Ben Francis: Expect a new world darts champion, as fans return to Alexandra Palace

OPINION: The festive season is almost upon us and you know what that means - no, not test cricket, but darts at it's best, with the 2021 Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) world championship.

After almost nine months without fans in the stands, 1000 spectators will be allowed into each session at London’s Alexandra Palace, although - for this year, at least - there will be no singing and chanting, and definitely no fancy costumes.

While the crowd will be down from the usual 3000, players on stage will love the support and the fans will love being there.

The return of fans makes this world championship intriguing, because their absence this year has seen some shocking results, with eight of the 10 televised tournaments crowning new winners.

The most notable upset saw Belgium's Dimitri van Den Berg lift the world matchplay title, while Jose de Sousa became the first Portuguese thrower to win a major championship at last month's Grand Slam. 

Most of the year was played behind closed doors after March and a handful of events have had small, socially distant crowds, but for some players have gone a long time without playing in front of others.

The crowds will boost some big-time players - like Michael van Gerwen - who are used to having a vocal following. 

The Dutchman, who won the last tournament before the world champs, admits he's been far from his best, while defending champion Peter Wright has been hit and miss in the last couple of months. 

The tournament draw has thrown up some tough-to-call opening matches and possible banana skins for the big names, who enter the fray in the second round. 

The tournament starts on December 16 (NZ time), with 96 competitors across 29 different countries taking part. 

Peter Wright is the defending champion.
Peter Wright is the defending champion. Photo credit: Getty

Twenty will debut, while Steve Beaton will make his 30th world championship appearance, surpassing the record he currently shares with 16-time winner Phil Taylor.

This year has produced surprises already, so will someone new lift the  Sid Waddell Trophy on January 4? 

Newshub takes a look at 10 players hoping to etch their name into the history books. 

Top hopes 

Gerwyn Price (Wales)

PDC Ranking: Third 

First opponent: Jamie Lewis or Luke Woodhouse 

Former rugby player Price will be one of the hot favourites this year, after arguably being the most consistent player across 2020, with victories at the World Cup, World Grand Prix and World Series of Darts Finals.

Since capturing the Grand Slam two years ago, Price has gone from strength to strength, but has only advanced past the second round twice in six attempts, including last year's semi-finals run. 

The return of fans will help Price, who is one of many players who feeds off crowd energy.

Nathan Aspinall (England)

PDC Ranking: Sixth 

First opponent: Scott Waites or Matt Campbell 

Like Price, Aspinall is one who loves playing in front of a crowd and the return of fans means he will likely go deep in the competition once again.

'The Asp' will need another big run in the tournament, as he's defending prizemoney worth £100,000 (NZ$200,000) and an early exit could see him plummet down the rankings. 

The Stockport-thrower admits he's struggled without fans and their return could inspire Aspinall to the greatest prize of them all, although he does face an extremely tough first match. 

Dimitri van den Bergh (Belgium)

PDC Ranking: Ninth

First opponent: Luke Humphries or Paul Lim

The Belgian thrives on stage and his hard work finally paid off when he won the Grand Slam in June.

But unlike others, his success wasn't down to the fact there were no fans. In fact, van Den Bergh actually plays better with a camera in his face.

Dimitri van Den Bergh.
Dimitri van Den Bergh. Photo credit: PDC

During the March lockdown, the 26-year-old lived with Wright who helped take his game to a new level.

Was unlucky not to be in the Grand Slam final, but a tiny lapse in concentration cost him dearly. 

Dark Horses 

Devon Petersen (South Africa)

PDC Ranking: 29th

First opponent: Steve Lennon or Daniel Larsson

The South African has been on a history-making run of his own and is in career-best form.

In September, Petersen secured his maiden PDC ranking title at the German Darts Championship, followed by his best televised showing just weeks later, featuring in the European Championship semis.

He has risen into the top 32 for the first time, after bursting onto the stage a decade ago. 

Jose de Sousa (Portugal)

PDC Ranking: 14th 

First opponent: Ross Smith or David Evans

In just his second year as a professional, the Portuguese thrower has enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2020, capped off by victory in last month's Grand Slam. 

A year after giving up his career as a carpenter and kitchen fitter to focus on darts, de Sousa lived up to his ‘Special One' nickname - a tribute to Tottenham Hotspurs manager Jose Mourinho.

Jose de Sousa.
Jose de Sousa. Photo credit: PDC

His victory came just a couple of months after he beat van Gerwen to win the European Grand Prix and weeks after he fired his first televised nine-dart finish at the European Championship.

Simon Whitlock (Australia)

PDC Ranking: 18th

First opponent: Darius Labanauskas or Chengan Liu

The Aussie veteran is one of many players who have benefited from the lockdown by taking a breather and playing online darts. 

Whitelock has put in the hard yards and reached two major semi-finals in 2020 - Grand Slam and Grand Prix - as well as a quarter-finals appearance at the World Matchplay. On all three occasions, he eliminated Van Gerwen, but went on to lose in the next round. 

He has reached a world championship final before, albeit a full decade ago. 

Damon Heta (Australia) 

PDC Ranking: 56th

First opponent: Danny Baggish

In his first year as a professional, the Perth thrower has already climbed into the world's top 64. 

Heta burst onto the scene two years ago, when he won the Brisbane Darts Masters, but in his first UK-based year, he's won a Pro Tour event, and reached the quarter-finals of the Grand Slam and Players Championship finals.

His match against American Baggish is arguably the game of the first round. 

Fan Favourites

Lisa Ashton (England) 

First opponent: Adam Hunt 

The 'Lancashire Rose' is back for a second swing on darts' biggest stage, after qualifying previously in 2019. 

Two years on from her defeat to Jan Dekker, Ashton will get the chance of a first televised win over a man, when she faces Hunt - also making his second appearance - in the opening round.

The four-time world champion has competed on the pro circuit all year, after becoming the first woman to win her tour card in January. 

Twelve months ago, Fallon Sherrock stunned the world as the first woman to win at 'Ally Pally'.

Deta Hedman (England)

First opponent: Andy Boulton

Like Ashton, Hedman will hope to create even more history in women's darts. 

Deta Hedman.
Deta Hedman. Photo credit: Getty

Hedman, 60, who will become the second-oldest debutant in the event's history  - behind John MaGowan, 64 - and the sixth woman to feature in the event.

In 2005, Hedman was the first woman to record a televised win over a male opponent, toppling Aaron Turner at the UK Open.

Haupai Puha (NZ)

First opponent: Mickey Mansell 

Everybody wants to see the Kiwi do well, right?

Making his world champs debut, Puha faces a rather favourable draw, as he tries to become the second Kiwi - behind Cody Harris - to reach the round of 64.

He will become the 14th New Zealander to compete at the world champs.

Ben Francis is a Newshub digital sports producer.