At home in the land of his forefathers

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The Independent Online
CONSIDERING that the United Kingdom is a mongrel nation from top to bottom, we have strange attitudes when it comes to the question of sporting pedigree. This is particularly so in England from which direction has come much sneering about the sudd en promotion of Vinnie Jones to the rank of fully paid up Welshman, a status he will be called upon to justify under considerable pressure in the vital European Championship qualifier in Cardiff on Wednesday night.

We've all had our little quips, even us Welsh, regarding this attempt to transform the game's most persistent transgressor - two red cards, and 42 yellow in the past four seasons - into a trainee Messiah. Jones is 30 years of age, the flush of youth having long given way to the flush of temper, and the situation in which he finds himself is undeniably bizarre.

However, this is no reason to scoff; to accuse the Welsh of a shameful act of desperation. Admittedly, the Welsh FA's situation both on and off the field makes them vunerable to the sort of arrangment that Faust would recognise but acquiring Jones does not necessarily signify that the Welsh have taken to risking their souls for a victory or two. The simple fact is that the rule enabling the Wimbledon captain to be adopted by the land of his grandfather has only recently been established.

Terry Yorath, whose departure as Welsh manager was at the start of the country's recent decline, said last week that even had Jones been qualified to play during his administration he would not have considered him good enough for selection. But anyone aware of the problems Wales have traditionally suffered in maintaining a strong squad from such a shallow pool of available players will find it difficult to believe that Jones would not have been called up sometime during the last 10 years. Despite his appalling record, Jones has been a wholehearted and influential servant to several clubs and had he been given an international chance he might well have found a niche.

He is not now at the ideal age to leap the considerable gap between club and international level, and he could scarcely be making the attempt under more intense scrutiny, but the state of the Welsh defence demands that he be given the opportunity to prove that there is more to him than the ability to wreak muscular mischief. The wider stage may introduce a sharper sense of responsibility into his rugged approach. We hope so. If he runs amok among Hristo Stoichkov and his fellow Bulgarians, Jones could rapidly end up as one of those exiles the Welsh are always singing about.

Those who object to his inclusion do so on two grounds. First, that his new nationality is a cynical act of mutual convenience and, second, that no country should give succour to such a dishonoured player.

Convenient it may well be, but Jones qualifies for Wales fairly and squarely, even if he has had trouble finding his granddad's birth certificate. Indeed, he has better claims to footballing Welshness than the Prince of Wales. Had Prince Charles excelledat football, he could have played for the country of his birth (England), the country of his father's birth (Greece) or that of his grandmother (Scotland). I have no idea where his paternal grandparents were born so it could be that other European countries have a claim but he couldn't play for Wales - unless, of course, Fifa have a special rule for rulers.

Critics can also be referred to the England cricket team who, without the slightest blush, select players born anywhere in the UK, in South Africa, Australia, the West Indies and all points east and west. English rugby is not above purloining a Welsh scrum-half while the present England football team have a full-back, Rob Jones, who was born in Wrexham, and they would have snapped up Ryan Giggs if they could have persuaded him it was a good idea.

Then we have the example of the Republic of Ireland who have skilfully employed the science of genetics to uncover Irish descendants and equip themselves with a highly successful team. You can hardly blame Wales for copying this four-two-forefather formation and students of the history of the British Isles will recognise the justice in this development.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the cream of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have been forced to leave their impoverished countries to assist the English in vital areas like labouring and thinking. It is surely not too much to ask that, having contributed so much to the prosperity of the nation, we could borrow back the odd progeny of those forced to leave their native lands.

As for the violence that has accompanied Jones through much of his career, it has to be admitted that a little charity is required. However, he is not the first player in the world to find his way to the international arena on the back of a dubious record of fair and sporting play. Few countries willingly field a team without what is euphemistically called a ball-winner in midfield.

Granted, Jones is more of a ball- breaker but a long list of uncompromising players have preceeded him in the colours not only of Wales but the other home countries. How much toleration is extended to any misdemeanours has depended on their national popularity. Everything is relative, especially when it comes to relatives, and the Welsh perception of Jones has changed dramatically in his favour since his selection was announced.

There was an interesting example of how attitudes can vary according to affiliations at that most English of sporting events, the Varsity match, on Tuesday. Twickenham resounded with the delight of the upper crust of rugby supporterdom at an excellent game and prominent among the heroes of Cambridge were three young men who were born in the most defiled rugby town in Britain, Neath.

Two of them, the stand-off Matthew McCarthy and the winger James Reynolds, actually play for Neath and had they trotted out before Twickenham's 58,000 in the black shirts of their club they would probably have been roundly booed. In the vestal virgin light blue, however, they were the feted sons of proud Cambridge followers.

In sport, we are all brothers under the skin - particularly when we're wearing the right colour shirts.

FOOTBALL Association policy of selling anything left knocking about Lancaster Gate brought them another million or so last week when they sold sponsorship of the England team to Green Flag, parent company of National Breakdown roadside service.

Having flogged the FA Cup to Littlewoods Pools, the FA are also in negotiation for a wide range of other deals. We must be thankful that England will not be wearing the name of their new sponsors on their shirts, only on their trackuits.

What's in it for National Breakdown, then? I understand that when Paul Gascoigne returns to the team, they've got first rights on getting him home.