VINNIE JONES’S time at Leeds United did not start in the most auspicious of manners.
First, the midfielder, a key member of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ at the time, thought he was signing for Howard Kendall and not, as was the case, Howard Wilkinson.
Then, once the identity of the club’s manager had been resolved and pre-season was under way, Jones received the mother and father of all dressing-downs from captain Gordon Strachan following an off-the-ball clash in a friendly with Anderlecht.
From those unpromising beginnings, however, came comfortably the happiest time of his career in football as the city of Leeds adopted Jones in a manner that left the Southerner so humbled that he later dedicated his autobiography to the club’s supporters.
Almost a quarter of a century on from his arrival in West Yorkshire, the footballer-turned-Hollywood movie star will be back at Elland Road a week today and it is clear that he is counting down the days.
“It will be great to come home in the 25th year of me first coming to Leeds,” said the excited 49-year-old in an exclusive chat with The Yorkshire Post.
“Joining Leeds was the best move I made. I noticed the difference straight away. We had more fans watching our training sessions than Wimbledon had at home games.
“I remember arriving in Leeds and seeing the newspaper sign that read, ‘Leeds in talks with Jones’. I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be massive’.”
Jones’s sense of excitement proved justified. His league appearances for the club may have amounted to just 46, rarely enough to bestow legendary status on a footballer. But that is exactly what Jones became at Elland Road.
Whether it be the distinctive coiffure – once described by radio commentator Stuart Hall as being “an Alcatraz haircut, with a hedgehog on top” – that spawned a thousand imitations or the fist-pumping ‘Leeds Salute’ that would elicit a similarly frenzied response from the terraces, Jones connected with supporters in a way that few have managed in the intervening years.
That much was clear in May, 2005, when almost 38,000 fans attended Lucas Radebe’s testimonial. A host of Elland Road heroes took part, but all eyes were on Jones.
Work commitments – his CV now features more than 100 films – and the fact he lives in Los Angeles mean he has not been back to Elland Road since that afternoon, hence the excitement about his impending return and the prospect of being introduced to the crowd during next weekend’s game against Millwall. Afterwards, he will speak about his life and career to a 1,000-strong audience in the club’s Pavilion.
“I am going to hand over my Second Division championship medal to the club at half-time,” said Jones, surely the only Hollywood star to have ‘Champions – Div 2, 1989-90’ and a United badge tattooed on his ankle. “I want it to go back to the fans because they were so good to me during my time at Leeds.
“I met Bill Fotherby (then United’s managing director) first. The season had just finished and the manager was on holiday. So, I met Bill in the manager’s office and about halfway through I spotted a picture of Howard Wilkinson on the wall.
“I thought I was signing for Howard Kendall and that Wilkinson was still at Sheffield Wednesday. So, I asked Bill why he had a picture of another club’s manager in the office.
“Bill just laughed and said, ‘Howard Wilkinson is the Leeds manager now; you really are daft as a brush, Vinnie, lad’.”
Jones was on the end of a more serious rebuke after his first appearance at Elland Road.
Strachan, as captain, had been horrified to see his new team-mate punch an Anderlecht player out of sight of the referee. A repeat, it was made clear, would not be tolerated.
Just three yellow cards during his stint in a Leeds shirt shows how seriously Jones, sent off 12 times in total and infamous for grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the unmentionables while at Wimbledon, took the threat.
The new-look, disciplined Vinnie Jones played a full part in Wilkinson’s United going on to clinch the Second Division title in what turned out to be his only full season at Elland Road.
He missed just one game – the opening-day defeat at Newcastle – and scored five goals as United closed in on promotion.
By the penultimate weekend it had become a three-way scrap, with United leading the way but being chased hard by both Sheffield United and Newcastle.
A nerve-shredding 2-1 victory over Leicester meant Leeds retained pole position. This being a time before smartphones and the internet, however, as the final whistle blew no one knew the other results. So, when Jones emerged from the dressing room to signal that Leeds had been promoted an impromptu party broke out on the Elland Road turf.
The problem was Jones had been given erroneous information. Both the Blades and Newcastle had won, meaning the race for promotion would go to the final day.
“As the final whistle blew,” explains Jones, “all these fans poured on to the pitch. I bumped into a guy I knew near the tunnel who said, ‘Sheff United have lost, we’re promoted and have won the league’.
“I went into the dressing room and told all the lads. I also told a few fans, but then it turned out this fella had got it wrong. By then, though, it was too late and everyone was celebrating on the pitch.
“It was a right cock-up and I felt awful. As you can imagine, that final week was a really long one but, thankfully, we won at Bournemouth and were up.”
Promotion assured, Jones was eagerly looking forward to a top-flight return. It came, though, in the colours of Sheffield United with the summer arrival of Gary McAllister from Leicester meaning Jones made just one start in Division One for Leeds before moving to Bramall Lane.
“I should have stuck it out at Leeds,” he says, “but when you have been the ‘King of the Kop’, it is difficult to be out of the team.
“It really hurt not to be involved any more and that is why I left. Plus, just down the road at Bramall Lane was my old manager, Dave Bassett.
“I ran too early. I know that now but, at the time, it was difficult. It didn’t help that Sheffield United were on an awful run when I joined.
“I don’t think we won until just before Christmas and the fans were giving us stick. I copped a fair bit and I do wish I’d stuck around at Leeds.”
As for his old club, Jones admits United need the ongoing ownership saga to be resolved and quickly.
He said: “The Football League has to get this takeover through because if it doesn’t go through then I do worry for the club as this fella (Massimo Cellino) will have to be paid back. He has put a lot of money in, £10m was a figure I heard.
“Stability would help Brian (McDermott), too. Leeds, as a club, have to be in the Premier League.”
Tickets for An Evening with Vinnie Jones start at £30 and are available from www.olexyfresh.com.