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He was the 1,000-1 rank outsider at Alexandra Palace who earned £5.25 an hour making nuts, bolts and screws in a sheet metal factory.
But just four years after he reached the PDC Darts World Championship final at 21, Kirk Shepherd was down to his last brass tacks. By his own admission, Shepherd's life “went a bit doo-lally” in a tailspin of drinking and gambling.
Soon he would be living in squalor, battling to keep his Tour card as he slipped down the world rankings. Then, when he was struck down by 'dartitis' – the oche's version of the yips in golf – he became so stressed by the anxiety that it turned him into a hermit, and he has not picked up a dart in almost three years.
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When the Paddy Power World Championship begins at Ally Pally next Friday, Shepherd – now 37 – will still be the youngest-ever finalist at the tournament. Whatever happened to the likely lad? His story of a light that flickered is a cautionary tale for every player chasing the rainbow – but his recovery should also serve as a beacon of hope.
Remarkably, qualifier Shepherd's highest average at the tournament 16 years ago was a modest 89.70 as he beat Terry Jenkins, Peter Manley and Wayne Mardle on one of sport's great fairytale runs before his 7-2 defeat by John Part in the final.
What are your memories of Kirk Shepherd? Let us know in the comments section below
“It was a fantastic run, one of the greatest weeks of my life,” he said. “What kept me going was being the underdog – I was riding the wave, I went up on that stage fearless and relaxed because I had nothing to lose, and I didn't want it to end.
“But I went from being a normal lad working in a factory to back-page headlines and a nice big pay cheque. After that, the devil came for me. I went a bit doo-lally and got carried away by it all.
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“I thought everything was going to fall on a plate for me and it was the start of a new beginning, a bright new dawn, but I stopped putting in the effort. I got lazy. From earning £50,000 as runner-up at the World Championship in 2008 and having some wealth, four years later I was living on my own in a flea-ridden one-bed flat.
“I went through a crazy phase because I had suddenly come run into all this fame and I didn't know how to deal with it. I'd gone from nowhere to a big final, without reaching the last 16 or quarter-finals of other competitions along the way, and I had nothing to fall back on by way of experience.
“Much as I hate to admit it, I was gambling and turning to drink. I had no manager to straighten me out and I went off the rails. In hindsight, reaching that final at Ally Pally was too much, too soon. It was my first-ever success at a major tournament and, in hindsight, I wasn't ready for it.
“I found out I couldn't live off one week of success, I was falling down the rankings and had to go back to Q school.” Shepherd's brutal honesty about his decline is commendable, but he didn't realise there was a cruel twist coming – dartitis, the mental block which prevents players from letting go of the arrows.
It forced him to hand back his Tour card two years ago and he became a recluse, admitting: “I don't know where it came from, but I haven't picked up a dart in about three years. I was just stood there on the oche one day, I went to throw a dart and my arm simply wouldn't go forward.
“I knew straight away what it was and I tried to play through it, but I went to a Pro Tour floor event in Barnsley and got beat 6-0. I went home and told the missus, 'I'll never throw another dart again.' It was causing me a lot of stress and anxiety, this game I had been playing for 20 years, and all of a sudden it was giving me panic attacks.
“I hid under a rock for 18 months and didn't leave the house. Luckily, the PDPA (players union) and the PDC have established some terrific support systems and they sorted me out with counselling and I am in a much better place now.
“I've been qualifying as an electrician at a firm called Bilfinger in Haydock – I don't think they knew who they were taking on at first, but now I am just plain Kirk Shepherd, not the 1,000-1 outsider who reached the final at Ally Pally.
“I'm a father of three boys aged 15, 13 and six, and things are so much brighter that I'm even thinking of picking up the old arrows again. I might have left darts, but darts has never left me.”
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