Robert Thornton hailed the support of his family as he reflected on how his sensational charge to glory in the Speedy Services UK Open signalled the end of his long battle with serious illness.
The 44-year-old former World Master broke his hand before being diagnosed with pnuemonia in a disastrous 2011, but turned his nightmare into a dream when he beat the great Phil Taylor in the final at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium last month, to complete one of the biggest shocks in the history of darts.
“After all I’ve been through in the last 18 months, winning that was a piece of cake,” joked the Scotsman, who swept past a string of big-name opponents to clinch his first PDC major title, despite entering the tournament as a 250-1 long shot.
“My hand actually got broken by my granddaughter, who had a bit of a tendency to slam doors and she slammed one when my hand was in the way. Not deliberately of course, but that set me back.”
“It affected me big time really. It didn’t take too long to heal, but once it did I still struggled with it.
“It was probably more of a psychological problem than anything. It took me a long time to be able to practice often enough again and then it took me even longer to overcome the problem in my head.
“The pneumonia came from nowhere. I flew out to Canada when I was a little bit unwell, but not to the extent that it prevented me from doing anything. I thought I just had one of those bugs that you can shake off in a day or two.
“But I must have caught another cold while I was out there, and that is what the doctors thought must have caused the pneumonia.
“That just put me completely out of action. I had a lot of support during all the time I was sick though. My family kept me going. Darts was the last thing on my mind.
“It was a case of trying to keep strong and stay positive. The doctors told me to take my time, and with the brilliant support of my family and the people around me, I got through it.
“Now when I’m playing I don’t take anything too seriously. It definitely changed my outlook on life and reminded me that a career isn’t the be all and end all.”
Thornton had made the switch from BDO to PDC in 2008 and reached his first televised final the following year, losing out to Taylor in the Players Championship.
‘The Thorn’ became an instant force on the circuit as he stormed into the top 16.
“When I moved to the PDC I always felt that I could go all the way, and I started extremely well,” said Thornton, who continued to impress until the unfortunate events of 2011 seriously hampered his progress.
He returned to the big stage in the 2012 World Championships at Alexandra Palace, where he was beaten in the second round by defending champion and eventual winner Adrian Lewis.
“I probably wasn’t fit enough to play in the Worlds,” he admitted.
“I hadn’t really given myself enough time to recover properly. The signs were definitely there that I still had the ability but I would have to build up my confidence again, as well as my fitness.
“A long time on the stage just knocked the stuffing out of me and if you want to do well in darts you have to be comfortable playing three or four times a day.”
With five months to wait until the next TV tournament, Thornton used the time to get himself back on track.
“Ahead of the UK open I’d been able to up my practice and had been especially working on my finishing,” said Thornton, who beat Mark Webster, Gary Anderson and Dennis Priestley in consecutive days to reach the quarter-finals, where he had to fight fatigue to win three games in one day.
“If you had that draw mapped out before a tournament you’d think someone upstairs didn’t like you but to be honest I was glad it worked out that way.
“I knew all of my opponents, which meant I knew how good they were. I knew that I had to be on top of the game and my finishing had to be spot on.
“It all just seemed to come together in Bolton. Everything just clicked.
“My fitness and energy levels are still up and down. Some days I’m fine and on others I’m absolutely worn out. I was shattered after my games in the UK Open.
“I’d been eating bananas and things to try and keep my energy levels up. On the final day I had to play three games on the stage, which was pretty daunting for me and although it did completely tire me out, I proved I could do it and hopefully as I continue my comeback, I’ll be able to do it again.
“It wasn’t just the fact of playing three games that gives me a massive confidence boost; it’s also the calibre of players that I played. Wes Newton and Dave Chisnall have both won umpteen Players Championships and what can you say about Phil Taylor?”
Thornton launched himself back up to 23rd in the order of merit by scooping the £40,000 title, which he admitted has only just sunk in.
“It took a couple weeks after for me to realise the full extent of what I achieved that weekend,” said Thornton, who believes that he can go even further in the game.
“I’ve been looking at the trophy and thinking ‘did I really win that?’
“I enjoyed been the underdog in every game I played, and the pressure was always on the other player but I don’t think that will change so much. I still won’t be the favourite in a lot of matches, which suits me fine but hopefully I won’t get another run as difficult as that.
“It is quite strange that I have seemed to carry on where I was before I got ill, but it’s all down to self belief and the support of my family. Without them I don’t think I’d have gotten back so quickly, let alone win something.”
“I hope that there is a lot more to come from me. I’m targeting getting back in the top 16, and getting a few more good runs this year and ultimately qualifying for and winning a few more tournaments.”
“My mentality will stay the same as did in the UK Open. Nothing to lose, don’t take myself too seriously and we’ll see where that takes me.”
By Chris Murphy