Behind the doors of an unassuming darts equipment shop in Merseyside is a world-beating talent factory to rival any other academy in sport.
Luke “The Nuke” Littler is just the latest graduate of the St Helens Darts Shop and its associated network which this year counted on a record four world title contenders.
Littler, who competes in Tuesday night’s World Championship semi-final, is aiming to emulate another shop regular Michael ‘Bully Boy’ Smith, who lifted last year’s title at Alexandra Palace.
In an area more famous for its love of rugby league, the same darting hotbed of St Helens also produced this year’s losing quarter-finalist Dave Chisnall and Stephen Bunting, who made the last-16.
It is Littler and Smith, however, who appear to have gained most from direct tutelage from shop manager Karl Holden, who also runs the local academy.
Holden said on Tuesday that the sudden interest in his shop was “extraordinary” but he added in radio interviews that Littler’s remarkable debut at the age of 16 should come as no surprise. Littler was still in primary school and learning the sport when Holden realised he was too good for his age group at St Helens Darts Academy.
“By the time he was 10 we knew he was too good for his age,” Holden, who was working at the shop on Tuesday between media interviews, told reporters.. “He couldn’t play in the PDC or the big time until he was 16, so we just let him enjoy himself and he’s just worked his way through the ranks. He went from under-10s to under-14 leagues and, before he was 11, he was playing in the under-21s, just simply because he was too good for anybody else.”
Although Littler spent much of his childhood in Warrington, he is fast being celebrated in St Helens as one of their own like Smith, Chisnall and Bunting.
Within the sport, there has been a buzz around him since he hit a nine-darter at the Junior Darts Masters Tournament aged just 14. He then went on win the 2023 PDC World Youth Championship and 12 adult titles.
Holden shares the cool confidence of Littler, who admitted after sweeping past Brendan Dolan to set up a semi-final against Rob Cross that he now has his eyes on the biggest prize of all.
“He can win it,” Holden went on to tell BBC Radio 5 Live. “We knew he was good enough, we knew that before he started. A lot of people in the darts shop were saying ‘who is this Luke Littler?’ but I was saying he’s a good outside chance.”
Littler – who was born 20 days after Raymond van Barneveld’s epic 2007 World Championship triumph – has been delivering darting masterclasses over the past fortnight.
Sky Sports, which has rights to the championship, says he is already breaking viewing records for its coverage of the sport. “Luke Littler’s victory against Brendan Dolan was the most watched quarter-final of the PDC World Darts Championship ever on Sky Sports, with a peak of 1.4 million,” the broadcaster confirmed. “Yesterday was Sky Sports highest ever New Year’s Day viewing, including a share of 18.3 per cent of all under-35 viewing.”