I LOVE it that so many of our personalities are proud of their roots and not only choose to live locally but do so much for Stoke-on-Trent. Yesterday I spent an hour with former Vale player, FA Cup Finalist and BBC pundit Mark Bright when he dropped in to Sentinel HQ. Brighty, along with Robbie Earle, Phil Taylor, Nick Hancock, Gordon Banks OBE, Imran Sherwani, Kim Barnett, and Lee Pearson MBE, OBE – to name but a few – are staunch supporters of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (April 7) which yours truly organises. By the same token, Wendy Turner-Webster, Anthea Turner and Jonny Wilkes are big supporters of The Sentinel and Britannia’s Our Heroes community awards. None of these stars get paid for their patronage – they just give their time because they want to support ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Celebrities sometimes get an awfully bad press but I think we’re blessed here in the Potteries with a decent, down-to-earth bunch who are all proud of their roots.
I’m rubbish at darts – as anyone who has taken cover while I’ve slung a few arrows in the Sneyd Arms will testify too.
This is despite the fact that I have an old set of Phil Taylor’s practice darts.
All of this just goes to show that blood doesn’t always run true because I’m told my dad was a bit special in his day.
Some fellas who know about these things tell me that, had he not been working away a lot when I was little, he could easily have played at county level and possibly above.
The multitude of trophies and 180 medals in the cardboard box at the bottom of his wardrobe backs up what they say.
But me? I think I’ll stick to playing pool.
Darts is one of those games that looks unfathomably easy, but is actually really difficult to be good at without practising ’til the cows come home.
And right now, we are fortunate to have in our midst, a world champion at the peak of his Powers (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Phil Taylor is a freak. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that.
The bloke is a machine. Untouchable. Relentless.
Even people like me, who don’t follow darts, watch in awe as he racks up victory after victory – title after title.
Yet because we see so much of him here in the Potteries, because he’s one of our own, I wonder if we perhaps just take him for granted.
If Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor had come from Liverpool they’d have no doubt based the Capital of Culture celebrations around him and had him singing on stage with Paul McCartney.
There would have been a statue of him erected within spitting distance of the Liver Birds by now and they’d have renamed the Albert Dock Taylor’s Oche.
You wouldn’t be able to turn on the radio without a Scouse voice blathering on about ‘ar Phil’.
As it is, despite his achievements, one of the world’s greatest sportsmen has again failed to make the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards which is nothing short of a scandal. On their website, Phil is mentioned in passing as having had another ‘incredible year’.
Auntie Beeb ought to wake up and smell the skinny latte.
Phil’s been having ‘incredible years’ for a decade now and it’s about time they were recognised.
I can’t help, but think there’s an element of snobbery behind this apathy towards our darts maestro. After all, some would say, darts isn’t a sport – it’s a pub game.
No. It’s a sport played by millions – so get over it.
And, dare I say it, there are a damn sight more people interested in Phil Taylor’s exploits than a Royal equestrian, an F1 driver or many of Team GB’s Olympic hopefuls.
Fifteen years ago darts was about as sexy as sink full of dirty dishes.
But clever television executives and a certain prolific player from our neck of woods have transformed the sport into a global phenomenon, which now names top celebrities among its fans.
Let’s for a second set aside Phil Taylor’s charity work for the likes of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice and numerous other worthy causes.
Let’s not focus on the fact that, despite his considerable wealth, he still lives a dart’s throw away from his beloved Stoke-on-Trent.
Let’s ignore the fact that, on impulse, he paid thousands of pounds for Aaron and Andrew Corden – two young lads from Abbey Hulton who came runner-up in Stoke’s Top Talent – to go to dance college and follow their dreams of a career in musical theatre.
Let’s just focus on the sportsman.
I reckon that, in 40 years’ time, people will look back and say: “Hey, that Phil Taylor – 17 (or whatever it will be by then) world titles. What a player he must have been.”
And old fogies like me will answer: “Yeah. I saw him once. He was incredible. Made it look effortless. No-one could live with him.”
Because that’s how good he is.
Sadly, just like all great sportsmen and women, one day he will be shown up to be human. But, right now, he’s the undisputed heavyweight champion of the oche and no-one can touch him.
Thankfully, Phil Taylor’s immortality is assured and long may he continue to entertain and inspire millions with nine-dart finishes, bullseyes and 180s.
More Power to his elbow, I say.
Journalists are, by their very nature, cynics. It should be a prerequisite of the job.
As it is, most of us enter newsrooms as reasonably well-adjusted individuals then, over time, we transform into something akin to Victor Meldrew.
It happens for two reasons. Firstly, we learn through bitter experience not to take anything at face value, because accuracy is king and you’re only as good as your last story.
Secondly, we become cynics due to simple over-exposure to real life.
On an average day a local newspaper journalist deals with deaths, road accidents, fires, crime, job losses, complaints and public sector ineptitude – along with all the associated moaning and misery.
Over time you become inured to it all. Very little surprises you and even less inspires you.
It’s sad, but true.
Then once in a while something comes along which lifts you out of the monotony and reminds you why you do what you do.
This may smack of navel-gazing but I believe the newspaper I work for has always been very good at leaping to the defence of local people and aiding worthy causes.
Whether it be our Proud of the Potteries campaign to answer the spurious claim that our city was the worst place to live in England, helping to launch a local children’s hospice or raising a 19,000-strong petition calling for a new hospital for North Staffordshire, The Sentinel has certainly done its bit.
For years our slogan was ‘A Friend Of The Family’ then at some point, almost by stealth, it changed to become Local and Proud.
I like to think we are still both.
This emphasis on community has, in recent years, led to a heavy commitment to events such as the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent, and the forging of new relationships with the city council and The Regent theatre.
They’re big, positive, annual events which help to show off all that is good about our circulation area.
The bean counters – who consider us journalists to be overheads – might argue that such events don’t sell us many newspapers.
My rejoinder would be that they touch the lives of thousands of people, generate enormous goodwill and a sense of pride in our region.
Tonight is the climax of one such campaign and yours truly is lucky enough to be going along.
In early 2006 my gaffer outlined his vision for an annual ‘Oscars-style’ community awards night. You know – staging, music, videos, red carpet, the works.
Later that year Our Heroes was born and the first awards ceremony took place in September.
Four years later and The Sentinel has published more than 400 stories of human endeavour, skill, bravery and selflessness.
During the same time, our campaign sponsor – Britannia – has given away around £40,000 in prize money to individuals and groups.
Tonight Children of Courage, Adult Carers and Charity Champions will rub shoulders with celebrities, sporting greats and civic dignitaries who are giving up their time free of charge to honour ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives.
The great and the good will all be there – the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, along with the likes of Gordon Banks OBE, Anthea Turner, Nick Hancock and Jonny Wilkes.
But it’s not their night…
The real stars will shuffle in from the car park nervously adjusting hired dickie-bows, or smoothing out their new frocks and feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention.
Because the truth is Our Heroes are all self-effacing, humble people who have to be dragged (sometimes literally) into the limelight and told just how wonderful they really are.
It’s my job to organise the event, write the script and compere the show, and it is a privilege.
There is something genuinely life-affirming about being involved in an event like the Our Heroes awards night and gaining a brief glimpse into the lives of some truly remarkable people.
No matter what is going on in your own life, you can’t help but be touched and inspired by stories of the award nominees.
They give you a sense of perspective that can all too easily be lost in the chaos of your everyday existence, and they remind you of what’s really important.
OK, such events may not sell us many more papers.
However, this ageing hack is very glad that his newspaper still understands the value of championing the people it serves.
Perhaps we’re not all cynics, after all.