World Matchplay Top 10 Best Debuts

World Matchplay: The Top 10 Best Debuts

Alex Moss |

The 10 best debuts in World Matchplay history

The eyes of the darting world will be locked on events at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens this summer, as 32 of the world’s best players compete for the prestigious World Matchplay. First held in 1994, the tournament is steeped in history and has produced some of the most memorable matches and moments, including the first live nine-dart leg on British television by Phil Taylor in 2002.

The 2024 edition of the World Matchplay will include several new names making their debuts, including the Premier League champion Luke Littler. The 17-year-old has already made his mark on the big stage, but how will he fare in his first campaign on the iconic Winter Gardens stage?

Ahead of ‘The Nuke’ making his Blackpool bow, Darts Corner has delved through the archive and put together our top 10 debuts in World Matchplay history. Will we see Littler make a case to join our shortlist of memorable Winter Gardens debuts this summer?

Larry Butler (1994)

The inaugural staging of the World Matchplay took place in early August 1994, with a surprise winner emerging as the first name to be engraved onto the trophy. Larry Butler, a Microsoft engineer from America, defeated the top seed and heavy favourite Dennis Priestley 16-12 in the final to become the first, and to date only, American major winner in the PDC.

At the start of 1994, Priestley had thrashed Phil Taylor 6-1 in the final of the first World Championship held by the PDC, then known as the WDC (World Darts Council). Heading into the first World Matchplay, Priestley was a two-time World Champion and World Master, whilst Butler had bowed out at the first hurdle in his two World Championship appearances.

However, it was the underdog Butler who would prevail, battling back from 7-3 down and winning six legs on the spin for a 9-7 lead. The American would not relinquish his advantage from there, punishing missed doubles in the 25th leg from Priestley to go 14-11 up before taking two of the next three legs to write his name in the history books.

Richie Burnett (1997)

Back in the mid-1990s, Richie Burnett had emerged as one of the best players in the world. The charismatic Welshman won the BDO’s top two tournaments in the space of just six weeks. In December 1994, Burnett dethroned Steve Beaton to become just the second player from Wales to win the World Masters, after Alan Evans had won the title in 1975. The following month Burnett conquered the Lakeside on debut, winning the 1995 BDO World Championship to join his fellow countryman Leighton Rees, the inaugural champion, on the roll of honour.

Two years later, Burnett was testing his skills against the PDC’s best and would make his debut at the World Matchplay in the summer of 1997. Starting in the preliminary round, ‘The Prince of Wales’ recorded wins against Colin Monk, Chris Mason and Paul Lim to reach the quarter-finals.

In his last eight tussle with the defending champion Peter Evison, Burnett battles back from 6-1 down to win 11-9, before his run ends with a 13-9 defeat to Alan Warriner-Little in the semi-finals. He would later appear in another Blackpool semi-final in 2000, as well as a final 12 months later.

Ronnie Baxter (1998)

The World Matchplay was a ‘home game’ for Blackpool-born Ronnie Baxter and he would make an instant impact on the tournament when he made his debut in 1998. ‘The Rocket’ was ranked number two in the BDO rankings, and came within a missed match dart of lifting the trophy at the Winter Gardens that year.

Baxter rode his luck in the first round, his opponent Andy Jenkins missed four match darts to win 11-9, before the crowd favourite rallied to win a marathon contest 14-12. After surviving an early scare, Baxter saw off John Ferrell 8-5, the defending champion Phil Taylor 13-10 and Chris Mason 13-11 to progress through to the final on debut.

In an all-time Winter Gardens classic, Baxter took on the PDC number one Rod Harrington and the match went into overtime with the score locked at 17-17. ‘The Rocket’ had led 17-14 and missed one match dart at tops, before Harrington reeled off the next five legs, which included a 125 finish, to prevail 19-17. That 1998 appearance would be the first of 17 consecutive years Baxter would grace his home event, reaching five more semi-finals and three quarter-finals.

Wayne Mardle (2003)

Wayne Mardle is now a well-established pundit and commentator for Sky Sports, but during his playing career he would enjoy a memorable first appearance at the World Matchplay. After making the switch from the BDO to the PDC in 2002, ‘Hawaii 501’ qualified for the Blackpool showpiece for the first time in 2003 and went all the way to the final on debut.

Mardle averaged 96 in a first-round win against Paul Williams and caught the eye even further in the last 16, knocking out the then-reigning PDC world champion John Part. That second-round clash went into overtime and saw the debutant edge through 16-14, but his next two matches were more straightforward as he beat the third and second seeds Alan Warriner-Little and Colin Lloyd to advance to the final.

The deciding clash against Phil Taylor would be a step too far for Mardle, but he was able to keep close order in the first half of the contest. Aided by a 142 checkout, ‘Hawaii 501’ trailed 11-9 at the fourth interval, but Taylor then won seven of the next 10 legs to come out on top as an 18-12 winner and clinch what would be the sixth of his 16 World Matchplay titles.

James Wade (2006)

The 2006 World Matchplay would see the real emergence of James Wade – a left hander who would go on to win numerous major titles in the PDC. Then aged 23, Wade debuted at the Winter Gardens as an unseeded player and would dump out four seeds on his way to reaching the final.

‘The Machine’ outlined his potential right from the first round with a 10-1 thrashing of Denis Ovens, before victories over Kevin Painter and Chris Mason took the newcomer into the semi-finals. A memorable clash with Roland Scholten, who just two months earlier was playing in a Premier League final, saw the Dutchman lead 5-1 and 11-8. However, Wade would fight back and win in overtime, beating the former major champion 19-17.

The debutant then faced Phil Taylor in the finale and threatened to go all the way, leading ‘The Power’ 8-5 around the midway point of the contest. But Taylor would have other ideas, taking 13 of the next 16 legs to win 18-11. The following year Wade would go one step further and win the World Matchplay on his second appearance, the first of 10 major titles he would claim on the PDC tour to date.

Gerwyn Price (2015)

Gerwyn Price is now a household name in the world of darts, a former PDC World Champion and world number one. But it was at the World Matchplay where he first made a breakthrough on the big stage, reaching his first major quarter-final on debut at the Winter Gardens in 2015.

After easing past Michael Smith 10-4 in the first round, ‘The Iceman’ caught the eye with a stunning 13-10 victory over the fourth seed and two-time world champion Adrian Lewis in the last 16. It was a performance which made many observers stand up and take notice of Price, who averaged 97 in defeating Lewis, who himself finished with an average of 99.

It was a watershed moment for the Welshman,who had previously had a previous career as a rugby player before switching full-time to darts in 2014 after winning his PDC tour card at Q-School. Despite his Blackpool debut ending in the next round, in a one-sided 16-7 defeat to Peter Wright in the quarter-finals, the run would be an early sign of the potential Price had in his newfound career as a darts professional. Just three years later he would win his first major title.

Jeffrey de Zwaan (2018)

World Matchplay debuts do not get much better than the one Jeffrey de Zwaan conjured up in 2018. Ranked at world number 68 before the start of the tournament, ‘The Cobra’ was the lowest-ranked player in the field but would enjoy a dream run to the semi-finals on his first appearance at the Winter Gardens.

De Zwaan produced one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history as he knocked out the heavy favourite Michael van Gerwen in the first round. With the score locked at 6-6, de Zwaan won the next four legs to win the all-Dutch tie 10-6 and instantly make an impression on his debut.

The Dutchman’s run would not end there though, as he got the better of another multi-time world champion in the next round, beating Adrian Lewis 11-9 in a high-quality encounter. Lewis was beaten despite averaging 103, as de Zwaan posted a 98 average to pull of another upset result and advance to the last eight.

The debutant then threw a 103 average himself in the quarter-finals to breeze past Dave Chisnall 16-8, before his run ended in the last four to the eventual winner Gary Anderson. De Zwaan averaged 99 in defeat, whilst Anderson produced an incredible 106 average to end his opponent’s impressive week in Blackpool.

Glen Durrant (2019)

Glen Durrant made the switch from the BDO to the PDC in 2019, shortly after winning the third of his three consecutive BDO World Championship titles. ‘Duzza’ hit the ground running on the professional circuit, winning two Players Championship titles which helped him to qualify for the World Matchplay in his debut season.

It is a feat that has only been achieved by a handful of players since the introduction of tour cards to the PDC. The Middlesbrough man would show he belonged on the big stage with a run to the semi-finals on his debut at the Winter Gardens.

A 101 average in a 10-4 win against two-time world champion Adrian Lewis in the first round set up a mouth-watering clash with Michael van Gerwen in the last 16. It was a rare occasion where the reigning PDC and BDO world champions faced off on television, with the BDO king defeating the top seed van Gerwen 13-11 in overtime in a memorable contest.

‘Duzza’ would follow that success up with a 16-7 thumping of former World Matchplay champion James Wade in the last eight, before his run ended with a 17-10 defeat to Michael Smith in the semi-finals.

Dimitri Van den Bergh (2020)

It was a dream debut for ‘The Dreammaker’ Dimitri Van den Bergh at the 2020 World Matchplay, becoming just the second player to win the title at the first attempt. The 2020 edition of the tournament was held during the pandemic and for the first time away from its home at the Winter Gardens. The Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes played host to the competition with no fans in attendance.

Van den Bergh hit the ground running, averaging 98 in a 10-5 victory over Nathan Aspinall in the first round. The Belgian continued his progress through the tournament, beating Joe Cullen and Adrian Lewis to make the last four. A thrilling semi-final clash with Glen Durrant saw both players average 98, with the two-time PDC World Youth Champion Van den Bergh prevailing 17-15 to reach his first major final.

The deciding contest saw Van den Bergh and 2018 winner Gary Anderson locked at 7-7, before the debutant raced away and won eight of the next nine legs to open up a 15-8 advantage. Van den Bergh would get over the line 18-10 to become the first player from Belgium to win a PDC major title, and the first debutant to win the World Matchplay since Larry Butler in the tournament’s inaugural year in 1994.

Beau Greaves (2023)

The Women’s World Matchplay was introduced to the PDC calendar in 2022, as the Winter Gardens played host to a one-day event for female players during the World Matchplay. Fallon Sherrock won the first staging of the new tournament, beating Aileen de Graaf 6-3 in the final. A month after that landmark competition, an 18-year-old by the name of Beau Greaves would announce herself a serious contender for the next Women’s World Matchplay.

The teenager made her return to the PDC Women’s Series and would go on an unprecedented 70-match winning streak, claiming 10 tournament victories in a row between August 2022 and February 2023. Another five titles saw her book a debut in Blackpool in the summer of 2023 as the number one seed and the favourite to join Sherrock on the Women’s World Matchplay roll of honour.

‘Beau ‘n’ Arrow’ would live up to that favourite tag, beating Noa-Lynn van Leuven, Robyn Byrne and Mikuru Suzuki to clinch the title at the Winter Gardens last year. Greaves, who turned 20 in January, returns to Blackpool this July as the top seed and favourite to retain her title. The two-time WDF women’s world champion has continued to impress and in June this year became the first female player to win a Development Tour title.

What do you think of our list?

Are there any debuts we missed out that should be in our top 10? Get in touch with us and let us know your favourite World Matchplay debuts. Tweet us your list on Twitter or leave a comment on our Facebook page.

The 2024 World Matchplay is almost here and will see several new names make their debuts on the Winter Gardens stage. The teenage sensation Luke Littler will be a headline attraction in the World Matchplay, whilst multi-time world champion Anastasia Dobromyslova makes her first appearance in the Women’s World Matchplay.

Pictures: PDC

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