Vinnie Jones: The caring side of bullet-tooth Tony
The Brian Viner Interview: No, Vinnie Jones has not gone soft living in La La Land, but he helps newly-arrived Brits in Hollywood, wants to curb anti-social behaviour and has a plea for his old mate Gazza
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Monday 12 December 2011
The teeth appear to have been whitened but there are no Beverly Hills inflections in the Watford accent, and thank heavens for it; hearing Vinnie Jones reflecting on his latest scene with Bruce Willis is quite disorientating enough. Mid-Atlantic vowels would be too much.
Jones is sitting in a swanky hotel suite near Buckingham Palace, here during a two-week visit to the old country to talk about his role in an npower-sponsored campaign to reduce anti-social behaviour on Britain's streets, using football. That we are on a street where failure to pick up after your jacketed poodle, or parking your Aston Martin in a disabled bay, count as anti-social excesses, does not seem to strike anyone in his considerable entourage as ironic. But then 46-year-old Jones is nothing if not a man of contradictions. Who would have picked him as the footballer most likely to end up with a Hollywood career and a home on Mulholland Drive, down the road from Jack Nicholson? David Ginola might once have been worth a punt. Vinnie Jones, never.
His life changed with his performance in Guy Ritchie's 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and he is engagingly immodest in telling me just how many showbiz people place Lock, Stock, and Ritchie's later feature Snatch, in which Jones played a mercenary called Bullet-Tooth Tony, among their favourite films. He concedes, however, if a little grudgingly, that he is not quite English football's most famous export to Los Angeles. "He's got higher-profile mates than me, Mr Cruise and them," he says of David Beckham.
Do the Beckhams keep up with the Joneses in LA? "Beckham, no. Robbie Keane [also on the books at LA Galaxy], I see. He comes up the house quite a bit. But not Beckham. I'll tell you what, if I was a betting man I'd say he'll do another year at Galaxy, because his missus loves them shops on Rodeo Drive. The kids are settled there, I don't see why he would turn it upside down." If they were to bump into each other on Sunset Boulevard, they could share a few memories, for Jones and his Wimbledon team-mates were on the receiving end of Beckham's most celebrated goal for Manchester United, on the first day of the 1996-97 season. "I'd just gone off, actually, when Sid the kit man come running in. He said, 'you won't believe what he's just done, he's chipped Sully [Neil Sullivan] from his own half'."
Jones chuckles, and tells me about the football team he runs, called, I fancy non-ironically, the Hollywood All-Stars. "We've got a couple of English lads in the team. They're porn stars, actually." I venture that they must help to stiffen the back four, and Jones obliges me with a rumble of laughter. "Yeah, very stiff, yeah. One of the lads played a good standard, England Under-19s or something. He was at Southampton, at Wycombe. Then there are two lads who played in the Jewish World Cup; did you ever know there was one? Richard Gough plays every now and then. Robbie Keane took training for me the other night. But it's not just about football. We help people who are new out there, with things like 'how do I get car insurance out here?' One of the lads, Beppe from EastEnders, Michael Greco, I just helped him lease a car. It's a big place LA, and it can be very lonely."
Vinnie the citizen's advice bureau chief is almost as improbable as Vinnie the crusader against juvenile delinquency, but in a way, who better to use football as a tool for good than the man who was once fined £20,000 for bringing the game into disrepute, having lent his name to a video, Soccer's Hard Men, that celebrated on-field thuggery? He regrets that video now, and he knows that the most committed poachers make the best gamekeepers. "We're saying to these lads, 'why not use today or even tomorrow to start again?' We know we're not going to cure anti-social behaviour, but we're hoping to reduce it."
Football, he adds, was his own salvation. "I signed schoolboy forms for Watford when I was 12, but then my parents got divorced and I never kicked a ball for three years. I rebelled, I left home, but getting back into football sorted me out. It was the second chance I needed."
He was a hod-carrier playing for non-league Wealdstone when in 1986 Wimbledon took a £10,000 chance on him. Two years later he was an FA Cup winner, and indeed has just given his medal to AFC Wimbledon, in support of their efforts to keep the club's south-west London heritage alive. Jones vividly recalls that 1988 FA Cup final, in which Wimbledon's Crazy Gang, in John Motson's memorable phrase, beat Liverpool's Culture Club. "We were scratching the walls in the run-up to that game, so Gouldy [manager Bobby Gould] gave us £100 to go down the pub the night before, to calm us all down. We had a real game plan, with me taking care of [Steve] McMahon, but at the same time we were the biggest underdogs ever, 4-1 in a two-horse race. To be honest we probably would have settled for losing 1-0. We just didn't want to be humiliated in front of the whole world."
In fact it was Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool who lost face, and they who lost 1-0. "Yeah. I spoke to Barnesey [John Barnes] afterwards. He said their lot were all bored before the game, having niggly arguments, some playing cards, some playing table-tennis, while we were hanging from the chandeliers, raring to go."
These days, he keeps a close eye on English football as a pundit for Fox Soccer. It is no longer a game for the kind of rampaging midfield enforcer that he was, and he has mixed feelings about that. "I went to see Chelsea the other day, and it was 85 minutes before the first proper tackle. It's nearly non-contact now, but where you had old-fashioned centre-halves heading it as far as they could, now you've got John Terry bringing it down on his toe and pinging it out to the wing. It's just so different."
Jones himself played 42 games for Chelsea, in one of which he copped what is still the earliest booking ever recorded, after three seconds. He was also sent off 13 times in his career, but insists, as all "soccer's hard men" do, that he could also play a bit. "At Leeds I got two bookings in 40 games. I used to train there with Gary McAllister, and he'd be shouting 'pass it, pass it'. At Wimbledon it was 'boot it, boot it'. I'll tell you what, though, Leeds still feels like a second home. I went back five or six years ago to turn the Christmas lights on, and 40,000 people turned up. I loved it up there, and [Gordon] Strachan was the best captain I ever had, an absolute role model. At the start of the season he'd have all the players and their wives and kids round his house, little things like that."
Jones also played nine games for Wales, citing a Welsh great-great grandfather after failing to prove that his grandmother had been Irish. "Well, stone me!" was the mischievous response of Jimmy Greaves when his qualification was reported. "We've had cocaine, bribery and Arsenal scoring two goals at home. But just when you thought there were truly no surprises left in football, Vinnie Jones turns out to be an international player!"
If some questioned his abilities at that level, alongside him in the Welsh midfield was a man nobody doubted, Gary Speed. Jones was on the sofa with Chris Kamara in Sky's Goals on Sunday studio when he heard about his old teammate's death, and remains too upset to say much more than "he was the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet". Whatever, if Speed kept his personal demons to himself, the same is not true of another man with whom Jones will always be associated, having famously been photographed grabbing Paul Gascoigne's testicles during a match in 1987.
"I haven't seen him for a long time, but I've watched his progress, or lack of it. I've watched him hitting that self-destruct button. You know that sixth sense you get with a twin, I sort of feel like that with him. I had an idea I put to his manager. I go fishing up in British Columbia to some real wild places, where they fly you in on a float plane, you stay in a log cabin, and they pick you up a week later. I thought Gazza could come with me, with a little hand-held camera, and we'd find his demons. I'd say 'we ain't leaving here til I get you sorted out'. The whole of Britain would like to watch that, me and him by a river, no alcohol, no hangers-on, talking it through. His manager's like, 'I'm not sure'. But down the road ... we'll see."
It is a road already lined with projects. Jones is currently producing his own movie, and has numerous acting commitments. "Just a couple of weeks ago," he says, "I was lying in a car park with fake blood all over me, and Bruce Willis is leaning over me saying 'this is my first scene with you and you're dead'." He is an incorrigible namedropper, and as unequivocal as he ever was in making a tackle from behind (he has particularly fond memories of one on Ruud Gullit), in assessing his own acting talents. "The role I'd most like to have had is William Wallace in Braveheart," he says. "But I'd love to do a western. Robert Duvall said to me, 'you'd be great in a western'. I nearly got in 3.10 To Yuma [with Russell Crowe]. Yeah, I'd love to do a western. That'd be pretty cool."
In the meantime he has at least starred in his very own saloon brawl, having been arrested three years ago following a scuffle in a bar in South Dakota, during a pheasant-shooting trip. "I should have known better," he tells me. "Some lads recognised me but I should have given it a swerve. I don't usually put myself in those situations. The $59 brunch in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, that's more my sort of thing these days."
Not for the first time in the eventful life of Vinnie Jones, who would ever have predicted it?
Vinnie Jones is an ambassador for npower's "Tackling it Together" campaign. The initiative aims to tackle anti-social behaviour in the nation's youth through football. For further details see www.npower.com/tacklingittogether
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