Jocky Wilson: World champion darts player famed for drinking and his unhealthy lifestyle
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Monday 26 March 2012
Jocky Wilson was a legend as a darts player, as a television character and because of the legendarily large amounts of lager and vodka he knocked back during tournaments.
In the 1980s, large TV audiences watched in fascination at the talent of the diminutive Scot – pudgy, toothless, wreathed in cigarette smoke and sometimes visibly swaying as he tossed his darts.
No one could have looked or acted less like a sporting figure, yet he won two world championships and a host of other competitions. In the process he became something close to a national figure, regarded with affection for the incongruity of his successes and his exceptionally unhealthy lifestyle.
He made a lot of money but lost it through financial misfortune, announcing his withdrawal with the words, "I'm all washed up and finished with darts. There's only one person to blame for the situation I'm in, and that's me."
At that point he returned to his home town of Kirkcaldy, Fife, becoming a recluse in a small council flat.
He was only 62 when he died, after years of suffering from the lung disorder chronic pulmonary obstructive disease and other ailments.
In addition to his harmful adult lifestyle, he had a bad start in health terms, as a boy eating many sweets but refusing to brush his teeth. "My gran told me the English poison the water," he maintained.
He became a manual worker, with spells as a miner and coal delivery man. It was during a spell of unemployment that he discovered he could make money from winning darts tournaments and, after turning professional in 1979, he made his way into the sport's top 10 players.
His rise coincided with the televising of darts and the emergence of a number of characters. One of these was Eric Bristow, known as the Crafty Cockney, who was darts' number one; but Wilson captured the public imagination as the most unathletic player on show. An admiring Scots poet wrote proudly of him: "He's sixteen stain of fat and pain."
In 1983 Wilson, who had he nickname Gumsy, produced his autobiography, Jocky. Having no teeth was not a problem, he insisted: "I can manage just about anything with my gums," he wrote. "I can chew a steak provided it's well done. I can even eat apples. Great Yarmouth rock and nuts are the only two things that defeat me."
In the early years of televised darts, players were shown smoking and drinking pints of beer, even during important matches, something that helped create a pub-like atmosphere for the cameras. Wilson was probably among the top 10 drinkers as well as the top 10 players, saying he needed seven or eight vodkas before a match "to keep my nerves in a proper state". He once fell off the stage at the end of a game.
Darts commentator Sid Waddell remembered: "Jocky would drink four or five pints of lager and then, fatally, what he called the magic Coke. He would take off the top of a litre bottle of Coke and then top it up with half a litre of vodka and pass it round."
Despite, or perhaps because of, such excessive consumption, Wilson won the world championship in 1982. In 1989 he won it a second time, beating Bristow in the final: without the cockney's dominance of the game, the Scotsman would probably have won more tournaments.
He was certainly competitive, especially with Bristow, who once described a violent piece of Wilson gamesmanship before one televised match.
"As I climbed up [on stage], Jocky kicked me straight on the shin," he recalled. "The officials pulled us apart and I had to climb up, live on TV, even though I could feel my leg bleeding under my trousers. Jocky came up behind and I had to shake hands in front of the cameras and smile at him. All I wanted to do was strangle him."
Wilson's money drained away in a sorry tale of legal battles and unpaid tax, and he retired in 1996 at the age of 45. According to Waddell: "He couldn't be Jocky Wilson without a lot of drink. He couldn't be the player he was. Unfortunately, the 10 pints of lager and the three or four vodkas are going to kill you, if you do it every night."
Wilson himself partly agreed with this assessment in the rare occasions during his retirement when reporters were able to snatch hurried interviews with him at his front door.
"The drink came into it," he said, "but I wouldn't say it was just the drink. I just wasn't able to do it. I didn't have the energy. I'm glad I'm out of it, because of the way my mind was at the time.
"I just didn't have it in me. Maybe my mind wasn't right, but I just couldn't get out of there quick enough. I didn't have any go in me.
"I said to myself, 'I'll just have to get out of this because I can't handle it any more'." In retirement, he continued to drink and smoke heavily, so that by recent times his ailments included diabetes, depression and arthritis. He rarely left his flat, saying: "I don't even go out – only to the doctor."
He is survived by his Argentinian-born wife, Malvina, and their three children, daughter Anne Marie and sons John and William.
John Thomas Wilson, darts player: born Kirkcaldy 22 March 1950; married Malvina (two sons, one daughter); died Kirkcaldy 24 March 2012.
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