James Lawton: Jones and Wright embody sickness of celebrity game

If football had been properly run at the time of their worst excesses, Vinnie Jones and Ian Wright would have been drummed out of the game
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The Independent Football

One of a number of obscure experts wheeled on to Channel Four's 100 Greatest Sporting Moments show sneered that the 1953 FA Cup final, in which the late Sir Stanley Matthews dazzled and moved the nation, featured 13-stone players and a three-stone ball. Could anything have been more gratuitously offensive? Yes, I am afraid so. It was the identity of the man who did the wheeling. It was Vinnie Jones.

Having Jones associated with some of the finest moments of sporting history would be funny in a forlorn, one-off sort of way if it wasn't accompanied by the news that Ian Wright, whose disciplinary record as a professional footballer was in many ways just as wretched as Jones's and who did a Saturday morning radio show of such stupefying banality that the only safe reaction is to pull into the nearest lay-by and take a deep breath, is being hailed as the future of BBC television.

Wright has been been awarded a show at a reported fee of £700,000 – entitled Right Here – Wright Now – and this ringing endorsement from a source inside the Corporation, "Ian's got the right mix of chat, savvy, wit, openness, enthusiasm and credibility. Men want to be like him and women want to shag him."

This probably says more about some of the people in charge of our licence money than Wright, who does at times display a touch of skittish charm not totally disabled by his frequent inability to utter a coherent sentence. It is also true that Wright, unlike Jones, could actually play football.

Where they can be bracketed is in the way they so perfectly reflect the triumphant earning power of some of the more distorted values of today's celebrity game.

We really shouldn't pussyfoot here. If football had been properly run at the time of their worst excesses, Jones and Wright would have been drummed out of the game.

Wright would certainly not have been awarded a fat fee by the Football Association for a series of TV advertisements aimed at improving the game's image among young people – at a time when he was operating under a suspended suspension for disciplinary offences. He was a brilliant striker, a record-breaker at Highbury, though some good judges felt that his late arrival in the professional game had given him a deep-seated insecurity on the field. If this was so, the effect was at times appalling. He abused referees and provoked fans, and when he once declared that his vision of leaving Arsenal was to do so in leathers and astride a Harley-Davidson it was suggested the Hell's Angels might be facing some PR problems. Now the thought seems quaint.

Wright is, consummately, a man of his age. Lionised at the TV Centre, an inflaming presence in the hearts of the nation's womenfolk, a man to be admired and envied, how brilliantly he has outrun his critics. This is not a surreal fantasy dreamed up by Wright while beating up the Guildford by-pass on his Harley. This is not the wish list of a Big Brother reject. This is happening, to Ian Wright and to us.

Jones's demeanour, Channel Four surely cannot have forgotten, was relentlessly thuggish. The career-wrecking tackle he performed on Tottenham's Gary Stevens is still capable of making the blood run cold. Jones boasted of his ambition to tear off the ear of Kenny Dalglish and spit down the hole, a sickening idea in itself and scarcely softened by the habit of the Wimbledon team of covering the old sign over the players' tunnel "This is Anfield" with spittle. He squeezed Paul Gascoigne's testicles as he augmented his hard-man image. In fact Jones's reputation as an "enforcer" is mocked by players of an older generation. Said one this week, "Tommy Smith and a dozen others I could name off the top of my head would have broken Jones's leg without him knowing until he came out of the anaesthetic. He was a phoney player, and a phoney hard man."

A good actor, though, they say in Hollywood. Fine. Let him play the celebrity thug. He did it in football long enough, some would say up to Oscar levels, but does anyone begin to have an idea why he would be chosen to celebrate the deeds of men like Muhammad Ali and Pele, Roger Bannister and Don Bradman? Is it that celebrity, however fleeting, however hollow, is everything now and that name and face recognition can be separated so easily from what they actually represent?

Apparently so. A particularly angry letter, even by the standards of the Racing Post, last week railed against the selection of Jones as greyhound racing's Man of the Year. What had he done, apart from owning a dog, to deserve such an award? The answer was simple enough. He had become a celebrity. He had won a long race started back in the Eighties, when his Wimbledon Crazy Gang – the pride of the rabble-rousing football profiteer Sam Hammam – volleyed their spit at the sign which Bill Shankly, in his cranky way, saw as an intimidatory symbol of what was important in the game: work and bearing and talent. Wimbledon spat out their contempt for such an idea. They would make their own sporting world, and of course they did. It didn't mean anything in football terms, it didn't produce a Great Sporting Moment, but it made Vinnie Jones.

One morning last week Terry Wogan was extemporising in his folksy fashion. "Is Stanley Matthews dead?" he asked. "Is Tom Finney dead?" Did anyone care? The tone of Wogan's voice suggested not. It's something that is liable to happen in a business which makes superstars out of a Vinnie Jones and an Ian Wright – a business which gathers together a mound of great sports footage, opens up its website to the voters, and hands out Vinnie Jones another nice little earner.

Is Tom Finney dead? No. But there must be times when, along with others of his generation, he can hardly tell the difference.