THE TOURNAMENT THAT CHANGED DARTS FOREVER
There were ‘world’ darts titles that were contested before 1978 but it was ‘the Embassy’ that lighted the road for the rest to follow, and follow they did.
The front cover of the programme for the inaugural world championship’ (Image: Author’s Collection)
Before the formation of the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in 1973, darts had little or no regular television exposure or national newspaper publicity. At that time the News of the World Individual Darts Championship was the tournament every darts player wanted to win. But there was no major tournament yet provided that would match the growing number of darts professionals (those who earned their living or part of their living from darts) with top non-professional players from the UK and elsewhere. All this changed for ever in 1978.
Apart from the darts press the build-up to the first Embassy World Professional Darts Championship was understated. This may have been because it was ‘just darts’ and few of the national newspapers, especially the ‘broadsheets’, paid darts any attention at all. But history was in the making.
The inaugural Embassy was held at the Heart of the Midlands Night Club, Talbot Street, Nottingham from 6th -10th February and offered ‘World Record prize money’ of £10,000 with the winner taking away a personal cheque for £3,000. The main sponsor was the tobacco company W. D. & H. O. Wills of Bristol (later part of Imperial Tobacco). Wills had been sponsoring snooker for the past three years and now turned their attention, and their money, to darts.
The event was promoted as being given ‘the full top sports treatment on television with five days of coverage’. What this meant in effect was that BBC 2, which had brought sports such as snooker, crown green bowling and even sheepdog trials into millions of homes, would broadcast a total of three hours (180! minutes) of recorded highlights of the darts over the five days of the tournament. The television commentary was provided David Vine (who had previously launched a TV series called ‘Double Top’ Westward TV) and Sid Waddell (who according to the 1978 programme (pictured) had previously lost a Cambridge University darts final to a team of four trainee vicars!). Nowadays with blanket ‘live’ coverage and ‘red button’ additional features three hours seems woefully inadequate. However, it did not feel so at the time. This was only the beginning.
Leighton Rees in action in the 1978 Embassy (Image: The DW/PC Archive)
For the first Embassy the BDO had invited sixteen of the top darts players from around the world of which eight were seeded, namely Eric Bristow (England) (Seeded 1), John Lowe (England) (2), Leighton Rees (Wales) (3), Rab Smith (Scotland) (4), Alan Evans (Wales) (5), Stefan Lord (Sweden) (6), Nicky Virachkul (USA) (7) and Tony Brown (England) (8). The eight unseeded were (in alphabetical order) Barry Atkinson (Australia), Tim Brown (Australia), Pat Clifford (Ireland), Conrad Daniels (USA), Alan Glazier (England), Kenth Ohlsson (Sweden), Hilyard Rossiter (Canada) and Bobby Semple (Scotland).
For those who wanted to attend the Embassy in person and watch history being made, tickets for the first round (Monday and Tuesday) and the quarter finals (Wednesday) cost £1.25 each whilst for the semi-finals fans were charged £1.50 and for the Final on the Friday evening, £1.75. On each night play commenced at 7 p.m. and after the darts had finished the well-known comedian George Roper entertained the crowds.
A darts pundit at the time wrote before the tournament “…all those people who thought darts was for middle-aged men wearing cardigans to hide their paunches, will be surprised to see “veterans” in their mid-twenties like (Sweden’s) Stefan Lord, and a World Master who is only 21”; the latter being a reference to Eric Bristow who was, of course, the red-hot favourite to take the inaugural Embassy title; a young man who had lifted the WINMAU World Masters title a few weeks earlier. That same pundit looked back at the ‘Good Old Days’ and predicted that darts was on such a roll that there would be many ‘Good New Days’ ahead too. How right he was!
The scene was set. Lights! Camera! Action! The inaugural Embassy World Professional Darts Championship was underway. With the oche set at 7’ 6” it was the first player to win nine legs in first round and the quarter-finals, then first to eight legs in the semi-final and first to eleven legs in the final.
No one believed it when the Number One seed and hot favourite, Eric Bristow crashed out 6-3 in the first round to American star Conrad Daniels but it happened. All five other seeds made it through to the quarter-finals. With Bristow out of the tournament the fans were perhaps expecting more surprises but there were none (Daniels’ being dispatched by Nicky Virachkul the Number 7 seed in the quarter-finals) as the Number 2 seed (John Lowe) and the Number 3 seed (Leighton Rees) made it to the final.
In front of a capacity and relatively noiseless yet enthusiastic crowd, both Wales’ Leighton Rees and England’s John Lowe played superb darts. With the score at 10 legs to 7 in Leighton’s favour and him requiring 100 to take the title, Leighton hit a bull's-eye with his first dart, then single 10 and then double top with his third dart to lift the title and the roof of the Heart of the Midlands Night Club.
For that triumph Leighton Rees was presented with a cheque for £3,000, the Embassy trophy and the titled of Embassy World Professional Darts Champion, 1978. However, it is a relatively unknown fact that this was not the only trophy Leighton picked up that day. He was also awarded the British Airways specially designed Concorde Trophy (pictured - Image courtesy of NODOR International and Ryan Rees) for a superb ten-dart finish in the quarter-finals against his friend and compatriot Alan Evans with scores of 137, 180, 180, 4 game shot.
At the time Leighton told a Darts World reporter that he always bet on himself. He said, “I always have £25 or £50 on myself every time I play.” He also split his £3,000 winners’ prize money for the World Championship with his great friend and fellow Welsh darts star Alan Evans. Leighton added, “We always share the prize if one of us wins a big competition.” This splitting of prize money was fairly general darts back then.
And so, Leighton Rees took the Embassy World Professional title and trophy, his cheque and the Concorde trophy back to the valleys and whilst John Lowe would gain revenge the following year, the Number 1 seed, Eric Bristow would have to wait until 1980 until his first (of five) Embassy titles.
But that is where it all began…
There were upsets back in 1978 and there have been upsets since and doubtless this will continue to be the case as top darters ‘the Embassy’, now, of course, the Lakeside World Professional Darts Championship (since 2004). Year after year the tournament proves that the BDO/WDF codes have strength in depth as more names are added to the world championship role of honour.
I cannot believe it but it is thirty-five years since the World Professional Darts Championship was first held. Can you?
As a Darts Historian one of my deepest regrets is that I never met Leighton. However, when the Research Editor of the Oxford University Press, compilers of the Dictionary of National Biography approached me in 2006 and asked me to write an entry about Leighton, I felt then that I had played my part in perpetuating the memory of this Welsh sporting hero.