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Ashton makes history by securing PDC Tour Card at Qualifying School

The class of 2020: Five lessons learned from Qualifying School

Jamie Shaw in Q School 25 Jan 2020
Aaron Beeney reacts to winning his Tour Card

Darting dreams were both realised and shattered in the space of four fascinating days at Qualifying School as the field of players for the new PDC season was finalised.

A record total of 853 players set out in pursuit of a coveted two-year golden ticket to compete on the £14 million circuit.

This year’s Q School was undoubtedly the most talked-about edition since the concept was introduced back in 2011, with former champions, rank outsiders and stars of the women’s game thrown together in the darting dream factories of Wigan’s Robin Park Sports Centre and Hildesheim’s Halle 39.

The end outcome saw 31 players from 12 different nationalities progress, including 21 first-time Tour Card holders.

With Q School closed for business for another 12 months, here’s a dissection of some of the key talking points…

The BDO still has a vital role to play

Unsurprisingly given the financial crisis surrounding the BDO, 2020 Q School produced a record number of entries from BDO players hoping to seal a permanent move across the darting divide.

Six players to have competed in the recent BDO World Championship successfully sealed their switch, including four-time Women’s World Champion Lisa Ashton, two-time Lakeside Champion Scott Waites, BDO number one Wesley Harms and 2012 PDC World finalist Andy Hamilton.

In fact, only 11 of the 40 players to have featured in the Men’s BDO World Championship were not among the entrants at either UK or European Q School.

The success stories of Glen Durrant, Danny Noppert, Jamie Hughes and Darius Labanauskas (to name but a few) in such a short time-span underlines the BDO’s position as an integral breeding ground at amateur level which cannot be left to go under.

The BDO system possess a plethora of both youth and experienced talent, but it is clear they are starved of stage time and the priceless experience of playing in front of large crowds regularly on TV.

The BDO’s current business model is simply unsustainable and intervention from the WDF looks to be paramount if BDO players are to continue their transition into the big time.

Waites joins the PDC for the first time in his career (Photo by PDC)

A sub-50 average will NOT win you a Tour Card

A ripple effect of the growth of the sport worldwide and the riches it has to offer has seen Q School entry numbers rise significantly year-on-year.

The inaugural staging of Q School, held only in the UK, attracted 119 entrants, compare that to the 521 in 2020 in addition to a further 332 in Hildesheim.

While the field houses multiple major champions and ex-professionals hoping to restore former glories, the PDC’s open-door policy also inevitably attracts a fair share of fantasists.

At £450 a pop, the PDC pocketed more than £380,000 in entry fees, a figure two and a half times more than the entire BDO World Championship prize fund, so the free-for-all element is probably here to stay on that basis.

The DartConnect system, which displays match averages online for every match, ensures there is nowhere to hide, and throughout the week it became clear just how many players were simply there for the ride or the hope of drawing a big name.

Across the entire week, 75 averages of below 50 were recorded and dozens more failed to average above 60.

A total of 238 players failed to register at a single point (equating to consecutive wins) at UK Q School, while 87 failed to put a point on the board at European Q School.

As entry numbers continue to grow, greater logistical problems surrounding the venue and format will arise and perhaps the only feasible solutions would be to either cap entry numbers or introduce a golf-style cut-off at the halfway stage of the competition to give the serious players as fair a chance as possible.

It’s not all about the youth

Qualifying School throws together a fascinating mixture of raw young talent, average pub players and ex-professionals who have competed at the highest level.

The four days are as much about endurance as they are ability, with play commencing at 10.30am and concluding at close to 6pm for the few that make it through.

And once again, several familiar names from yesteryear proved they still possess the competitive edge and the game to cut it at a high level.

While he may only be 38, a youngster in darting terms, Steve Brown had been off the tour since 2015 and by his own admission entered Q School in hope more than expectation.

Nonetheless, the JDC Chairman led by example to secure his Tour Card automatically with a day to spare, taking a gamble on ten points being sufficient as he headed to China on urgent business.

Alan Tabern and Wayne Jones, 53 and 54 respectively, utilised their vast experience to clinch a return to the tour, as did 52-year-old Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton and 46-year-old Yorkshireman Peter Jacques.

Darryl Fitton, 57, was an unlikely name to come within a point of a surprise success, while PDC journeymen Steve Hine and Wes Newton agonisingly missed out by a matter of legs.

Steve Brown ended his five-year tour exile (Photo by PDC)

Every leg matters

This year’s Q School saw a notable rule change in that no longer would players on equal points be separated by countback, but by total legs won.

If the number of legs won were equal then legs difference would be the decisive factor.

Lisa Ashton was faced with a nail-biting wait after failing to add to her points tally on Day Four, but clung on to the 12th and final spot on the Order of Merit table by virtue of winning one leg more than Steve Hine and two more than Wes Newton.

Darren Penhall also clinched a Tour Card by virtue of legs won, while Tony Newell and Stephen Burton were the other two unfortunate cases to miss out on nine points.

These are the fine margins that can define careers.

Lisa Ashton became the first full-time female Tour Card holder in the PDC (Photo by Lawrence Lustig/PDC)

Luck of the draw is crucial

With more than 500 players crammed into one venue and 300 in another, Q School is a complex operation but one that runs like a well-oiled machine.

This is thanks to an army of volunteer markers and PDC tournament staff who ensure that a player’s only concern should be the match itself.

A consequence of a field of this size is a large number of byes and more rounds, which means players at UK Q School must, in most cases, win two consecutive matches in order to reach the Last 128 and register a point towards the Order of Merit.

The draw is unseeded, which means anyone can draw anyone, and as luck (or lack of) would have it, Beau Greaves ended up drawing Damon Heta on consecutive days.

The open draw, however, can also work in a player’s favour. Take Aaron Beeney for example, who averaged less than 89 in all eight of his matches en route to gaining a Tour Card and did not face a single Tour Card holder from the past five years.

That’s taking nothing away from Beeney or any other player to have come through the bun fight that is Q School, but having luck on your side when it comes to the draw can undoubtedly be a huge helping hand.