The one thing missing to turn darts prodigy Luke Littler into a world champion

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For two weeks, Luke Littler had the darts world, and more recently everyone else, in giddy thrall, wondering the same question: could this ostensibly normal teenager, hailing from Warrington, who likes pizza and playing Fifa on his Xbox, conquer the world?

On Wednesday night at Alexandra Palace, we got two answers. Firstly, yes: Littler has magic in his fingers and steel in his heart. He has the personality to thrive on stage in front of 3,200 merry revellers chanting his name. He might already be the most talented 16-year-old on the planet, given how close he is to the pinnacle of human endeavour in his chosen discipline. He has all the raw ingredients to become a multiple world champion.

But no, not this time. He was beaten by the better player and the best in the world right now, Luke Humphries, finally an opponent who could live with him.

On stage, as Humphries celebrated achieving his dream of becoming champion, Littler stared at the blank board, tensing his right hand and grimacing in anguish. Perhaps he was imagining the defining moment when he had one dart at double-two to go 5-2 up in this race to seven sets. It landed on the wrong side of the wire, pushing against it as if trying to force entry. It was too late. Humphries won the leg, and the set, and every set that came after that.

It was the only thing missing from his entire, near-faultless tournament. There were moments in this epic final when they traded 180s like violent uppercuts, and reached the finish line together searching for that killer finish to clinch the leg. In the early stages, more often than not, it was Littler who found it first.

But he let that miss rattle him, and he couldn’t put it out of his mind. His stats immediately fell away: 180s, three-dart average, doubles made – his key figures all dropped off after that one dart. Had Littler been able to find a way to swallow that miss, to harness it, perhaps he could have competed with Humphries’s astonishing level in the second half of this final. Instead, it was a valuable lesson to take away from his sensational championship.

Littler looks on as Luke Humphries celebrates with the trophy (PA)
Littler looks on as Luke Humphries celebrates with the trophy (PA)

“I have won six games here so why can’t I go and win seven here in years to come?” Littler said afterwards. “I have gained a lot of stage experience, I am in the top 32 now. The past three to four weeks have been unbelievable and now I just can’t wait to go home. I’m sorry I couldn’t give the crowd what they wanted.”

There is a feeling in head-to-head sport, particularly in a knockout format, that the most disconsolate player is never the one unexpectedly knocked out in the first round but the one left standing on stage at the end, their dream shattered. The one who felt victory in their fingertips and then watched someone else take it. Littler was clearly devastated, even if he was calm and gracious in defeat. It left him wanting much more.

“No one likes losing,” he said. “I’ve not really lost much, so to lose on that stage, I can’t really be angry. The only thing I am angry about is that I lost a lot of legs on my throw and I was just chasing Luke. Fair play to Luke, he deserves it. I got to the final and might not get to another for the next five or 10 years. I can say I’m runner-up but I just want to go and win it.”

Humphries was a worthy winner, a player who has overcome struggles with depression and panic attacks on stage to reach the top of the game. He produced back-to-back sets averaging 113, 114 and 109 to take the match away from his opponent, a standard that is almost impossible to live with. He is the new world No 1, and given what the future holds for Littler, he might have got there just in time.

“I was thinking I had to win this one because he [Littler] is going to dominate world darts,” Humphries said. “When I was on the brink of winning he was relentless. He is an incredible talent and I had to win this one tonight, he is going to win plenty, that’s for sure.

“Luke showed incredible grit and determination. We will never, ever see the likes of him again at that age, to go up on the world stage and produce those darts in the final. I love the kid to bits, he is a real credit. I hope he plays in everything [professional tournaments] because it is special.”