ST Helens trio Michael Smith, Stephen Bunting and Dave Chisnall all head to London’s Alexandra Palace this week as the 2021/22 William Hill World Darts Championship gets underway.

The biggest darts tournament in the world kicks off tonight – the first time in almost two years a full crowd has been allowed in to provide the noisy backdrop to what is now the classic staple of Christmas sport.

Smith, Bunting and Chisnall are among the 96 players from around the world competing for a share of the £2.5million in prize money – with the final on Wednesday January 3.

The pre-Christmas period will see the first and second rounds played across nine days from December 15-23 with Bunting the first of the St Helens darters up when he takes on either Jeff or Ross Smith on 19 December.

Bunting enjoyed a tremendous tournament last year defeating Andy Boulton, James Wade, Ryan Searle and Krzysztof Ratajski en route to the semi.

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There he lost a hum-dinger of a game against eventual champion Gerwyn Price, the same man who beat him in quite controversial circumstances in the recent Grand Prix.

It gives him plenty of motivation – particularly as their paths could cross in the last 16 this year.

Bunting said: “I have had some real highlights at Ally Pally - more so last year when you think how well Ryan Searle has played for the last few years, beating him, and how consistent Krzysztof Ratajski has been and I had a great win over him.

“I was unlucky against Gerwyn Price – not just in the World semi but in the Grand Prix semi – I know the game is there and I can beat all of these players it is just about turning up on the day.

“I go into this feeling really confident knowing that I am playing well and had a good run last year to the semi-finals.

“I have a difficult round one, either Jeff or Ross Smith, they are both good players and their pace is similar so I know what to expect whichever one gets through.

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“I have a great record against Jeff and have known Ross for about 20 years so I know their games inside out and what I need to do to win that match.

“I am not looking too far ahead but I am in the same quarter as Gerwyn Price so we will meet a lot earlier this year than last.

“I’d be a fool to look past Jeff and Ross as they are both capable of beating me on their day.

“But I have got to believe I can win that and push myself further into the tournament.

"I am looking forward to it. But with Ryan Searle going so well, he has pushed me down to ranking 16.

"And so I know 16 seed plays the world number in the last 16 and I have that fixture cemented in my mind and that is where I want to be, and trying to get revenge on Gerwyn this year with him being the world champion."

The Windle-based thrower goes into the tournament in a good place and content with his form, and he is getting plenty of practice in thanks to the hospitality of his local – The Gerard Arms.

“This is the biggest tournament in the world and the preparation started last week. I am putting in three or four hours a day, practising at the Gerard Arms every day until I go down to Ally Pally.

“Mark, at the Gerard, opens up for me upstairs and I get the chance to get on the board for some really good practice – and I have had Steve Evans and Kai Fan Leung down here with me.

“It is a great place to come because it is really quiet upstairs,” he said.

But Ally Pally will be anything but quiet, with the fans returning this year after last year’s event was played behind closed doors due to Covid lockdown restrictions that came into force after day one.

“Ally Pally is amazing,” Bunting said.

“Sometimes it goes in your favour when they are cheering your name, other times it is difficult if they are on your back but you have got to shut them out.

“I see certain players wearing ear-protectors but that makes the crowd want to shout at them even more.

“I am one of the nice guys of darts and just try to be normal and not do too many things wrong and hopefully the crowd gets on my side."

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Smith will face either Ron Meulenkamp or Lisa Ashton in his second round clash on 21 December, the same day that Chisnall plays the winner of Darius Labanauskas or Mike De Decker.

After two disappointing early exits in the worlds this past two years, Smith is keen to show his best form at Ally Pally and has been practising daily at the St Anne's club run by his mum and dad in Sutton

"I am not bothered who I play, whether it is Lisa or Ron, I will be nervous going into it to play – but that is more about how I will perform rather than who I am playing.

"As long as I perform I will win – that’s my biggest issue.

"Lisa is playing quite well and is four-times world champion, she knows how to win but I am not getting focussed on that – just myself," he said.

And he is delighted that the crowds will be there this year after the quiet atmosphere of last year.

"It was boring without the crowd, he said.

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"Going on stage without a crowd felt like being back in the pub where I lock up after myself – silent, with nothing going on.

"I have done 17 years of darts now and don’t want to go back to playing in my bedroom.

"I practise to go on a stage to be in front of fans and TV cameras."

Following a three-day Christmas break, the third and fourth rounds will be held from December 27-30, with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final being held from January 1-3.

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Alongside the £500,000 top prize for the eventual champion, who will also lift the Sid Waddell, players will be competing to win a special £50,000 bonus which is on offer from PDC partner Selco for the first player to hit two nine-dart finishes in this year's event.