Andy Fordham: Himalayan huts and dark rooms have no place in 'The Viking's' world
The heavyweight darts champion tells Brian Viner he prefers to watch his 'seven tellies' than suffer at the hands of reality TV
Saturday 01 January 2005
Fat men and darts used to be synonymous. Jocky Wilson and Leighton Rees spring to mind, which might be the first time either of them has sprung anywhere. Those were the days of the Fatbelly Gutbucket sketch on the comedy show Not The Nine O'clock News, which, for the benefit of younger readers, had two weeble-shaped men engaging in a beer-drinking competition, throwing darts in the background to steady their nerves. The joke was in the reversal of activities. And also in the exaggerated weeble shapes. Darts players of that era might have been fat, but they weren't that fat.
Andy "The Viking" Fordham is. The 42-year-old from south-east London, who sets out to retain his British Darts Organisation world championship title today, sets new standards of corpulence on the oche. He is absolutely colossal. His thigh measurement must be bigger than my waist measurement - and I'm talking about my post-Christmas waist. He weighs, at his own rough guess, 25st. "I've seen it written that I'm 30st," he says, and frowns at the endemic inaccuracy of newspapers. "Dunno where they get that from."
It might seem unfair to harp on about Fordham's size, which did not stop him becoming world champion after all. But it did stop him taking on the Professional Darts Corporation champ Phil Taylor last month, in a Sky Sports pay-per-view spectacular billed as a boxing-style unification contest to determine, beyond any argument, the greatest darts player in the world.
Not that there was any real doubt. Nobody really gave Fordham a prayer against Taylor. But at the same time, nobody expected the Viking to self-combust.
"It was just so hot," he says. "They reckoned it was about 120 degrees under them lights. I just over-heated. So they took me outside and put ice more or less over my whole body. I watched it the next day on the telly and it was quite frightening. My eyes went really red. But Phil's eyes were going red, too."
Fordham is being disingenuous in not ascribing his collapse directly to his weight problem. That his weight is a problem, he grudgingly concedes. "I've had tests up at Harley Street and my size needs sorting out a little bit. You think you can keep control of it, but suddenly it gets on top of you.
"A lot of it's just down to laziness, sitting there watching the horse racing. And eating Chinese takeaways late at night probably don't help. That's another one that's going to be knocked on the head. If I can get down to 18st I'll be quite comfortable. I don't want to lose too much too quick, though. That's dangerous. A friend of mine done that, and he looked ill."
Fordham collected his substantial purse from the aborted showdown with Taylor and I ask, as sensitively as I can, whether he feels he deserved it.
The Viking looks daggers at me. "I couldn't carry on. It was one of them things. Like Barry Hearn said, if he had a boxer in a pay-per-view fight, and he was knocked out with the first punch, he'd still get his money."
Fair enough, I suppose. He pronounces Barry Hearn the south-east London way, incidentally: "Barryearn". Fordham lives above his wife Jenny's pub in Dartford, The Rose, but was brought up, the son of an electrician, in Charlton. "Most people call it Charlton nil," he says, with a chuckle.
Except when he is being quizzed about his weight, he is a good-natured soul, and by all accounts one of the most popular men on the darts circuit.
When he won last year, the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green rocked to the sound of, "There's only one Andy Fordham!" It was the result they all wanted. He had been four times a losing semi-finalist before last year. "You could say I was becoming the Jimmy White of darts," he says. A pause. "But don't get me wrong. It's a great honour to be mentioned in the same breath as Jimmy White."
We are back at the Lakeside now, although it is not the Lakeside as Fordham likes it: packed to the rafters with raucous darts fans. Today, the only background noise is that of someone vacuuming, while Bob Potter, the club's indefatigable septuagenarian owner, bustles around making sure the place is ready for Saturday's full house.
Which reminds me: this interview has been organised through the good offices of the on-line poker outfit, 888.com, one of the sponsors of the world championship. Fordham is happy to plug them, but will not tell me which lager he drinks, even though he drinks a considerable amount of it.
"We asked, but they wouldn't sponsor me," he says. Frankly, I can't say I blame them. A 25st man might be the perfect embodiment of the pleasures of lager consumption, but probably not as far as a lager company is concerned.
We make our way from the reception area to the main lounge, a 20-yard walk which renders Fordham breathless. I ask him what his keenest memories are of last year's event. "I could feel myself about to start crying as I was going for the double-eight I needed to win," he says. "I had another shot at it if I missed, but I had to think to myself, 'Don't start crying, you haven't hit it yet!'"
With the world title he won £50,000. But darts, he tells me, has not made him wealthy. "Not like people think," he says.
What are his extravagances? "Televisions," he says. "Televisions and trainers." What, like personal fitness trainers? "Naah. Trainers you wear on your feet. I've got seven pairs. I always wear trainers. Don't feel comfortable in shoes. And I've got seven tellies, four upstairs and three down. I'll watch anything that comes on, to tell you the truth. My wife gets the hump with that. She says, 'What're you watching?' and I say 'dunno really'. It was marlin fishing this morning. My favourite programme is Only Fools And Horses. And I love a good gangster film. My favourite is The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins." Pronounced the south-east London way: Boboskins.
Fordham's affection for Only Fools And Horses, and The Long Good Friday for that matter, is doubtless something to do with the fact that he knows similar characters. Which is not to say that he consorts with gangsters, not at all, although he does tell me with a knowing grin that his manager "sorted out" a few people who put the word around, following the Fordham v Taylor fiasco, that he was at death's door. Two days after his withdrawal, he and Jenny went on a cruise down the Nile, a week's holiday that had been booked for ages.
"Which was nice and relaxing," he says, "except it's not nice when your daughter phones up crying her eyes out because the papers have said we've only gone away because her dad's dying. Why do people write them things?"
I make sympathetic noises, while unable to shake the image of the Viking cruising down the Nile. "It was something the wife had always wanted to do," he says, as if reading my mind. "She wanted to see the tombs and stuff. I just relaxed, really. Stayed on the boat."
It was the flamboyant darts player and commentator Bobby George who first called him the Viking, and although it's hard to imagine him finding the breath for any serious pillaging, the name fits not only his girth but also the hair that tumbles down to his huge waist. When his mate Carl turned up at the next tournament wearing a full viking costume, it stuck. Before then, his nickname had been the more prosaic "Bob", for reasons he can't even remember.
Going back even further, to his schooldays, his nickname was "The Whippet". He was, he insists, a decent young sportsman, who played football and ran for the school. "I was really fit," he says. "I carried on playing regular football into my twenties but when I was about 26 I got a bad back. I was laid up for about three months and that's when I started putting the weight on."
He had only started playing darts through football. The team trained on Wednesday evenings and some of his team-mates were keen darts players. He filled in for one of them one night, and discovered an aptitude. I ask him whether any of his old football skills come in useful at the oche. "You can't kick 'em in, if that's what you mean," he says, with a chortle. OK, stupid question. I suppose I meant hand-eye co-ordination. "Yeah, you need lots of that. And I went from there to the county side, then from the B team to the A team, and the next thing I knew I was being picked for England."
I confront Fordham with the devil's advocacy I have put to other darts players in the past: Can it really be classified as a sport? After all, physical fitness is not exactly essential, manifestly so in his case.
"Yeah, but when you get up there underneath them lights... and there's the mental pressure too. Now shooting, that's an Olympic sport, but they just lie on the floor and aim for a target, and the more rigid they are the better. How can you call that a sport but not darts? Darts is a lot more physical than lying on the ground. And all the mental arithmetic, that drains you a lot."
Like all top darts players, Fordham's arithmetical agility is impressive. Does it help in any other department of life? "Well, I always know whether there's enough in the till," he says. I ask whether takings have soared at The Rose - shortly, with the brewery's blessing, to be renamed The Viking - during his year as world champion? "Not nearly as much as you'd think," he says. "It's weird. It looked as if takings were going to be sky-high. A lot more people have come in but they have one drink and just stand around. They just want an autograph or to have their photo taken with the trophy."
In terms of financial reward, then, the big man's tenure as champ has been disappointing. But he has enjoyed the attention, despite a plethora of dubious offers. "I was invited on a particular programme because they wanted to give me a makeover, shave my beard and cut my hair," he says. "They couldn't understand why I didn't want to do that. I'm like Samson. Cut my hair and I'd lose my power. And someone else wanted me to go up and live in the Himalayas, in some sort of hut. I didn't fancy that. Another programme wanted me to sit for two weeks in some room where you can't see nothing. I went, 'Naah'."
Such are the trappings of sporting celebrity these days; the offer to live in a hut in the Himalayas or spend a fortnight in a darkened room.
Still, on the upside, he's been on A Question of Sport and was invited to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.
"I always said it would be enough to win the world championship once," he says. "But now I've done it I want it again."
He folds his vast, wobbly arms over his stomach, and smiles. I ask about the tattoos on his arms. "That's the grim reaper," he says. Does it have a particular significance? He looks at me suspiciously. "No. I liked it so I had it. This other one's a skull . And I've got a couple of others you can't see. There's one on my back but I can't remember whether it's a swallow or a butterfly."
If he wins again at Frimley Green after being written off last month as too fat and unfit even for a darts player, then he might have to find room - which shouldn't be difficult - for a phoenix.
The BDO world championship is being covered by BBC TV from January 1-9 2005.
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