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Dublin: 12°C Wednesday 12 May 2021

'I was going to give darts up or get laser eye surgery and fight' - The Limerick carpenter who stunned Van Gerwen

William O’Connor discusses his victory over PDC World Number One Michael van Gerwen at the Dutch Championships last week.

THERE’S AN INTERESTING story behind William O’Connor’s nickname, the one which is stitched onto the back of his custom-made white shirt splattered with smudges of green and orange. It offers an appropriate insight into the mentality of one of Ireland’s foremost rising sports stars, even though he is far from a household name as things stand.

“When I first started to play darts, I used to go around a lot of local pub tournaments in Limerick,” the Cappamore native explains. “There wasn’t really much money involved in them at the time, really.

Dg91b0aXUAAeJzb Cappamore darts player William O'Connor.

“There was maybe €80, €100, €200 to win them. I was never interested in the money part of it at that stage, it was the ‘winning’ element. I wanted to win so badly, so instead of the cash prize I focussed on the trophies.

“When I saw a trophy that I had never won before, I kept my eye on it. I would tell my friends ‘lads, I don’t have that one, I’m going to win it’. Normally, I did. So the lads started calling me ‘The Magpie’, because they kept saying how I was obsessed with these different shiny tournament trophies.”

A sprawling black and white bird, feathers on display with a small dart clasped inside its beak projects out from the front of his jersey. The shirt and the Magpie himself were on display for all to see last week in Maastricht, a small university city in southern Holland, as the Limerick man sensationally dumped PDC World Number One Michael van Gerwen out in the second round of the Dutch World Championships in front of his own loyal supporters.

He had beaten van Gerwen before, he admits. Yet, despite a pressing and persistent unease with any praise of his achievement — completely destroying darts’ greatest player six legs to one — O’Connor understands why his name might have made one or two small headlines back in Ireland, given the emphatic nature of the win and the size of the upset.

Following the retirement of Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor at the start of this year — the 16-time World Champion who became the face and embodiment of the sport — Dutch maestro van Gerwen has taken over his mantle as number one. The 29-year-old was previously a tiler in the Netherlands, but at the beginning of 2017 secured the PDC World Darts Championship to establish himself as the sport’s top dog.

DARTS O'Connor made it to the 2018 European Matchplay final in Hamburg and made his PDC World Championship debut last year. Source: LAWRENCE LUSTIG

A year later Taylor played his last ever world final against unknown Rob Cross at the start of 2018, and suffered a lowly defeat to bow out of the sport he had moulded into his own plaything throughout a glittering, and at times controversial, career spanning four separate decades.

O’Connor’s incredible win, beating World Number One van Gerwen in front of a home crowd in Holland in a competition the Dutchman was odds-on favourite to win, reminded the sporting public back home of his presence.

Even though darts still lives far beneath the radar in this country; mainly due to the fact that it is not classified as a sport in Ireland at all, receiving no government funding and being dismissed as ‘a game’ by large sways of the population.

That dismissal is not something that particularly bothers O’Connor, a carpenter by day who makes furniture during the week to pay his mortgage and take care of his wife and kids. He has reached an exceedingly high level of professional darts off his own back; paying his own way, travelling all over Europe, funding his hobby.

Source: Michael van Gerwen/YouTube

He doesn’t agree with it, but he understands that the public’s perception of darts is still tied hand-in-hand to its origins in drinking houses going back well over a century. That stigma has not gone away.

“In Ireland, darts isn’t seen as a sport,” he says. “It’s seen as a pub game. That’s the way it is. You talk to anybody in Ireland, anyone from Revenue or anyone from the Government, they all say the same: ‘it’s a pub game, it’s not a sport’.

“It’s a very Irish thing. In Britain there’s a greater appreciation of darts. It’s seen as a sport over there and all over the UK. In England it is seen as a sport, but in Ireland it isn’t and it probably won’t be for a long, long time.

I guess it’s the whole idea of it coming from the pub,” he reflects. “You see, the thing about darts is that anybody, anywhere, can go out and buy a set for €15, get a dart board and bring it home and throw at it.

“They can go down to the local, have a few games and fool around. Probably 90% of the population have picked up a set of darts at one time or another and thrown them at a board. So anytime they see it being played professionally or on TV, they associate it with the time they came across it themselves, which might have been in the pub.

“I’m sure everybody knows a fella that loves darts and they’ll head down and play with them down the local, and as a result of that they associate the game with the pub and the bar. They associate the pub game with professional players and dismiss it.”

His own foray into darts began, as it were, in his own local in Limerick as an 18-year-old. Waiting impatiently for a game of pool to begin, he picked up a set of darts and has not looked back since.

At the beginning there were national singles titles in Ireland, then a handful of Players’ Championships. He entered the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) in 2009 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old and began turning heads by defeating Stuart Monaghan at the 2010 UK Open and then earned his way to face World Number Three James Wade, where the Irishman bowed out to much appreciation and recognition for his performances.

40984420_2407149275992139_8409017293748568064_n The 32-year-old Limerick player won the Tom Kirby Irish Matchplay in 2017. Source: LAWRENCE LUSTIG

The debate about darts’ legitimacy is a tired one, he says. Many people are impassioned by their stance on whether or not it should be classified as a sport, and are not shy to tell players like him what’s on their mind. Those who agree it’s a sport, and those who are opposed are often entrenched in their opinions.

They are rightly entitled to their views, O’Connor says. But after so many times trying to explain the skill, mental resolve, competitiveness and personal dedication in terms of training and travelling for competitions, the sacrifice it takes on your family life, you get tired. You’re either preaching to the choir or talking to a brick wall; he says you’re rarely going to convince someone to change their mind, and that’s absolutely fine. He just gets on with it.

O’Connor is the Republic of Ireland’s second highest ranked darts player, sitting 48th in the world. Last week’s win against World Number One van Gerwen, on top of making it all the way to July’s European Matchplay final in Hamburg (where he lost to the Dutchman) and winning the 2017 Irish Matchplay are just some of the recent successes that point towards a growing trajectory which only seems likely to gain more momentum.

His appearance at the PDC World Championship at the famous Alexandre Palace, ‘Ally Pally’, last year showed he had made it to the elite level.

En route to July’s final in Germany, O’Connor beat current PDC World Champion Rob Cross in the second round. The Englishman’s own rise from unknown electrician to beating Phil Taylor took the sport by storm at the beginning of the year.

But despite his list of successes, O’Connor is still only a semi-professional by definition, he explains. Working with Furniture Man in Dromkeen, the 32-year-old makes his living building all sorts. He would love to make darts his full-time career, but family is always his number one priority.

“We make wardrobes, lockers, drawers, all sorts. Beds, tables, chairs,” he says. “I’m lucky enough with my employers that they’ll give me whatever time I need off for darts. They want to see me succeed, the boss knows I have the dedication to do what I want to do.

William Hill World Darts Championship - Day Fifteen - Alexandra Palace Rob Cross (left) shocked the world by beating Phil Taylor to win the 2018 PDC World Championship. O'Connor beat Cross at the European Matchplay in July. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Obviously I want to progress to the pinnacle of darts, if I can. I don’t want to do it for me personally, I don’t really care. If I can reach the top and get there, I want to make as much money as I can and I want to succeed for as long as I can.

“I’d like to buy everything in the world for my family, to look after them and to look after everyone around me that’s important in my life. It’s a dream, but it’s a dream I know can be turned into a reality with hard work.

And I’d like to try and do it, you know?,” he adds. “I have the opportunity and there are thousands of people around the world who would love the chance I’ve been given. So while I have this opportunity, I’m going to give it my best.”

At the start of his career, The Magpies’ desire was to hoover up as many of those shiny trophies as possible. At that stage it was just amateur stuff.

But having fought his way onto the incredibly fraught and competitive PDC World Championship stage (where total prize money is as high as £1.8 million), he is up-front about the opportunities he has to make significant money in darts. Funds which can help him look after his family. “I cannot give my life to darts professionally at the moment,” he admits. “It’s a few extra quid at the end of the week, that’s how I look at it.

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“I work full-time, darts is part-time for me. It’s a gig that I’d like to make full-time if possible. But it’s a very expensive past-time in terms of travelling around Europe to competitions, so I’m limited to what I can do because I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got a family at home. I’ve got a wife and kids to look after.

For me, family always comes first. After they are looked after on any given week, if I have enough time left to play I’ll give it to darts. But at the moment my main priority is work and my family. That’s it, like. After that, darts is next.”

Speaking with the Cappamore man, you can sense his intense devotion. But you also begin to recognise his laser-focused approach to self-examination; to spot holes in his own game and to address them in order to improve rapidly. Whatever success is earned is already in the past by the time you come home and put the key in the door; the next tournament is the one that really matters, he says.

Source: Professional Darts Corporation/YouTube

He admits that he cannot say he has any specific philosophy to the game. But he knows what drives him on to succeed and to improve — winning, winning and more winning.

“What do I like about darts? The competitiveness,” he smiles.

I’m very, very competitive. I don’t play pool, I don’t play basketball, football, rugby, bowling, anything. I don’t do it. But I could play any game with you and you could smash me, and I’ll turn around and say ‘lad, I know I can beat you’.

“You could be the best player in the world at anything and once I get the idea in my head, I genuinely believe I could beat you and I know I can win. I love the whole competitiveness of darts, I’m just that sort of person.”

Darts is a game based on confidence. Sensing weakness in your opponent is a crucial skill and pouncing on any sense of self-doubt is what separates the halves, from the have-nots. When an eye condition affected his ability to showcase his real potential, he only had one option — surgery. Painful surgery, he says. Three corneal abrasions where doctors and surgions poked and played with his eyes.

About two and a half years ago I was contemplating quitting,” he says. “My eyes were always at me for a long, long time. Lighting would always have been a factor on how I played and where I played.

“So I had to consider if I was going to pack it all in or not, because it was driving me mad. I knew I was better than what my results were giving me. I just didn’t think I was getting the opportunity, with health issues like that affecting me.

“So because of my eyes I said: ‘right, either I’m going to give this up or I’m going to get laser eye surgery done and fight on’. I couldn’t wear glasses because I wasn’t able to deal with the shadows and the glare from them.

“So I got the laser eye surgery down in Optilase in Cork, told myself I’d give it one more lash and see how it goes. It took a bit of time to come right. On top of that, I changed my darts, changed my throw, my stance, everything else. That was the start of last year, 2017, and immediately I started getting better results.

“As a darts player, with your eyes, it’s all to do with the intake of light by your cornea. So if your eyes are poor, you’re not taking in the right amount of light, and if you’re a in a dark area playing darts you’re not going to see the board properly.

“My eyes were definitely playing a big part in my performances,” he continues. “Because it affects your confidence as well. Confidence is the hardest thing in darts. Your eyes could be great, your throw can be good, everything can be perfect, but if you haven’t got the confidence to go out and do it, then you’ll never do it. My confidence was broken down and that takes time to mend and build.

Darts is all about hand-eye coordination. If you’re eyes aren’t right, then how can your hand-eye coordination be right? I broke my game down: I said if this isn’t working, or that isn’t working, what can I do differently to improve? So I said, if I get my eyes done with this surgery it won’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t work, at least I tried. But it seems to be doing the trick anyway.”

He is quick to dismiss last week’s victory against van Gerwen, the one which generated the headlines, but he does accept that he can use it as a bookmark going forward. Beating the World Number One in a year when the Dutchman has won six major titles (the PDC World Championship, The Masters, Premier League, European Championship, Grand Slam of Darts, and Players’ Championship) is no mean feat.

O’Connor has beaten him during other, smaller floor competitions, but the big stage of the Dutch Championships in Maastricht, and the fact that he had knocked out the player the baying home crowd had come in worship of, was something to take note of. No matter how many times he dismisses the win, there is no denying it was a major upset, and an upset which van Gerwen himself was impressed with last week.

“I know I beat Michael van Gerwen, the World Number One. But to me he’s just another dart player standing in my way,” says O’Connor.

Source: Professional Darts Corporation/YouTube

“To me, I was disappointed going home to Ireland because I lost in the next round to Rickie Evans. I wasn’t happy that I was beaten at all, I want to win every single time, every single round, every single game.

“I believe I can beat anybody. Michael didn’t play his best darts that night. But, you know, no matter who it is I’m playing I’ll go in believing I can win. Whether that be true or not, I believe I can win. I’m never surprised when I do. When I go into a darts match and look at the dart board, it’s not what your opponent does, it’s not what Michael van Gerwen does — it’s what I do,” he explains.

I walk up to that board and I don’t look at what he’s doing. I don’t care what he does. What Michael does is irrelevant to what I do. If I worry about every 180 Michael van Gerwen hits or focus on all his big finishes, I’m never going to win. I don’t look at the player, I don’t look at my opponent — I look at the board. It’s you playing against the board. I didn’t beat Michael van Gerwen. I beat myself. That’s the way I look at things.”

The PDC World Champion and O’Connor have played each other a number of times in recent years, with the pair only three years apart in age. Losing the European Matchplay final in Hamburg two months ago (which presented the winner £25,000 in prize money, the runner-up £10,000) was difficult for the Limerick man. But he has the greatest respect for van Gerwen, and relishes any chance to show his own ability against the very best.

“Michael is a good lad. I wouldn’t show any signs of disrespect towards him and he doesn’t to me. He wished me the very best of luck afterwards in Holland. I told him on the stage ‘it means a lot to me to beat you, Michael, because no one was giving me a shot against you’.

“The difference in the two wins I have over Michael was that one was on the floor and last week’s one was on a big stage. Against his home crowd, it was a nice feeling. But, you know, the crowd was on his side. They were very up for Michael and they didn’t want me to beat him. He’s the hometown hero. So obviously they were giving him more encouragement and they were very loud.

maxresdefault O'Connor heavily beat van Gerwen 6-1 last week in Holland.

“But I do think that backing put Michael off more than it did me, because the focus was on him. I could see that and it encouraged me to push a little bit harder and to stick with it, because I knew me beating him was annoying him.

“If I go back to the last time he beat me, in the European Matchplay final in Hamburg, I would use it as a bookmark — thinking to yourself, ‘right I can actually do this’. Michael beat me in the final in Germany, but I knew even going into that final that I can beat him. Beating these big names gives you confidence going forward. It shows that your form is coming together and that it’s not just one day out and a fluke.”

As we finish up our chat, we return to his approach to darts. He knows its a sport that’s often derided, but he really doesn’t care. It’s another income to help his family, and nothing else matters in his view. He knows the levels of composure, skill, ability and concentration needed to fit those small tiny little arrows of tungsten into a board seven feet in front of him.

Sure, he enjoys it. There have come times when the sport has, he says, come close to “breaking him”, but the desire to go out and compete and to win, to bring home prize money and hoover up those shiny trophies with the glare of a magpie, that’s what’s driving him on to succeed.

I believe I went to the PDC far too soon. When I started playing darts, I won a couple of small tournaments, then I won a couple of bigger tournaments, then I won the national singles title in Ireland, then I won a few Players’ Championships and things like that.

“And you’re always looking up, you’re always thinking ‘how can I get better?’ You have to go higher and higher and higher. And then when you get to a certain point, you have to keep looking higher. You can’t look across from you or look down, because you’ll only get knocked off.

OConnor-MVG (1) O'Connor and van Gerwen shake hands at the Dutch Championships.

“So you keep looking higher, but I got to the point where I was asking myself ‘where can I go now?’ I was at that point for maybe four years when I joined the PDC in 2009, because I joined far too early and reached that level earlier than I might have expected. But, look, things happen for a reason. Darts did break me several times down the years I’ve been in the PDC, definitely. But I couldn’t give up, because I’m too stubborn.”

The entrance music is an important part of any dart’s players’ personality. O’Connor explains that his is an old favourite, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: ‘I won’t back down‘. “It’s a song that has a bit of meaning to me,” he says. “It’s how I feel, you know? I’m not going to back down from anyone, any time.”

Driven on in spades by a competitive will to win and a duty to provide for his family and offer them the best life he can give them — working to make tables and chairs during the week and giving whatever time left to darts — William O’Connor has many more big nights ahead of him. Nights when, hopefully, his name will earn the recognition his success deserves in a sport too often disregarded as nothing more than a simple game that anybody can play.

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About the author:

Aaron Gallagher

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