Premier League Darts 2021: Nathan Aspinall, Michael van Gerwen enjoying fans' return to darts
Premier League Darts continues on Sky Sports with five players looking to join Michael va Gerwen who has already secured a place in Friday's Play-Offs - joins us from 7pm on Sky Sports Action and Main Event on Monday night
By Paul Prenderville at the Marshall Arena, Milton Keynes
Last Updated: 26/05/21 6:33pm
After two nights of the Premier League finale in Milton Keynes with fans in attendance, Sky Sports spoke to the players on a return to 'proper darts'.
"I am a big football fan, and a big golfer and I looked at Rory McIlroy - he had missed the fans, the fans came back and he won a tournament, look at Phil Mickelson on Sunday," a beaming Nathan Aspinall told Sky Sports in the press room overlooking the Marshall Arena crowd.
It was the sort of match, in the sort of environment that he craves - so it was not a surprise to watch Aspinall rise to the occasion against Michael van Gerwen on Monday night as Premier League Darts welcomed back a crowd for the first time since March 2020 at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool.
"Fans play a massive part in sport and darts is one of the sports that the fans have the biggest impact on. We have really missed them, I have really missed them - probably more than most.
"This is only my second year at this level I have missed the fans like mad - the buzz I had when I stood for the walk-on, I can't describe it. The best player in the game, Michael van Gerwen, was peaking around the curtain to see what the crowd was like."
- Van Gerwen seals play-offs return after Anderson triumph
- Premier League Darts 2021: Results, fixtures & schedule
The Asp has made constant reference to how much he has missed the crowd, as the sport has gone behind closed doors during the coronavirus pandemic and the smile on his face was huge as the strains of The Killers' Mr Brightside struck up.
The crowd rose to their feet and joined in perhaps darts' best sing-a-long - The Asp was in his element and darts was too, 'proper darts' was back as one or two of the players have said over the last 16 months.
"It felt like my TV debut all over again - the difference being I was able to beat the best player in the world on Monday night. Fans being there brings the adrenaline, it brings an extra 10-20 per cent to all of us," Aspinall added.
"The last three or four days all I have thought about is the first walk-on back - where is the stage going to be, will I go through the fans, to the side of them, but it was everything I could have thought it would be."
To look out from the press balcony since July has been to see a shell of an arena, like many in sport. Staging crews have done brilliantly to set up our favourite theatres, sound engineers have done superbly to generate the right kind of noise, but it's not the same.
Sport needs its crowd and on arrival at the Marshall Arena, the tables with 180 signs were back out, the music was being tested a bit louder as the floor manager and TV teams ran through the walk-ons.
Fans were arriving in dribs and drabs throughout Monday, milling around the restaurants and the shops on the industrial estate in Milton Keynes that has seen more darts played than anywhere else during the pandemic.
Since it hosted its first behind-closed-doors event in July last year, the arena in Milton Keynes has hosted 43 of the 101 sessions played without a crowd and earned its moment with fans in attendance.
"It's been our home really for the last 16 months - they understand us and what we need and have needed, we understand them," PDC chief executive Matt Porter told Sky Sports.
"They deserve to have the first crowds back for everything they have done for the sport."
Listening to the players over the first two days in Milton Keynes, there's a valid argument to be had that no sport needs its crowd more than the arrows. They set the tone, they create the environment and in the case of the Premier League, they provide the backdrop to the first half of the darting year.
Usually, a 17-night roadshow taking in some of Europe's biggest cities and atmospheric arenas, the competition has fallen into line with sport's adaptation to the pandemic, so a second year in succession limited in crowd numbers and reach is not to be underestimated in terms of impact.
The cities have got bigger as Colchester, Taunton and Kidderminster in 2005 have been swapped for Dublin, Rotterdam and Berlin in 2019 as the Premier League showcases the very best of the sport and has set the tone for the European Tour, the World Series and the World Cup.
Premier League Darts 2021: Wednesday's fixtures
|Jonny Clayton vs Peter Wright|
|James Wade vs Dimitri Van den Bergh|
|Gary Anderson vs Nathan Aspinall|
|Jose De Sousa vs Michael van Gerwen|
While the traveling nature of the event has been missed, Porter is pleased to just see the PDC's event getting back to something like everyone involved is used to.
"The staff have a spring in the step, the players are excited to play in front of crowds again and it caught them a little bit by surprise but it's the spectacle and the opportunity to entertain people and enjoy yourself.
"Whether you are on the stage or in the crowd I think people have been enjoying themselves. I think people are grateful to have the opportunity to go and watch any sort of live event at the moment.
"Everyone understands what is asked of them, things they are getting more used to from restaurants, pubs and things like that - ultimately there are no surprises and people are coming to enjoy themselves.
"We've been delighted with the response of everybody and we are looking at around 1000 fans for each of the last two nights - the finale of the tournament is being played to a full house and that feels good."
If the players looked a little nervous at the new 'new normal' it was with good reason, and likewise for those lucky enough to have a ticket and to be in attendance.
Fancy dress was in short supply, there was little in the way of mingling, other than to go to the toilet and it took a while for the vocal cords to loosen and the singing and cheering to commence - in fact there was an eerie silence as Gary Anderson and Jonny Clayton toed the oche.
Starting a song was tricky, early shouts of encouragement were rather lone voices as the crowd waited for their cue from the players rather than setting the tone, and the players likewise.
Gary Anderson did his bit, firing in a couple of maximum 180s in the opening leg that drew the first of the hearty cheers and as everyone began to relax, the crowd of more than 600 began to play their part in the festivities.
It was fitting that Clayton, who has thrived over the last 12 months, claimed the first victory of the night and when 'Chase the Sun' greeted the winning double everyone was on their feet again.
"I was a bit nervous backstage but it was brilliant to have these fans back, and to perform well was all I wanted," Clayton said in his on-stage interview.
"I am chasing wins, and if I do a job hopefully I am in the top four - and in front of a brilliant crowd, in a great atmosphere I done a job."
Warming to the task, the first chorus of Stand Up If You Love the Darts came in game two - perhaps spurred on by Dimitri Van den Bergh's crowd-pleasing walk-on.
Aspinall's arrival was followed by the entrance of Michael van Gerwen and the lights dipped and the green filter welcomed the five-time Premier League champion. By the end of the night, the crowd were serenading Wayne Mardle, Mark Webster and Emma Paton to give them a wave from the Sky Sports balcony.
Night Two took a little less longer to get going, fancy dress was a little more plentiful, the chorus of Stand Up If You Love the Darts came in leg two instead of match two, the walk-ons were welcomed a little louder, the 180s cheered a little heartier and there was even time for a Boring, Boring Tables rendition.
After a couple of pantomime villain boos on opening night, Van Gerwen was cheered to the rafters on Tuesday evening as he registered his first win in front of fans since last March. Oh Michael van Gerwen was the loudest song of the week so far has he roared his way past old rival Gary Anderson.
But even the five-time Premier League champion, and three-time world champion, admitted to a few more nerves than usual.
"It has been a really long wait, 16 months, and it was a bit unusual, it took a while to get the flow going and get used to it again," Van Gerwen told the press after returning to winning ways.
"There were goosebumps again, Monday night was new, it was exciting and maybe the occasion got to me a little bit.
"Even though the crowds are a little bit smaller it is a massive step forward after a horrible time."
That night in the Albert Dock when MVG beat Gerwyn Price came 24 hours before the country went into its first lockdown, and while there have been fleeting glimpses of crowds - on the European Tour, at the World Cup and one lonesome evening at Alexandra Palace 24 hours before the next lockdown kicked in - this feels like tangible progress for the sport.
After two nights in Milton Keynes it feels like a corner has been turned, the players, and the fans, have loved every minute and they are only just warming up.
Those heading along for the final three nights should be treated to a battle royale as five players chase three places alongside Van Gerwen in the final, and on Friday a darts trophy will be lifted in front of fans once again.
The 2021 Premier League continues this week, with three more nights of action culminating with the Play-Offs on Friday, May 28. Watch all the action live on Sky Sports