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  Leighton Thomas Rees (1940–2003), by unknown photographer, 1975 Leighton Thomas Rees (1940–2003), by unknown photographer, 1975
Rees, Leighton Thomas (1940–2003), darts player, was born on 17 January 1940 at the Lady Aberdare Maternity Home, Mountain Ash, near Pontypridd, Glamorgan, the only son of Ivor Thomas Rees, lorry driver, and his wife, Olwen, née Holt. At the time of his birth his parents lived at 10 Other Street, Ynys-y-bŵl, near Pontypridd. He was educated at Trerobert junior school and the Mill Street secondary modern school, Pontypridd. It was during his period at Mill Street that he threw his first darts at the local United Services Club. In 1979 he admitted, ‘I was only an average pupil and cannot remember being gripped by the urge for learning’ (Lanning, 2). When he left Mill Street at the age of fifteen one of his teachers declared he would be ‘good only for reading the sports pages of the South Wales Echo’, his mind having been more on rugby football than anything else (Daily Telegraph).

Rees immediately began work at a local factory, Simmonds Aerocessories, which specialized in manufacturing nuts and bolts, eventually moving into the dispatch office where he remained for twenty-one years. It was during his lunch hours that he became interested in darts. A factory team was established, based at the Colliers Arms at Porth, and played in the Pontypridd district darts league. Rees was a team member for two years before signing for the United Services Club, Ynys-y-bŵl, on whose books he remained for his entire career in darts.

Rees's ambition was always to win the prestigious News of the World individual darts championship. Although he reached the grand finals in London on no less than three occasions (1970, 1974, and 1976), his dream was never realized. Rees later said, ‘It is every player's dream of success and, as it turned out, my impossible dream’ (Lanning, 58). Nevertheless by 1974 he had been capped for both the Wales and Great Britain national teams and was receiving numerous invitations to appear at events and play exhibitions around the country. This placed him in a dilemma. As he told his biographer, Dave Lanning,
I loved my job, my workmates, the uncomplicated routine of my life. A simple home life, Mum's cooking, friendly employers, a boisterous, if beery, social existence. It all offered an odd sort of security, protection. You could call it humdrum. But I was perfectly happy and who needs fame, fortune and flashiness if you're happy and healthy enough not to have a hangover after a night out with your mates? (ibid., 7)
It was during the late 1970s that the ubiquitous pub game of darts was elevated to a global sport by the combination of the drive and organizational skills of the British Darts Organisation and the involvement of television, with its innovative split-screen technology. Almost overnight amateur darts players were transformed into highly paid professionals. Eventually, convinced by his manager, Eddie Norman, and his Welsh darts colleague and friend Alan Evans, Rees turned professional in 1976 and became one of the darts players who helped usher in a new era for the sport.

Rees's first major international success came at the Wembley conference centre, London, in December 1977, when he led the Welsh national team to victory in the inaugural World Darts Federation world cup and won the individual title at the same event. But the high point of his darts career came on 10 February 1978 when he became the first ever world professional darts champion in the Embassy world professional darts championship organized by the British Darts Organisation and held at the Heart of the Midlands Club, Nottingham. He beat England's John Lowe by eleven legs to seven in the final and collected the winner's cheque for £3000. Later, in honour of their world champion, Rees's local council named a street after him, Leighton Rees Close.

Although winning the world professional darts championship was the pinnacle of his career Rees continued to be a leading contender in all major darts competitions for which he entered. In his international career he represented Wales on no less than seventy-seven occasions and, even as his health began to decline in the 1990s, he remained a highly popular player on the lucrative exhibition circuit until illness forced him into retirement.

On 16 August 1980 Rees married, in Las Vegas, Debra (Debbie) Ryle, née Pearl (1952–2007), a Californian who was herself a keen darts player. From her first marriage Debbie had a son, Ryan, whom Rees always considered as his own. About the same time Rees moved from Ynys-y-bŵl to Trallwn, also near Pontypridd. In 2002, in what was to be his last major interview, he spoke to his old friend and adversary John Lowe about his career in darts. Rees told Lowe that he would not change anything but then added, ‘If only I had a crystal ball at the time, I would have looked after my health and money differently’ (Lowe and Chaplin, 296). He eventually succumbed to a long-term heart condition and died on 8 June 2003 at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant. He was cremated at Glyn-taf crematorium. He was survived by his wife and her son.

Patrick Chaplin

Sources  

Darts World (Jan 1978); (March 1978); (July 2003) · Leighton Rees on darts, ed. D. Lanning (1979) · Daily Telegraph (10 June 2003) · The Independent (11 June 2003) · The Times (13 June 2003) · J. Lowe and P. Chaplin, Old stoneface: the autobiography of Britain's greatest darts player (2005) · personal knowledge (2007) · private information (2007) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BBC archives, Embassy world professional darts championships 1978 and 1979 · BFINA, light entertainment footage · BFINA, sports footage


Likenesses  

photographs, 1970×79–1982, Camera Press, London · photograph, 1975, Empics, London [see illus.] · photographs, 1975–82, Empics, London · three photographs, 2002, Camera Press, London · obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in Darts World (March 1978), front cover