Broken arrow: In search of Jocky Wilson

Thirty years after becoming world champion Jocky Wilson is an ailing recluse in a Fife council house, a world away from the glory of 1982

HERE we are in January of 1982 and this is the news. Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, has disappeared in the Sahara during the Paris-Dakar Rally. The Commodore 64 home computer has been launched. It’s -27 in Braemar. Air Florida Flight 90 has crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington and fallen into the Potomac River. The government in Ireland has collapsed. The government in Westminster is in freefall. Unemployment has risen by 129,918. There are more than three million Brits on the dole.

And now you join us in the oasis that is the Jollees Cabaret Club in Stoke. No doom and gloom here. Just a packed audience and plenty of booze for the 1982 BDO World Darts Championship final. Here’s Sid Waddell, calling the finalists as only he can. From England, John Lowe: “Striding out like Alexander The Great conquering the Persians!” And from Scotland, Jocky Wilson: “The lad has the psychology of a claymore!”

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Waddell is giving it large, his voice just about heard above the noisy masses. “Jocky Wilson versus John Lowe makes King Kong versus Godzilla look like a chimpanzees’ tea-party!” Lowe has prepared for this world final just like he prepared for the three others that went before, the loss to Leighton Rees which he avenged a year later, then the defeat to that crafty sod Eric Bristow in ’81. Lowe is certain of two things standing there on the oche. “Number one: Jocky is the best player on the planet right now. And number two: Not tonight, he’s not.”

Jocky’s been on his boat. Fishing. Drinking. Smoking. Pint of vodka and coke. Cartons of Embassy fags. “Nae bother.” He plays his countryman, Rab Smith, in the first round and does him 2-0. Swears later that he’s getting through 200 cigarettes a day. Plays Alan Evans of Wales in round two and beats him 2-1. Sweet, that. Evans doesn’t like Jocky much and the feeling’s mutual. “When I beat Evans, he told me ‘I’d love to knock your flippin’ head off’,’’ Jocky said. Only it wasn’t flippin’, it was something more aggressive, which made it altogether more satisfying when Jocky put him away.

It was the only set Jocky lost on his way to that final. In the quarter-final he dismantled David Miller 4-0. In the semi he did the same to Stefan Lord. He was on a nine-dart finish at one stage of that match; 180, 180, then he lights a fag, takes a drag, fires his 23-gram arrow into the treble 20 and... well, he never got the nine-darter (he checked out in ten) or the 32 grand that would have come with it, but Lord was blown away nonetheless. “Jocky’s going like the Loch Ness monster with a following wind,” reported Sid.

So now there’s just two left standing. And they’re away. Best of nine sets. Best of order, please. Jocky to throw first.

That was then, this is now. This week marks the 30th anniversary of Jocky’s first world title and the pinnacle of his fame to that point. Lowe is talking about it now. He’s about to get on a flight to Denmark to play some darts. Then he’s off to Lanzarote for some sun. He does the things that Jocky can’t. He plays, he travels and he talks.

“That ’82 final? Oh God, yeah. Jocky at his best, that was. Best in the world at the time, no mistake. Bristow was out first round that year. Thought I had it when Eric fell. Thought I’d beat Jocky, but maybe I was tricking myself. You talking to Jocky? Oh, you won’t be, will you. No. Jocky don’t talk.”

In search of Jocky Wilson. It’s been tried so many times now that every time the door goes in the little council house he lives in with his wife, Malvina, the chances are that it will be a journalist wanting a word. Last year it was a film-maker. From Germany, exiled in Scotland. Julian Schwanitz’s Kirkcaldy Man premieres in Glasgow next month. It is a beautiful short film about a man and his community. Came from nothing, went back to nothing.

Malvina features, giving the same polite answers she always gives. No, Jocky won’t come out to talk. He cannae. It’s his lungs and that. He can hardly walk up the stair. Even if he could chat, he’s no interested. The titles, the world travel, the booze and the fags and the fallouts, the taxman, the money won and lost, the fall from grace, the years as a recluse.

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One interview in 16 years. One. Conducted on the top step outside his house through a half-closed door. It’s in the past. Just leave it, son. Has he any chance of getting better? Nae chance. He’ll never beat this. He’ll never speak and he’ll never be better.

You talk to people in Kirkcaldy. People who knew him, people who played against him, people who drank with him, people he fell out with. Nobody’s heard a peep in a decade and more.

“He’s still in the house,” says one. “Naw, he’s in a care home, so I heard.”

“He’s back in hospital.”

“He was in the pub the other night playing darts for pints.”

“He’s dead.”

He’s dead. That was the chat not so long ago. A bloke walks into a pub and says that Jocky’s gone. “Bollocks,” says the pub. “If something like that happened, we’d hear about it.” But would they?

Allan Crow is editor of the Fife Free Press. “We picked our top 100 sporting Fifers in the paper. Jim Baxter was first, Jim Clark was second. Jocky was in the top five. Double world champion. We thought that might bring him out of the house, maybe get him to say a few words to us, but there was no response.” No response either when Bristow knocked on his door a few years back. The only words Jocky has uttered in public in all these years were a few sentences he recorded for the inaugural Jocky Wilson Cup in the summer of 2009. Apparently, it took him two days to find the strength to do it.

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“Thirty years since that final, eh?” says Lowe. “Well, I remember it well. And I remember Jocky well. We used to get on like a house on fire, us two. I haven’t seen since him since 1994. Sad, that. Just to show you what good pals we were, he comes up to me one day and says, ‘I need your picture’. I says, ‘Right, there you are’. He says, ‘I need you to sign it’. ‘OK, Jocky. Done’. ‘Who’s this for, then?’ I says. ‘Me dad’, he says. ‘He thinks you’re great. He wants a signed picture for the top of the telly. Every time I go in his house now I’m gonna have to look at your ugly mug’.

“We was coming home from an exhibition in Australia, myself, Jocky and Cliff Lazarenko. So I buy a round in the airport before we head off, then Cliff buys a round, then Jocky wants to buy a round but we have to get on the plane, so he says ‘I’ll get the first one wherever we’re heading next’. It was Kuala Lumpur. Jocky goes up and says we’ll be having three pints of lager. No pints, says the boy. Just tins, sir. Right, give us six tins, says Jocky. Twenty five quid it cost him. He went mental. It was the funniest thing ever. He nearly didn’t drink ’em.”

They were pals by ’82. And rivals. Jocky had never been past the quarter-finals of the world championship before, but in his heart of hearts Lowe knew this was a different Jocky, a completely new animal. “You’d stand behind him and he had that snatchy action. He’d jerk the dart out of his hand. If any other player did that you’d think there’s no way that dart is going where it needs to go, but Jocky made it work. He found his way into the treble 20 in his own style.

“He beat me 5-3. Double 16 for the title and he did it first time. Ah, I was happy for him, but I was worried for him a little bit at the same time. Jocky had a terrible insecurity. He’d always walk in a room and say, ‘Am I doing OK, John? Am I all right?’ I’d say, ‘Of course you’re all right, Jocky.’ Then he’d hear some laughing across the other side of the room and he’d assume that the people were laughing at him. He had a dark side but I think it came from an insecurity. He was a loveable rogue, not ready for the success he got. He was on self-destruct. All the drink in the world but it was the fags that did him.

“I’d like to talk to him again, but I know that might never happen. And that’s tragic, that. I’d like to sit down with him, but I can’t see it. Now you’re telling me here that there’s no landmark to Jocky in Kirkcaldy and I can’t understand that. I really can’t. There should be a tribute. Maybe Jocky doesn’t want one, but there should be. Maybe he wants to forget but nobody else is going to forget, I can tell you that for nothing. There isn’t a week goes by without somebody asking me, ‘How’s yer mate, Jocky?’ Nobody will ever forget Jocky Wilson. I hope he reads this. If he does, I want to say this: Look after yourself mate. Regards to the family... John.”