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Delusions, chaos and a shot at a new life at Q-School, darts’ dream factory | Jonathan Liew | Sport

The little girl in the blue leotard grips her mother’s hand tightly, but her gaze is elsewhere. She is spellbound, perhaps even a little baffled, by the tableau she has just glimpsed on her way to gymnastics practice at the Robin Park Leisure Centre in Wigan. There, the large space she usually knows as the tennis hall is instead occupied by several hundred people, most of them middle-aged men in loud shirts, very few of them – if we’re being blunt – the usual leisure centre clientele. There’s a Body Combat class taking place in the sports hall and a sprint session going on in the cycle studio. But here, for this week only, the dream factory is in town.

From the moment the doors opened at 8am, the queue quickly stretched out into the car park. They have come from all parts: former champions and pub chancers, future icons and fallen idols, county stalwarts and armchair aspirants, in pursuit of a better life. Win one of the Professional Darts Corporation’s coveted tour cards and a lucrative new career awaits. But to do so, they’ll need to see off 500 rivals in the ruthless four-day marathon of Q-School.

The rules are simple enough. Best of nine legs. Straight knockout. Play begins at 10.30am and continues until only two players remain, each of whom wins a place on the PDC main tour and a chance to play in the sport’s biggest tournaments. The next day, they come back and do it all again. Most importantly, anyone who pays the £450 entry fee can take part.

One of them is Gingerami. By night, Gingerami (real name Nathan Richards) works 12-hour shifts at the Amazon warehouse in Peterborough. By day, he spends every spare penny he has chasing his dream of playing professional darts. He’s brash and confident, fist-bumping everyone he sees, telling his next opponent he’s “already booked him a taxi home”. He’s also, in five years at Q-School, yet to win a single match.

A player warms up ahead of the competition.

A player warms up ahead of the competition. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

It is, after all, a ruthless competition. Among the field are former major winners Kevin Painter and Paul Nicholson, leading women’s players such as Fallon Sherrock and Lisa Ashton, the cream of the ailing British Darts Organisation. Even for the very best, the odds are stacked against. “It’s so outrageously hard,” says John Part, a three-times world champion desperately trying to reclaim his place on the tour. “It’s a numbers game, and it’s hard to beat.”

Undeterred, they keep coming. The first Q-School in 2011 attracted just over 100 entrants. That number has since swelled fivefold, the examples of former Q-School graduates Gerwyn Price and Nathan Aspinall and the idea of not having to go back to work on Monday morning driving the participants on.

Many are probably deluding themselves. The standard is wildly mixed: averages range from the low-100s (world-class) to the 30s (little better than beginner). “We get a lot of family members who pay for their husband or brother’s entry as a Christmas present,” says Peter Manley, the former world No 1 and now chairman of the players’ association. “They’ve won the Wednesday-night singles and think they’re the bee’s knees. It’s a different level. Of the 800 here [including around 300 in Germany, where the European Q-School is simultaneously taking place], probably 200 shouldn’t be.”

Others aren’t quite sure. Steve Brown, the former world No 24 from Bristol, entered impulsively an hour before deadline, and is now having serious doubts. “I almost turned back when I saw the amount of people,” he says. “Fuck. Blimey. I’ve not played professional darts for four or five years. What am I doing? I’m wasting my time.”

A competitor sits waiting for his match.

A competitor sits waiting for his match. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Certainly, for the uninitiated Q-School can be a bewildering place. The practice room has the chaotic feel of an airport terminal, with the interminable volley of match announcements (“Final call for Ben Huntington on Board Two”) competing against the din of chatter and the steady stream of players availing themselves of the fully licensed bar. One player is disqualified after going to the wrong board and missing his start time.

The main arena, by contrast, is characterised by an unnerving and reverential hush; at least until early afternoon, when an enormous roar goes up. Finally, in his sixth year of trying, Gingerami has won his first ever match. “Five-nil,” he crows. “This is the year. I’ve had five sambucas and I’m going to get my tour card.”

Alas, the dream dies in round two as Gingerami is handed a 5-2 defeat and a warning for his behaviour at the oche. He isn’t the only one having a tough time. The highly fancied prospect Keane Barry and former BDO world champion Scott Waites also depart in the first round. Leading women Mikuru Suzuki and Deta Hedman fall in the second. Part and Painter are knocked out in round three. Sherrock, the breakout star of last month’s world championships, loses narrowly in round four.

In the meantime, Brown has been confounding his own meagre expectations. Using his son’s darts, he has cut a swathe through the draw, making it to the final four only to be beaten by Jason Lowe. He wasn’t expecting it to hurt this much. “I’ve always had the game,” he says, “but did I have the ambition? Did I want it that much? Probably not until I lost. It’s the first time I cared all day.”

By evening, the vast hall has almost emptied. Of the 506 players who started the day, 504 have been eliminated and must start again the next day. But for Gary Blades, a water planner from Lincoln, the dream has become reality. Despite being virtually unknown, and having barely played above county level for a decade, he has won his tour card after eight matches and eight gruelling hours.

“It’s like a weird dream,” he says. “I’m going to have to buy a darts shirt now. This one’s from Debenhams.” How does he intend to celebrate? “I’m going to get something to eat. I’m starving.” For the rest, the hunger games go on.

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