The current PDC World Youth Champion, Luke Littler’s recent success at the World Darts Championship has undoubtedly brought darts to the fore and one young county Armagh player has high hopes that the hype may now inspire young people to get more involved locally.
Johnny Stewart (18) from Laurelvale, has been focused on the bullseye since picking up his first dart, age seven.
Johnny said: “There was a competition in Killylea and I just went along with my mum and dad. I wasn’t meant to play that evening but I did and that was it really!”
Shortly afterwards, Johnny persuaded his parents to put up a dart board at home and he continued to hone the skill until the opportunity to play for a club presented itself.
Continued Johnny: “When I started out I wasn’t playing for anyone but, all of a sudden, I went to a competition that a few local guys would play up at Tullyvallen Football Club, and my dad would have played for them, but one night they were short on numbers so they asked if I would play. I just kept playing since then.”
The young archer remained with Tullyvallen for approximately five years before being approached to join the Ballymore Inn in the Laurelvale league, at age fifteen.
Over the years, Johnny has taken flight – quite literally – as the opportunity to travel for competition presented itself.
“There’s a social aspect,” he said. “You’re always out and travelling a bit for championships, playing in England and seeing parts of the country. I played for Northern Ireland two years in a row and went to Budapest and Vienna last year. It’s brilliant, you’re playing people from all around the world and you make new friends at it. I’ve made friends in England, Scotland and Wales, even Austria.
Development tours are where Johnny has found most success. These tours, he says, are “very competitive” and are where young, aspiring professional players, like Luke Littler, gain early success in order to qualify through to the championships.
Aside from the social aspect and life experience, Johnny believes the sport can offer a range of lesser known benefits to young players.
He said: “It helps your math. When I was younger my math wasn’t great and I started playing and it improved me. I can subtract, add up quickly and multiply quickly. The more you play the better you get at it.
“At a competition you have to mark the game and some places you go to have the software to keep track of it but other places might just have a whiteboard or chalkboard and you have to work it all out yourself.”
Of the recent media attention surrounding Luke Littler, Johnny commented: “He’s brought so much interest to the sport and people have been messaging to ask me if I knew him and I have played against him a few times, he’s down to earth and just cool.
“Ever since he started you just always knew he was one of the top players. I played him in Budapest in the Europe Cup and he beat me in the last sixteen in the Europe Cup singles.”
There is plenty of room for growth within the sport and, as demonstrated by sixteen-year-old Littler, it can open doors to incredible opportunities.
“Darts needs to get bigger in Northern Ireland and there’s lots of room for improvement. We need more places for young people to play.
“Not all parents will bring their kids to a pub to play so we need more community halls where young people can get involved and go on to the major competitions to play for Northern Ireland,” said Johnny.
A new County Armagh Darts Academy has announced its imminent start-up for this reason.
Promising to be an ‘zero alcohol environment’, the Academy will provide a ‘fun, safe environment for all ages and abilities male and female kids who are currently playing or would like to have a go and see were it takes them.’