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

Weekend Herald - - THE BIG READ -

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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