Vinnie Jones divided fans’ opinions like few others have done with regard to his worth as a footballer. Some saw him as a decent player who did a job for a number of teams whilst playing up to a hard-man image, but others considered him little more than a footballing lunatic always one short step away from a total meltdown.
Even now, two decades on since he last kicked a competitive ball, his legacy resonates to a far greater degree than his talents ever deserved. Many a discussion on websites and chat groups dedicated to ‘eighties football has quickly turned to discord when it has come to discussing the merits, or otherwise, of one Vincent Peter Jones.
Having famously spent a time working as a hod-carrier while playing semi-professional football with Wealdstone, Jones was signed by Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, manager of first division Wimbledon, in the autumn of 1986. This came on the back of playing one season on loan for IFK Holmsund in the Swedish third division as part of a deal set up by Bassett.
Thrown into the deep-end for a home debut against Manchester United, Jones made the most of his opportunity and scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory. At this stage all seemed set for a nice, cosy, warm kind of story: the ‘Roy-of-the-Rovers, from Rags-to-Riches’ kind of thing that warms the cockles of one’s heart (or something). However, things soon changed and the ‘Vinnie Jones Story’ started to take on a life of its own.
The first time Vinnie made the headlines in any controversial manner came in the March after his debut. Wimbledon were away to title-chasing Liverpool and Jones found himself up against Liverpool legend and player-manager, Kenny Dalglish. According to Jones himself, Dalglish went in late on Jones and when Jones remonstrated he was advised by Dalglish to ‘shut it’, or something similar. Jones is said to have then replied: ‘Oh yeah? Well, I’m going to rip your ear off and s*it in the hole”. Whether the asterisked letter in this particular yarn hides a ‘p’ or an ‘h’ depends on who’s telling the story.
Whatever the exact wording of their exchange, details were leaked to the press and a minor controversy spluttered on for a while along the lines of: “How dare a former non-league part-timer talk to a legend like that? Who does he think he is?” kind of way. It was the first example of Vinnie getting publicity for anything other than pure football reasons, and a budding reputation was born.
Macca and Gazza!
The following season, 1987-88, really saw the birth of the legend of Vinnie Jones with two separate events. It should be mentioned here that Jones knuckled down and secured a regular starting place in a Wimbledon side more than holding its own in the top division. Finishing sixth in their inaugural season in the top flight, the Dons were again challenging in the upper third or so of the division when Wimbledon met Newcastle, and a certain Paul Gascoigne. The details of their coming together have been well chronicled over the years and there must now be very few football fans of a certain age not aware of same.
Breifly put, Jones performed an adroit man-marking job on a young Gazza that culminated with the now-famous grabbing of a certain part of the Newcastle man’s appendage. The fact that this image was recorded for posterity has played no little part in Vinnie Jones’ lasting notoriety.
Anyway, Wimbledon marched on past Newcastle in the cup, and indeed all the way to Wembley where they met League champions and overwhelming favourites, Liverpool, in what was expected to be one of the biggest mismatches in recent history.
It was here that the second great happening in the creation of the Vinnie Jones legend occurred. Up against the self-styled hard man of Liverpool, Steve McMahon, Jones took it upon himself to go in hard early doors and lay a marker on McMahon. This he duly did with a ‘tackle’ hitting McMahon on the blind side and sending him spinning with his own momentum. For thirty years Jones has dined out on the story that this ‘reducer’ upset McMahon and Liverpool so much that from then on in there was only going to be one winner.
Perhaps a certain amount of creative licence has been taken over the years with the re-telling of this particular yarn, because the reality is really rather different. Far from being intimidated, as McMahon spun upwards and Jones crashed to the ground, the Liverpool man was thinking ahead and made sure to smash his elbow into Jones’ cheek, leaving a scar that Jones concedes can be seen to this day.
As is then famously recorded, however, the Dons went onto pull off a famous victory that day and won the cup thanks to a single Lawrie Sanchez goal to nil.
Whilst the Dalglish story and the Gascoigne picture had elements of humour about them, the McMahon incident was the one that really fuelled the image of Jones as a footballing ‘hard man’. It was an image he was to revel in and go to great lengths to promote at times.
The following season kicked off back at Wembley with the FA Charity Shield (as it was known then) providing an immediate rematch between Liverpool and Wimbledon. However, missing from Wimbledon’s ranks was one Vinnie Jones who’d managed to get himself sent off in a pre-season friendly against a local village side!
This then seemed to set the standard for the coming season, his last in his first spell at Wimbledon. A particularly nasty game took place at Everton where Jones again saw red, this time for an alleged head butt on Kevin Ratcliffe (who did seem to go down ridiculously easily, to be fair).
Another even more serious incident occurred in a game against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane when a Vinnie Jones challenge on Gary Stevens ended up forcing the ex-England man into retirement. This was truly a shocking challenge for which Jones is vilified to this day in some quarters.
On the Move
In the summer of 1989, Vinnie Jones somewhat surprisingly left Wimbledon and signed for Leeds United, then in the second division. Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, saw in Jones not merely the potential for aggression and intimidation, but a hitherto unacknowledged quality for playing a neat passing game.
Indeed, during his one season at Elland Road, Vinnie Jones played what many (including himself) considered to be the best football of his career. Whilst harnesing his natural aggression in the right areas, Jones showed himself to be a player of reasonable talent. Perhaps away from the intense spotlight of the top division, the need to court controversy and feed his image was somewhat reduced.
Leeds won promotion in Vinnie’s first (and only) season at the club, and everything seemed rosy in the garden with Jones only picking up 3 yellow cards (and no red) the entire season.
However, things soon were to take a turn for the worse once again. Left out of the side at the start of the 1990-91 season and seemingly surplus to requirements, Vinnie accepted the chance to join his old mucker, Dave Bassett, at struggling Sheffield United, and so promptly brought his Elland Road dream to an end.
Installed directly as captain at Bramall Lane, Jones found himself back in the world of scrapping and battling for every point and at once seemed to regress into the ‘hard man’ image he’d built up for himself at Wimbledon and managed to escape at Leeds.
As at Plough Lane, the bookings and red cards came thick and fast as the Sheffield club fought , ultimately successfully, for their first division lives. Although relegation was somehow avoided after a terrible start to the season, it was a largely unhappy 12 months spent at Bramall Lane and Vinnie’s greatest achievement seemed to be managing to get himself booked after 3 seconds in a game against Manchester City.
Quite to his as well as everybody else’s surprise, however, Vinnie was offered another way into slightly more refined surroundings and style of football when Chelsea made an unexpected bid for him in 1991. Once again Vinnie adapted to his surroundings and played his part in keeping Chelsea mid-table and steering them away from an unexpected relegation dog fight. Once again, however, the good times weren’t to last and barely 12 months later he found himself back where it all started with the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon.
Now encased at Selhurst Park as tenants, Wimbledon were continuing to more than hold their own against the elite of English football, and once more Jones was installed as captain.
Vinnie was to play for the Dons this time round for more than 5 years yet still managed to get himself sent off on his second debut for the club. During his second spell with Wimbledon, regular top-eight finishes as well as the latter stages of both the FA and League Cups were achieved.
Along with some decent performances amongst the close on two hundred appearances made during these years, was the usual littering of cards both yellow and red. Also never far away, it seemed, were controversies off the pitch, possibly the most notorious of which was Jones’ involvement in the production of a football video titled: “Soccer’s Hard Men”.
This cinematic gem consisted of Vinnie sitting in his armchair advising viewers of the tricks so-called hard men employed in order to gain an advantage. Punters were then treated to a montage of tackles by players Jones considered to be in the same category of ‘hardness’ as himself.
The FA were not amused and promptly charged him with bringing the game into disrepute. Fined 20 grand, Jones also received a 6-month ban from the game which was suspended for three years.
Towards the end of 1994 Welsh ancestry in the form of his paternal grandfather was utilized and Vincent Peter Jones joined the rank of international players. Playing a total of nine games (one sending off) over the next two-and-a-half years, Vinnie even got to captain the side in a 7-1 defeat at the hands of Holland.
Yep, you read that right. Albeit for only ninety minutes, Vinnie Jones was an international captain!
The end for Vinnie at Wimbledon came in 1998 when a chance arose for him to go into player-coaching at QPR in tandem with manager Ray Harford. The partnership was short-lived, with Harford resigning early into the 1998-99 season and Vinnie being overlooked for the vacant manager’s post. The exact end of the line came in a reserve team outing for QPR against Swindon when, in a neat summing-up of Jones’ career in general, he managed to score a 25-yard screamer and also get himself sent off for elbowing an opponent in the face!
Vinnie: The Legacy
So, Vinnie Jones. Legend, thug, underrated, overrated, or bang-average?
He falls into any one of those categories depending on who is being asked. What is undeniable, however, is that early in his career he obtained a certain reputation that he then spent considerable time and effort nurturing and trying to live up to.
How did a player of supposedly limited ability manage to have such a reasonable career and relative lasting legacy? Vinnie Jones himself is of no doubt behind the reasons. In his autobiography he credited himself with limited skill but copious amounts of determination and industriousness. It was these attributes that were responsible for any success he achieved in football and then beyond, he claimed.
When he was on-form, and his mind was right, he was capable of holding his own in the top-flight as a decent winner and passer of the ball. ‘Hard Man’ reputations notwithstanding, nobody gets to play a dozen or so years and close on 400 games at that level without reaching a certain ability threshold. There comes a point when sheer hard work is insufficient without having the goods to back it up.
Where Jones let himself down, though, was whenever the mad-dog in him took over and he felt there was a point to be proved, or a score to be settled. Some of the challenges he flew into on the pitch were not only horrendous (Gary Stevens being a case in point) but also ridiculous (see the three-second Man City booking). Vinnie Jones lived for the reputation some of his actions brought him, but whether or not it was a deserved one is perhaps different matter.
Away from football Vinnie Jones has, of course, gone on to enjoy considerable success as an actor and television personality. In these fields it has oft been remarked that he has been able to carve out a successful career through making the very most of a limited but effective talent, just as he did on the football field.