Darts: Nathan Aspinall reflects on meteoric rise, NZ Darts Masters, and World Cup aspirations

English darts star Nathan Aspinall is hopeful of making the trip to New Zealand for the 2021 NZ Darts Masters, after the COVID-19 scuppered a potential trip down-under earlier this year.

'The Asp' was in line for an invitation to the 2020 NZ Darts Masters at the Claudelands Arena in Hamilton until the event was cancelled and rescheduled for August next year due to global travel restrictions. 

It's likely Aspinall would have been in New Zealand right now preparing for finals night. But instead, he's at his Stockport home getting ready for the return of the Premier League behind closed doors.

The Masters gives Kiwi arrowsmiths a rare opportunity to compete against the Professional Darts Corporation's (PDC) best players, including Aspinall and reigning world champion Peter Wright. 

But the fact Aspinall is even in a position to be competing in the World Series events is remarkable considering where he was just two years ago. 

In August 2018, Aspinall was ranked 93rd on the PDC Order of Merit and had never made it past the quarter-finals of a PDC ranking tournament. 

Now he's a two-time World Darts Championship semi-finalist and a major champion, after winning last year's UK Open. Those achievements have seen him soar to sixth in the world rankings, having raked in £486,000 (NZ$983,000) in prize money over the last two years. 

Aspinall admits that he never thought he'd achieve so much in the relatively short space of time he's been travelling the world throwing 27gram tungsten arrows at a bristle board. 

"My rise through the ranks has been rapid," he tells Newshub. 

"When I first started playing, I believed I was good enough to make a living out of darts but I never dreamed that I would be playing in the Premier League and playing in places like Las Vegas.

"Did I ever think I'd be in this situation? No, I've been on cloud nine for two years now. 

"The lockdown has helped me sit back and look where I am at life and in my career. Everything has changed so much and getting these opportunities to come to Australia, New Zealand, it's a dream come true. 

"Hopefully I'll get invited next year, fingers crossed I get there. It's one of those places I've wanted to visit.

"I've had a few mates that have travelled to Australia and New Zealand, and it's a place I've wanted to go. Same as Vegas, New York and those dreams came true so hopefully, I'll make it down under." 

Before playing darts, Aspinall was a handy footballer and part of Manchester United's goalkeeping academy. He was even offered a deal by Glasgow Rangers, which he was forced down, as his family didn't want to move to Scotland.

He then played semi-professionally for Greater Manchester side Cheadle Town but after two years, he decided to hang up his boots.

Then, as a 17-year-old, he was introduced to darts and immediately showed signs of talent. 

"I realised I wasn't going to make a living off football so I started playing darts with my grandad and dad at the local pub, and in my first year I won the men's individual title in my area," Aspinall recalls. 

"I put in the hard yards and started to take it more seriously when I was about 21, when I was on the youth tour. I didn't know much about darts until then." 

But he didn't realise how much hard work was required. He went on to win a PDC tour card, only to quickly lose it in 2017. 

Aspinall promptly won it back, as he rediscovered his hunger for darts, and to compensate, he gave up his day job as an accountant to commit fulltime to the sport. 

"It needed to happen, I shouldn't have won my card," Aspinall admits. 

"A guy from the local pub gave me the money and I was lucky to win it. I did the two years on tour and you feel that as soon as you have it, you've made it. But that's the easy part.

"When I lost my card, it hurt me, I couldn't even win games at my local, but I kept going on the challenge tour and to European qualifiers. I started making some of these events which gave me experience going into Q-School the following year.

Nathan Aspinall has become a fan-favourite since soaring up the rankings.
Nathan Aspinall has become a fan-favourite since soaring up the rankings. Photo credit: Photosport

"I realised how precious that card is and, as soon as I won it, I didn't want anyone taking it off me."

Initially, Aspinall struggled with his second chance, as early exits from tournaments limited his income.

With a partner and young kids to support, it was hugely challenging. At one stage, Aspinall recalls having just £20 in his bank account. 

But in September 2018, a £10,000 (NZ$20,000) payday after winning the Player Championship 18 changed everything. 

"I won that tournament and it kickstarted my career," says Aspinall. 

"I'm proud of my achievements and I'm proud to have won a major and two televised titles. 

"There are some amazing players that go their whole lives without winning so to have done everything I have in a few years is amazing." 

Now 29-years-old, Aspinall has a busy few months ahead, not only because of a cramped schedule due to delayed tournaments, but to start defending some of the money he's won. 

"I've been in a better position than most because I haven't been defending anything," he says. 

"I feel I'm playing well enough for the money not to affect me. Of course, I will drop but I believe in my ability to get the money back. But all I have to do is win the worlds and I've covered it."

Nathan Aspinall after winning the UK Open in 2019.
Nathan Aspinall after winning the UK Open in 2019. Photo credit: PDC

Upcoming events include the conclusion of the Premier League, the World Grand Prix, the Grand Slam, where good results could see Aspinall qualify for the World Cup of Darts before the World Darts Championship. 

"When it comes to football, I love watching England, so to play for my country would be brilliant and tick something else off," says Aspinall. 

"I've played in the Premier League, at the worlds, and I've won a major. So, to play for my country would be amazing, and then finishing the year off by winning the world.

"I know I'm one of the faves going into the worlds and I'd love to win it.

"I think I'm in a much better place than in the last two years, so off that theory, I should make the final after making the semis for the last two years. But we will see what happens."

Darts is renowned for its raucous atmospheres. But with fans not allowed inside the arenas, they've had to resort to artificial crowd noise.

In some European Tour events, a limited number of spectators will be allowed to attend, but in the UK it's unclear when they will be allowed back. 

Nathan Aspinall in action during the Premier League.
Nathan Aspinall in action during the Premier League. Photo credit: Photosport

Aspinall admits he's someone who thrives off the noise. "The louder, the better" he says. 

But after struggling at the World Matchplay without a crowd, Aspinall has been working on a few things to be better prepared after struggling with the lack of noise, although he wouldn't reveal his secrets.

"It was a real struggle at the Matchplay. I was at the last game, so I watched lots of it and I went in early to get a scene of the feeling and it was completely different. 

"I'm an adrenaline player. I jump around like Tiger and feed off the crowd, so I struggled with it. 

"I've done a few things which I think will help me get through the Premier League." 

After limited time on the board since March, Aspinall is raring to go. 

"It was difficult for everyone, but I've enjoyed the time off. 

"I did a few things around the house I may not have got done if we were still playing darts but it was nice spending time with Kirsty and the children. 

"Now it's time to get down to business and get back to playing darts."