Q School: PDC tour spot is prize for builders, warehouse workers & ex-world champions
"It's only a game. It's not real life, it's la-la land."
There is a row of jauntily angled people with names on their luminous shirts like Hillbilly, Bad Medicine and Sonic Boom Boy.
We are in a leisure centre next to a Next store on the outskirts of Wigan. The huge hall normally houses four indoor tennis courts. Today it is covered in carpet, with 32 temporary blue cubicles around the edge. Each contains a number, board, scorer and oche. Welcome to darts' Q School.
There are 506 competitors from 17 countries, including Australia, Brazil and the United States. Darts will be thrown more than 400,000 times at this four-day flinging festival.
Scott Mitchell is among those taking a shot at glory - with coveted cards for the main Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) tour on offer. He may call it la-la land, but knows there is a lot at stake - this is a potential pathway to a better life.
'Scotty Dog' is a beef farmer and freelance landscape gardener, who has left his flooded New Forest village to compete here - a week after reaching the semi-finals in the lower-profile BDO World Championship, where he won the title five years ago.
"With a card, it takes you into the top 128 and you play on the pro tour so you can test yourself against the best in the world," said the Dorset dartist, 49.
"If I got to being a 60-year-old man and hadn't come to Q School and tried, there would have been a little piece of my darting life that would have been missing."
Mitchell was discovered through the BDO structure of county organisations and had not told his father, a staunch supporter of darts' original governing body, that he was contemplating a switch before he died in October.
The decision felt more comfortable as this year's BDO tournament suffered a cut in prize money after poor ticket sales when it was moved from the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green, Surrey - its home for 34 years - to the Indigo at London's O2.
BDO champion Wayne Warren received £23,000 - far removed from the £100,000 Mitchell and other recent winners had received. Peter 'Snakebite' Wright collected £500,000 for winning the PDC version at Alexandra Palace just under a fortnight earlier.
"Even as a semi-finalist I'm not in profit, but at the end of the day I kind of knew that before we went," said Mitchell, who earned £5,000 this time.
BDO runner-up Jim Williams, two-time champion Scott Waites and previous finalists Tony O'Shea and Andy Hamilton are all competing in Wigan.
|What is Q School?|
|Entries: 853 - including 16 women, playing for 31 two-year tour cards (£450 entry)||Wigan: 20 tour cards - both "finalists" on each day and 12 from an order of merit|
|Venues: UK - 500+ at Wigan, Lancashire; Germany - 300+ in Hildesheim||Germany: 11 tour cards - winner each day and seven from order of merit|
At 08:30 GMT, the queue of Q School hopefuls snakes out of the front door of the Robin Park Tennis Centre, opposite Wigan Athletic FC's DW Stadium.
It is only a few degrees Celsius outside, but that is no bother to players in their short-sleeved shirts. Some arrive with rucksacks, others just carrying a beer towel and their darts case. One is reading the book "Inner Engineering: A yogi's guide to joy". It takes all sorts.
Every morning at 10:30, there is a random draw. It is tough for teenage star Beau Greaves, who reached the BDO women's semi-finals on her 16th birthday, as she loses her opening best-of-nine-leg match to Brisbane Masters champion Damon Heta. Beau will be back. She hasn't even taken her GCSEs yet.
Keane Barry, a year older, is another early loser with time on his side. He beat Leighton Bennett, 14, to win the world youth title at the O2 and has dreamed of hitting the darting big time.
"When lads were at school saying I want to be a professional footballer, I wanted to be a professional darts player," said Irish player Barry, who is nicknamed 'Dynamite'.
"They laughed at the start but later on they realised I had a talent and saw the crowds on TV and respected it."
This is darts in its simplest form. No big shouts of "one hundreeeeeeed and eighteeey", just the gentle thud of tungsten hitting the target, more snooker's hushed Crucible than the Ally Pally hullabaloo.
It's friendly too. A cheery hello from Daryl Fitton, who walks out to One Step Beyond at tournaments, a veteran well versed in the madness of the darts circuit.
Meanwhile, the self-styled 'Gingerami' earns the biggest cheer of the day - his total PDC prize money is £50 after all - as he claims a surprise 5-0 opening win.
He's Nathan Richards, a 21-year-old from Peterborough who works in a warehouse, but is perhaps a bit too wired after his triumph. There is talk of sambucas before he stumbles to defeat in his next match.
It's water only for Fallon Sherrock - the new golden girl of darts who needs to keep hydrated because of a kidney condition.
She is one of a record 16 female participants, joining multiple BDO women's world champions Mikuru Suzuki and Lisa Ashton.
Sherrock made headlines around the world when becoming the first woman to beat a man at the PDC World Championship. The 25-year-old from Milton Keynes then defeated the 11th seed, but is keen to show she is not a two-hit wonder.
"I want to play week in, week out with these quality men," said the former mobile hairdresser, whose pink flights match her pink top.
She wins three matches, including an impressive 5-4 defeat of friend Paul Nicholson, which boasted a very solid three-dart average of 93 and a 131 checkout.
"That game gave me confidence as it proves I can hit the averages. Now I can go in all guns blazing. I'm really determined to prove a point," said Sherrock.
"I know I've probably got a massive target on my back now, because everyone wants to be better, to beat me. But I'm just going to take it in my stride, and whatever they throw at me, I'm going to try and throw back, and see how it goes."
While only a handful of spectators watch some matches, there are 30 or 40 craning their necks to check her scores. She is beaten in her fourth match but has won points which could count at the end of four days.
"When I walked in, I had a lot of congratulations, cuddles, people shaking my hand. That was really nice," she said.
But it is Ashton who nearly created history on Friday night, narrowly missing out on becoming the first woman to win a tour card.
After defeating seven men in succession during the day, she lost 5-4 to Hong Kong's Kai Fan Leung in the last four.
Ashton remains a front-runner for qualification, which would make her eligible to enter 30 Players Championship events, each with a top prize of £10,000.
It is a far cry from the razzamatazz of the cameras of Premier League and World Championship darts that John Part and Peter Manley were once used to.
Canadian Part, or 'Darth Maple' to darts connoisseurs, is a three-time world champion now aged 53 but willing to chance his arm at Q School. He brings his own dartboard to practise on in his hotel room.
"If you're in the World Championship, that's a one-off for three weeks. It's a lot easier to tackle than looking at a whole block of absolute quality," he said.
"The PDC main tour has become a whole different beast. It will chew you up and spit you out if you're not absolutely at your best."
While one "hopeful" could only muster a three-dart average of 30, many are in the 80s and 90s with a Friday qualifier, Ashton's conqueror Kai Fan Leung, hitting 107.4 at one stage.
'One Dart' Manley, who earned his nickname through clinical finishing, is busier tidying up paperwork these days as chairman of the Professional Darts Players' Association, although he may enter qualifying on Sunday.
"Unfortunately we get a lot of wives and family members who think their husband, brother or whatever is so good at darts, they pay for their entry as a Christmas present," said Manley.
"They tend to believe they're the best, because they've won the Wednesday night singles, they think they're the bees' knees. But this is a different level."
Manley does not begrudge the prize money earned by today's top players, even if he never quite realised his own ambition of becoming a millionaire.
"When you hear a top darts player now, European Tour, £25,000 for the winner, turn round and say, 'I don't need to go to that one.' That's just phenomenal, that's how the game was grown," he said.
Joy for journeymen players
One of Thursday's two automatic qualifiers was 47-year-old builder Jason Lowe, who almost did not even enter.
"I'm totally shocked. It was last minute - the deadline was 2pm and I entered at half past one," said Lowe, of Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.
"I've come here with no illusions of doing well but everybody's got a chance, haven't they? My eldest, Lawson, is 15 and he's darts mad - he'll love this. I'm looking forward to playing the big boys."
The other automatic spot in Wigan went to Gary Blades. No special shirt, no nickname, no idea he would win through.
"It is the golden ticket," said the 39-year-old from Lincoln, a planner for Anglian Water.
"Two years where you're not paying entry fees, you're going around the country, hopefully around the world eventually.
"You are playing the best players, it can only make you better. Imagine drawing Michael van Gerwen, Peter Wright, Gerwyn Price, Gary Anderson or Rob Cross and beating them. I'm going to have to practise a lot."