There’ll be plenty of interest from the North West in this year’s Premier League of Darts with two home favourites named in the line-up this morning.
St. Helens-man, Michael Smith (pictured above) automatically qualified for the eight-person competition as he features in the world’s top four ranking players (rank one), but perhaps a surprise inclusion was Stockport’s Nathan Aspinall.
The world number nine’s 2022 wasn’t the most fruitful year having only managed finals in two televised events – finishing runner-up in both.
Despite a World Grand Prix final loss to Michael van Gerwen and finishing second to Smith at the Grand Slam of Darts, one man who felt Aspinall’s inclusion was warranted was Sky Sports commentator, Stuart Pyke.
The 61-year-old said: “I think his [Aspinall’s] involvement is fully deserved, he’s box office.
“He reached two major finals last year, he nearly completed an amazing fightback against MVG in the Grand Prix final and he just ran out petrol rather than steam at the Grand Slam against Smith.
“His whole character is entertainment and that’s what the Premier League is all about, it’s not a ranking tournament.
“He’s been right up there in the past, getting to the final against Jose de Sousa, so he’s a great a player.
“It’s great to see him getting his rewards after nearly having to quit the sport because of his arm and elbow injury but he eventually had to give up golf to carry on his darts career.
“The great thing about the Premier League is that you never know who’s going to win, he’s just got to get into the top four and then it’s a fresh start on a blank piece of paper for the finals.”
Aspinall does boast two Players Championship event titles to his name in 2022 but with a Grand Slam, a Dutch Darts Championship and Nordic and US Darts Masters titles to his name, World Champion Smith will head into the competition as the man to beat.
Pyke added: “Smith’s never really had a decent run in the Premier League apart from getting to the final once and getting hammered by Michael van Gerwen.
“Now though, the shackles are off, and I said in November after his Grand Slam win that it was just the start for him and he got the reward for everything he’s been through by winning the worlds.
“He’s confident now and he’s having fun so I’d be very surprised if he’s not in that top four when we come to the end of the weekly knockouts.
“The shorter format suits a player like Michael but, having said that, sometimes he can be a slow starter.
“If he does start strongly though and hammer the scoring with the 180s, you would think he’ll be pretty unstoppable.”
Also from St Helens, Pyke played his part in the commentary of perhaps the most famous leg of darts in the world right now between van Gerwen and Smith – a leg that included 17 perfect darts and saw a World Championship Final nine-darter from the latter.
“It is, and will be, the greatest leg of darts ever seen.
“That leg of darts can never be beaten, it can only be equalled and it’s just one of those surreal moments where you think ‘wow, did that really happen’ and it was a privilege to be involved in it.
“It’ll go down as one of the iconic sporting moments.
“I’ve been lucky in my career because I’ve commentated on Champions League Finals and Rugby League World Cup Finals, but that nine-darter from Smith will certainly be in the top three sporting moments I’ve ever seen.”
The Premier League of Darts kicks off this Thursday in Belfast, live on Sky Sports.