The thing about Luke Humphries, you see, is that there isn’t a thing. No instant hook. Nothing that marks him out as heroic or villainous or freakish or physically arresting. There’s no “Come Dine With Me” trick. He’s a man of regular height and regular build with a regular name. And by this point you’re probably wondering who the hell Luke Humphries is and why there’s an entire column devoted to this entirely normal man who appears, on the basis of the accompanying picture, to play darts. But first things first. Let’s explain the “Come Dine With Me” trick.
If you’ve never watched Come Dine With Me on Channel 4, at the start of the show we meet the five members of the public who are going to be cooking for each other. But an episode of Come Dine With Me only lasts 23 minutes, which is not nearly enough time for these people to be introduced properly, and so each contestant is invariably condensed to a single cartoonish trait. Sally’s a diving instructor, so for the entire episode she will be known as “Scuba Diving Sally”, complete with the full repertoire of nautical puns. Chris, who likes heavy metal, will only ever be described as “Head Banger Chris”. This is how popular entertainment expresses the breathtaking complexity of human experience: hinterland, back story and internal contradiction all flattened into a catchy three-word shorthand.
Darts does something similar. From the moment it exploded out of the pubs and clubs of working-class Britain and on to our television screens in the 1970s, it recognised the value of characters and personas in helping a mass audience engage with these largely indistinguishable pasty men. Over time the sport’s greatest players became inseparable from the characters they invented. Eric Bristow, “the Crafty Cockney”, swaggering and arrogant. Peter “Snakebite” Wright with his painted scalp and loud trousers. Gerwyn Price wears a shirt emblazoned with rippling muscles, in keeping with his bellowing superhero persona.
Humphries, by contrast, stands out. He’s probably the world’s best player on current form, winner of two major titles in recent weeks, and the newly crowned Grand Slam champion after beating Rob Cross on Sunday night. He’s the next global star of the sport, a sublime talent with an effortless action who spits out 180s for fun. And of course like all players he has a nickname: “Cool Hand Luke”, a film I would handsomely bet he has never watched.
But rarely among the top players, he doesn’t have a persona. The guy you watch on stage throwing darts is Luke Humphries. That’s Luke Humphries hitting a 180. That’s Luke Humphries missing three darts at double-16. That’s Luke Humphries quietly fist-pumping as he chalks up another leg, Luke Humphries being interviewed on Sky Sports afterwards, Luke Humphries celebrating his latest title by going into the crowd and giving his dad a big hug.
In a sport built as a monument to bluster, bravado and outsized personalities, there’s something faintly blasphemous about this. As Humphries has progressed through the professional ranks, harvesting minor titles before finally breaking big this year, you sense a vague ambivalence within the sport towards his success, the suspicion that darts doesn’t really know what to do with him.
Despite being one of the world’s best players for several years now, he has never been invited to play in the lucrative Premier League. Humphries will probably begin next month’s world championships as the favourite, but you could spend the entire month at Alexandra Palace without glimpsing a Cool Hand Luke replica shirt. A cursory trawl of darts forums or social media produces the same equivocal accusations. Boring. Bland. No personality.
But Humphries is none of these things. In fact there is an intensely heartwarming quality to his rise, a journey of growth and self-discovery in an exposed and often merciless sport, albeit a journey not easily expressed in a three-word slogan. He struggled for years with anxiety attacks on stage and self-esteem issues off it, considered quitting darts entirely because of the toll it was taking on his mental health. “I was hiding my emotions,” he later said. “I wasn’t 100% myself.”
How often have we heard this tale in elite men’s sport? The gifted competitor torn between their own human complexity and the caricature drawn for them, the persona they are expected to inhabit, upon which their very success and commercial appeal has been built? I’m thinking about Andrew Flintoff, and how his struggle to reconcile his own personality with his popular “Freddie” character led him to the brink of oblivion. About how Tiger Woods was drawn into a destructive double life as an outlet for the urges his public brand would not allow him to express. About Anthony Joshua, and how the “cringe” or “awkwardness” of which he is so often accused springs from the divergence between his authentic self and what he thinks the world wants from him.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a sport’s maturity is the extent to which it allows its competitors to be themselves. To be vulnerable and imperfect. To be authentic and complex. To be human. Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t need a persona, and nor does Simone Biles, and nor does Naomi Osaka, and after several rounds of cognitive behavioural therapy and the support of his family, Humphries has realised that neither does he. This is him: not varnished or abridged or caricatured, but simply Luke Humphries, a 28-year-old from Newbury who chucks arrows from the gods. He may not be the star darts wants. But, in a funny way, he’s exactly the star darts needs.