A tearful Stephen Bunting bowed out of the PDC World Darts Championship at the Alexandra Palace on, going down in an epic quarter final encounter with five-times winner Raymond van Barneveld.
Both throwers pushed each other to their limits and van Barneveld, moments after wrapping up a 5-4 victory to guarantee a final-four
clash with Phil Taylor, led the tributes to St Helens-based Bunting.
The victory was all-but secured with one of the tournament’s finest finishes – van Barneveld checked out from 124 to gain the upper hand
in the deciding set before completing the win.
“Stephen should be in the Premier League – what a player,” van Barneveld said of Bunting after his win.
“He won everything in the BDO and then last January he said, ‘I’ll come over. I want to do something else. I want to play with the best
of the best’. And he is one of the best of the best.”
The praise made Bunting visibly emotional, with the Lakeside champion saying: “When you’ve got someone like this talking so nice (about you) it means the world.”
The match started as closely-contested as many predicted but without the quality, Barney taking the first three legs before Bunting needed 11 attempts at a double to register a leg in the second set.
From there, Barney went bust as he tried to take a second straight set, allowing Bunting to level the match at 1-1.
It heated up in the third with both men breaking each other’s throw and van Barneveld, by this point regularly hitting maximums to ignite the crowd, edging ahead 2-1.
But it was obvious neither player would run away with the result.
After Bunting quickly took the fourth set to level the score at 2-2, van Barneveld donned his glasses for the first time in the tournament.
He had played without them so far, but after applying the spectacles the Dutchman stepped into another gear.
A high-quality period followed with Barney justifying his eye wear decision with a 125 checkout and Bunting replying with a maximum –
they were averaging 98 and 99, respectively. Bunting took out 110 to make the fifth set even and took a 3-2 lead after capitalising when
Van Barneveld missed four darts at a double.
Barney responded with a 151 finish and he sported a beaming ear-to-ear grin as he levelled the match at 3-3 before winning a fourth set with a 107 checkout followed by a nonchalant shrug.
Bunting’s reaction was brave and despite missing four darts for the next set, he eventually made it 4-4 with a 12-darter and forced a decider in what had become a mammoth, pendulum-swinging encounter.
van Barneveld’s 124 finish culminating with a bullseye eventually ended Bunting’s challenge – leaving the Dutchman just a leg away in
the deciding set, which he duly wrapped up.
The 2007 world champion took the microphone afterwards and reduced Bunting to tears with an emotional plea to include the St Helens thrower in the next Premier League on account of his impressive Ally Pally performances.