The raspy-voiced darts referee sits down to talk about his own darts playing career, the progression of the game and inside knowledge of the amazing game on a titanic rise.
“That’s the appeal of the game, it’s exciting, getting the crowd there all dressed up as all sorts, jumping about, cheering, shouting and it’s a magnificent day out and there’s a million and one sports that would love to have our crowd which is why ours is so good. It’s watchable and you’ve got two guys up there, battling it out and you’ve got your 180s, 170 finishes and that’s just what the PDC are, exciting.”
After 40 minutes of a fascinating chat, it was clear to see Russ Bray’s overriding passion and enthusiasm for the sport he has been involved with for over three decades. From a sport that was played in the pubs to overseeing tours in Asia and around the world it still seems like a close-knit community with many of the traditional values still at the core of the game. Yet, with the phenomenal success of the recently retired Barry Hearn and the PDC, the game is growing at a substantial rate and appealing to worldwide audiences.
Bray, one of the most experienced and iconic referees in the game, started as a county player in Hertfordshire and even played alongside the late Eric Bristow in a pairs event in Norway after an impressive showing in Canada. Whilst on the plane home from the tournament, the darting great approached him: “Eric turned around and said to me, ‘If you fancy the Norwegian Open next week, I’ll play pairs with ya’. Now, this is from the greatest darts player that’s played, (I was thinking) ‘God knows where I’ll get the money from’, but good old Mum and Dad, they paid for my flight and me and Bristow got beat in the semi-finals.”
However, though a more than capable player, Bray made a swift and frankly unexpected career change:
“So, I was calling a couple of games on a county weekend. The guy (referee) never turned up for the next one, so I became one of the county callers as well as playing. I was never going to be as good as the likes of Phil Taylor and all these boys, MVG and all that lot. But, then I got contacted by the PDC to ask me if I was interested in being a reserve referee with them.”
After calling his first event in Blackpool, he was immediately approached by Tommy Cox, the tournament director and founder of the PDC. Before he knew it, he was then offered the position of the third referee and was announcing at the world championships later that same year.
The 64-year-old, known as ‘The Voice’ has just about seen all there is to see in darts. From nine darters and classic matches through to the biggest modern tournaments the game has to offer. From quite literally first hand, he’s witnessed the monumental rise of the sport. The transition from being a middle-aged men’s pub sport fuelled by warm bitter has been huge and is now adopting the elite mentality sports are now seen to uphold.
“The change I think has been incredible. Don’t forget you’ve got better equipment, going onwards and upwards. I’m very fortunate, I was sponsored by Unicorn and the equipment’s better in the modern game and it really is precision stuff, it’s 23g or 23.2g, and that 0.2 makes a big difference. The dartboards obviously are now a lot better, there are only very, very thin wires, which doesn’t help us see whether the dart is under it, over it, alongside them (the treble). Consequently, that’s made the treble actually slightly bigger, so you’re starting to get better scores, higher averages, but the players’ own temperament, their own way in themselves, I think has changed massively. Bearing in mind, darts now is a life-changing game.”
The change is there for everyone to behold. Keith Deller, the 1983 world champion (who tried to ring Russ twice during the interview) won £8,000, with the current holder, Gerwyn Price adding £500,000 to his bank account.
But, aside from fame and fortune, darts has still held its own core values. The veteran referee has many friends still in the game where some he met around the pubs and amateur scene. He worked with Kevin Painter, plays golf with Wayne Mardle, Steve Beaton, just to name a few.
The preparation backstage is relatively simple: “Well, we get to a venue generally around an hour beforehand, we all get in the room, we know what games we’re doing and then it’s just banter. I don’t do anything personally and neither do any of the other guys that I know of. You see what games you’ve got, you call a game, then you’re off for a game and then you second ref a game. The second referee is the guy behind the stage while the match is on and we have the cameras just like the TV. We have a camera straight down the oche, so you can see the players at the back and the other one is what you see on TV, what Sky are actually putting out. So, you may be doing that, but the preparation is very very little, backstage is an awful lot of laughs.”
There’s no doubt that the passionate West Ham fan, now living in Cambridgeshire, encapsulates the values that so often get lost in modern sport. Integrity, knowledge and simply living and breathing the game despite the longevity of being involved with it. But, most importantly being able to switch off when returning home:
“My love is golf, I play with Keith Deller a lot. I’m very lucky, I live on a farm, so we’ve got some stables with a couple of little horses which the Mrs enjoys. I’m very much a home man, relaxing, I love being at home.”
Perhaps that explains why, despite recently having his 64th birthday, darts’ most recognisable voice seems to enjoy every minute of his job
Russ’s note: “During the downtime between PDC events I have often been asked by various students, presenters, bloggers, and radio shows, across the world for interviews etc. One particular one that comes to mind was the above interview with Jack Hatton for his university work. It’s great to be helping newcomers on their way in a very competitive world.”
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Images: PDC & Darts World Extra
Words: Jack Hatton