A smiling Nathan Aspinall is a dangerous Nathan Aspinall, and after a year of being greeted by silence on stage the former UK Open champion has been revitalised by the return of spectators.
As much was clear on Monday night as he soaked up the electricity of 2,000 fans inside the Winter Gardens to see off a Mervyn King fightback and progress to the second round of the World Matchplay for the first time in his career.
It may not have been the pumping and adrenaline-filled ‘full Nathan Aspinall’ experience, but the occasional roar to camera and crowd interaction was reflective of a man feeling a whole lot better about his darts.
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Aspinall, who sits 11th on the Order of Merit, has not turned a blind eye to a recent dip in the PDC rankings, instead harnessing it as added motivation to reach the pinnacle of a career he has devoted his life to. He now feels the transition back to pre-COVID atmospheres will play a major role in helping him achieve that.
“I just want to be the best player in the world, I want to be the best of the best and in everything I do in my life I want to come number one, whether it’s darts, being a dad, my accountancy job before that, all I want to do is be the best,” said Aspinall.
“I look at the rankings and know I’ve had a slippery slope recently but I look at them and go ‘Nathan come on, you’re better than this’.
“I know what it is. I’ve missed them [the fans], okay it wasn’t amazing tonight [Monday] but I’m better when I’ve got a smile on my face and I’m happy and I was happy tonight.
“I’ve not been happy for 12 months playing darts, I’ve turned up and had some good results but when I’m happy I’m one of the best players in the world and I was happy tonight.”
“As long as Boris doesn’t do a u-turn and say there are no crowds on Wednesday night rest assured I’m here for the long haul.”
Aspinall ahead of his second round clash with Gary Anderson
World Matchplay Darts: Wednesday’s Order of Play
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A clinical Aspinall romped to a 4-1 lead in his first session against King, before weathering a fightback from the Masters finalist to secure a third break of throw and see out the match 10-6.
It was the clutch response to a pressure situation against an experienced customer that glossed a fine opening performance for the Englishman.
“The composure was massive for me, I was at 4-1 at the break and getting involved in all the chants and then Merv came back at me and I did well I think to lose that just 3-2 and I was happy to come out 3-2,” he said.
“I walked back out and thought ‘right Nathan, you’re not at a football game, you’re here to work, you’re here to win money, you’re here to win this tournament, calm down’ and I calmed myself down and hit some good shots. The end game pleased me the most.”
As with all competing at the Matchplay this week, it was only too natural for Aspinall to find himself absorbing every ounce of energy from the fans.
Such has been the length of their absence, it was also a swift reminder of the need to focus on the job at hand, even if it is a difficult ask.
“I think that’s the issue, I am a big crowd favourite because I do interact with the crowd and they pay my wages and I love socialising with the guys and it makes them feel more part of it and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have the lifestyle I’ve got so that’s what I always feel when I walk onto a stage,” he added.
“But then it’s got to come to a point where you go ‘focus’ and I’m quite good at switching off and that’s what I’ve done tonight, I’ve interacted to a certain point and when it got down to the nitty-gritty I’ve gone ‘I love you all but I ain’t talking to you, I’m playing darts and I’m winning this game and then we’ll have a celebration’ and that’s what I did and it paid off.”
Awaiting Aspinall in the next round is darting idol Gary Anderson after the 2018 Matchplay champion and 2020 finalist eased past Stephen Bunting with a 10-5 win.
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What an atmosphere at the Winter Gardens! Nathan Aspinall receives a brilliant ovation as 'Mr Brightside' blares out in Blackpool ?
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Besides staging his pursuit of a second major title, the tournament is also an opportunity for Aspinall to continue his quest for a spot in his nation’s World Cup team.
“I’d love to represent England at the World Cup, I really would,” he continued. “I thought I was going to get in last year and just fell short, obviously I’ve got to have a really decent run.
“If I get to the final I think I’m in but I’m massive into the football, the lads did amazing, I went to the final and for me that, when they’re all chanting England songs for me is a buzz, I love all that.”
A victory over Anderson would see Aspinall face either Michael van Gerwen or Ian White in the quarter-finals.
Watch the World Matchplay from the iconic Winter Gardens all the way through until Sunday, July 25. Check out daily Darts news on skysports.com/darts, our app for mobile devices and our Twitter account @skysportsdarts
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