9:30am Wednesday 20th April 2011
By Dave Flett
It has been 70 years since farmer Eric Sleightholme first stepped up to the oche to play local league darts in the York area. DAVE FLETT talks to the 84-year-old about his many successes in the sport.
SEMI-RETIRED farmer Eric Sleightholme is still making hay while the sun shines after 70 years as a local darts player.
Sleightholme, 84, recently celebrated the landmark anniversary with a pair of victories in the York Phoenix Monday Night League and was still throwing 180s as recently as last season.
With his sight remaining sharp despite an eye being dislodged from its socket in the past by one of his flock of sheep, the octogenarian’s oche exploits are also far from finished.
Speaking of his darting longevity, the evergreen pensioner said: “I remember somebody saying to me back in the ’60s when I was playing for Wigginton that I had only missed two Tuesday night matches in 12 years and that my health must be good. I’d never thought about it like that, but I suppose they were right.
“The biggest threat to me being able to play came about 15 or 16 years ago when that sheep butted me with its horn, pushing my eye out of its socket and upwards.
“I’ve had six operations to get it back into the right position but it’s still not perfect and a bit of a problem when I’m peering over the table to play pool.
“I had double vision for a while but, a few weeks ago, I went to the opticians for the first time since then.
“Wearing the same glasses, I could read the bottom line with both eyes so my sight hasn’t deteriorated at all.
“I can still reckon up as well and I pride myself on that. Only the other night, I saw a young lad get his calculator out to work out what I’d left him!”
Sleightholme threw his first arrows as a way of countering boredom with late brother Alf as they grew up on the Yorkshire Wolds.
The pair were soon making waves in the sport locally and Eric’s first taste of competitive darts came against his elder sibling.
“The first tournament I took part in was at Millington youth club,” Sleightholme recalled.
“You were not supposed to play until you were 14 but I got through to the final, which they delayed until the day after my 14th birthday on February 28.
“I played my brother Alf who was four years older than me and finished runner-up.
“We lived on a farm four-and-a-half miles from the nearest village so we played a lot of darts and billiards at home because we had to amuse ourselves, which youngsters don’t have to do as much these days.
“After that youth club final, I started playing in the Pocklington League when I was 14 or 15. Because of my age, we had to ring up before games just to check that it was all right for me to play in the pubs.”
Since those tentative teenage years, Sleightholme has played darts every winter although, until recently, summer matches were difficult to fulfil due to harvesting duties.
He has graced the Pocklington League, the Wolds Villages League, the Marston Moor League and the York League for a variety of clubs including Fridaythorpe, Huggate, Burythorpe, Bishop Wilton, Wigginton, The Tiger, Red Lion (Haxby), Bumper Castle, Yearsley Grove, The Yearsley, Bishopthorpe WMC and Marcia.
Since 1966, Sleightholme has represented Bishopthorpe Sports and Social Club and the Ebor and currently turns out for the latter twice a week, sometimes overcoming opponents young enough to be his great-grandchildren.
About his stand-out moment in the current campaign, the Bishopthorpe-based ace added: “I played at Severus in February exactly 70 years after playing in the youth club final and our captain asked if the rules could be changed so I went on first for the individual games. I won two legs to win the match – one in 24 darts and the other in 26, checking out with my first double in the first match.”
In his prime, Sleightholme enjoyed an 11-dart leg but he still has one darting ambition left to achieve, adding: “My highest checkout came in the Bishopthorpe Social Club when I threw 157.
“I’ve thrown a maximum 170 finish but only in practice, never in a match.
“I’ll still keep trying even though I can’t throw darts like I used to do.”
Asked about the enduring appeal of darts, the former Wolds Villages League champion cites a love for the game, rather than of alcohol, which often fuels others’ passion for the pub sport.
“I’ve never fallen out with anybody about a game during all the time I’ve been playing,” Sleightholme said.
“My philosophy has always been ‘none of us are ever going to make a living out of the game, so let’s just enjoy it’.
“Every time I step up, I’m trying to win but, win or lose, I’m happy if it’s been a good game and a good night. I enjoy the camaraderie and the good craic.
“I’m not a big drinker and never have been. I would play competitive darts in the church hall if I had to.
“Some people think I’m a better player if I’ve had two or three drinks, but I’m not.”
Sleightholme has also played competitive pool at Bishopthorpe Sports and Social Club since the late 1960s and turned out for several football and cricket teams into his early 40s.
“I was also a bit of an athlete in my early days and made my pocket money by competing in sports days around the villages,” he added. “When Roger Bannister and Chris Brasher were running the four-minute mile, I could do it in five and I can’t believe how they do it in three minutes and 43 seconds now.”
Darts, however, has remained his biggest passion and, while he has seen the sport’s popularity rise in recent times during the Sky Sports era, he is concerned about the effect the riches available at the top of the game have had on young players seeking instant gratification.
He said: “Darts’ popularity has surprised me a bit but I think it’s robbed us of some players at grassroots level. People see the players on television earning lots of money and come down to give the game a go.
“When they realise it’s not that easy after a couple of games, though, they give up. But if you want success in darts, you have to put your mind to it and work hard.
“When I lost my wife in 1989, I didn’t know what to do with myself so I spent all my time practising and that season I did not throw a single leg of more than 21 darts. Then I found a new dancing partner, did not put the same amount of practice time in and have never hit that standard again.”
Sleightholme believes the depth of quality in York’s darts league is not as great as in past decades but is impressed by the best local players and has a high opinion of Acomb’s former UK Open quarter-finalist and World Championship qualifier Chris Thompson.
He said: “There used to be a better standard across a broader spectrum but there is still a hardcore of really good players in York. We’ve got Mark Hartley who can be an excellent player at the Ebor.
“Chris (Thompson) is also a friend of mine who I beat when he was 18 at Acomb WMC but I’ve never been on a finish to beat him since. He’s an excellent player and as good as any I’ve seen in York.
“The others to compare with him down the years are the likes of George Maxwell from the 1950s, Kenny Ditchburn and Scott Stockhill.”
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