Less than a month after they met in the World Championship final, Luke Littler meets Luke Humphries again tonight in Cardiff for what will be an intriguing Premier League Darts debut for both, for very different reasons.
Humphries arrives as the new world No 1 and a world champion, having been rejected from the Premier League last year. He took that to heart and vowed to prove wrong that decision by the sport’s powers, and over the course of a stunning autumn and winter he did exactly that.
But much like their world final, the spotlight will shine brightest on his opponent. Littler is already the biggest star in darts with more than a million followers on Instagram. More than 4 million people tuned into their final on Sky Sports, making it more popular than any day during the Ashes or the Ryder Cup. It is no wonder darts’ lucrative new star was immediately invited to the Premier League, despite being the world No 31, up against players much higher in the rankings.
A lot has happened in the intervening four weeks for Littler, not least turning 17. He enjoyed the aftermath of the World Championship, taking in a trip to his beloved Old Trafford and meeting Sir Alex Ferguson, who advised him to “stay grounded”, Littler says. Then he escaped to a house in North Wales with his girlfriend and family to get away from the media scrum following his every step.
He insists he didn’t throw a single dart in the 15 days between the world final and the start of the Bahrain Masters. He won the tournament, beating the great Michael van Gerwen in the final and hitting a nine-dart finish en route, and a week later reached another final, this time losing to Van Gerwen at his home Dutch Masters.
Three finals in his last three tournaments, against the best in the world, is an extraordinary streak for any player, let alone a rookie on the professional scene. How Littler copes with the Premier League will be fascinating, and yet all the signs suggest that this is not a young man who is ever fazed. Littler turned up in Bahrain, threw a few darts, played around on his phone and then went out and destroyed everybody.
“No one believed me when I said I’d not thrown a dart since the world final,” he told the Guardian. “People could have said the worlds was a one-off but it certainly wasn’t because I won my first World Series [tournament] and my first attempt at ticking things off the bucket list is done. I’d now like to win any major this year.”
Humphries had a little warning for Littler recently, suggesting that a lack of practice could “come back to bite you”.
“I wasn’t surprised by his performance but I was surprised he hadn’t practised since the world final,” Humphries said after Littler’s win in Bahrain. “You have to be careful in this game to put in enough effort. If you feel like you have got to the point in your game where you are great and you are not practising, it will come back to bite you.
"It is important he stays dedicated and practises hard because that is a point in the game where you can lose yourself. I know players who have done that, Michael Smith has openly admitted he didn’t practise all last year then all of a sudden he lost his form. So, I feel like that is a massive point in your game you have to focus on. But ... he is part of the elite and rightly so.”
The Premier League is an exclusive club consisting of the top-four ranked players and four more invitees. Each weekly mini-event consists of quarter-finals, a semi-final and a final over the best of 11 legs. Players who reach the semi-finals win two points per event, with the night’s runner-up collecting three points and the winner awarded five.
Those points contribute to a league table where, after 16 rounds, the top four players advance to the play-offs at the O2 in London in May. Tonight’s opening round sees Van Gerwen and Michael Smith go head to head in another heavyweight clash, while Welshman Gerwyn Price takes on Nathan Aspinall and Peter Wright battles Rob Cross.
The Premier League is different to anything Littler has faced before, a four-month grind spanning Ireland, Germany, Netherlands and spots all over the UK. With Littler on the bill it will resemble something of a travelling circus at times, and coping with the relentless nature of the event will be as big a challenge as the carousel of world-class talent he’ll be faced with.
“This is what I signed up for – a busy schedule all year long,” Littler said at the Premier League launch in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. “I just keep myself to myself. When I was going to the airport for Bahrain I said to my mum that I just wanted 10-20 weeks off, please, but the schedule is just crazy. I know when I get a day off, I just make the most of it, and I have always said once I get into the venue, that is when I am in the zone.
“I’ve seen quite a few people have said, ‘Will the pressure get to him?’ But I just do what I do, do what I do best and throw my darts in the board. I don’t really want to practise at home, because once I get a day off I don’t want to be spending hours and hours on the board, so I spend hours and hours on my Xbox instead.”
The lack of heavy practice seems to allow Littler’s natural game to flourish, and lets the magnetic feel in his fingers take over. Now that talent will be unleashed on the Premier League stage, week after week, and it will be a compelling watch. He and Humphries will be thrown together once more tonight, each a new king of darts in their own distinct way, both out to prove that this is where they belong.