the spotlight?
The System is Working
Josh Payne began his career on the PDC’s Development Tour in 2012 as an 18 year-old.
Good performances saw him quickly graduate to the Challenge Tour the following year where he recorded a first tournament victory, defeating Austrian Rowby-John Rodriguez 4-3 in the 2nd event.
Further progression gained him full Tour Card status at the back end of 2013.
Crucially for Josh, he was still eligible to compete at youth level alongside his forays onto the senior circuit.
This is invaluable experience for young players learning their trade. Disappointments against seasoned professionals can be quickly forgotten. Lessons can be learnt and mistakes corrected with constant match practice against fellow unpolished up-and-comers.
The PDC’s tiered system- implemented by Chairman Barry Hearn- can be instrumental in a player’s future if utilised properly.
Payne has squeezed every last drop out of a system designed specifically to achieve what he is trying to- successful passage into full-time darts.
He could have opted to compete only at pro level following his breakthrough triumph. However, his decision to continue to play on the youth circuit may have ended up saving his career.
Whilst getting nowhere against the world’s elite, Josh continued to rack up confidence restoring results against his own peers, culminating in a run to the Final of the World Youth Championship last November.
His win over Double BDO Youth Champion Justin van Tergouw preceded a standout victory over Australian sensation Corey Cadby in the semi-finals.
Triumphing 6-3 against the reigning champion and odds-on favourite, Payne lined up against Dimitri van den Bergh in the Final.
Dimitri’s 6-3 victory meant no visit to Ally Pally over Christmas. More importantly, the World Youth Final was the last event before Josh turned 24. He was no longer eligible to compete in youth events.
To make matters worse, the end of April this year marked 2 years since he defeated Wade, meaning the £10,000 prize would be wiped from his ranking.
Perilously close to dropping out of the top 64 in the Order of Merit and relinquishing his tour card in the process, Payne arrived in Milton Keynes last weekend with a 2018 tournament record as follows:
18 entries, 17 failures to progress past the round of 16 and 6 failed attempts at qualifying for the European Tour events. He also missed out on the UK Open in March.
Therefore, when Gary Anderson defeated him in Round 1 of Saturday’s event, it was easy to assume another fruitless weekend was in order.
He had, however, been practising hard. No longer having the development tour training ground to fall back on, it was time for Josh to sink or swim at the highest level and there were signs that the hard work was paying off.
He beat 5 fellow tour card holders to reach the semi-finals of Players Championship 8 where he lost to the inspired eventual champion Mickey Mansell.
Milton Keynes Magic
It was promising, and on Sunday 20th May 2018, Josh reminded us all what a precocious talent he still is.
He quickly reeled off victories against Steve West, Zoran Lerchbacher and 2012 Lakeside Champion Christian Kist before whitewashing veteran Mervyn King to reach the quarter-finals.
There he dispatched in-form Welshman Johnny Clayton- himself a winner on the Pro Tour this season- by 6 legs to 2.
World No. 13 Ian White succumbed in a tight semi-final as Payne battled through a field of 128 professionals despite holding the 51st best average of the tournament.
Clinical without being spectacular throughout the day, Josh called upon everything he had learnt since he last graced a final in the big league and saved his best performance for last.
Heavy scoring provided early opportunities against good friend Peter Wright- who missed doubles early on. Payne pounced to take a 3-1 lead.
Inevitably, ‘Snakebite’ hung around and showed his class to force a deciding leg with a stunning 161 checkout.
Undeterred, Josh fired in his 5th 180 of the contest and left 40 after 12 darts thrown, as his opponent languished on 188. It was impeccable timing.
Subsequently missing 3 darts at his final target, he remained calm as Wright chased him down. Returning to the board he placed one more marker above the wire and confidently nailed the red bit with his next arrow. No panic. No finish-line nerves.
This title seemed different to the last. This wasn’t just red hot form blowing everyone away. No, this was a grind. All the years of hard work appear to have created a man who knows what it takes to win when you aren’t at your best.
Second Chance at Stardom
A newfound maturity, combined with hard work and dedication has handed Josh a precious career lifeline.
The £10,000 cheque rockets him back into the top 50 in the Order of Merit and the top 10 of the Players Championship Order of Merit.
With 7 events remaining before the cut-off, Payne sits just £2,750 outside the qualification places for the World Matchplay.
A return to Blackpool might be on the cards and a berth at the World Grand Prix in Dublin is also a strong possibility.
His World Youth Final loss, although disappointing at the time, has also guaranteed him a spot at the Grand Slam of Darts in November.
The top 32 in the Order of Merit should be his next aim. Indeed, every previous player to win multiple PDC Pro Tour titles has achieved this feat as a minimum.
Now positioned in line for a second shot at stardom, can he harbour the consistency needed to avoid history repeating itself?
We might just find out in the coming months.