Posted on July 20th, 2013
The professional darts circus checks into its holiday home this weekend for nine days of top tungsten at The Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
The 20th instalment of the World Matchplay is sponsored by BetVictor and I bet his mate Maurice will struggle to call this year’s winner.
There are numerous intriguing subplots as we go into the most open World Matchplay for years – can a waning Phil Taylor make it 6 titles in a row and 14 in total? Will the mighty rise of Michael van Gerwen continue apace? Has Adrian Lewis finally come to terms with being a champion? Could we see a new name on a precious trophy won by only six men in 19 years?
Intriguing stuff as always but the back story to this tumultuous darting occasion is the retirement of a man who many would argue rivals the great Sid Waddell as The Voice of Darts.
John Gwynne is hanging up his Sky Sports microphone after the final winning dart is thrown on the Empress Ballroom stage next Sunday and with it the curtain will be drawn on a golden era of darts commentating.
The holy trinity of Lanning, Waddell & Gwynne was fractured with the retirement of Dave Lanning in 2011. It was reduced to the singular when Sid sadly passed away in August of last year.
As last man standing of this great commentary team, Gwynne reasonably assumed his Sky stock would rise but after feeling a little marginalised in the new set up he has decided to call time on his Sky commentating career. Not his commentating career you might note, but more of that later.
Richard John Gwynne was born in Shrewsbury on St George’s Day April 23rd 1945. “I spent a grand total of two weeks in the Second World War, coming out of hospital on VE day” he tells me.
“My father, Robert Wilfrid, was a Coastal Command RAF pilot who married Margaret Annie, the daughter of a village blacksmith. They were born within four days of each other, went to the same primary school and were childhood sweethearts.”
The fledgling Gwynne was a sporting nut enjoying many sports but focusing mainly on football and cricket. It was on the Shropshire fields of his youth that the seeds of his fascination with professional sport were sewn. Indeed he later played club cricket to a decent standard until the commentating jobs took over his weekends.
Living close to Shrewsbury meant Gwynne grew up a Salop fan, supporting Shrewsbury Town and attending matches from a young age.
A crucial trait of any proficient commentator has to be a good memory and Gwynne is up there with the best. His mind for detail is highly impressive and this shines through in his commentary. It also comes to the fore in casual conversation about his first club…
“In October 1955, aged 10, I went to Gay Meadow to watch Shrewsbury Town beat Brighton & Hove Albion 2-1. Salop’s centre forward, the ginger-haired Arnott, scored one, possibly two, and I can still vividly remember the roar of the crowd and the smell of the turf.”
This brief match report was retold to me as though it was last week and when I Googled it later I discovered that the match was indeed played on October 1st and it did indeed finish 2-1. The scorers I couldn’t locate but one John Henry Arnott played for the Shrews between 1955 and 1956 scoring 6 goals.
In 1957 the Gwynnes upped sticks and move to Manchester. John was 12 and the bright lights of Old Trafford and Maine Road were hard to resist.
Once a Salopian, always a Salopian but it wouldn’t be long before the young Gwynne was taken to Maine Road to watch Manchester City beat Portsmouth and a new blue love blossomed.
Moving from a small village to a metropolis such as Manchester might have been daunting for a 12 year old but Gwynne “loved it” and soon settled at Chorlton Grammar School where “I was mistaken for being Welsh due to my Welsh surname and, to the untrained Mancunian ear, Welsh sounding Shropshire accent!”
Welsh he was not but a Manc he would soon become, adopting the cosmopolitan city as his own and shaping his own brogue into the characteristic accent we are so familiar with today.
Throughout his school years, and beyond, the teenage Gwynne always fancied himself as a sports writer, writing for school football teams and doing commentary skits for friends. He was even published in the Stockport Express but on leaving school went into teaching.
Four years at Moston primary school were followed by 16 years teaching at secondary schools. “Teaching was my main occupation between 1967 and 1987 but the interest in sports media work never went away.”
In 1980 Gwynne missed out on a highly desired school job. “Off the back of that disappointment I decided I wanted to get out of teaching and move into media. I wrote to local radio stations and managed to get a slot with Piccadilly Radio covering speedway at Belle Vue.”
With a foot in the door Gwynne was soon able to move on to football. “Richard Keys [he of ‘smash it’ fame] was head of sport at the time and offered me a football role covering the smaller North West teams such as Bury and Oldham.” Gwynne was still teaching at this point.
Around this time Piccadilly Radio had a weekly Wednesday evening program for minority sports called Talking Sport.
“I was asked to contribute 5 minutes to Talking Sport and I included darts as it was becoming very popular. This was my first darts related work for the media.” He follows this with another memory man story…
“I first met Eric Bristow through Talking Sport in 1981. It was at the Austin Morris British Masters at Wythenshawe Forum. I interviewed Eric on the bonnet of the Austin Morris he’d just won. He told me he didn’t drive! He still doesn’t drive and I’m proud to still be good mates with Eric 32 years later.”
This is a recurring theme. The funeral that John was attending after our interview was of Jack Crompton, Manchester United’s post-war keeper; born in Hulme, a darts fan, and good friend. When they first met six years ago Jack was as pleased to meet John as John was to meet Jack, a fact Gwynne can still hardly believe.
He recounts a similar story.
“I was a guest at a Manchester City event in 2003. I know some ex-City players such as Franny Lee, Mike Summerbee & Tony Book who were all on a table together. With them was a 70’s hero of mine, Tommy Booth, who I’d never met.”
“I went over to say hello and to finally speak to this hero of mine. I began to introduce myself to Tommy but before I said two words Tommy cried ‘Ah! The voice of darts! You, John Gwynne, are my hero’. I was completely taken aback and will remember that moment for ever.”
Respect from your peers is satisfying. Respect from your heroes is intoxicating. We know where he discovered his voice so I ask John when he first discovered darts.
“I was around seven years of age. I had a friend who lived in the village pub at High Ercall and I played with him regularly. I picked up some tatty old plastic darts from a dirty tankard on the end of the bar, had a chuck, and fell in love with the game.”
Through the early 80’s the radio work blossomed and darts became more prominent. Gwynne found himself becoming busier and more in demand. By 1987 he was touring the UK with Bristow compering exhibitions for Jewsons. He decided it was time to leave teaching.
“It was 30th September 1987 when I took the leap and gave up teaching. I took voluntary redundancy which was a big decision with a 13 year old son at secondary school.” That son, Andrew, is now Labour MP for Denton & Reddish so the gamble worked out ok.
John continues the story.
“I had turned my back on a very well paid job in teaching to pursue my dream with nothing concrete in the pipeline. My wife, Margaret, took up part time jobs to help out as she fully supported, and indeed encouraged, my severe turn of career direction. Margaret was brilliant. She was totally sensitive to my situation and my desires and what I really wanted to do in life. I could not have made the switch without her and wouldn’t be where I am today without her sacrifices.”
Margaret sadly passed away just seven years later in 1994 and never got to see her husband fulfil his potential and his dreams. It is a raw and melancholy memory that puts the next part of the story in sharp focus.
“It was Monday December 7th 1987, a day etched in my memory, and Margaret shouted for me to get my backside out of bed pronto. There was an ad in The Guardian touting for cricket commentators for all the first class counties on something called ‘Cricket Call’ – a service broadcasting cricket commentary down a phone line. Each county had its own phone number. Some people would spend hours (and pounds!) listening to me on the end of a phone.”
“I applied and could hardly believe it when I got the Lancashire job. This was my big breakthrough and my first major broadcasting job. It was a proper contract with good pay and I was commentating on my favourite sport for my local team.”
“I travelled all over with Lancashire doing ball by ball commentary, player interviews, etc. I was in my element and did this for three years between 1988 and 1991. It was where I really cut my teeth.”
This part of the story is highly relevant because it was from here that the darts involvement was triggered.
“At the end of the 1988 cricket season I had the idea of extending Cricket Call to darts. I got Dick Allix [manager to many top players at the time] involved and he used a company called Ringaround [already doing football & rugby league phone commentary] to start a darts phone line called ‘The Darts Line’.”
The Darts Line
The Darts Line was sponsored by Webster’s brewery and was something akin to Piccadilly Radio’s Talking Sport…over the phone. It ran through 1989 and 1990 with reasonable success.
As part of ‘The Darts Line’ John attended the Embassy World Championship in 1989 at The Lakeside in Frimley Green.
“I had been to Jollees in Stoke a few times but this was my first visit to the magical Lakeside. I did The Darts Line from here providing daily updates from the Embassy World Championship.”
“I would record the crowd and do live commentary as matches were taking place and I would play it back down the phone to give a taste of the atmosphere. This was a bit of an innovation at the time; it put me in the minds of some useful people and ultimately opened some doors.”
It also led to the very first darts reports on the radio. When top seed Bob Anderson was surprisingly knocked out of the 1990 Embassy by little known Dane Jan Hoffmann John provided a report of the shock result to BBC Radio Sport.
“I remember going out to my car to listen on the radio as my report wasn’t guaranteed to be used. It was used and I was asked to do the rest of the competition. I continued with it every year until 1999 and this was another important step in my career.”
The early 90’s were a dark time for professional darts. John remembers the pre-split rumblings around this time and recalls the British Professional being cancelled that year leaving only Lakeside on BBC. There was trouble at the mill.
When the inevitable darts split occurred John’s Darts Line work was still fresh in the memory so after being recommended by Dick Allix and Tommy Cox he was asked to join Dave Lanning commentating for ITV, Anglia, Yorkshire and then eventually Sky.
Gwynne and Lanning commentated for Sky Sports on the first WDC (later to become the PDC) World Championship in 1994 at the Circus Tavern.
“Back then we commentated solo until the quarter finals before coming together for the latter stages. People might forget, or not know, that Sid was still with the BBC at this point.”
In the summer of 1994 Sid Waddell made the switch to Sky and the triumvirate was born. They first commentated together on the inaugural World Matchplay in 1994.
It is something of a surprise to learn that his first darts TV commentary gig was ten years before this.
“The first proper darts tournament I covered for TV was a one-off in 1984 – the ‘Winners Matches’ British Masters pub & club darts finals in Sheffield. It was on a short lived Satellite TV station called Screensport. I hoped this was the start of something but it was another 8 or 9 years before my TV commentary took off.”
So ten years on from this inauspicious first gig the ball was well and truly rolling. The rest is, as they say, history. John himself admits he had no idea back then how long he would last and how much enjoyment he would have along the way but when I ask about career highlights the commentary box isn’t even mentioned.
Highlights & Regrets
“I wrote my columns, Piccadilly Line and Mancunian Way in Darts World for 31 years and I’m very proud of that. I also wrote for the local papers for nearly 30 years but stopped about 18 months ago.”
“Some of the famous people I have met, and some of those people I now call friends, help me realise how fortunate I am to be doing something I love for a living.”
He shows me a thank you text he received from Alastair Cook in reply to a good luck message sent on the eve of The Ashes.
“But if I had to nominate my proudest ever achievement in darts it would be saving the Manchester log-end dartboard.”
In 2003 the log-end board was destined for extinction. John got 32 leagues together and found a local manufacturer to provide boards for the newly founded Manchester Log-End Federation. There are still 18 member leagues. It is flourishing and John is still involved in running it.
“If I had done nothing, the log-end dartboard would have become extinct.”
With plenty of high points to look back on I wonder if there are any regrets?
“Not really. In terms of commentating, I completely missed Phil Taylor’s Blackpool 9-darter in 2002 [the first ever live televised 9-darter] and I missed his double 9-darters in the 2010 Premier League due to circumstances beyond my control. They are small regrets I suppose but my biggest regret is Michael van Gerwen not hitting double 12 for a second successive 9-darter in the last World Championship as I was commentating on that one!”
So when the mic is put back on the hook what does the future hold for John Gwynne?
“I’m still heavily involved in local darts. There’s the Manchester Log-End Federation and I started the Greater Manchester Superleague in 1986. I’m still chairman and working hard on it after 27 years. I’ve never lost touch with the grass roots game and never will.”
Indeed, on top of all this John is four years into his sponsorship of youth player Shaun Griffiths and still has high hopes for his protégé.
John is also a prolific after dinner speaker, compere and toastmaster and has no plans to pack this in. And maybe there will be a little more time to watch his beloved City win a few more riyal-backed trophies.
“When I first announced my retirement Paul Nicholson came to me and said ‘John, you are the reason we players turn the telly on and watch the rest of the tournament after we’ve been knocked out’. Those moments mean a lot to me and make me want to continue.”
“I will be the saddest man on earth when I go but I’ve planned it, the time is right and I’ve done it my way.”
This doesn’t sound quite so terminal so will we ever see John Gwynne commentating on TV again?
“My Sky days are over but will I return to the commentary box somewhere? I don’t know but never say ‘never’. I would have to seriously consider any offer that came along as I feel there are plenty of miles in the tank yet. But if not what the heck I’ve had a whale of a time.”
I enquire if there is any significance in choosing the World Matchplay to bow out?
“Yes! It’s my favourite tournament for a start. There’s a great holiday atmosphere and I love matchplay format. But mainly because it’s my 20th World Matchplay. I’ve covered them all and covered all 20 World Championships so I’m checking out on Double Top!”
This brings a nice symmetry to a distinguished career behind the mic that many, John included, I think, don’t want to see concluded just yet.
And finally, how do you see your last World Matchplay panning out?
“Well, in my opinion, Blackpool belongs to Phil Taylor and Phil Taylor belongs to Blackpool. He has got to be a strong favourite. I think van Gerwen will be thereabouts and Jamie Caven is playing well again so he could be a dark horse to back each way.”
John has bravely agreed to put these thoughts to the ultimate test by being our guest tipster for our World Matchplay Beat the Tipster competition. Why not see if you can beat the knowledgeable Voice of Darts..!
Comments are closed.