Stephen Bunting admits that seeking the help of a sports psychologist has been the catalyst for his resurgence, as he insists he’s heading to Alexandra Palace believing he can lift the World Championship title on New Year’s Day.
Former Lakeside world champion Bunting has suffered three consecutive opening round defeats in the season’s showpiece tournament but having appeared in three televised quarter-finals in 2019, ‘The Bullet’ believes he’s a different animal as he embarks on a title tilt in the capital.
The St Helen’s star reached the last eight at the recent Players Championship Finals, boasting a tournament average of 102. He was only stopped by an inspired Gerwyn Price and speaking on the Josh’s Dartistry Podcast, Bunting admits it was the perfect preparation for Ally Pally.
“I lost a bit of belief over the last few years and I know I’m playing well again which is nice to see,” said Bunting. “I’m feeling good. I’m turning up for events and thinking I can win again. I think that’s been a massive part.
“It’s been well-documented that I’ve seen a sports psychologist and that’s changed my mindset about the way I was approaching events and my family life at home.
“I was coming home from events and feeling really down and now I’m coming home from events feeling really optimistic. 102 tournament average in Minehead – I’ve got to take a million positives from that and push on now for the rest of the season.”
Bunting is closing in on a return to the world’s top 16 and is arguably playing the best darts of his PDC career at present. Nevertheless, it was a very different story around two years ago, when the 34-year-old was genuinely contemplating quitting the game.
“It would have been a really hard decision to be honest and looking back on it now it would have been a silly one, but sometimes it just gets you down that much that you feel like there’s nothing else to do,” he claimed.
“I think my last hope was seeing the psychologist and he really did turn me around. I owe him a lot of credit and I’m not looking back now – I’m looking forward to the future.
“I was turning up to events just to make the numbers up really – now I’m turning up to events playing probably the best darts I’ve played in my life and believing I can win so it’s a massive mindset turnaround.”
Bunting crossed the darting divide as the reigning BDO world champion in January 2014 and enjoyed a fruitful period initially– winning a Pro Tour title in just his second event and reaching two major semi-finals which saw him rewarded with a Premier League inclusion in 2015.
However, ‘The Bullet’ struggled to make an impression in the annual roadshow and subsequently suffered a crisis of confidence which saw him plummet out of the world’s top 20.
The two-time World Masters champion was a dominant figure during the latter stages of his BDO career and he revealed that it was difficult to acclimatise to the reality of no longer being ‘top dog’ in his organisation.
“It’s a different environment to be honest. Obviously I felt like I was the king over in the BDO – a bit like Glen Durrant probably feels like now. You come over – you’re on the crest of a wave, you’re world champion.
“I think I had a fantastic first two years in the PDC and then it began getting a bit harder. You’ve got to defend your money – the players get used to the way you play and they adapt. I was finding it hard to beat players. I was turning up and not enjoying it.
“I’ve suddenly found a way to win on TV again. I don’t know what I’ve really done differently but it seems to be working so I’ve got to stick with it. Obviously leading into the Worlds the practice will be upped again and I’m so looking forward to the World Championship.”
“The crowds – you turn up and it’s a Christmas atmosphere. It’s just a wonderful place to be at that time of year and you’re playing for £500,000, that’s always in the back of your mind.
“You’re playing for the trophy as well and to become a world champion in the PDC – you look at the names that are on that trophy, it would be a wonderful achievement.”
Bunting will take on either Spanish qualifier Jose Justicia or former World Youth champion Arron Monk in his opener and he’ll be bidding to register his first Alexandra Palace victory since 2016.
As 17th seed, he could face a potential last 16 showdown against top seed and defending champion Michael van Gerwen and although he maintains he’s refusing to look that far ahead, he reaffirms that he isn’t there to simply make up the numbers.
“I’d be rude to look that far ahead to be honest. My record at the World Championship over the last few years has not been good enough – I think I’ve lost in the first round in the last three years against Darren Webster, Luke Humphries and Dimitri [Van den Bergh].
“I know it’s a hard place to win and I’ve found it hard over the last three years, but in the same context I’m a different player to the last three years. I’ve got the confidence again, I’ve got the belief and I’m going there to win that title.”
Bunting is provisionally set to be ranked 18th following this year’s World Championship but a strong performance in the capital could see him regain a place in the world’s top 16.
The 2015 quarter-finalist is eyeing a spot in the season-opening Masters in 2020 and also has desires of securing a Premier League return – five years on from his debut appearance. Despite this, he acknowledges that he must improve his floor form to achieve his goals.
“It would be nice to push into the top 16,” Bunting added. “Obviously I’ll try and get into the Masters at the start of February – the first TV tournament of the year. That’s one of my main targets and I just want to push on from there really.
“My Pro Tour form has been dreadful in the last year. I think I was 40th coming into the Players Championship so to solidify my Players Championship form, try and make a few finals, win a few events on the floor.
“It would be nice to try and win a TV title as well to try and push myself back into the Premier League, which is something that at the time when I came out of it I lost a bit of belief and confidence that way, but I’d love to get back into the Premier League.
“I’d love to be in the World Series as well. I’m working hard behind the scenes to push myself back into those. I believe I’m good enough to be in them but at the same time I need to show that on the board.”
Photo Credit: Lawrence Lustig/PDC