There are few events in sport that rival the unforgiving, unpredictable and chaotic nature of Qualifying School. Hundreds of hopefuls – from former world champions to complete amateurs – all vying for their golden darting ticket.
Over 650 players will descend on either Milton Keynes or Niedernhausen from February 8-17, for their chance to claim a two-year Tour Card with the Professional Darts Corporation.
The very first edition of Q-School in 2011 was attended by around 100 players – that figure has soared throughout the last decade, and but for the current climate, that number could have been approaching in 1,000 in 2021.
- PDC Q-School 2021: All change at darts’ dream factory
- The Darts Show podcast with Clayton, Sherrock and Painter
The standard could not be more varied, yet darts’ dream factory consistently conjures up fascinating narratives. Celebrated icons, fallen favourites, county veterans, budding amateurs – all dreaming of scooping one of the 29 coveted Tour cards.
Premier League champion Glen Durrant progressed through Q-School in last-gasp fashion in 2019, and now the three-time BDO world champion is an established part of the PDC’s elite.
However, he may not be the only Durrant competing on the Pro Tour in 2021. Step forward Jamie Durrant, a 31-year-old scaffolder bidding to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and construct a darting career of his own.
“When I started seeing Glen winning in the BDO – I think it was his second title – I went out and had a little throw outside and I hit my first 180. That kind of made me want to take it up,” Durrant told Sky Sports.
“Seeing somebody so close to home doing so well, it really inspired me to give it a go and see if I was any good.”
The 31-year-old bought his first dart board in 2019 and has never played at Superleague or county level, but he boasts a victory over ‘Duzza’ in an exhibition and more importantly, he possesses an insatiable passion for the sport.
“I’m excited for it because I just love to play darts. I’m not going there with big expectations of the Pro Tour or anything like that. I have no nickname, I’ve got no walk-on song, nothing!
“Glen is my go-to man for a lot of things. Anything I need help with, he is the one I go to. His advice mainly has been: ‘Just go and enjoy it’.
“My absolute dream honestly, would be to play Glen on a big stage. I would love to get on to the Pro Tour purely to get something like the UK Open and draw Glen at one of the stages. That would be my absolute dream.”
However, for every amateur’s fledgling aspiration, there stands a household name desperate to scale the heights once again.
Group 1a at q school! Very nervous and excited. Hoping I can play to the best of my ability and not let the nerves get to me! Time will tell I guess roll on the 8th !!!!! 🎯🎯
Wes Newton has endured a tumultuous period since relinquishing his Tour Card in 2017. The two-time major finalist and former Premier League player was once ranked as high as fifth in the world, before matters soon unravelled.
‘The Warrior’ revealed that midway through 2014, he was told he required an operation to combat a shoulder injury, but after opting against immediate surgery, he was unable to reverse his slide.
“Because I was in the Premier League at the time, I would have had to have so many months out, I just carried on playing, having cortisone injections,” Newton told Sky Sports.
“It took me a good year for that injury to go and be pain-free, but playing in pain for a year, it has an effect on you. You have got to build your confidence up again, but it was just a steady decline.
“The worst thing I did was keeping it to myself and not telling anyone, but the standard is so high, you need to be on your game all the time, and when you’re not you soon get found out.”
The 43-year-old – who missed out via legs difference at last year’s Q-School – conceded that his reputation ensures he has a target on his back, but he’s desperate to make amends following his heartbreak 12 months ago.
“You have got the experience which should go in your favour, but when you’re a name or you have been a name, everyone is up to play you and they want to beat you,” Newton added.
“If someone plays that name, they may raise their game a little bit and there is a bullseye on your back, and because you are when you are, you have not got that fear factor anymore.
“Obviously I would love to be back where I was, but you’ve got to walk again before you can run. My main objective is to get my Tour card back because I have been out of it for three years now.
“I think everyone is buzzing for it at the minute. This week before, this build-up; everyone is excited because their dream is around the corner.”
“You don’t become a bad player overnight, so I do believe that will come back with playing at a higher level all the time.”
Newton eyeing PDC return
However, Newton won’t be the only former Premier League player making the trip to Milton Keynes for Stage One, as a certain Kevin Painter also eyes a return to the big-time.
The former world finalist is one of several major winners to feature in the field, having lifted the Players Championship Finals title in 2011.
“Whether I can be that player again, time will tell. I’ve been off the Tour two years now, and in my opinion, I went off it before I was due to go off it,” Painter told The Darts Show podcast.
“It wasn’t a case of me going to games and getting beaten 6-1 or 6-2, getting hammered and thinking: ‘I’ve had enough of this, I can’t do this anymore’. I was losing a lot of games 6-4, 6-5, games where I was 5-2 and 5-1 up, I lost so many of those in the final year.
“I just lost all my concentration. I had a couple of personal things going on and at the time I didn’t know I had a liver problem, and quite a serious one as well.
“You don’t lose your ability, you just lose your way sometimes, the older you get. The ability is still there, there’s no question about that. It is all about your mental strength.”
Painter discusses ‘unfinished business’
“I was going to these Pro Tours and not even wanting to be there. I just didn’t have the right attitude to play.”
However, ‘The Artist’ has since gone back to the drawing board and insists he’s still got “unfinished business” within the sport.
“I’m throwing really well now. I am not disrespecting the 128 players that are already on the tour, but I’m plenty good enough to be on that tour still. I miss the competition of the Pro Tour, that’s why I want to get back on it.”
Qualifying School is renowned for being a gruelling four-day marathon, but the change in format this year has seen the event extended to 10 days.
This will be uncharted territory even for many of the sport’s stalwarts, but the rewards are there for all to see. Darts’ dream factory – the survival of the fittest. Let the games begin.
Watch full coverage of every night of the Premier League on Sky Sports, and stick with us through the year as we bring you the latest darts news on skysports.com/darts, our app for mobile devices and our Twitter account @skysportsdarts
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