World Championship: Joe Cullen has his sights trained on darts royalty at the '˜Ally Pally'
YORKSHIRE marksman Joe Cullen is aiming to make a point on the biggest stage in world darts.
The Professional Darts Corporation [PDC] event, which begins at Alexandra Palace in north London today, will be the Bradford thrower’s eighth world championship, but his first as a top-20 player.
“It is what the whole year leads up to,” said Cullen, 28, of the 72-player extravaganza which concludes on New Year’s Day.
“I look forward to it every year, but my form is good going in and I fancy it this year.”
Cullen opens his campaign on Saturday evening against Dutchman Jermaine Wattimena, who is ranked 42 by the PDC.
The winner of that will face either Benito van de Pas or Steve West in round two a week later.
Cullen is one of a number of players knocking on the door to the really big time and a good run this month could see him barge through.
“Last year there was a certain person in the mix for the Premier League [a weekly competition for the the sport’s most high-profile players],” recalled Cullen.
“He didn’t get in, but my form was better than his, but he was being talked about because he did well at the Worlds.
“It is important because of the exposure it gives you. I don’t think I’m a million miles away from the Premier League, my form’s there on the floor and on the stage, but it’s just a case of doing it in the big tournaments.”
The Ally Pally has not been kind to Cullen in the past. He suffered six successive first-round defeats before victory over Corey Cadby 12 months ago, before crashing out 4-0 to two-time winner Adrian Lewis in his second-round match.
Cullen is confident this year will be different. He won his first two ranking titles in 2017 – both at Players’ Championships in Barnsley – and has risen to 19th in the PDC order of merit, which is his seeding for the Worlds.
“Before, I wasn’t seeded and I always got tough draws,” he recalled. “Last year I was seeded and I got a tough draw, but I got over that.
“The higher you go, it doesn’t get easy, but it gives you a more favourable draw and you can avoid the big names to start with.
“I have worked really hard to get where I am, in the top 20 and I just wish I had done that sooner in my career, but I hope now I am there to stay.”
Cullen – nicknamed Rockstar – is brutally honest about where he let himself down in the past. He said: “I was a bit lazy.
“Everyone tells you how good you are, but the tour is that hard you can’t just rely on talent. If you do you’re not going to win. If you have the talent and you put the hard work in, that’s a difficult combination to beat.”
Added to the mix over the next three weeks is the unique, football stadium-type atmosphere players will face.
“I don’t really notice it,” said Cullen. “I am used to it by now. I can’t really remember my first time, but I imagine if you’re not used to a big stage like that it can be tough.
“You have to try and not let it get the better of you and enjoy it. Not everyone gets to play in that sort of atmosphere.”
Defending champion Michael van Gerwen is top seed and hot favourite to win the title for a third time.
Cullen – a 200-1 shot – does not believe it is a forgone conclusion, though he admits the best chance of an upset will be early on when the matches are shorter.
“Plenty of players are capable of beating him,” he said.
“What he has got to his advantage is it is a long format.
“Michael does go missing for quite a few sets, but if it’s best of 13 sets you can afford to do that.
“The long format favours him and I think there’s a fear factor. Everyone has got the game capable of beating him, but he has got that aura – people are scared to play him.
“They are going in thinking about what he’s going to do rather than what they need to do to beat him.
“You’ve just got to get your own game right, but that’s easier said than done.”
Cullen is one of three Yorkshireman in the World Championship field, the other two both hailing from Huddersfield.
Jamie Wilson, ranked 32, takes on Polish debutant Krzysztof Ratajski tonight, with the winner set to face either van Gerwen or Christian Kist in the second round. Postal worker Peter Jacques will play Australian Kyle Anderson on Sunday for the right to meet former world champion Raymond van Barneveld or Richard North in the second stage.
This year’s event will be 16-time world champion Phil Taylor’s last before he retires.
“It’s the perfect time for me to go,” he said. “I’m not enjoying it anymore.
“I’ve been playing over 30 years – that’s more than half my life.”