Evening Standard

Listen up: Vinnie Jones says he has matured since his days as a professional footballer. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Vinnie Jones being asked to help tackle anti-social behaviour among the nation’s youth is the sort of script that might stretch credibility even in Hollywood.

During his playing career he delighted in causing outrage. His video, Soccer’s Hard Men, was considered to bring the game into such disrepute that he was fined £20,000 and handed a suspended six-month ban by the Football Association. Worse still, he then bit the nose of a reporter after an England international.

But here we are in a smart London hotel where Jones is the guest of the Football League and is telling me how the game can help get kids off the street.

“In Brick Lane this morning with these kids aged between 10 and 15 I found that, when you throw them a ball, nothing else matters for that minute. As I showed them a couple of moves, their faces lit up. They were like little bears at a shop window. I was explaining to them you can change your ways. You can start by saying I’ve been bad in the past. You can always turn the corner.”

The corner Jones has turned in the last decade would have seemed inconceivable in his playing days. Then, presenting himself as the ring leader of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, he loved taking on the authorities. In 1992, as a Sheffield United player, he reacted to the FA’s punishment for his video with a joke: “The FA have given me a pat on the back. I’ve taken violence off the terracing and onto the pitch.”

Now he tells me: “I was young, naive and badly advised. I can’t even watch the video now. I’m that embarrassed by it.”

His tone of remorse sounds just as genuine as he recalls that infamous night in Dublin in 1995 when, after crowd trouble had led to the abandonment of England’s match against the Republic of Ireland, he bit the nose of Daily Mirror reporter Ted Oliver.

“I let myself down,” admits Jones. “What I say to the kids is: if you do let yourself down or get led astray come back to the path. I came back.”

So confident is the 46-year-old that the past is behind him that he quotes what a journalist predicted for him. “The reporter said, ‘Vinne Jones will end up playing all through the leagues, go out of the game and you’ll never hear of him again.’ I always remember that. I won’t say who he is, he’s still writing.” Then, with quiet satisfaction, he adds: “Eric Cantona has done two or three movies, I acted in 70. I’m now producing and next year, I’d like to direct.”

In the decade since he moved to Hollywood following his successful debut in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he has studied Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. “I do not model myself on them because each character is different,” he says. “But I look up to them. As my dad said, you have finally grown up.”

He can even brush away reports which suggest that his bad old days are not buried. When I raise the matter of the brawl that took place 18 months ago in a Hollywood restaurant with another actor and fellow Brit, Tamer Hassan, he dismisses it as “not serious”. I then say that reports spoke of both men having cuts on their faces but Jones cuts in sharply: “So you are saying journalists never get it wrong?”

The incident led to some vicious internet comments about Jones and he accepts he will never be rid of the baggage. “We all carry our past. But it is a case of getting on with your life and improving it, if you want to.”

This desire for success has always driven Jones and football was his chosen route. As a 14-year-old he did abandon the game when his parents split. “I was on the Watford books but I did not kick a ball for three years. I rebelled. Finally my friends got me back.” It helped that, having been a hod carrier, Jones by then was “sick of digging holes for a living”.

Passion play: starring with Wimbledon. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Wimbledon also fell at the right time for Jones. “We came from all over the place. I was from non-League Wealdstone, Dennis Wise came on a free transfer from Southampton. We were the underdogs and we got our strength from that. We knew if we got relegated it would be the end of us, not just the club but the players. When you cross the line in front of 50,000 people every week, it was a one in million chance to perform. I was never going to let it slip away from me.”

Wimbledon’s players were among the lowest paid in the division but Jones has no sense of grievance.

“When I scored the winner against Manchester United in 1986 I was on £150 a week. Dave Bassett [Wimbledon manager] gave me a £50 bonus out of his own pocket. I was on £300 a week when we won the FA Cup in 1988 against Liverpool and on three grand for playing and winning. Barnesy [John Barnes] told me each Liverpool player was on ten grand just for appearing. But I have no complaints.”

Nor does Jones mind that modern players earn millions, although the fact he is enjoying a profitable second career means he is in a position to take a more relaxed view than some of his contemporaries.

“Footballers are entertainers now. Do we moan that Elton John is getting millions for playing for 20 minutes in Vegas? People go to watch David Beckham to be entertained. The football being played is at a higher level than our days.”

The current row over racism in football – fuelled by Sepp Blatter’s comments that such an issue on the pitch can be resolved with a handshake – has reminded Jones of the game’s old problems. But while the former Chelsea footballer feels Blatter should have long ago departed from the world game, he acknowledges the FIFA’s president role in fighting racism.

“For him to come out with those comments was absolutely ridiculous. What I will say is he has made one stupid comment but he has been pushing and pushing to stamp racism out of football. Fifa’s record is not bad.”

Jones knows all about how bad racism was in this country when he was playing. “My room partner was John Fashanu. He was targeted a lot, I won’t say where. I just said to him, let us deal with it. Rather than him trying to fight his corner, the boys would get round him and shield him. There was bananas throwing and I would get them and throw them back. We were showing that we were defending him. To get to him you have to go through us.”

More shocking was what he found in Leeds where he went from Wimbledon in 1989. “There you never saw a Nigerian or an Asian in the crowd. I blew it out of the wall. What is this nonsense, I said? It is fantastic to see that I played a role in making changes in that.”

Jones has a special affection for Leeds, one of his legs carries a tattoo recording winning the old Second Division title with them in 1990 – the other Wimbledon beating Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final – but in all other ways America has now claimed him.

“I love Hollywood. It is a work place but I’ve got some great friends there. I just want to be successful and in America they are genuinely pleased for success but in this country a lot of people are ready to knock you down.

“You see your next door neighbour with a Rolls-Royce and in America they will pat him on the back. ‘You must have worked bloody hard for that,’ Americans will say. Here they say, ‘You lucky bugger’.

“Americans don’t care what your language is, your race is, whatever. Everyone is there to do their own thing and be successful. I wish people in Britain would be more positive.”

And on a practical level, life in America has done wonders for his golf. “When I went there I was on a handicap of 20, I am on 9 now,” Then, with a laugh, and in a tone of voice more like the old unreconstructed Vinne Jones, he says: “I could challenge Tiger Woods the way he is putting.”

Vinnie Jones is an Ambassador for npower’s ‘Tackling it Together’ campaign


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