The Big Read
There’s much more to darts’ pantomime villain than loud shirts and colourful hair and his story is no ordinary rags- to- riches tale, as Jonathan Liew discovers
ack in 1995, a young man from south London qualified for his first darts world championships. He had a sensible haircut, dressed all in black, and lost unfussily to world No 1 Richie Burnett in the first round. Shortly afterwards, he quit the sport for good. And that, it seemed, was the story of Peter Wright.
Except almost two decades later, Wright resurfaced, and almost everything about him was different. He wore loud shirts and had a colourful Mohican hairstyle. He was nicknamed “Snakebite”, after the painted designs that his wife Jo spent hours before every match daubing on to the side of his head. And suddenly he was very good at darts. Against all odds, he reached the 2014 world championships final.
These days, Wright is one of the best two or three players in the world, and certainly one of the most recognisable. In recent months, he has even begun to challenge seeminglyimpregnable world No 1 Michael van Gerwen.
Wright yesterday lost 11- 10 to van Gerwen in a dramatic Premier League final in London’s O2 Arena, the closest final in the competition’s history. Wright missed six match darts in the 20th leg which would have given him the biggest win of his career. He will be one of the main drawcards when the Auckland Masters tournament returns in August.
With his brash stage persona and exuberant celebrations, Snakebite has become one of the biggest characters in the sport.
“It’s a disguised confidence,” says Jo, who sits alongside Wright and ends up doing much of the talking during our interview at a London hotel.
The showman you see on stage playing up to the crowd is a cartoon persona, devised, as Wright puts it, “to hide all the shyness”. And so Wright’s story is more than a simple tale of sporting rags- to- riches. It is a journey of discovery.
He was born in Scotland, but moved to London when he was five.
“Mum was only young when she had me,” he explains. “The family wanted to take me away from her, because they thought she was too young to bring me up. So she ran away with me, down to London.”
Money was tight. Wright got his first set of darts for his 13th birthday, but unable to afford a dartboard, used to practise against a tree. When he was 15, he joined his first pub team, at the Lord Derby in Plumstead. Back then, the cockiness was real. When he was 16, an opponent glassed him in the face after Wright taunted him once too often. “My lip was hanging down here,” he says.
More than three decades on, he still bears a scar. But despite a promising junior career and that one world championship, Wright never earned enough from darts to make ends meet. So he gave it up.
“I wish I could go back and carry it on,” he says now. “I just couldn’t afford to do it. I was unemployed. After my bills, I was living on about £ 14 a week.” nd so, as the likes of Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld lifted darts into the stratosphere and made themselves millionaires in the process, Wright lived an obscure, wandering existence, moving from town to town, from job to thankless job. He fitted windows. He hauled concrete fence posts. He worked on building sites and holiday camps. Then, one night in 2007, he was watching the Grand Slam of Darts on television, and noticed that he had beaten most of the players he was watching. And he realised that he still had unfinished business in the sport.
“It’s always been in my blood,” Wright says. “Jo used the money from her salon, I gave up work just before Christmas, and started on the tour in February. And I won £ 1200 in my first year. I was worrying about money.”
He’s never had anyone to support him, or encourage him, says Jo. “Everyone’s just knocked him down. Everyone said to him: ‘ You’ll never make it’. He even went out with a darts player who always used to say, ‘ I’m better than you. You’ll never be any good’. It’s because he was so shy. We had to go through everything to find his confidence.”
And so, Snakebite was born. Using Jo’s styling skills, Wright began to develop his look.
First came the colourful hair. Then the flamboyant shirts. Then the loud chequered trousers. Then the scalp paintings. Fans and commentators began taking notice.
“At the beginning a lot of people were like: ‘ Oh, look at that idiot, that clown. But I just wanted to be different. It wasn’t a plan.”
Yet with the 2014 world championships looming, and still struggling to pay the bills, Wright was contemplating giving up again.
“That was our last year,” he says. “If I didn’t do well, we’d have called it a day. We’d run out of money.”
But fate intervened. Taylor was knocked out early, and with the draw wide open, Wright marched to the final, where he was beaten by van Gerwen. The runners- up cheque of £ 100,000 saved his career.
Since then, he has not looked back. Darts is a game of confidence, and as Wright has grown into the Snakebite persona, his game has ascended to new heights. Earlier this year, he averaged 119.50 against Adrian Lewis in the Premier League, the second- highest televised average of all time. In February, he won his first major title, the UK Open. Then a couple of weeks ago, Wright shocked the sport by whitewashing van Gerwen 6- 0 in Germany. Until this year, the Dutchman had beaten him 16 times in a row.
“I’d say about 90 per cent of it is mentality, and the other 10 per cent practice,” Wright says. “If your head’s not right, it can put you straight off. If I turn up and my head’s right, then I’ll win. Simple. Every year, I’ve been getting closer. It was nice to beat Michael 6- 0 the other day. That just puts a little seed in his head.”
Yet Wright’s rise has not delighted everyone. His stage presence, and an occasional tendency to showboat, has irritated many of the top players. Van Gerwen has accused him of a lack of respect. Gary Anderson advised him to “keep his mouth shut”. Jo had a Twitter spat with Adrian Lewis last year. At the Premier League, Wright used to bring his own board because nobody would practise with him.
“I think they’re jealous of what we’ve got,” Wright says. “Characterwise, and in terms of marketability.”
Meanwhile, he and Jo have spent the past two years being targeted by a small group of online trolls who send the pair private messages on Twitter.
“You block their accounts, and they still get to you,” Jo says.
“It’s weird,” Wright sighs. “But there you go. There’s things I’d like to say, but can’t.” nly once you get a small glimpse into Wright’s world do you grasp the real significance of the Snakebite persona. From the outside, we see a character, a pantomime villain, a lucrative merchandising opportunity. But for Wright, a painfully- shy man trying to shout down his own flickering doubt, it is a sort of coping mechanism. A role that gives his life shape and meaning. Peter gets hurt. Snakebite couldn’t care less. How separate are the two?
“Totally different,” Wright says. “At the venue, I’m focused. I’m in that zone. If you asked me to go play now, I’d probably be rubbish.”
In his idler moments, Wright occasionally wonders how things might have gone had he not given up the sport two decades ago, when things got tough. He had the talent, he knows that now.
“I couldn’t afford it,” he laments. “But I wish I had. I could have been Phil Taylor. But maybe it wasn’t meant to happen. Maybe now is my time.”
Peter “Snakebite” Wright