Andy “the Viking” Fordham, who has died aged 59, was one of the world’s most popular darts players, instantly recognisable with his mane of long hair, thick black beard and 190kg (30 stone) bulk. But the 2004 world champion was never the intimidating figure his appearance suggested.
Fellow players and friends spoke of his abidingly gentle and generous nature, with the promoter Barry Hearn describing him as “a gentleman of whom I have never heard a bad word” and the former world champion John Lowe noting that he was “a true friend of everyone”. Even after his top class playing days were over he was always warmly received at events and regarded as a leading figure in the world of darts.
Born in Erith, south-east London, Fordham was the oldest of four children. His father, Sid, worked as an electrician, and his mother, Maureen, had a series of part-time retail jobs, including with the wholesale company Makro. When the family relocated to another London suburb, Charlton, Andy attended Eaglesfield secondary school, where friends gave him the nickname “whippet” because of his slender physique and his ability as a fleet-footed footballer.
It was football, in Greenwich, that drew him into his future sport, when he was asked to make up the numbers in the club’s darts team. Initially he showed no signs of his later prowess, but he enjoyed the game and kept at it.
Working first as an apprentice plumber and then as an electrician’s mate with his father, Fordham started to take a wider interest in darts, and idolised the five times world champion Eric Bristow. In 2000 he married Jenny Vallely, a dental nurse, and began to show real aptitude at the dart board when the couple took over the running of the Queens Arms pub in Woolwich.
He reached the semi-final of the British Darts Organisation’s world championship in 1995, where he lost to the eventual champion, Richie Burnett, and repeated the feat the following year with defeat to Steve Beaton, who would also go on to take the title. Twice more Fordham lost in the semi-finals, to Ronnie Baxter in 1999 and two years later to Ted Hankey.
He had won other tournaments around Europe, including the 1999 BDO world masters, and became known as “the Viking” after his fellow player Bobby George came up with the moniker during a television commentary. By now a firm fan favourite, he finally laid to rest his nearly-man tag in the 2004 BDO world championship when he came from behind to win an epic semi-final clash against the defending champion Raymond van Barneveld, before winning the title to rapturous acclaim by defeating Mervyn King in the final.
However, a massively unhealthy lifestyle was beginning to take its toll on Fordham. By now managing the Rose pub in Dartford, Kent, he admitted to drinking heavily to control his nerves, downing prodigious amounts of booze before matches, and his weight ballooned to more than 30 stone. “Looking back, I realise I was an alcoholic, but I couldn’t stop myself,” he said. “I thought I was in control, but I wasn’t. On an average day I’d have up to 25 bottles of lager and half a bottle of spirits. And I’d be eating badly, with takeaways and kebabs and doing no exercise.”
Ten months after winning his world title, Fordham collapsed while playing Phil Taylor, the reigning champion of the rival Professional Darts Corporation, in a hugely hyped match at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex, which was being covered live on Sky TV. Perhaps affected by the pressure, he was certainly unable to cope with the heat on stage under the TV lights, and was forced to drop out of the best of 13 set match when losing 5-2. It proved to be the moment when his career as a top class professional ended.
“I’d never played there before, and the heat was so intense,” said Fordham. “I just got to the stage where I couldn’t focus properly on the board.” Taylor was more explicit, telling his rival that he had to change his lifestyle or it would cost him his life.
Doctors agreed. He lost around three stone while appearing in Celebrity Fit Club on ITV but then collapsed with chest pains after playing in a first round match at the 2007 BDO World Championships. Suffering breathing difficulties, he had litres of fluid drained from his lungs and was also told that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and would die unless he stopped drinking.
Heeding the warnings, he quit boozing and lost in the region of 100kg (16 stone) in an attempt to become fit enough to resume his playing career. But although he had sporadic success – including playing well enough to qualify for the 2015 PDC Grand Slam of Darts – he was never able to attain the level of brilliance he showed in earlier years.
He continued to face more health issues attributed to years of drinking, including a blocked bowel that required surgery in 2020. Earlier this year he was hospitalised once more when he contracted Covid-19, and he died in hospital after suffering major organ failure.
He is survived by Jenny, their two children, Raymond and Emily, siblings John, Julie and Tracy, and eight grandchildren.