Football: Jones at his happiest with birds and nuts

Interveiw: Geoffrey Beattie talks to the talismanic Wimbledon footballer who sees himself as a chat-show host when his playing days are over
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The Independent Online
Vinnie Jones is the self-styled hard man of British football, with the haircut, the demeanour and the disciplinary record. Or so it seems. The footballer captured for posterity with his hand on Paul Gascoigne's testicles, with Gazza screaming silently from that poster on the adolescent's wall. The footballer who revealed a few tricks of dirty play in the video Soccer's Hard Men and got a pounds 20,000 fine from the Football Association for his trouble.

However, the former Arsenal manager, Don Howe, has said that Vinnie is a Jekyll and Hyde character. Jones was invited to lecture at Eton. 'Vinnie's Eton booting song,' quipped one newspaper. He has also addressed the Oxford Union. Such invitations suggest that there may indeed be another side to "The Chopper", as he is known at Wimbledon. Furthermore, there are many in the game who simply describe him as "a diamond geezer''.

So how do the different facets of the personality of this former hod carrier hang together, if at all? I drove up a long winding road in Hertfordshire to interview him. His bungalow is up a dirt track at the end of a lane which passes over the M1 in all its commuter rush-hour glory. The house, with its swimming pool and dog kennels, its chickens, pigs, sheep and cows, is isolated, but not that far, it was noticed, from a council estate.

His hard-man image was the first topic. Did he see himself as a hard man? "Well, I don't know how you define the word 'hard man'. Certainly there are skilful players and there are tough players that give a 100 per cent. I think it's the media that give you the labels. I see myself as a tough all-rounder."

Trying a slightly less direct approach, I asked him whether there were players in the Football League whom he considered 'hard'. He was sticking to his guns. "There are players who I think are tougher than others. The game is getting less physical, contact-wise, these days, it's changing all the time. But I think the crowd still like to see the 50-50 tackles. The referees are under instructions to have no grey areas, so they're under the cosh a little bit. I feel sorry for referees because their hands are tied. If you mis-timed a tackle two years ago the referee would have said one more, but now it's a straight booking. Personally, I like people that give a 100 per cent.

"The main part of my game is fitness and getting round the pitch and closing people down and getting on to the loose balls. When that's your job, especially at Wimbledon, you're going to have to stick out a leg and you know you're going to maybe get a bit of whack. But there are some players that are not going to put their foot in and get a whack. It's something I've always been prepared to do."

We discussed a well-known quote of his: "At the end of the day, who would you rather have in the trenches with you: Gary Lineker or Vinnie Jones?" He was asked to elaborate.

"That was after an article Gary done saying he would rather watch Ceefax than Wimbledon, so my way to sum him up was to say who would people rather have on their side: a 100 per cent guy like me or Mr Nice Guy?" But what about this metaphor of the trenches? Was this a natural way of talking about football?

"This way of talking really comes from the managers, who always say, when the shit hits the fan, you gotta dig in and you gotta get points, and managers want players that are going to put their life on the line. All managers are trying to do is give you a buzz and get you in the right frame of mind for the game, to get you hyped up. Dave Bassett used to get me over hyped up. He used to take us down to an army camp and used to work on team spirit - we'd do cross-country runs with a great big log and you'd be in teams of six and whoever got over the course quickest won - some of the lads were knackered and they couldn't carry it no more. I would always emerge as one of the leaders. I've always been a leader, even in the school playground - I was always the one with the ball, I always organised the football matches. I think the main quality of a good leader is honesty - if you go three or four nil down, you have to keep the others going and keep giving good encouragement, not slagging them off."

We turned to his disciplinary record: his 10 red and 42 yellow cards. Did he feel that this was justified? "I just think that referees don't give me the same sort of leeway that they do some other players - the minute I do something, it's terrible, and if other players do it, it's not so terrible."

He was reminded of his quickest yellow card: five seconds against Manchester City. I asked him to talk me through it. "Peter Reid had the ball, and he had a bad touch on the ball, and it was wet and I was roaring in. I just committed myself 100 per cent. I couldn't stop. I couldn't get out of the way or anything. I missed the ball completely, and just upended him, just clattered into him. All these things are split-second decisions. It doesn't matter who it was, they couldn't have got out of it. Later on in the game there was another tackle and I just got sent off."

What kind of instructions does he get before a game?

"I had instructions from Bobby Gould a few years ago to mark Gazza, because he just made Newcastle tick. We didn't want him to get the ball and have time on it and be spraying it about and bringing other people into the game, so every time he got the ball there had to be a challenge on him. The same in the Cup final, we done the job with Dennis Wise and that helped us win."

So what about that famous photograph with Gascoigne. "Yeah, it makes me smile a bit, because there was nothing evil in it. Gazza was having a bit of a crack and I was having a bit of crack and one lucky photographer got the picture. There was nothing serious in it. He was tugging at my shirt and that was my reaction."

What is it like to be sent off, then? What goes through your head at the time? "Most times when you get sent off it's in the heat of the moment - you just feel, maybe, lost a bit. Just lost."

Jones has been described as a professional common man. I asked him about his friends now that he is a celebrity. "For a while I hung out with Fash [John Fashanu] and Nigel Benn, but I just thought that this wasn't me. I needed to get back to my roots. I ran back to the local pub. I'm still very close to the guys I grew up with.

"We grew up in the London overspill - in a big council estate. I was in with all the boys. It was a hard part of my life when all the boys started splitting up with girlfriends. One of the reasons that I like football is because you stay in the gang. The only thing that I regret is that I didn't join the army. I would have liked the camaraderie there as well. I like being with the lads. I help the lads out with money at Christmas. Some of them are struggling. When we were growing up we were taught that the No 1 thing was to look after your mates. That's what I'm still trying to do, but they always pay back."

What about his background? "I started as a hod carrier working with my dad. I also started shooting with my dad. I had my first shot when I was five. I was fully employed as a gamekeeper, when I left school at 15. They gave me a year off school on permanent work experience - on the building with my dad, but then I started as a gamekeeper. I wasn't expelled from school as the papers say, I left for work experience. I switched off very quickly from things that I'm not interested in - I couldn't sit in a classroom and take in all that stuff. At 16 I was rearing pheasants from eggs and hatching them and bringing them up and releasing them into the woods. I was in charge of pounds 10,000-worth of incubators. I'm intelligent that way. But I didn't like schoolwork, I can't read a book. I've never read a book in my life - I haven't got the patience to do it. I have one book called More Tales of Old Gamekeepers - I can read these tales because they're short. But, with other books, forget it. I'd rather wait until the book comes out on video."

The one book that he seemed to have read was an intriguing subject - why was it a book about wildlife? "Because I love wildlife. I've got a hundred wildlife videos - I can sit and watch them. There's a great programme on Christmas Eve about the red deer in Scotland. I could sit and watch that for 10 hours."

"But what's so fascinating about wildlife?" Like one of Vinnie's tackles, this question was out before I could do anything about it. Vinnie got a little agitated.

"I don't know. What's so fascinating about your job, then, as a psychologist?"

"Because people are more interesting than animals?"

"No, they're not! Never in a million years! People are very predictable. Animals aren't. I put the bag of nuts out there for the birds and it was fascinating to see how many birds came to feed there in the hour and watch all their little ways. The great tit barges the little blue tit off. It's very dominant. Then the grey squirrel will come along and they're all gone. I sit at the window with a cup of tea in me hand and watch the bag of nuts rather than Home And Away."

If he had not been a footballer, what would he have liked to have done? "I'd have been a gamekeeper without a doubt. My best friend is a gamekeeper and I'm down there all the time. I've got 16 guns - about 50 grand worth."

He was asked about his future - particularly pertinent now that he has said publicly that he intends to leave Wimbledon. "My career has been like the migrating woodcock, really. You never know what's in front of you. You've got all the shooters and the storms in front of you trying to whack you down, but in the end you just want to get to new fields. I want to leave Wimbledon, because I feel I need a new challenge. I miss the clubs with lots of fans. In the longer term, I think that I've got what it takes to be a good manager. I love being with the lads - all the crack, all the mickey-taking. I love all that. Or I could start my own game farm. Plus I'd like my own chat show one day. I'd like to be the new Wogan. I'd like to do the younger stars on my chat show. Wogan did all the old ones. I'd like to see how the new generation of stars cope with Vinnie Jones. In real life."

Geoffrey Beattie is professor of psychology at Manchester University. His series of interviews with leading sports personalities, Head to Head, continues with Vinnie Jones on Radio 5 Live at 8.05pm on Sunday.