Raymond Van Barneveld has not won a big televised individual darts title for five years.
But when he comes to the oche at Alexandra Palace on Saturday (December 14) evening for his first round match in the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Darts Championship, he will be at the emotional centre of what will be his farewell event.
As in all sports, it’s not just about the titles. Van Barneveld, now 52, has won his share, of course, including four versions of the British Darts Organisation (BDO) World Championship until 2006.
The following year, in what is still regarded by many as the greatest ever final, he added a single PDC version after disconnecting Phil “The Power” Taylor 7-6 in a sudden-death leg after coming from three sets down.
Since then, this amiable Dutchman has been a big figure in the game, winning his share of lesser titles, but more importantly making an impression with successive audiences that has established him as one of the most warmly-regarded of darts players.
The 1988 Winmau World Masters darts event was held in the unlikely setting of the Rainbow Suite, five floors up off Kensington High Street, an oasis of house plants and framed engravings amid the pre-Christmas chaos of Salvation Army bands, collections for the blind and steely eyed shoppers.
Among the players was a Brazilian, Stephane Filkins. There was no TV coverage of darts in his country, but two years earlier Eric Bristow had arrived to play an exhibition match.
At the time it was another English player, Bob Anderson, who was world champion. But Filkins was satisfied with the arrangement.
"We know Anderson is the number one,” he said. “But it’s Bristow the legend."
And so it remained.
The many tributes paid to this extraordinary figure after his death in April last year at the age of 60 acknowledged his pre-eminence, while making it clear that he was, and would be remembered for, qualities very different from Van Barneveld’s.
Writing in The Guardian, Sean Ingle put it thus: “Eric Bristow was the high emperor of darts’ first golden age: brilliant and arrogant, admired and despised, a world champion and a pantomime villain rolled into one.”
In the mid-1980s, Bristow - the Crafty Cockney - was top man in the world of darts. As this intimidatingly bulky man took to the oche and prepared to throw, lifting his little finger away from the arrow with the incongruous grace of a vicar sipping tea, you could sense his opponents shrivelling.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Like three mortal blows, the darts would lodge into the heart of the board. And as he strolled forward to collect them, beer-fuelled cheers in his ears - nothing has changed in this department, no matter the iced water now on hand for players - Bristow would betray the complacent satisfaction of a pike that had just had a satisfying snack.
That, of course, was Bristow pre-dartitis.
The phrase "dartitis" was coined in the early 1980s by Tony Wood, then editor of Darts World, who had commissioned three psychologists to make a survey of afflicted readers. They concluded that the problem appeared when players were under competitive pressure. (Similar problems had been experienced in putting by the German golfer Bernhard Langer or, in snooker, by Patsy Fagan).
At the BDO World Championships in January 1987, Bristow, who had won the title in the three previous years, reached the final again at the relatively new venue of the Lakeside Country Club in Surrey, and was awaiting the winner of the other semi-final between John Lowe and Jocky Wilson.
"I don’t give a damn who gets through," he told us. "I’m going to rip his head off.”
A classic Bristow quote - similar to the one he had given the previous year after losing to relative unknown Steve Brennan in the British Matchplay event: "I keep getting beaten by wallies."
Lowe qualified for the head-ripping. And then earned a 6-4 win over Bristow - who would never win another title.
Later that year I interviewed Bristow about the affliction which he had by then acknowledged was undermining his position as the world's leading dart thrower.
We spoke in the warm-up area beside the stage at the MFI World Matchplay event, where he was due to meet another relative unknown, Canada’s Bob Sinnaeve, in the first round.
I watched Bristow tip handful after dainty handful of darts into the treble 20 on the board behind his table. The Crafty Cockney appeared to be back at his peak.
But he knew otherwise. And, when he got out on to the board he faltered and only made the second round after allowing his opponent to come within a double-12 of victory.
By then Bristow had had a legion of helpful remedies from darts players and followers including throwing darts in a darkened room, throwing bricks, and standing in a bowl of water.
"I gave up drink for a month,” he told me. “I thought it might be numbing my brain cells. But it made no difference.”
He had then visited a hypnotherapist. “Not my cup of tea. I only went once.”
He was urged to take a break. He chose instead to up his practice to seven hours a day and push on.
Sports psychologists please look away now.
Before striding out to the waiting arena, Bristow concluded: “I’m the son-of-a-bitch that’s given it to myself, so I’ve got to get rid of it.”
He never won that sixth world title. But he ground his way to the final for three successive years from 1989 to 1991, by which time he had already funded and mentored the man who would go on to win even more world titles than him, Phil Taylor.
Bristow may not have had charm. But he was generous and he had courage.