Being Ireland’s finest thrower allowed Jack McKenna to witness close up the boozy, bizarre, brilliant and best days of darts
Grab a chair, sit back and relax. Jack McKenna has a head packed full of stories you could lose yourself in. No problem if you don’t remember him, he doesn’t expect you to. That may have been him dominating Irish darts for a lifetime, in a World Cup final in 1989 and beside Paul Lim a year later for the first nine-dart finish at the World Championships, but he was never in it for the recognition. Instead, he’s content in the knowledge that he shared a stage with the greats and had the best seat in the house for the wildest show in town across the ’70s and ’80s.
In his home in Newbridge, the 66-year-old has a small plaque hanging on the sitting room wall, proclaiming him to be Ireland’s player of the century. No mean feat when you consider some of the others that were around. Like Tommy O’Regan, the Limerick man who captained England and once drank a half-bottle of gin in front of Sid Waddell before circumnavigating the board in doubles. Like Fred McMullen, the Northern Irishman that couldn’t subtract and once spent a game against Cliff Lazerenko asking his opponent what he needed to hit to finish and then proceeded to do just that.
But McKenna was different. His wardrobe wasn’t luminous and he instead wore his plain green shirt onto the oche. He was never weighed down by bling either, in fact the one time he tried to wear a ring was on a building site and it ended up getting caught in a pipe and nearly pulled him off some scaffolding. And strangest of all, he never drank. Instead he sat over an orange juice and listened and watched as those around him rose high before their egos and health brought them crashing back down with a hefty thud.
“I used to try and warn them but they wouldn’t listen,” he says. “Take Jocky Wilson. I saw him when he came on the scene first and you’d beat him. The next minute he was winning the Masters. It was the drink. I remember I played Jocky in the World Cup singles first round, Friday morning, nine o’clock. He was shivering. No drink in him. Too early. I bet him well and shook hands and he dropped the darts and his flights went all over. He couldn’t hold them with the shaking.”
Little wonder. “We were checking out of a hotel in Toronto one time and the Scottish manager called me over. Jocky’s bill for drink in the room was 5,000 for 10 days. He was on pints of Bacardi. First time I knew he was doing it, I was over at the Masters and was getting a bottle of orange. Jocky came over and says, ‘Bacardi’ to the barman. Your man gives him a small one, and you’d want to see his face. ‘No, come back here you. See that pint glass, fill it to the top, and put in a dash of coke.'”
Wilson wasn’t alone either. McKenna remembers Cliff Lazerenko challenging Paul Gosling to a drinking match, thinking he’d have it won in no time. Instead after a day in the bar and twenty-something pints later, the giant Hampshire man stumbled away saying he could take no more. He recalls John Part drinking raw vodkas and John Lowe flooring nothing but brandy and Britvic. And more recently there was Andy Fordham who would carry a crate of beer up to his room to calm nerves and then head for the bar where he’d order four bottles at a time.
McKenna’s introduction to darts was a far more innocent affair though. A fine rings thrower in his childhood, he saw his brother give away the family board but soon after got hold of a darts set. After Christmas dinner one year, he brought out the darts and won a pile of silver from the family. It was a similar story when he first entered a bar at 21 and quickly became hooked. “If I heard about you being good, I’d go there to your pub. Soon I’d started travelling around playing.”
For a while, it was still low-rent stuff. On a trip to Dundalk with his local team, he smelled the clutch burning and alerted the driver as the minibus left Newbridge. It barely got them to the tournament but on the way back the team had to get out and push up every hill. They sent a teammate out front to warn traffic but some oncoming cars ended up contacting the authorities, thinking they were trying to run over their friend and he was waving for help. It all came to an end in Drogheda when the Garda intervened.
“They were great times though and the funny thing was it didn’t change at the bigger events. The craic was still there. I made it to the News of the World [Championship] in 1975. My first big event and everything went wrong. We were left in the wrong car park and had to walk two miles to the Alexandra Palace. When I went up to play, there was the delay of an hour because lads climbed up the television stands and they were afraid they’d collapse. Your man I was playing gave me a can of Lucozade while we were waiting. I sliced me finger open and do you think I could stop the bleeding?”
He quickly realised that the famous Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch was more reality than skit. Backstage at the major events, all around him, were guys just like Dai ‘FatBelly’ Gutbucket and Tommy ‘EvenFatterBelly’ Beltcher making their way towards 501 milligrams of alcohol through a series of single pints and double and treble shots. If anything, Smith and Jones had underestimated the drinking capacity of the top players.
“It’s hard to believe the characters that were there. I played Jocky in an exhibition in Leixlip. I beat him 2-0 and at the end of the night Jocky called me up to play him again and I beat him 2-0 again. He couldn’t stand and fell back off the stage on top of three auld ones. They couldn’t get him up. Another time at the 1990 Embassy, Jan Hoffmann won his first round and came back the next night before his second round to practice. He’d disappeared the night before. Gone off with one of the Embassy girls who gave out free cigarettes and only got back in at seven in the morning. When he went out under the lights it hit him. It was like the darts were a tonne.”
It gets better
“Alan Evans was another great character. Too small, used to wear these shoes that were like stilts and he’d have this leek he’d pull out to get the Welsh going. He’d start waving it around. One time we were in London. There was a Welsh lad over there, a supporter, had a dart board tattooed on his back. He took off the shirt and got Evans to throw darts at the tattoo. Out in the middle of the floor, everyone cheering and Evans burying these darts in his back and they were hanging out of the skin. I had to tell him to stop or he’d hit this guy’s spine and leave him in a wheelchair.
“And then there was Charlie Byrne. He was an Irish teammate and I was cheering him on at this tournament in Dundee. He’d a terrible habit of following his last dart. He’d throw the third one and he’d be running at nearly the same time. But didn’t he trip over the oche, grabbed the stage as he fell and pulled the whole thing down. That was back in the early 1980s. They put the stage back up and with his first shot after, the dart board fell off the wall.”
“The crowd back then were wild too. We were over at the Masters and there was this big New Zealand one, and she started a bit of trouble. The bouncer came up to put her out of the place, she drew back and knocked him clean out. He was 6’2, 15 stone. Then she pulled the door off the squad car when the police were trying to get her into it outside the Lakeside. Deported in the end. You should have seen it.
“And sure some of the players were as temperamental. Lowe beat Lazerenko one time and this old woman asked me to get some autographs. I went in and went over to Cliff, I didn’t know he was crying. I said put your autograph on that. He said I’m not signing any autographs, I’m too upset. Kevin Painter was the same. We were in Australia and he lost and threw his darts across the floor and started crying. My daughter-in-law met him at the Masters and he was outside the toilets crying. She asked what happened, he said he was beaten, she asked did he need the police. He said, ‘No, I mean I was beaten in the game’.”
As for McKenna himself, he might well have won more on the international stage but has never spent a even a sliver of time regretting it. The darts association here never helped as they had the option of entering a player into the World Championships each year but never went to the meeting. In fact it was Northern Ireland that finally put him forward in 1990. Eric Bristow and Phil Taylor and Jocky Wilson and John Lowe asked him to join the PDC breakaway that year too but he refused on the basis of inequality. And after a car accident in 1997 when he broke two discs and a vertebrae in his back, he quit the game before coming back locally.
“Who couldn’t have won more? Tommy O’Regan was the best player I ever saw but he lost to John Lowe in the Masters one year because he had money on him to win it out. That happened a lot. Was the same with Phil Taylor in 1990. He was 100-1 coming into the World Championship and everyone bar me and Lowe had money on him. You want to see the players celebrating when Lowe got beaten.”
These days, McKenna spends his nights sitting in front of the fire at home, trying to get rid of a chest infection that’s plagued him for the last month. He’s been watching the darts highlights religiously and you ask if he misses it. “No. Sure there’s no craic or characters anymore. And why would I miss it?
“Wasn’t I there for the very best of it.”
10 January, 2010