Raymond van Barneveld is back. Less than 15 months since retiring from the sport, the five-time world champion has returned to the professional circuit, after reclaiming his PDC Tour Card at 2021 Qualifying School in Niedernhausen.
The Dutchman announced last September that he planned to compete at Qualifying School in a bid to regain his place among the darting elite, and the decision was met with justifiable scepticism, given the nature of his departure at the 2020 World Championship.
Van Barneveld’s fairy-tale farewell did not materialise. The doyen of Dutch darts suffered Premier League elimination on home soil in Rotterdam, before being condemned to a shock opening round exit at Alexandra Palace against veteran American Darin Young.
The 53-year-old offered a scathing assessment of his performance and career in an excruciating post-match interview, therefore many questioned whether he still possessed the ability, but more importantly the fight to progress through the notoriously gruelling Q-School.
The answer was emphatic. Following 29 matches, seven 100+ averages, 62 180’s and 22 ton-plus finishes, Van Barneveld finished his campaign third on the European Q-School Order of Merit, with the second highest tournament average of the 608 players competing across both venues.
“For the next two years, I can play the Tour which I love,” beamed Van Barneveld, who will return to Pro Tour action at next week’s Super Series in Bolton, from February 25-28.
Self-belief is important for any player, but for Van Barneveld – mentality is absolutely critical. He has beaten the world’s best when they’re performing close to the peak of their powers, but by the same token, he’s also demonstrated the tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
His mercurial nature is part of the appeal – he possesses the ability to produce magical moments on the biggest stages, but there is always a sense of jeopardy with the doyen of Dutch darts, who is relishing his latest rollercoaster ride.
“I can’t wait to see the likes of Michael van Gerwen, Gerwyn Price and Peter Wright, all these great players. I can’t wait to play them and beat them again,” Van Barneveld told Sky Sports.
“The last year was the most important year of my life, because I started to think about my career. I saw the things I missed in my life.
“I want to work harder. I want to go out every single day, getting fitter, feel better, and inspire future players and myself that I can do this. But I know, I have to work hard, because the last couple of days, I never won a single tournament.
“I want to do this. I believe in myself. I’m going to work hard for myself, for my team, for my girlfriend and family, and for the rest of Holland.”
Many have questioned the motivations behind Barney’s comeback. The coronavirus pandemic curtailed any prospect of the Dutchman featuring on the lucrative exhibition circuit alongside his old foe Phil Taylor.
During the latter stages of his career, the legendary Dutchman conceded that he could not muster much enthusiasm for Pro Tour events in sterile behind-closed-doors environments in Barnsley and Wigan.
Now he’s got to work his way up from the very bottom, his performances in these Pro Tour events will dictate whether he’s able to return to the big stage in major televised events, although this feels like a very different Raymond van Barneveld.
The five-time world champion was plagued by a multitude of personal problems prior to his retirement, but he appears in a better place right now; he’s happier, he’s fitter, he’s hungrier, and he has a target in mind.
“I’m not going to put myself under pressure that much. I did what I did in my whole career. The only target I have is playing the World Championship at the end of the year.
That’s my target. Everything that comes in my path is an extra bonus. This is just a start. But for now, for the next two years, I’ve got a Tour Card.”
Van Barneveld has starred among the darting elite for the last three decades. Not only has he been a trailblazer for Dutch darts, he’s also claimed some of the sport’s biggest honours, lifting 26 major titles within both the BDO and PDC systems.
As a result, the casual darts fan may have been forgiven for believing that Van Barneveld’s progression at Qualifying School would be a formality, but the reality was very different.
The Den Haag veteran averaged 94.62 over the course of his 29 matches – only 21 players out of 128 players on the PDC Pro Tour boasted a higher rolling average on the circuit in 2020, but Barney still only sealed his Tour Card in last-gasp fashion.
On the fourth and final day of action in Germany, Barney faced his compatriot and former top 16 star Benito van de Pas in the second round – defeat would have denied the former Premier League winner qualification, yet he kept his cool to close out a hard-fought 6-4 win over ‘Big Ben’.
He went on to reach the quarter-finals on day four, having also denied a nine-darter from former World Cup quarter-finalist Martin Schindler in the last 16. This backed up his run to the semi-finals on day two, yet despite his consistency, he still wasn’t rewarded with an outright victory.
“I played so many tournaments in my life, this was really the hardest part of my life ever,” Van Barneveld continued. “A couple of months ago, the BDO went bust. All the players from the BDO… they all tried to get in the PDC. So those players were here as well. So you’re looking at 40, 50 extra people.
“So many good names, from Eastern Europe, from Spain, from Germany, from Belgium, from Holland. Amazing players. It wasn’t easy to get in the top eight of this Q-School.”
So what’s next for Van Barneveld? Following next week’s Super Series, the Dutchman will make his major return in the UK Open – a title he lifted in back-to-back years after crossing the darting divide in 2006.
World Championship redemption will be at the forefront of his mind following two tumultuous exits at the Alexandra Palace over recent times. The 53-year-old has nothing to prove, but the encouraging news for his fans is that at Q-School, he performed like a man who does.
Van Barneveld’s status as one of the sport’s all-time greats is irrefutable, although now he is relishing the opportunity to write yet another chapter in his glittering darting story.
“I’ve got a chance to put myself back on the map. I feel relieved, I feel really good now to be back on the Tour, and hopefully next week I can show the world what Raymond van Barneveld can do.”
Image Credit: PDC Europe