Phenomenon of the oche dubbed the Michael Jordan of darts enthrals a nation, writes Chris Rattue.

Dutch darts made a dramatic turn on one night, one match. Raymond van Barneveld, a postman from The Hague, was playing Richie Burnett, of Wales, in the British Darts Organisation's 1998 world final in a little Surrey village.

Five million Dutch viewers, a third of the population, watched the postie deliver. "Barney's Army" was on the move and 10,000 marched on Amsterdam's airport to welcome their hero home.

It was a phenomenon, where one match sent a nation on an unlikely sports love affair which has only grown stronger since.

The date is etched in van Barneveld's mind.

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"Darts in Holland kicked off when I won the world title, January 11 ... I still can't believe what happened," van Barneveld told the Weekend Herald during this week's world matchplay tournament in Blackpool.

Yet January 11 is not the Dutch darts date that sticks in many minds.

What many stars, journeymen, officials and aficionados remember most is the day they first saw Michael van Gerwen play.

"I first saw Michael when he was a teenager practising before an invitation tournament in Holland," says Englishman Rod Harrington, a former world No1 and prominent TV commentator.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He was hitting everything."

It is a talent which took a while to bloom, van Gerwen surviving flash-in-the-pan put-downs before his title attack began around 2012. Since then, there has been almost no stopping the Michael Jordan of darts as the New York Times called him.

Englishman Phil "The Power" Taylor's title binge, particularly his 16 world titles, will never be threatened. But many believe van Gerwen is the best player of all time.

Sports dominance? Try this for size. Van Gerwen scored a staggering 25 victories in 2016 alone.

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His world title count of two (2014 and 2017) is a little light given his prowess. But 29 premier titles, more than 100 overall and around $12 million in prizemoney tell the story, as do the world rankings, with van Gerwen nearly $2m ahead of Scot Peter Wright. Some of his scoring averages are off the charts.

THE 29-YEAR-OLD van Gerwen's arrival for this week's Auckland Darts Masters comes during a mini drought by his incredible standards, after initially claiming 15 trophies this year amid observations he was in career-best form.

Having failed to make the final in the US and Shanghai masters, he was left "devastated" after crashing out in the first round of the Blackpool matchplay tournament. Most players would kill for van Gerwen's 2018 problems but the Dutchman quickly changed flights to Auckland, apparently hell-bent on holding silverware again, before more doubt sets in. Not that he is a man given to much doubt.

So what makes him so good in a high-profile darts era where the talent is so deep?

No one knocks the Taylor record - he single-handedly lifted darts out of the backrooms. But Taylor was ahead of his time. Van Gerwen, from the small town of Boxtel in southern Holland, has no such jump on the pack.

Van Gerwen makes for an unusual athletic figure, the elongated balding head, unmissable eyes, and elliptic physique. He epitomises the idea that darts stars come in all shapes and sizes.

His throwing style is regarded as quickfire poetry in motion, a long pull back, with a fast and strong release. He leans forward more than any other top player, in stark contrast to Taylor for instance, which might lead to some back issues.

Top referee George Noble describes the van Gerwen throw as an "economical" one resistant to pressure.

"It's not mechanical, there's no shoulder or wrist, nothing to go wrong," says Noble.

"Michael can reproduce the same throw ... it doesn't even look like he aims, although of course he does."

But it's his mental strength which is so intimidating.

"He can dismantle good players, make them look ordinary," says Noble. "If he's 5-0 up, it's all over. He's a steamroller, and he can win from any position. He does things to opponents I've never seen before.

"He's very one-track-minded and, according to Mike, he's an expert on everything. I play him at snooker for £100 a game and he's terrible at it. But he still believes he is better than you, thinks he can't lose at anything, thinks you only won by some luck.

"A very strong mind, great focus, tunnel vision. He has to win at all costs. He wouldn't want to lose tiddlywinks to his mum.

"It was the same with Phil Taylor - everything revolves around them.

"But I am still amazed that someone could be so dominant. Taylor's record says he is No1 but Michael van Gerwen is the best player I have ever seen."

RICHARD ASHDOWN, the ace "spotter" who directs TV cameras around the board before every throw, says only Taylor and the first big English star, Eric Bristow, compare.

"It's not just about being No1 and winning the world title - it's about winning title after title after title," says Ashdown.

"Many of us saw Michael for the first time at a big tournament in Holland a week after his 17th birthday.

"Top professionals in the audience were clearly aghast at what they were seeing. I will always remember seeing him for the first time and I remember at a British Open thinking that Gary Anderson had just been blitzed by a child.

"He was so exciting, fast, energetic. He's always had that emotional wham. He just has this completely different mentality. Even coming second is no consolation.

"He is a genius, absolutely, but he has this cold-blooded attitude."

Not that it was immediately a career of trophies and money, of course. When van Gerwen and fellow Dutch hopeful Vincent van der Voort switched from the BDO to the dominant PDC organisation, they had a rough start.

Van Gerwen - who made ends meet as a tiler - and van der Voort's sponsor suddenly quit on them, failing to even pay out tournament prizemoney. They travelled Europe and elsewhere on the cheap, battling for ranking points while becoming best of mates.

"He's not the typical Dutchman," says van der Voort.

"He's a guy who wants to be the best, says 'I'm going to win'. Dutch sports people normally say 'I'm all right, and I'll be happy if I win'. But the people love the way Michael is."

Van Gerwen hardly practises any more.

"Like Gary Anderson, he has so much natural talent, it's about keeping the good feeling - his arm will do the work," says van der Voort.

"When Michael enters in good shape, he is going to win. You can only beat him if he is slightly off.

"The problem is you know he will punish you if you miss. That puts extra pressure on, makes things very difficult. He is more ruthless than anyone else."

THERE HAS been the odd blip. Ashdown says van Gerwen will, on lesser occasions, manipulate his scoring in order to close with a big score to entertain the crowd and stir his motivation.

This led in part to his undoing against Kiwi Warren Parry, who beat van Gerwen from 1-5 down at the 2014 Sydney Masters.

Those around the tour say the ruthless competitiveness, matters such as a spat with Taylor, and the double fist-pump celebrations which apparently annoy some, obscure his total character.

He is a total professional in media and fan dealings and a big supporter of the academy system.

Van Gerwen seems to have a special affinity with children, perhaps a reflection of his own career as a prodigy.

The one player who can go toe-to-toe with Mighty Mike, is Scotland's Anderson, the 2015 and 2016 world champion, but at his best van Gerwen is close to invincible.

"His natural talent is amazing and I don't even know if he practises that much," says 51-year-old van Barneveld, the world No12.

"Belief is the vital thing and a few years ago, he was having trouble hitting doubles because his head wasn't in the right place. But no one is coming near to him.

"He is not a player you can coach - if someone tells him to try this or that, he says 'No, I'm going to do my own thing'.

"Some people never beat him, and if I played him 10 times, he would win seven or eight.

"I don't really know how he's done it ... maybe it is just natural talent," he says. "He is an unreal player - phenomenal."