If there is one sport that is synonymous with the festive season, it's darts. The PDC World Championship gets underway in mid-December each year, dominating the sporting calendar over the couple of weeks that follow.
It is certainly a unique event. The antics of the crowd make for huge entertainment in itself, and that's before you even get get onto the quality of play on the stage. The 2022 edition will kick off tomorrow night, with plenty of Irish interest.
While darts is a very popular sport in this country, it does have a largely casual fanbase. They see the World Championships every year and they might tune in on a Thursday evening to watch the Premier League take place in massive arenas throughout Ireland and the UK.
What many of them don't see is the work that goes into reaching that point. The biggest tournaments may only cover a small portion of the calendar, but your average professional darts player puts in a massive commitment to even have a chance of reaching that point.
John O'Shea is a prime example.
At 47-years old, the Cork native is set to make his World Championships bow at Ally Pally next week. Many Irish sporting fans will come across him for the first time during this period, but the journey to reach that point took decades.
He has spent much of 2022 travelling around Europe to take part in smaller events, with his performances there earning him a shot at the big one. Speaking to Balls, he said this is a part of the sport that many people don't appreciate.
People see the glory side of it, the lifting the trophy and £500,000 for the winner of the World Championships. People forget that we're all human. We can sit in an airport for seven hours on a delayed flight just as much as the next fella. It's not all rosy in the garden. It gets tiring.
There are times when you have just landed and you say to yourself 'I want to go home'. It was constant, but you have to find a way to get over that.
— DartsNews02 (@DartsNews02) January 24, 2022
Of course, O'Shea's route up to this point has been more convoluted than most.
He spent the vast majority of his darting life on the BDO circuit, taking part in various events around Ireland and the UK. He hadn't experienced a huge amount of success in the biggest tournaments, although that would all change in 2019.
Entering the World Masters as a rank outsider, he put together a scarcely believable cinderella run to eventually win the tournament. It is was one of the biggest upsets in recent darts history.
His triumph was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had already decided this would be his last hurrah in the sport.
We actually did go to the UK with in mind that the World Masters was my last event.
I was going to go down some other route, maybe I would learn how to play guitar or something like that, I don't know. It was definitely on the cards.
Myself and Laura (his wife) had decided that the 2019 World Masters, regardless of what happened, that was it. Winning it changed a lot of things again.
Was I ready to give up? Probably not.
Winning the World Masters at that point was not seen as a realistic possibility. 'The Joker' simply hoped to go to the tournament and give a good account of himself.
Then, things just started rolling. One win was followed by another, then another, then another. Before long, he was down to the last 32, at which point the games began to air on television.
O'Shea himself admits that he played well above what his standing was in the sport at that time.
I think I was ranked 214th in the world at the time. I suppose if you were to go off rankings, I probably had no right to be there, but I had won my place through winning the Irish Masters...
You know what? Even when I think back at it now, nobody had darts to beat me. I won comfortably enough in each game I played. I wasn't standing behind anybody at any stage thinking 'I'm gone out of the event here', I was never in that position.
I was functioning on that it was my last one, it was a big hurrah and lets give it a right good go. I probably threw some of my best darts on that stage.
Eventually, he found himself in the final against Englishman Scott Waites, who entered the tournament as the 10th seed.
His form did not desert him on the big stage. Having been on the brink of retirement, he would walk away as World Masters champion.
What was going through his mind as he stood over the match winning double?
I looked and said to myself 'you have three darts at double-ten'. I must have hit a million times. It was just a small bit of focus.
If you hit this, you go down in history. First and foremost I'd be the only Irishman ever to win a TV major from the Republic. Then you're going to be on the trophy with Michael van Gerwen, Phil Taylor, Eric Bristow, Glen Durrant, Martin Adams. It's the who's who of darts.
I'm in there now. If I'm done and dusted in 20 years time and someone else lifts that trophy, my name is going to be on it.
— Live Darts (@livedarts) October 27, 2019
It should have been a genuinely life-changing moment. O'Shea had won one of the biggest tournaments in darts. Not only would it delay his retirement plans and lead to more tournament appearances in the future, but it would also present some lucrative exhibition opportunities.
Then, covid hit. The sporting world stopped, with darts being no exception. With it came both a loss of earnings and motivation.
Things quickly became even more complicated.
The BDO would fold, leaving the players in limbo. With their calendar now scrapped, the World Masters and its other major tournaments were shelved.
That resulted in a conundrum for their current champions when it came to the trophies in their possession. Should they keep them as was custom, or should they hand them back and risk them falling into the hands of liquidators and ending up lost to history?
Ultimately, O'Shea and most of the other champions opted for the former.
What followed was a complicated process of threats, legal action, and other unsavoury elements. O'Shea's situation was only resolved last month, at which point he handed back the trophy. He has now been left with a hefty legal bill as a result.
Considering all of these factors, it did not take long for his dream come true to descend into a nightmare.
I was buzzing after winning it. I had exhibitions lined up with it and everything. It was gonna turn out to be a really big thing. The next twelve months would have potential earnings of over €30,000 with exhibitions and stuff, it was massive.
We were like 'we'll just keep going now'. We had put their retirement part of it on the back burner, thinking we'll just we'll just carry on and see where it takes us. Then covid hit...
The thing was, the BDO had folded in the meantime. There was no BDO, so who was I to give the trophy back to? The darting world decided that I'd be the guardian of the trophy, that it was in good hands.
One thing led to another thing and I got solicitors letters. In the end, it was resolved there about three weeks ago when I handed the trophy back. The liquidators have it now.
I don't know what's going on behind the scenes, it's now out of my hands.
This will be the only time I address the matter of the world Masters Trophy.
There was a case filed against me to...
While motivation was initially lacking during lockdown, it did eventually return.
The extended time on the practice board also gave O'Shea the opportunity to work on some of the issues that had been plaguing his game in the preceding years.
He had long suffered with 'dartitis', a mental block that afflicts many players where they find it difficult to release the dart when throwing. There were times when he struggled to even hit the board.
The Cork man beat it eventually, and when the sport picked up again, he decided to give things a go in the PDC this year having had a brief stint in the organisation over a decade ago.
You can earn quite the living on the tour if things are going well, but O'Shea explains why it is also fraught with risk.
You must remember, you have to win a game in the PDC to get paid.
If you're drawing the likes of Gerwyn Price or Michael van Gerwen in the first round and you lose, you don't get paid. It's not like there's a pot there that you get £30,000 a year before you even throw a dart. It doesn't work like that.
There are some guys there that have played for two years with their tour card and barely broke £10,000 in earnings. That's tough going. That doesn't make them bad players ,it's just that the results have not gone their way.
It's a different sort of pressure.
Thankfully, 2022 has been an excellent year for John O'Shea.
He has so far taken in £29,000 in earnings and sits in 89th place in the PDC order of merit. That was enough to get him a place at Ally Pally, where he will face Darius Labanauskas in the first round on December 21st.
Having repeatedly surpassed expectations over the last few years, he is hoping to do so once again in the weeks ahead.
I'll be honest with you, it was never on the cards at the start of the year.
A run at Ally Pally opens up a whole load of new doors. I'm actually playing well. I'm not practicing as much because I'm happy with my darts, my setup, my throw, I'm scoring well.
But when you've got 4,000 people singing Christmas songs and booing you and whatever they're doing, I've never stood in front of a crowd that big. How will I react? Probably the same way I react all the time, I just tune it out.
I'm not gonna say that I'm not going to be nervous, because that will be a lie. But I'm looking forward to it, I really am. I'm looking forward to walking up there, I'm looking forward to being called a World Master. That'll be nice.
I have Darius in the first round. He's good player. He has more experience on that stage than I have, but I'm crazier than he is! We will take it in our stride.
There is no other way that he can approach it.
After a long road, John O'Shea is ready to step onto the biggest stage in darts. Here's hoping he can put together another fairytale run.