Back in January 2008, FFT met then Newcastle United boss Sam Allardyce and two of his Toon squad as they faced darting great Phil 'The Power' Taylor in a friendly game of 'arrows'. That same month, Allardyce was given sack from St James', and Milner has since moved on to Aston Villa and then Manchester City. Even Steve Harper's packed his bags, but we like to think the darts culture lives on at St James' Park and on the Magpies team bus...
"I've been playing darts for some time. When the British Open first started, the organisers decided to hold it at the Reebok Stadium. They asked me to do a little bit of promotion and suggested I joined in the first round. Little did I know that it was in a pub in south Manchester. I turned up on a Saturday morning and there were hundreds of people from all around the country. I got walloped by a lad from Southampton, if I remember rightly. He did me three sets to nil, quite comfortably I might add.
The players are really into their darts at Newcastle United. They've even got their own little area with two Premier League darts tables - they run two leagues: 'the Championship' and 'the Premier League'. The lads that practice the most are the best and that's James Milner and Steve Harper. I know they'll put up a better challenge than me against Phil.
I love my darts, but I'm far too busy to play in the league, because unlike them I don't stop when training ends. The players can have a bit of relaxation and sort out their little competitions. Me, I just get on with the job, because the chance to enjoy pastimes for a manager today is rare.
It's nice to see the lads joining in together rather than just sat at a laptop. We also have table tennis, and if it was up to me I'd expand the games area if we could, but it's a bit tight for space now.
Although darts is not that active, it does share some similarities with football - the level of concentration required, for example. The fitter you are, the more you can concentrate. When you're up there in a world final, mental fatigue is something you have to deal with - the fitter you are the more focused you can be.
That said, I wouldn't have any tips for Phil Taylor because they're fundamentally two totally different sports, even if they do both require 100 per cent dedication, 100 per cent concentration and 100 per cent skill. The level of skill that Phil has to reach at a world championship is huge. The margin for error, a bit like in football these days, is minimal and one mistake can cost you an awful lot. That's where the similarities lie."
PHIL TAYLOR'S VERDICT
- Sam 'Deadly Dudley Destroyer' Allardyce
"I'd have a bet on Sam. He's been playing a long time and he's got hidden talent. He's good and he's bigger than me… did I mention he should be the next England manager?" Ranked No 1
- Steve 'The Hitman' Harper
"He's not a bad player at all. Big Steve is good under pressure and he really performs in front of a crowd. I reckon he could play anything - even table tennis - and he'd probably be good at it." Ranked No 2
- James 'The Machine Gun' Milner
"James is quite good. He throws straight because he's got great hand-eye coordination. Mind, he's good in the dressing room, but how will he do in front of a crowd? Notice he's got on brown trousers…" Ranked No 3
"We started playing darts at Newcastle seriously in the past year or so. Darts has had a bit of a renaissance and we just got a board in at the training ground for a bit of fun. It's really taken off: the lads are enjoying it and the standard has gone up, especially with the arrival of Alan Smith - he's a pretty good player.
I got a travel board for trips to Europe and was in charge of setting it up. As soon as we got to the hotel I would go to the medical room with my hammer, tape measure and measuring hooks - which were a nightmare to get through security. Then I have to choose the biggest picture to take off the wall. That way, when we put the picture back it hides all the holes from the arrows. Once I've set the board up and have got it the perfect height I ring the lads and they'll come and have a few tournaments. It's just a great way to pass the hours - it's great fun.
Back home we've had a few competitions in the Premier League format. We've just started our third one and James [Milner] is the champion, and I'm the number two. He's won both of the previous leagues, so everyone is after him at the minute..."
"…I'm not cocky with it, mind. How can I be? We've got Phil Taylor here tonight and I'm here for the experience. Even if he nine-darts me I'll just be happy to watch Phil and play with him. You couldn't learn from a better person.
I don't know if there's a secret to my wrist action but there's a bit of luck thrown in there too. Like Harps said, this year will be tight in our Premier League. Smudger is a pretty decent player and everyone seems to have improved - Harps himself, Nicky Butt and the kit man. It's just a bit of enjoyment to pass the time before games and after training when we've got a double session. It's taken off massively…"
"There's 12 of us who play and we've all got nicknames. The gaffer is 'Deadly Dudley Destroyer', because he comes from Dudley. James is 'The Machine Gun', because he scores heavier than the rest of us and I'm 'The Hitman' because I'm pretty good when I get to the doubles.
Joey Barton has just entered. He's struggling at the moment but he's competitive, so if he puts in the hours I'm sure he'll do well. We tried to get the gaffer into the Premier League this season with us, but it's easy to see why he didn't want to join in: he just doesn't practise enough!"
Interview: Lee Hall. Portrait: David Glen Walker. From the January 2008 issue of FourFourTwo.