Raymond van Barneveld insists he’s refreshed and hungry as he plots competitive PDC comeback

The latter stages of Raymond van Barneveld’s career were shrouded in negativity. His dreams of a joyous farewell turned into his worst nightmare, and he cut a desolate figure as he trundled off stage following his premature exit at the World Championship 12 months ago.

However, less than a year since hanging up his arrows, the five-time world champion is reinvigorated and ready to have another crack at the big time, having recently announced his intention to compete at Qualifying School in 2021 as he bids to regain his PDC Tour Card.

Widely regarded as one of the sport’s ultimate enigmas, self-belief is the key for RVB and it augurs well when the affable Dutchman refers to himself in the third person.

He even affords himself a little chuckle as he declares: “I’m more positive now, which is very dangerous to say at the moment!”

Van Barneveld enjoyed remarkable longevity at the top level – scooping 26 major titles, landing five televised nine-dart finishes and inspiring a generation of talent in the Netherlands, yet he insists that he’s still got unfinished business in the sport.

“I’m missing it. It’s so strange. I gave up my career last year, I gave back my Tour Card and I was thinking this was enough. I wasn’t myself anymore,” he told the Darts Show podcast.

“I couldn’t focus anymore. It was too much – the travelling, handling defeats. Maybe 5 or 10 per cent of the real Ray was back. There was no feeling to fight back and I needed 10, 11 months to land back on earth again with my feet.”

There are few sportsmen as self-deprecating as Van Barneveld. This endearing fallibility earned him the tag of the people’s champion, although the constant self-doubt proved overwhelming as his career came to a close.

There were well-documented personal issues that did little to alleviate his woes and despite appearing in quarter-finals at the World Series Finals and Players Championship Finals, the fairy-tale farewell he envisaged at Alexandra Palace didn’t materialise.

“The whole year was a disaster – relegated from the Premier League, not picked for the World Cup, not qualifying for other premier tournaments,” added the five-time world champion.

“It was a horrible year and I always kept saying to myself: ‘Ray, everything is going to be fine at the Worlds. I’m going to try my very best and this is going to happen’. I had it all planned in my head.

“Suddenly that first round came and it really felt like there was no floor under my feet anymore. I was so devastated and depressed and I cannot see that interview back I had later on Sky.

“To say goodbye for myself, for my family and all my fans – saying goodbye like this, in the last two years of the World Championship losing in the first round, that was something I couldn’t handle.

“I was depressed for three or four months. I couldn’t see a single dart anymore. I couldn’t hold a dart anymore, because I was so fed up with it.”

What a difference a year makes. Van Barneveld rediscovered his love for the game by playing online competitions during lockdown and with his exhibition commitments curtailed indefinitely, he was offered a return by former manager Ben De Kok.

The 53-year-old has teamed up alongside his protégé Jeffrey de Zwaan, who is also under the ‘Team Bengi’ stable, and while he’s under no illusions about the task awaiting him, it’s a challenge he appears to be relishing.

“Of course we need to start from scratch again, from January at Q School if it’s going to happen, we still don’t know,” Van Barneveld admitted.

“I’m feeling that I am a different guy right now and I’m really happy with this opportunity and hopefully in the future, I can do some good and be back on the main stages.

“I really found the hunger back, especially with Jeffrey de Zwaan. We practice every single day together and I am already averaging 100 in games, so I’m doing really good.”

Barney has the hunger back…

“I really found the hunger back, especially with Jeffrey de Zwaan. We practice every single day together and I am already averaging 100 in games, so I’m doing really good. Maybe this needed to happen.

“I wasn’t happy. I was in the middle of a divorce which I still am, private problems, and you cannot do the things you want if your head is not there.

“You can drive a car but if the car drives straight ahead and never takes a turn, then what’s the point going ahead? To be fair, I’m totally good now, so I can’t wait to start again.”

Barney is no stranger to U-turns. Following his Premier League elimination in March 2019, he announced he’d be retiring with immediate effect on an emotional night in Rotterdam, only to reverse his decision less than 24 hours later.

Explaining his decision to try and regain his place on the PDC circuit, the Den Haag veteran reveals that a close friend urged him to utilise his ‘god’s gift’ before it was too late.

Van Barneveld’s PDC televised titles

“I wasn’t planning to make the comeback, but then a close friend of mine said ‘You know what you’ve got to do?’ You have to go back to Q School in January because you’ve got a god’s gift.

“He said: ‘Do it now, because otherwise, it’s too late, because everyone is playing so good and there is so much competition at the moment, so you have to do it now rather than wait another year.”

Nevertheless, this is uncharted territory for RVB. By his own admission, he struggled to embrace the cut and thrust of the Pro Tour circuit – the big stage is where he came alive, but Qualifying School is renowned for its uncompromising nature.

The pursuit of the two-year golden ticket is where dreams are made and shattered in equal measure and budding amateurs will be desperate to claim the scalp of one of the game’s all-time greats.

One man well accustomed to the pressure of Q School is Glen Durrant, and Van Barneveld revealed he’s taking inspiration from the newly crowned Premier League champion, who has made a remarkable impact since crossing the darting divide in 2019.

“Try to compare it like a very well-known football player is going to join amateurs – like Lionel Messi is going to join an amateur football team and start training with them.

“It feels for me exactly the same. I would have said no if my head wasn’t there. I know it’s not going to be easy but at the other end, you don’t know, maybe it’s going to be really fast.

“We saw the likes of Glen Durrant. Within half a year he qualified for the World Matchplay, so we all know I can play.”

The eyes of the darting world will be on Van Barneveld, presuming Q School does go ahead, but when he believes, Barney is a dangerous proposition. One thing is for sure, where the doyen of Dutch darts is concerned – things are rarely dull.

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