Jocky Wilson, having won the world darts title a couple of months prior, was some distance from the black hole of isolationism into which he one day would tumble. He was playing in an exhibition match at Maidenhead and his popularity was such that the punters were clinging to the rafters.
What those fans could not see was the alternative exhibition being played out during the 30-minute interval. Just as I was asking an initially taciturn Fifer for his views on his arch-rival and potential nemesis, Eric Bristow, a waiter arrived with a huge tray of drinks. All of those drinks – save for one solitary pint, which was mine – were headed for Wilson‘s belly.
At first, he was loathe to discuss the Crafty Cockney but, four pints of lager and four large measures of vodka and coke later, the taciturnity had disappeared and my companion was verbally dismembering his contemporary. Now, I had witnessed some choice drinking in some choice drinking establishments, but rarely had I seen alcohol being despatched with such efficacy.
Move the clock forward 27 years and I’m engaging with another legend of the tungsten tradition, one Andy Fordham. He is describing his own bibulous lifestyle when he won the world title. That lifestyle seems uncannily like the one once practised by a man now diminished by illness and living as a recluse on a council estate in Kirkcaldy.
Just consider how Rangers fan Fordham, aka The Viking, prepared for his 2004 title victory. He rose at 8am, showered, breakfasted on a pot noodle and then demolished half a bottle of brandy, plus several bottles of Pils, before he left his room for the Lakeside.
There, a drink was rarely absent from his hand as he practised for his confrontation with Mervyn King. When show time arrived, Fordham directed his 31st frame through the adoring crowds as Right Said Fred sang his signature tune, I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt. The Viking was certainly too good for King. The championship was his.
Stiff penalties tend to be handed out for such dissolution, however. Here, in his wife’s pub, in Thamesmead, Greater London, Fordham admits he is still in deficit. A history of physical pain, emotional suffering and indignity behind him, he is facing up to the almost unpalatable fact that he will never be able to drink again. And if he does? Well… this is a thought Fordham does not really care to consider. “Am I confident I’ve beaten this thing? No, I don’t think I’ll ever beat it, to tell the truth. I think it’s something I’m fighting, and fighting quite well at the minute.
“But there are times where… if it wasn’t for my wife Jenny, I don’t think I’d be talking to you now. There have been a few times recently, in fact, when I’ve felt like having a drink, but the only reason I haven’t is because of Jenny. Look, I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop wanting it. It’s a battle, a constant fight.“ (Jenny, it should be pointed out, has also been active on life’s battlefield, having survived a duel with breast cancer).
You wonder whether Fordham has taken that first crucial step and admitted he’s an alcoholic? “I think I tell myself that all the time, and I always say it around people just so it reminds me in a way of what I’ve done to myself. I mean, you can’t blame anyone else for what happened to me.
“Well, it took a while for me to face up to the fact. I mean, after we’d had a bit of an argument, Jenny said to me: ‘You can drink if you want, but I’m not going to be around to watch you die.’ And do you know what? The next day I woke up a different person.”
Fordham is certainly a different person, physically, from the man-mountain who scaled the darts rankings. He now weighs around the 21 stone mark, but pledges a return to dieting and hopes to lose another three stone. He is, however, familiar with dietary privations since his television stint on Celebrity Fit Club.
He argues in his very readable book Andy Fordham, The Viking, that his life was saved on the night of January 8, 2007, when he was preparing for his first-round match against Australian’s Simon Whitlock in the world championships. It was one match he’d never play. He limbered up on vodkas and brandies. Owing to security precautions, he was dropped off a hundred yards from the venue. For him it was 50 yards too far. A few steps on, he had to sit down. He couldn’t draw breath and was close to collapse.
He asked his companion and friend, former Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram, to fetch him a brandy. Then, aware that his body was shutting down, he began to cry. He drank the brandy – which was to be his last drink – knowing the deadly game he had been playing with his health was up. He was taken to hospital, where 18 litres of fluid were removed from sorely congested lungs.
Bad news was being delivered by conveyor belt. He suffered a mild stroke on his 45th birthday; doctors told him he needed a new liver and he was placed on a transplant list. After going through the psychological trauma attached to the uncertainty, he was dramatically summoned to the hospital, only to be told the organ wasn’t suitable.
Somehow his liver began to recover and doctors advised surgery could now be delayed by three to five years. It was time to try and reinstate himself as a darter of some credibility. But now it was more than simply a game for free spirits – 2004 was an eternity away. The game he’d returned to was one for those who practised fervently and removed outrageous drinking from the equation.
There are no guarantees he will return to the kind of form that made him pre-eminent five years ago. And so he warns: “I’m on a slow road at the moment. I’m getting there, but slowly.”
But if he must look forward, he must also look back on the carnage he inflicted on himself. “There was never any violence in my drinking. No, I was just a happy-go-lucky type. The worst thing that happened was when I played in my first Embassy World Championship. I mean, I did have a lot to drink: you’re talking about three large brandies and I don’t know how many bottles of beer. The trouble was that it worked.
“Then, every time I played I felt I had to do that. It got worse and worse as it went on. But people said that they didn’t really see me drunk. I personally think that it was probably because I was half-pissed all the time. I was talking to someone earlier today and we were discussing getting hangovers. And he said: ‘But you’ve got to stop first to get a hangover.’ I must admit there wasn’t a lot of stopping.”
Even his passion for Rangers – he was taken north by a Scottish uncle as a toddler – led him to the bar. He met Goram at a Rangers function and they have been friends since. “Andy reckons he managed to out-drink me once, but I can’t remember it.”
That nickname, The Viking, was confirmed after he had played in that same first Embassy event. “Me mate turned up in a full Viking outfit. They weren’t even going to let him into the venue, but the BBC and the BDO [British Darts Organisation] had a word with the owner and they relented. Know what, he ended up with pneumonia. He went and changed after I played, but it was a very cold winter and he ended up in hospital for a couple of weeks. But it done him a bit of good. He lost about four stone.”
In his book, Fordham is graphic when he talks about watching himself play in that 2004 final. “It’s not my size I’m most embarrassed about. What really makes me cringe are that big lump’s shoes. For the entire tournament, I wore those big, white trainers, good quality running shoes, with the tongues stuck out at the bottom of my black trousers.”
So, no embarrassment about his former image. What does he see when he looks in the mirror now? “A lot healthier person, to tell the truth.” And does he like looking in that mirror? “Yeah, I do. When I lost all that weight at first… I mean, when I went from 31st to just under 16st, people were saying how well I looked. The truth is when I looked in the mirror, there were a few times I was really upset because I didn’t look well at all. I looked horrible. But now that I’ve filled out a little bit, I feel a lot more confident with myself now. What was that you called me… a babe magnet? Well, thank you very much.”
What was it really like in the old days when the spectre of a giant was staring back at him? “When we were doing the book, we sat down and watched the final, more or less for the first time since it happened. I was watching a totally different person. It was quite frightening at first. I was that big and knowing that I’d let myself get that big.”
His world championship win thrust the shy Fordham into the public sphere, and a nation obsessed with weight and its attendant difficulties virtually adopted him later that year. Encouraged by his wife and his manager but against his better judgment, he took part in Celebrity Fit Club. As he lost weight, he gained new friends in Paul Ross, Julie Goodyear and Dale Winton.
Have these friendships been retained? “Some of them, yeah. To tell the truth, you watch someone on the TV and you’d love to meet them. And then when you do, you wish you hadn’t. There are some of them like that. The team I was in – Paul Ross, Tina Baker and Kym Mazelle – was absolutely blinding. When you saw me on there, you were just seeing a natural person just trying to do what he could to improve his health. When you saw some of the others, you see them as what they are… which is actors.
“I had a massive row with Ken Morley [Reg Holdsworth], from Coronation Street. You know I only carry grudges at certain times. He was basically saying that I’d spiked his drink, which is something I wouldn’t even dream of doing. I wouldn’t even speak to him if I met him.”
Conversely, you suspect he would love to speak to the reclusive Wilson. “I remember playing Jocky in the World Masters. He watched the game that put me into the last 16. Someone said to him: ‘You’d better get on to the practice board because he ain’t a bad player.’ He must have taken the advice. He kicked my arse !”
Fordham, as in his autobiography, is forthright. He swears a lot in general but hasn’t authentically sworn once during this interview. “I’ve done really well, haven’t I? Listen, I’m trying me best.” He doesn’t see the point in hiding his foibles, so he lays them out for your inspection and is prepared to absorb the criticism. “There’s no point hiding things. I’d be lying to myself. “
What about his biggest foible? What if he drinks again? “Well, the doctors have told me if I do it, then that will be it. My liver could deteriorate at any time but, if it’s through drink, they’ve said they will not give me a transplant.”
There are certainly similarities between Fordham and Wilson. Uncomfortable similarities. The difference is that the former may have just have acknowledged it in time.
Andy Fordham, The Viking. Pennant Books