FLASHBACK: Darts champ Jack ahead of his time

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NERVES of steel, a steady hand, assured stance, dependable vision and a precise trajectory - all essential traits for the complete darts player.

But those characteristics have to be exacerbated, strengthened to their ultimate, if a major trophy in the sport is to be obtained. And that’s what Burnley darter Jack North achieved.

With arrows boasting archer-like accuracy, Jack didn’t rob from the rich and give to the poor like English folklore’s heroic outlaw Robin Hood; the highly-skilled dartsman defeated the inimitable and represented the ordinary working class man with aplomb.

We trace his steps back to 1969 where it all began with matches with friends in the Hand and Shuttle, Padiham. From there Jack developed the taste for the sport, with darts becoming a necessity in his daily routine. The Royal British Legion would be the next public house to acquire his expertise before his allegiances switched to the Lane Ends and a shot at the Burnley League.

“I was 18,” he remembered. “I never really went in to pubs before then and all my mates started playing. We went in the Hand and Shuttle in Padiham so I just started playing from there. In those days there were just the local leagues but when the bigger competitions were introduced, and I didn’t think I was too bad, I started to enter them.”

But there wasn’t a nonchalance or lack of belief in Jack’s ambition, he entered competitions with great intention. And the desire, determination and guile to succeed was such that he made his breakthrough as early as 1973 with a Lancashire call-up.

“Burnley entered a team into the Lancashire League,” Jack said. “When you play, every score gets jotted down and after the game it’s averaged out. Over four matches you have to average over 85 per three darts and they then go through to the league secretary who selected best performers.

“You always start off as a reserve in the B team. As it were we played Devon away, so I was invited to go down, but somebody couldn’t play so I went straight in to the team. I ended up being man of the match and then played for the A team the following day.”

That moment paved the way for Jack’s progression and in 1975 he was crowned National champion, beating England captain George Simmons in the final.

“Burnley entered a town team in to the nationals; it was like a knockout across Great Britain,” he said. “Everyone played off to one winner for an individual knockout as well, so I represented Burnley for the individual competition and I ended up winning the National. That’s when I started getting a name.

“You played at home or away in the knockout. Whoever the Burnley team were playing, I’d face their individual. It went in areas, starting in Lancashire, then the North of England, further afield and then the grand final in Hull. I think the Burnley team got knocked out in the last 16.”

Jack added: “I just continued on my own. I must have won about 14 or 15 games in total to reach the big final, and then on the night there were about 16 competitors. There’d have been thousands that entered at the start. That was the only big competition going at that particular time with the NDA (National Darts Association), then the BDO started taking over and they introduced more competitions.

“It was great. Back then I knew I could play a bit, but it was quite impressive to have won that. I beat England captain George Simmons in the final. That was a bit of an achievement in itself. I expected a bit of cash to be honest but there was just a trophy. The Lancashire selection and the National win really got me going. It was a big stepping stone.”

For many that would have been the pinnacle, but for Jack it was just the catalyst for further stardom. The year 1976 proved to be action-packed for the Padiham joiner. First event on the timeline - turning professional and reigning supreme in the prestigious British Open event as a flock of international darters fell by the wayside.

“It all happened in ‘76 that’s why I’ll never forget it,” declared Jack. “It was all hard work. It was a busy year. When you’re at the top of the game it’s nice. It was a very enjoyable year.

“The British Open was in 1976, the year I turned pro. It was in London and I won that one. There were about 3,000 that entered and it was held over two days. I won that and I got £1,000 for that.

“It was brilliant because from the quarter-final onwards I played all internationals. I played David Bailey, who played for Scotland, a bloke called Tommy O’Regan in the semi-final, who played for Ireland and I faced Brian Vokes, an England regular in the final.”

But that, though being the highlight of a decorated career, was just the start. Jack earned a lucrative semi-final spot with Welsh pro Alan Evans in the World Masters tournament, though he suffered a narrow, agonising defeat. He was now mixing in the same circles as the world’s elite.

“With winning the National I got automatic entry into the World Masters which was about six months later,” he said. “I reached the semi-final of that. Alan Evans beat me in the final four. Leighton Rees, Kevin White, George Foster, Alan Glazier all played. Everyone connected with darts was there. It was nice putting Burnley on the map. In 1976 I turned pro, won the Nationals and the British Open and reached the semi-final of the World Masters.”

He added: “The favourite moment of my career was when I won the British Open. The World Masters was good. I should have beat Alan Evans and he was world number one. Unofficially I was just behind him. I guess I was England number one because Alan was Welsh. I think I was in the top three in the world, or certainly would have been if I’d have kept on going. If I’d have had some backing, some sponsorship, I’d have been alright.”

The 62-year-old, who also married wife Anne that year, had no heirs or graces about him, he was proud of his roots. His success, which stemmed from the backstreet watering holes of Padiham, earned Jack celebrity status though arrogance never became a by-product.

Jack said: “Quite a lot of people looked up to me back then. That particular year I couldn’t go anywhere, it was madness. I played in a competition called the Pentathlon in Maidstone, Kent, and as soon as I walked in, the pointing started. I was signing signatures and everything. It was alright at first but it got a bit monotonous. I was getting recognised quite often, it was everywhere I went. It was like being a film star.”

Not content with his glittering eminence on home soil, Jack jetted off to America to make an impression on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In terms of silverware the trip didn’t quite go according to plan, though he admits the experience was incomparable.

“I got to travel all over the place,” he beamed. “I got a bit of money in the bank then I went over to the States. There was a big exodus from England with all the big names going over. I went to Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was good over there and there was a lot of money at stake.

“There were a lot of competitions being held, including the North American Open on the Queen Mary, which is docked at Long Beach, and there were smaller competitions every night.

“In the big competition I went out in the first round against the eventual winner. He was called Ricky Fusco, a 200/1 outsider, but he came through to win it. America was a nice experience and it was quite surreal being there.”

On his return to more familiar shores, spectators countrywide sought their moment with the rising star from the industrial northern town. Jack was taken on by Butlins touring Clacton, Skegness and Fylde, playing in front of a bumper crowd of 3,000 fans.

“I did a full season touring Clacton, Skegness and Fylde. I looked out and it was packed out. It was an exhibition match and that was the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. I’d turned professional and on that tour I just played whoever wanted to play me. I got paid for doing that for a full season. When Butlins finished I got taken on with Thwaites and I was doing exhibition matches with them for about five years.”

Jack, who has a daughter, Sarah (28), and grandson Jamie Harrison, who is 12 months old, continued to compete. He made inroads in several major tournaments, making the quarter-final stage at best, but failed to reproduce his earlier form. The only triumph of note came with victory in the North Of England Open in 2002 where he beat Ronnie Baxter in the final in Accrington.

“I reached quarter-finals of competitions but nothing more,” he said. “I just had a bit of misfortune and there were better players coming through. Everything happened for me in that one year really. With the right sponsorship I think my career could have been better. There’s a good bit of sponsorship out now but back then I didn’t get sponsorship. It was expensive and I just couldn’t afford it.”

The popular Burnley dartsman had done and seen it all, but the biggest test of his life was in 2006 when an innocuous accident, resulting in a ruptured tendon in his leg, led to much more serious circumstances as he faced emergency surgery to treat an embolism on his lung.

“I was nearly playing darts with St Peter,” Jack joked. “He was bulling up ready for me. It was a real shock that; a bigger shock than when I won the British Open. I haven’t played much since. I can’t get the stance right now.”

Jack is without doubt a sporting favourite from the town’s past, a prime example of Burnley’s excellence and its achievements in breeding such stars. And Jack is confident that he’d be challenging the likes of Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor today if he was armoured with the form and expertise of his youth.

“I was just confident and I loved the game,” said Jack. “If I’d have been playing today, with my form back then, I’d have been up there. I’m not saying I’d have beaten Phil Taylor but I think I was just unfortunate to have played in the era I did. I was about 10 or 20 years too early. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and I wish I could do it again in some ways.”

He added: “I miss a lot of it, but some of it I don’t. It was tiring; I used to play Clitheroe League with Judge Walmsley on Monday night, Accrington League with the Arden Inn on Tuesday, Hyde in the Cheshire Super League on Wednesday, Padiham League and Burnley League, then there used to be an Inter-Town League on Friday. And Saturday and Sunday was either county matches or competitions. I wasn’t getting paid for that either. You couldn’t afford to do it now.

“It’s hard work. People don’t realise how tough it is. The big competitions go on for two days sometimes, and you’re on your feet all that time. Luckily it came natural to me and I’ve never really been a nervous person so I didn’t suffer in that respect. I could go up on a stage and play in front of 3,000 people with no nerves at all but I’d never get on the karaoke and sing in front of four.”