The darts stage can be a very lonely place. The oche can swallow you up, send your mind to dark places and make you believe you are worthless.
In 2017, former Lakeside World Champion Stephen Bunting was close to quitting the game for good. But it was far more serious than that, it was no longer just about performances but about his life, his health and his family.
When you lose your belief you lose your direction. For a man who had once stood on top of the mountain, he suddenly felt himself tumbling down to Earth.
“I had been struggling extremely badly with my nerves. I was turning up at PDC tournaments feeling I was being laughed at and didn’t belong. My performances were terrible and my form just wasn’t there, it didn’t feel like I could win a single game and that was really getting me down. As the weeks passed, my confidence was becoming shattered, my belief was lost and I was starting to become very ill. I would then go home to my family feeling depressed and be moody around them.
“Even when I went to local league games I was losing – everything was just wrong. I read lots of nasty comments on social media, people suggesting I wasn’t good enough, shouldn’t be playing the game and was costing them money on bets. The irony is that those bad results were costing ME money, this was my livelihood and if I wasn’t doing well, I didn’t earn. I needed to win darts matches to support my family, to keep providing for them. The cycle just continued and the pressure kept mounting. I was close to the edge.
“It all came to a head one night when I was playing local league match in Huyton, Liverpool. During the game my hands started getting very cold and I began to become really nervous – it was a very worrying feeling. I was scared, I didn’t know what was happening. Immediately I went outside, slumped down to the floor and broke down into floods of tears. I remember calling my manager at the time, Jon Archer, crying down the phone pleading for his help.
“I had been with Jon for years, he was with me at the Lakeside in 2014 when I won the World Championship and been by my side all the way through my journey to the PDC. He was more of a friend than a manager but someone I knew cared, a man I trusted and could turn to when needed help.
“Jon and I had briefly discussed a sports psychologist in the past, I was sceptical but knew something had to be done urgently. As it turned out, that was perhaps the most important phone call I ever made. It not only saved my darting career but perhaps my life too.
“I began having regular sessions in my home with a guy called Mark. It wasn’t an instant fix but as the weeks and months passed I could feel my confidence returning. We used to lock ourselves away so I could unburden myself and he would help lift away that anxiety. I recall on one occasion he looked at my darts shirt and pointed to the star reminding me what it symbolised. I was a World Champion – if I ever needed a bigger wake up call as to what I could achieve then it had been there on the oche with me all along.
“Thankfully I am in a much better place now. Mark taught me how to retrain my brain and look for the positives in situations. I’ve been playing the game for over 20 years now and experienced all the highs and lows. I am fortunate to be surrounded by my wonderful family and so many close friends who believe in me. My partner Keila and son Toby are my rock, they have always been there for me through thick and thin. Without their love and support I’m not sure I ever could have returned from the place I was at.”
It’s hard to even talk about 2020 without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected millions of people across the world in ways that are unimaginable. In October, the dreaded virus came knocking on Stephen’s door.
“I had already failed to qualify for the World Matchplay in July, a tournament I reached the quarter finals of the year before. Then to receive the news that I had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be forced to withdraw from the Grand Prix was deflating. A few years ago this would have completely devastated me but my mind was now trained to look for the positives from any situation.
“This blow had stopped my momentum as I was really starting to play well on the pro tour circuit. Target had given me a brand new set of darts that I was absolutely thrilled with. I recall taking both my old set and these ones along to the Autumn Series in Germany, as soon as I began throwing the new darts they immediately felt better. On the second day I got to the semi final and throughout the week was putting in some excellent averages and feeling really good about my game.
“When the news came that I had to pull out of the Grand Prix, I didn’t let it affect me. Instead I used that time to hit the board and put in the hours. It’s fair to say that I can be very lazy and perhaps guilty of not putting enough practice time in but on this occasion I was like a kid with a new toy. I had my new darts, was throwing plenty of 9-darters and feeling great.
“By the time the World Championships came around in December, I was extremely confident of doing well. Fair play to Target, I was absolutely loving the new darts they had made for me and my performances had dramatically improved. I wasn’t always getting the right results but could take plenty of positives from the way I was playing.
“Against Andy Boulton in my first match, I knew it would be a tough one. The opening match is always tricky as you really don’t want to go home for Christmas knowing you won’t be coming back. I was also aware that if I could win that game it looked like it would be James Wade next who I had recently beaten in Germany.
“Thankfully I scraped through against Andy and was due to play James just after Christmas. My Dad and I travelled down to London full of confidence and met up with good friend Ash there. I didn’t start well against Wade but even at two sets down I always believed in myself and battled back to win 4-2. I showed real guts and determination up there that day, something a lot of people probably didn’t think I had.
“The bookies had written me off against Wade and had done the same for my next match against Ryan Searle. I knew what a brilliant player Ryan is, he was having the best year of his career on the oche but when I looked at our tournament stats I was slightly ahead. I used the confidence from the Wadey comeback, took it into the game and was delighted to get the win.
“In the quarter final against Krzysztof Ratajski I was once again the underdog and rightly so as he was above me in the rankings. I believed the key to beating him was to get a strong early lead and put his on the back foot. I found myself 3-0 up in a race to five then for some reason eased up and let him back in.
It was probably a case of seeing the winning line too early but I dug deep and got over the line.
“I was now one match away from a PDC World Championship final which was life changing. Not only was it worth a huge guaranteed £200,000 but a place in the world top ten and within touching distance of a return to the Premier League. When the time came, I put all of that to the back of my mind and focussed on the job in hand – beating Gerwyn Price.
“He is a fantastic player, officially now the best player in the world. But the last time we met on the big stage I beat him in the 2019 World Matchplay so knew I had what it took to win and was confident I would.
“Just like the quarter final against Ratajski I began strongly and took a 2-0 lead. I was playing well and could see he wasn’t quite at his best. We reached a break and I was 4-3 up, as we went backstage I noticed him slumped in a chair. Instantly I started to believe I had him beat but as soon as the game restarted I began snatching and pulling my darts all over the place.
“Gezzy started fighting back and in the end won the next three sets to take the match. Fair play to him, he deserved it but I wish I’d have put my foot on the gas when the chance was there. Of course I was gutted at the result but at the same time was very proud at what I’d achieved. If I could push Gerwyn Price all the way in a World Championship semi final then I have to take enormous positives from that.
“There is one spot still open for the Premier League and I will be doing everything I can to make it mine as I’d love to be back in it again. I’ve a huge opportunity over the next few weeks in the Masters and UK Open to really stake my claim.
“I’ve a very tough opening game against Joe Cullen in the Masters at the end of January. He may still be wounded from coming agonisingly close to beating Michael van Gerwen in the World Championships but he’s a top class player and I know I will have to be at my best to beat him. I need to make sure he meets the very best version of me so will be ready.
“My aim this year is to get back into that top 16 as soon as possibly and ideally lift some silverware. I no longer want to talked about as someone who can win a few games but one who can win the big titles. This is just the start, I have enormous belief in myself and have a fantastic team of family and close friends in my corner. Now is the time to show the world of darts just exactly what Stephen Bunting can do.”