Obituary: John Thomas ‘Jocky’ Wilson; darts world champion who became a recluse in his home town of Kirkcaldy
Born: 22 March, 1950, in St Andrews, Fife. Died: 24 March, in Kirkcaldy, Fife, aged 62.
You may search through the official Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and you will not find the name of Jocky Wilson. The hall’s principal keepers do not consider darts to be a sport, in which case Wilson is the greatest “pastimer” this nation has ever produced.
Twice world champion in the 1980s when darts was a hugely watched televised game, Wilson was Scotland’s man on the oche, a player as brilliant as he was rotund, with a fetching grin and a genuine humility that made him massively popular.
He truly was a man of the people, from a working-class background that was at once his bedrock and his undoing, for when an avalanche of fame and wealth poured upon him, Wilson did not have the education or societal wherewithal to deal with his new life.
His battles with drink, officialdom and ill-health were well chronicled and eventually he retreated behind the doors of his house in his native Kirkcaldy for the last 17 years of his too short life, which ended on Saturday after years of battling diabetes and lung disease.
Born in St Andrews, Wilson’s early years were problematic, as he recalled in his autobiography Jocky Wilson’s Own Story. Thin as a child, he was at one point in a children’s home and his education was sporadic. Curiously, given his later ability to calculate his scores instantly, Wilson was not good at arithmetic and he left school as soon as he could.
He tried his hand at various jobs – commis chef and fish processor – and even joined the army, serving in the Royal Scots, before going down the pit near Kirkcaldy where he had made his home. Having met and married his Argentinean-born wife Malvina Eva – her patriotic name came from the Malvinas (Falkland) islands, and Eva Peron – she gave birth to two sons, John and William, and a daughter, Anne Marie, and later Malvina worked as a potato picker to help make ends meet.
Wilson’s skill with darts was well known in Fife in his 20s. His base was Lister’s Bar in Kirkcaldy from where he became a local champion and Scottish international. Wilson’s professional breakthrough occurred in 1979 with the winning of a Butlin’s darts tournament that earned him £500. That prize set took him off the unemployed register and persuaded him to turn fully professional just at a time when darts was attracting the attention of television.
Able to practise long hours – as much as four or five at a time – Wilson’s skills dramatically improved and by 1980 he was ranked in the top half-dozen darts players in the world.
Wilson first came to national fame as winner of the television darts show Bullseye in 1980 and 1981. The following year saw him win the British Darts Organisation’s Embassy World Championship at Stoke, beating John Lowe of England in the final.
Overnight, Wilson was a sensation, one of the most famous Scotsmen of his era. Such was his fame that Top of the Pops flashed a picture of Jocky during Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ rendition of their hit Jackie Wilson Said.
Here was a Scottish hero that both captured the public imagination and scared those promoters of a healthy lifestyle. With his chubbiness and skill, he was as archetypal a sporting Scot as the red-headed wee battling football midfielder, and when his front teeth eventually all fell out at the age of around 30, the “girning” look was complete – Wilson once paid more than £1,000 for state-of-the-art dentures, but rarely wore them.
That year of 1982 saw a brush with officialdom caused by the Argentinean nationality of his wife. Malvina Wilson was one of a family of 11 born to a Scottish mother and Polish father who happened to be living in Buenos Aires at the time of her birth.
She feared deportation when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, and her concerned husband took exception to remarks about Malvina allegedly made by a darts official, with the result being an unseemly brawl.
Wilson’s rapid rise to fame and his temperament led to other clashes, including more punch-ups with officials, shouting matches with fellow players, the loss of his driving licence after failing to give a sample, and a devastating civil court case that he lost to his former manager Ron Clover.
Despite earning £400 a night playing exhibition matches as well as his tournament earnings, Wilson suffered money problems later in life.
At the height of his success and earning power, however, Wilson did not forget his background. In 1984 during the miners’ strike, he played exhibition matches to raise funds for the strikers and their families.
Throughout the 1980s, millions tuned in to watch the best darts players of the time. Wilson was ranked alongside and often ahead of Lowe, Leighton Rees, Dave Whitcombe – he called Wilson “the greatest player I have ever seen” – and Eric Bristow, the famous “Crafty Cockney”, who was reckoned to be the best darts player of all time.
Wilson reached the quarter or semi-finals of the World Championship in most years of that decade, and he won titles galore – four British Masters, four Scottish Masters and the prestigious Finnish Open.
In 1989, Wilson’s rivalry with Bristow came to a head when they met in the world championship final. It is still regarded as one of the greatest matches in darts history, Wilson just coming out on top after a dramatic fightback by Bristow.
In order to achieve this famous win, Wilson cut back massively on his colossal intake of alcohol and cigarettes, as he would do occasionally. He regularly smoked around 60 a day, and claimed that his drink of choice was “a bucket” of vodka and coke, washed down with lager.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilson’s latter years were the stuff of tragedy. He joined a breakaway professional darts body in 1993, but his career was effectively over two years later.
His health failing, like another great close contemporary sporting Fifer, High Valleyfield-born George Connelly of Celtic FC and Scotland, he retreated into his home and refused to give interviews or even acknowledge that he had once been a hugely popular figure.
Diagnosed with diabetes and obstructive lung disease, the legacy of his mining days and smoking habit, Wilson stopped playing darts in public, but refused to make excuses or explain himself. A young German film maker made a film about Wilson’s self-imposed exile, but neither he nor anyone was ever able to elicit a reason for Wilson’s withdrawal from public life.
His final “appearance” was to record a message to the fans who attended the Jocky Wilson Cup match in Glasgow in 2009 between the top international darts players of Scotland and England. The latter country won, which they would probably not have done in the era when Wilson was at his best.
Jocky Wilson’s passing will cause a great deal of sadness in those generations who recall that cheeky toothless grin and his magical darts. Despite the troubles he latterly endured and caused himself, he should be remembered as an entertainer who lit up Scottish life for a decade and more. He may not be in that Scottish Sport Hall of Fame, but he will endure in the memory of many Scots for ever.
Jocky Wilson is survived by his wife Malvina and his children.
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