the square ball week: 459 days of vinnieBack
The pre-season talk was of Leeds’ Magnificent Seven. They lined up in a row for the press photographers: Chris O’Donnell, Mel Sterland, John McClelland, Jim Beglin, John Hendrie, Mickey Thomas and Vinnie Jones. Back then, he was Vinny. But rarely, if ever, Vincent.
Seven players was a big statement, but Vinnie was bigger than the rest. And popular as Mel Sterland, at least, went on to become, Leeds only really needed one new hero. The personality clashes at Elland Road since Howard Wilkinson became manager had already had one high profile casualty: John Sheridan, Shez, sold by Wilko as a punishment for the very vices that made Leeds fans love him. He didn’t just punish the player when he sent him to Nottingham Forest, but punished the fans who loved him, too. Billy Bremner had been willing to indulge Sheridan’s genius, especially while his relaxed brilliance made him so popular on the terraces. Howard didn’t care about any of that. That made it difficult for the fans to care about Howard, too.
Sheridan had been artistry and elegance, and irresistible flair. Jones was brutality and strength, and irresistible charisma. Perhaps Wilkinson’s plan was to swap hero for hero; but in typically perverse Wilkinson style, what he’d bought was an anti-hero.
If Vinnie was to become a local hero like Sheridan, he would have to do it with his national profile hanging around his neck. The charge sheet against Jones ran long, from the damage done to Gary Stevens’ leg to Paul Gascoigne’s testicles. Gazza was the most famous player in England, expected to grip the world at the end of the season at the Italia ’90 World Cup, and feted for his dazzling skills with the football. Vinnie was the second most famous; his high impact aggression was as emblematic of late-80s football as Gazza’s trickery, and as a guest on Terry Wogan’s prime time TV chat show, his story – from hod-carrier to FA Cup winner – became a mainstream pop legend.
The drop to the Second Division could have been a drop out of the limelight, if it had been to any club but Leeds. But if there was a club with a cult status to match Vinnie’s it was Leeds United. The glory days, when Revie’s Super Leeds had played some of the most exhilarating football in Europe, had been obscured by the gritty hooliganism of the 80s, but United’s reputation as one of the biggest clubs in the country had survived despite the poor showings on the pitch in a depressed and half-empty stadium. The combination, of Dirty Leeds and Dirty Jones, was a gift to Leeds haters everywhere. Even before Leeds could be- gin their assault on the Second Division, they were under siege, by everyone from armchair critics to newspaper columnists.
Under siege without, and divided within. Club captain Gordon Strachan thought Jones was “worse than crap” before he arrived. The old guard were reluctant to break with their pre-Wilkinson habits, and suspicious of the big-money arrivals. The even older guard were bent out of shape by the treatment the new regime gave them: photos and trophies from the glory years were removed from view, the influence of the club’s greatest players reduced to nothing: “The old players have had nothing to do with this year at all,” said Vinnie in an interview with The Square Ball, halfway through the season.
With so many broken relationships, strength had to come from new alliances. Howard Wilkinson locked the dressing room door to anyone who wasn’t part of his first team plans. Jones became a second captain, a Strachan without the responsibility, a magnet around which the team could take shape; he had the same aims and messages as Wilko and Strachan, but a more direct delivery that reached the parts of the players Howard and Gordon struggled to reach. The disabled supporters organisation had a new visitor before every game, one area where Vinnie’s status as one of England’s most famous footballers was a force for good. For the first time, the charisma and recognition that were associated with Jones were a positive; people wanted their picture taken with him; when he spoke people listened to what he had to say. Flashbulbs popped when he approached the players’ entrance, like a film star on his way to a premiere.
Through the entrance, and on to the pitch; where Jones had always made his mark, but where he had to prove himself again, from scratch. His biggest asset – and his biggest enemy – was his own reputation. Second Division players could be intimidated by the mere presence of a player like Jones on the same pitch, and Jones had to resist the temptation to turn intimidation into bullying. The respect he commanded had to be be turned to his, and Leeds United’s, advantage. With players scared to touch him, for the first time in his career Vinnie had a chance to make friends with the football; it was no longer something to be stolen from opponents, but something to keep close and own. Vinnie the battler became Vinnie the footballer, as he discovered a new purpose to his game; thundering goals became as important as thundering tackles, dominating possession became as important as dominating opponents. Vinnie had always commanded respect for his physicality, and while he never matched Sheridan for grace, he gave Leeds momentum, an attack-minded approach that steam-rollered the division.
Artwork by Joe Gamble — www.joegamble.co.uk
Leicester at home was pivotal. Although he couldn’t prevent his scoring, Jones won the midfield battle against a young Scottish playmaker called Gary McAllister, and Strachan’s late winner brought the fans onto the pitch and sent Vinnie into the stands. From the director’s seats in the West Stand, Jones surveyed the thousands of adoring Leeds fans and announced that results elsewhere had sent Leeds into the First Division. It was his pinnacle as a Leeds player. In the centre of town, the Official Vinnie Jones Fan Club was getting ready to print its first magazine devoted to Leeds’ new icon. In Sheffield, Vinnie’s old manager Dave Bassett’s Blades had been Leeds’ rivals all season, but now were facing up to finishing second best. At Elland Road, Jones stood like an emperor, ruling over 30,000 subjects, the power well and truly wrested away from Wilkinson and Strachan. Leeds were promoted; the fans loved Vinnie; and Vinnie loved the fans.
Love was not without its hitches. Those other games had not all gone United’s way after all; the news Vinnie passed on was good news, but it was the wrong news. It took a win on the road at Bournemouth before Leeds could be named champions, and before Jones could get the club’s white rose badge tattooed on his leg. He’d kept Gary McAllister quiet in that game against Leicester, but not quiet enough; the goal that nearly kept Leeds down was not the first eye-catch- ing piece of play Howard Wilkinson had seen from McAllister, and as Wilko prepared Leeds for life in the First Division, one of the first things he did was sign McAllister for £1m.
On August 25th 1990, Leeds went to Everton and won 3-2 to declare to the top flight that United were back. Gary McAllister started, and Vinnie Jones was nowhere to be seen. Manchester United came to Elland Road and played out a 0-0 draw; still no Jones. Vinnie had filled Leeds’ need for a hero and grown into his new role as the centrifugal force in Wilko’s machine; grown into it, and grown beyond it, and found himself outside it. John Sheridan had been an icon to the fans, but that had counted for nothing when he found himself cast to the out- side of Wilkinson’s world, and had his place taken by Vinnie Jones; now Jones, perhaps even more popular with the Leeds supporters, was out of the team and out of the limelight, and that was not somewhere he could afford to be.
The transfer to Sheffield United reunited Jones with Dave Bassett, and was perhaps not a fall from grace; but Jones’ game never again had the comparative grace he had shown at Leeds. That grace didn’t quite return until years later, when Jones was in Hollywood, learning an- other new side to his capabilities. Leeds’ least likely lad had distilled his national notoriety to become become a local star in one unforgettable season at Elland Road; now he found a new outlet for his outsized personality on the big screen. He’d met the challenge Howard Wilkinson had set him, only to find himself re- buffed by the limits Wilko also put in his way. The route out was the route to Hollywood, and even greater fame than he’d had before Howard put him on the leash. It was a route followed by another Leeds player, when Eric Cantona’s bright flash of contribution ended in an angry transfer away and, eventually, a starring role in film. But that’s another story.