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

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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

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