The only man to have a shot at a double for the world title and fail to win it, Mike Gregory was a fantastic player who gained notoriety for his role in the great darts split.
The 1992 Embassy World Professional Darts Championship final was the greatest match in the sport’s history. It was won by Phil Taylor, without doubt the greatest player in the sport’s history. The runner-up was Mike Gregory who you probably won’t have heard of unless you followed darts in the 80s and early 90s.
If you’re the wrong side of 40, like me (just), you’ll recall how popular darts was in the 80s. It was quite different from the Sky TV razzamatazz of today replete with walk-on music and accompanying models. One thing which has remained the same is the alcohol-fuelled bedlam in the crowd.
For years, the British Darts Organisation (BDO) controlled darts in its entirety. Run by Olly Croft, an old-fashioned figure in most senses of the word, it sanctioned the game at every level from the pub leagues to the big televised tournaments.
Players like Eric Bristow, John Lowe and Jocky Wilson became household names. Bristow was the best of that generation (he dropped just one set in the 1984 Embassy, in his 7-1 final demolition of Dave Whitcombe) and I can vividly recall my ‘Crafty Cockney Outshot Calculator’ which came with his darts set. For those who remember Bristow in his sporting heyday, everything finished with double 16.
Pre-dartitis, when he was at times barely able to let go of the thing, Bristow had a beautifully rhythmic and smooth throwing action. His grip was unorthodox but there was a large ‘backswing’ and full extension of the arm on the follow-through. Lowe’s action was poetry in motion, even allowing for the odd hop on release of the final dart. Wilson’s was a bit more of a chuck but as one of the shorter men on the circuit, that was to be expected.
Gregory’s was something else entirely. The backswing was minimal with a fast long follow-through which sometimes came through like a golfer’s hook. It was certainly effective though and my abiding memory is of him hitting numerous 140s when in the groove. Maximums were far rarer back then. The wire on dartboards was much thicker than it is today – just compare the treble 20 bed as Michael van Gerwen peppers it in 2013 to Lowe’s historic nine-dart finish in 1984 (and check out the serious metal around the bull).
He came to attention in 1983 when he reached the final of the British Open and the World Masters, losing in both to Bristow. Gregory went on to win several big televised tournaments including the British Professional Championship in 1984, the 1986 World Matchplay and consecutive News of the Worlds – darts’ spectacular equivalent of the FA Cup featuring pub and club players from all over the country in a best-of-three leg knockout format – in 1987 and 1988.
Darts’ public appeal was always a precarious one. Despite its popularity, the tabloid press made hay with stories of drunken darters, not helped by the beer and fags on the stage. While the rumblings grew louder long after the infamous Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch of 1980, these combined with ITV ditching World of Sport in 1985 led to less darts on television.
Then in 1988 came the hammer blow of BBC and ITV pulling all their darts coverage with the exception of the Embassy World Championship. The sport lurched along until 1992 when the top 16 players decided enough was enough and formed the World Darts Council (WDC), a breakaway group from the BDO.
These players had suffered for years under Croft’s autocratic rule. For example, John Lowe was sponsored by Unicorn darts. But in the World Masters, backed by rival darts manufacturer Winmau, he would have to wear a Winmau logo instead. For free.
The lack of TV coverage meant lower prize money, decreased exposure and thus sponsorship. With Croft seemingly unable, or perhaps unwilling, to attract new money to the sport, the players decided to do it for themselves.
This led to ‘the split’ which exists to this day and is still the cause of great resentment, particularly where Gregory’s name is mentioned. You can see the story in this fine documentary featuring interviews with the protagonists including the man from Paulton. As the legal wranglings and recriminations wore on, the Embassy – shorn of its big names – rumbled on, and the infant WDC scraped by with tournaments on low prize money.
The irony was the WDC’s formation came just weeks after the greatest match of them all: the 1992 Embassy final between Gregory and one Phil Taylor. In an epic encounter lasting well over two hours (which could only have been improved had Sid Waddell commentated for the second half rather than Tony Green) Gregory went 2-0 up in the deciding 11th set, missed two darts at double eight for the title and then casually checked out 121.
Leading 5-4, Gregory was left with 80 against Taylor’s 116. Gregory hit two single 20s before missing double top but Taylor failed to pounce leaving his opponent three more darts for glory. Gregory hit single 20 and then agonisingly failed with two darts at double 10 and Taylor took the match into sudden death which he won against the throw. For me, it’s right up there alongside Jimmy White’s inexplicable missed black in the deciding frame of the 1994 World Snooker final against Stephen Hendry for most gut-wrenching sporting fail in my lifetime.
Gregory won the first WDC tournament – the Lada UK Masters – shown exclusively on regional Anglia TV and played under the unusual format whereby players shared the leg if they finished it in the same number of darts, in November 1992. At the start of 1993, the 16 rebels played in the Embassy (won by John Lowe) before the split turned ugly. Olly Croft banned the 16 from any BDO-sanctioned tournaments and, given he was also head of the World Darts Federation, extended that ruling worldwide. The exceptions were USA and Canada who could not agree with the proposal as it contravened their countries’ constitutions!
Gregory retained his Lada title in November 1993 before sensationally joining Welshman Chris Johns in returning to the BDO after pressure from Croft. While many of the 16 were financially secure, Gregory and his then wife decided that the BDO was the safer bet for his family’s future given he had a “big mortgage”. Not only did it turn out to be the wrong decision in a sporting sense, he immediately became persona non grata among the players he had abandoned. As Bristow says in ‘The Split In Darts’ documentary, “If he’d have said to me, ‘Eric, I want to go back to the BDO. I want to look after my wife and kids,’ I wouldn’t have told the other boys. I’d have shook his hand and told him, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,’ and I still would’ve been friends with him. But he didn’t do that, so I don’t talk to him no more. You don’t share a room with somebody for two years and do that.”
As a big name, Gregory’s move threatened to derail the WDC who had just signed deals with Sky TV and Skol to sponsor their new World Championship. The show went on, the WDC became the PDC (in 1987 after a long court battle resulting in the BDO accepting the WDC’s right to exist as long as it could not claim to be a ‘World’ governing body), and the rest is history.
Before too long, so was Gregory’s career on the big stage. There was a final hurrah as he beat a young Peter Manley to win the 1995 European Masters, but his game soon deserted him and that world title eluded him. Now 60, he still plays exhibitions and turns out for Radstock in the Somerset Superleague. But if he had hit one of those six doubles in that 1992 final, he probably would have stayed with the WDC breakaway and life would have been quite different.