Six into four just does not go. The pressure cooker that is the Premier League, and this absorbing race to reach the end of season play-offs, reached boiling point at The FlyDSA Arena, in Sheffield, last night.
Before a dart was thrown, not one player had yet secured their place at The O2 on May 23. Barring a particular run of results, though, Rob Cross and Michael van Gerwen, the top two, looked all but certain to be among the four to qualify.
And last night both Cross and van Gerwen dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on their respective places in the four-player finale in two weeks’ time. Cross (102.66 average), an 8-4 winner against Mensur Suljovic, and van Gerwen (110.85) a more comfortable 8-1 victor over Peter Wright.
That leaves just two more places to be decided, between James Wade, Suljovic, Daryl Gurney and Gerwyn Price. In this, perhaps the closest Premier League Darts season in history, the margins could scarcely have been smaller heading into last night’s penultimate round of fixtures.
Wade (17 points), Suljovic (17 points), Gurney (16 points) and Price (15 points). In the opening game of the night, Wade shared the points with the already-eliminated Michael Smith, last year’s runner-up, in a back and forth 7-7 draw.
It was a result which did not clinch Wade a place at The O2, but his legs difference of +18 “should” be enough to see him there. And after Suljovic lost to league leader Cross, the night’s third game, between Gurney and Price, was arguably the most pivotal in the battle for the play-offs.
Price, knowing that a defeat would extinguish his hopes of the top four, but also that a victory over Gurney would put him above his opponent and Suljovic into fourth, moved 6-3 up, before a three-leg run from Gurney levelled at 6-6 and put the tie on a knife edge.
What followed in the game’s final two legs was full of drama. First, Price, with the Sheffield crowd firmly on his back, took out 96, via single 20, double 18, double 20, to break Gurney’s throw and grab at least a point.
Now with the darts, Price was favourite to close out the win and return to the top four. And the Grand Slam champion was presented with a chance to do so, albeit a 146 checkout, but after hitting two treble 20s, he went inside on double 13.
An ice cool Gurney polished off 64 in three darts, two single 16s and a double 16, to complete the draw and then the post-match fireworks arrived.
Gurney sparked an on stage war of words with Price, which saw several of the security staff step in to put a stop to proceedings.
Do not let Gurney’s loveable walk-on fool you. He has not risen to number three in the world based on the dulcet tones of Neil Diamond alone.
Yes, he has become a favourite with fans, as he engages the crowd in a sing-a-long to Sweet Caroline, but once the words “game on” are called, Gurney is one of the fiercest competitors around.
We saw that at the 2017 World Grand Prix final, brushing his shoulder past Simon Whitlock to celebrate a checkout. When the chips are down, and the stakes are at their highest, Gurney is not afraid to dig in to find an extra gear.
Neither Price or Gurney have ever reached the play-offs. Both have won major silverware in the last six months, but the Premier League’s importance and prestige in the players’ psyche is rarely topped.
Four months on the road, touring the UK and around Europe, and it all comes down to the final night of the regular season in Leeds next Thursday. Cross and van Gerwen are both at The O2, but for Wade, Suljovic, Gurney and Price, sadly two of them will find out that four into two just does not go.
Pictures: Lawrence Lustig/PDC