Unsung Heroes – Kirk Shepherd
Kirk’s run in 2008 was remarkable, those who knock it are fools, yet it could have been even better! If Kirk had done nothing else he would warrant a place amongst our ‘Unsung Heroes‘.
In most any other sports Kirk Shepherd’s run to the final of the World Championship of 2008 would be fondly remembered as a beacon of possibility and a wonderful fairy tale story. Yet in darts, it’s almost a dirty little secret, whenever you hear it referred to in commentary, or amongst players, the words you will hear most include ‘lucky’, ‘good draw’ and ‘missed opportunities’.
Yet Kirk was only 21 years old and making his debut appearance, at darts’ biggest event after coming through the qualifiers. It was also the debut year of the Alexandra Palace as the venue making it even more imposing than normal. Surely, this should be regarded as almost Boris Becker like?
For a young man, Kirk had already had a decent record in competitive darts. He was twice British Teenage Champion, and a World Youth Master, between 2003 and 2006. He had not yet made much headway on the PDC Pro Tour, but his form in Open events was very good indeed and this is a better guide to current form. In addition, he had form in previous big events including smashing Gary Anderson with ease on more than one occasion. A brief look back confirms that he had previously defeated some of those who would remove from Ally Pally.
In the weeks running up to the event, Kirk determined that he was going to give a decent account of himself. He arranged for a local county player to visit him regularly and they practiced every evening for the proceeding weeks. By the time came for Shepherd to take his bow versus Terry Jenkins most of those who knew him thought he would do well. He did better than that! Kirk removed the multi-major finalist 3 sets to 2, playing superbly in patches and, piling the pressure onto Terry. It was a pattern that Sheperd was to repeat and others seemed powerless to prevent.
When you hear the traditional running down of Kirk’s effort, try switching the situation in your mind. “Everyone had darts to beat him” you will hear or “they missed a lot of doubles” or even “his averages were only in the 80’s“. These remarks totally miss the point. How on earth did a 21-year-old qualifier generate the nerves and pressure that caused highly ranked and highly senior players to allow him to be so close and to keep fluffing their lines?
It is not unusual for an unknown player to have a small run at the World Champs but it is seriously rare for them to get past the last 16 or Quarterfinals, how did Kirk do it, and especially how did he do it whilst appearing to not be performing above the expected level. This is the real key to a remarkable run and something that every new, unknown, or underdog player should think about and study.
Rob Cross’s remarkable run of 2018 can be simply explained. He outplayed and or outlasted his opponent in every round. He is a superb player, lesser-known at this level, who had been settling rapidly into PDC life. He was also 29 years old with a family and support network. In short the perfect combination of talent and timing. It is not easy for any other player to replicate such an effort.
However, Kirk’s run was different, from that sensible early preparation and the seriously focussed temperament, especially visible against McGowen and Mardle, any player capable of qualifying is capable of emulating Kirk.
Against Jenkins and McGowen Kirk had the advantage of knowing he had defeated them before and had to simple perform again. Thus the stage and the occasion had to be relegated to the background. This also ensured that Kirk did not feel like the underdog and, more importantly, did not act like one. Watch the games carefully, at no point does Shepherd look subservient or like the new boy in school. He knows he is playing well. He is winning legs in superb style and hitting very big shots when needed. The less good efforts are quickly dismissed and he is on to the next throw.
Belief is a major factor that cannot be overestimated. Watch closely and you will see that whenever Kirk’s opponent had darts to win an important leg/set or even the match, Kirk is right behind him with the same attitude he would have had on any other throw. He simply believes he is going to get another throw and he must be ready for it.
The final ingredient in Kirk’s superb run was a refusal to be intimidated. Watch closely, especially against Wayne Mardle, and you will see all the tactics, totally fair, used by a senior or highly successful player against one they regard as a junior. Kirk stands for none of it. Refusing to change attitude, pace, style or manner.
The end result is that senior players are changing their own games or concentrating on Kirk’s instead of their own. Mardle, for example, plays at least three different paces during the match. This plan fails completely and Kirk gets time to settle in and get his own game going. Once he is in full swing Mardle cannot find a way to both get himself up to 100% and impact Shepherd long enough to fully swing the game in his favour. He comes close but Kirks attitude and the lead he had gained ensured he had enough to get over the line. This was a semi-final of a world championship and the senior player had effectively bowed to the junior. But of course, it was “just lucky really”.
It is not fully known but the story could have been even more glorious. Kirk is not one for whining or making excuses, I suspect he has heard enough of those from others, but his performance in the final was hampered by a surprising source, SKY TV!
Kirk had been suffering from the effects of a mild cold for a couple of days around his Semi-Final. After reaching the final, however, there was much to do in terms of media and promotion for the final. This is normal and accepted by all players. However, in this case, it was above and beyond! Kirk was kept waiting around until very late at night, in a very cold venue, and with fake mist/ice to create an effect for one of the promotional trailers. A few of those closest to Kirk note that his cold deteriorated badly and he played the final in a very poor state of health.
Much of the credit for Kirk not getting going in the final must be given to John Part. He did the opposite of the others, who had fallen victim to Kirk, and imposed himself very early and treated Kirk as just another obstacle in his path to a third World title. But maybe, just maybe, a fully fit Kirk would have enjoined the battle earlier and returned the pressure we may then have been in for a real treat and a fitting finale to one of the great underdog runs!
P.s. Don’t write off the “Martial Dartist”! He is only 33 and has retained or regained his tour card three times already. In 2017 he reached the last 32 of the UK Open and had shown flashes on the Pro Tour in recent times. Perhaps a fairytale return is not out of the question.