Michael van Gerwen tells Sky Sports about the psychology needed to overthrow Phil Taylor
By James Dielhenn
Last Updated: 11/03/17 5:36pm
Even as a skinny, spiky-haired teenager who was scarcely qualified to share a stage with darts’ best players, Michael van Gerwen had no fear of the legendary Phil Taylor. And so began the impregnable mind-set that has spawned one of his generation’s most consistently perfect sportspeople.
"He is the greatest of all time, but I am the best of all time" - it's not that Van Gerwen doesn't have respect for Taylor, the elder statesman of the oche. But he makes it crystal clear that, while Taylor warrants credit for dragging darts onto a mainstream pedestal and reaping rewards along the way, the bar has now been dramatically raised.
Van Gerwen owns one world title and will challenge for a second at the upcoming World Darts Championship, but perhaps plays with the freedom of knowing that he will never match Taylor's astonishing 16 titles, the majority of which were achieved in the drastically different landscape of the 1990s. "No, it's not possible to win more, or become the greatest ever, because I cannot win 16 world titles," the 27-year-old exclusively told Sky Sports. "I will be retired before."
No, it's not possible to win more, or become the greatest ever, because I cannot 16 world titles. I will be retired before.
Michael van Gerwen
Van Gerwen first defeated Taylor as a 17-year-old in the Netherlands, his homeland, in their second head-to-head meeting. Tellingly, despite a total of 56 matches between them, Van Gerwen needs no reminding of the first time he beat Taylor.
"Correct, it was a big tournament in Holland," he said. "I beat him in the group stage over there. I had a lot of confidence - I was probably the first one to beat him 3-0 in sets."
Even aged 17, was that the moment when Van Gerwen realised his eventual fate to overtake Taylor? He takes a long pause before answering. A very long pause as he tries to remember his less battle-hardened psychology.
"You think you can, but it's not easy to change things around and actually be the best in the world. You get confidence, and try to play the best possible. I always believed in myself and you have to do that, otherwise you can't win something."
Van Gerwen has grown into one of sports' most recognisable figures - always clad in green, he stands as tall as a great oak yet, and despite his burgeoning personal brand, remains polite and jovial away from the oche. He even apologises to Sky Sports for keeping us waiting for just a few minutes.
That's hard to do, trying to become a winner. You first need to know what it's like to lose before you can win something.
Michael van Gerwen
Did he learn the hard way on the BDO circuit as a teen prodigy? "You learn to travel on your own, you learn to compete against people with a lot of experience which is hard to do. That's hard to do, trying to become a winner. You first need to know what it's like to lose before you can win something.
"I enjoyed it because, at that moment, it was a big thing. I was No 1 in the BDO rankings. It was good to start with but…." Van Gerwen pauses to search for the right words. "It was only the beginning."
It's worth remembering that the Dutchman's rapid ascent to the pinnacle of darts has overcome a major road-bump when even his most ardent followers considered that he might waste his talent.
"Of course I can remember, I had too many [difficult times]. I had moments where I was better than 90 per cent of the field, but I lost to 90 per cent of the field. You need to ask 'what am I doing wrong? Where can I improve? What can I do to change things around?'
"I also had a couple of years like a beginner because I wasn't confident and I couldn't win a tournament. But you need to try and change that around. You need the confidence on your side, rather than the other way around. You need them to look up to you, not the other way around. If you look up to someone, you fear them."
If you look up to someone, you fear them.
Michael van Gerwen
Van Gerwen is now the most feared player on the circuit, having just won a third successive European Championship plus the UK Open, World Matchplay, World Grand Prix and Grand Slam. The obvious gap on his CV is the lack of a world title since 2014 but he heads to Ally Pally as the red-hot favourite.
Asked if any other sportspeople match his iron grip over their chosen realm, Van Gerwen is fully aware of his own greatness: "I realise that, and sometimes it's a bit unbelievable what I'm doing at the moment. You need to realise that because it makes you stronger.
"Ronnie O'Sullivan, what he said about me in an interview with just a couple of words, was fantastic. He called me the greatest sportsman on earth, and that's a big compliment. He's probably the most dominant snooker player, and the best of all time. He can hit a 147 with his right or left hand."
But can Van Gerwen throw darts with his weaker hand? "I cannot, so he's probably more special than me." There's a few capable darts players descending on Alexandra Palace that might disagree.
See if Van Gerwen can hold onto his Premier League crown, live on Sky Sports, February-May.