Hands up if this time 12 months ago you would have predicted the 2021 Premier League final to be contested between Jonny Clayton and Jose De Sousa?
While both players had won PDC titles away from the TV cameras, with five ProTour titles between them, and in Clayton’s case had several deep runs in televised events, picturing the pair in the final of the biggest non-ranking event in the sport would not have been an easy thing to do.
Yet what we have seen transpire over the last 12 months, and accentuated last night in Milton Keynes, is the emergence of two players who have thrust themselves at the top table of talent in the PDC.
And you can throw Dimitri Van den Bergh in there as well. The trio, who were all making their full Premier League debuts in 2021, have shone and proven their worth against the established names in what has once again been a season like no other.
Last year’s Premier League started with sell out crowds and ended behind closed doors, while this year’s edition started behind closed doors and ended with sell out crowds. One hopes in 2022 we will be back to the euphoria of sell out crowds from start to finish.
Back to the debutants, though, and all three were selected for the 10-player field having lifted silverware in front of the cameras in the last 12 months.
Van den Bergh defied 100-1 pre-tournament odds to win the World Matchplay on debut last July. De Sousa wrote his country’s name into the record books by becoming the first player from Portugal to win a major, when he was crowned Grand Slam champion on debut last November.
And it will be a long time before we forget Clayton’s first televised singles title, the Welshman coming through four last-leg deciders on the way to winning the Masters in January this year.
Two of the trio made it to the play-offs last night. Despite being top of the table at the end of five matchdays, the same amount of as the eventual table topper Michael van Gerwen, Van den Bergh finished in fifth spot.
A run of four draws and a defeat in his last five games saw the Belgian miss out, even while equalling van Gerwen’s record of 10 100+ averages in a full debut Premier League season.
Van den Bergh and van Gerwen now share that record with two other players, following last night’s play-offs, as Clayton and De Sousa both took their 100+ match averages for the campaign into double figures.
The affable De Sousa, with the return of crowds this week, has seen his popularity rise. The clip of him checking out 120 with three double tops on Thursday night has already had more than 350,000 views on the PDC’s official Twitter account alone.
It is a clip which has no doubt grasped the attention of a wider audience. Add in his 96 maximums, which smashed Gary Anderson’s haul of 79, the previous best in a Premier League season, a record that had stood since 2011, and his occasional counting blunders, and you have someone who has now positioned himself with the elite.
Winning a major is one thing, but to back it up in the most lucrative non-ranking event there is, further illustrates the class these players currently possess. It was the shortest Premier League season in history, covering just 54 days, almost half the length of time a usual campaign would take pre-pandemic.
But the format did not change. The number of matches did not change. And the player who lifted the title last night, becoming only the seventh winner in history, as well as the first from Wales, was Clayton.
Locked at 8-8 with the top seed van Gerwen, and needing a break of throw if he was going to prevail, Clayton produced an 11 darter and then held in 12 darts to hand the five-time champion his first ever defeat in a Premier League semi-final.
Although the standard of opponent did not waver, the final proved to be more one sided, with Clayton beating De Sousa 11-5 to land the £250,000 top prize. Clayton finished the night 21/36 on the doubles, equating to around 58 per cent, and averaged 101.89 across his two matches.
In darts, age is just another number in a sport which is filled with them. Clayton, 46, and De Sousa, 47, deserve to have their names up in lights with the rest of the big hitters in the game.
Pictures: Lawrence Lustig/PDC