'If their top geezer gets sorted out early doors, you win' - Vinnie Jones

Jim White on the philosophy of a man who typifies the spirit of Wimbledon

As we approach the season traditionally set aside for sparing a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves - those in difficulty, the oppressed, the discriminated against - a new and unlikely challenger for our sympathies has emerged: Wimbledon FC.

The catalyst for this cry for help was the dismissal of Vinnie Jones last Saturday against Nottingham Forest. It was the 10th time in his career that Jones had seen red, and the Dons have spent the week lining up to complain about the dismissal, and to construct a conspiracy theory around it.

"It was farcical, the ref was diabolical," was the temperate and considered response of Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear.

"My certain feeling is of being raped week in, week out by referees and linesmen," said the Dons' owner, Sam Hammam, with scarcely a hint of exaggeration. "I honestly believe there is not another player in the Premier League who would have been sent off for what Vinnie did."

Wimbledon have survived in the top division for nine years, matching the best-resourced in the land by adopting a policy of careful husbandry off the field, and on it a collective resolve modelled on the three musketeers: all for one and one for all, Crazy Gang solidarity. No one personifies this better than Vinnie himself, a clenched-fist motivator of preposterous proportions. I once saw him chase a linesman the length of the touchline protesting animatedly about an opposition goal he reckoned off-side. It was a meaningless goal scored at a meaningless point at the end of a meaningless last game of the season: but there was real foam in his mouth, whipped up in the Wimbledon cause.

The Dons' theory is that a conspiracy of referees, with the tacit complicity of the big clubs who find Wimbledon's presence among them an irritant, has been hatched to undermine this team spirit and thus break the club. Hammam has compiled a video to prove it and thus elicit our sympathies.

"I want people to see we are being treated differently from everyone else," Hammam says, "as I'm convinced it's true."

Not that he need bother. There is a video already on the shelves which shows quite how unearned is the Jones reputation, and how right Hammam is to sniff discrimination. Called "Soccer's Hard Men", and narrated by the man who calls himself "the self-confessed creator of havoc", it numbers Jones among a dozen other famous football enforcers. Those who think it is pretty glorified company Jones puts himself into (after all, for every time Graeme Souness made opponents' limbs shudder, there was an occasion when he made the net balloon with a 40-yard thumper; and for every single two-footed Bryan Robson tackle, there were 50 raking, match-winning cross- field passes) obviously don't realise how much more to the lad's game there is than just, as he puts it, "passion and urgency". After all, he can take a handy long throw.

The video, you will recall, landed Vinnie with a record fine for bringing the game into disrepute. Typical fuddy-duddy FA response, that. I mean, the bit where Vinnie remembers how he won the Cup for Wimbledon in 1988 by taking out Steve McMahon within five minutes of the kick-off ("if their top geezer gets sorted out early doors, you win") was blown out of all proportion. As was his advice on helping up an opponent you have just clattered ("as you lift him up, give the hair in his armpits a right tug, and he'll scream blue murder and then you can say: 'ref, I'm only trying to help him'.") As for the bit where he explains how to "follow through with your studs down his Achilles, and if you're cute the ref won't see you" - well, all part and parcel of the game, surely.

The filmed clips of Vinnie in action show too how often his actions have been misinterpreted. There was that occasion when he was sent off against Everton. Farcical over-reaction by the man in green: the two-footed tackle on Graeme Sharp may have arrived so late the floodlights had already been switched off, but any fool could see it was no more than mistimed over- enthusiasm. And besides, in the ensuing melee when Kevin Ratcliffe's nose somehow became entangled with Vinnie's forehead, how come the Everton skipper did not get punished for his Oscar-winning performance of a man lying unconscious on the turf? You begin to wonder if it was no coincidence that there was no ref around to spot the unprovoked assault on Vinnie's fist by Anders Limpar's eye- socket when the ball was not even in the same half.

Thus for those who think that Jones may have been unlucky against Forest, but if so it was merely compensation for the dozen times when his thuggery has gone unpunished, Sam Hammam has the video evidence. The Vinnie that Hammam wants us to recognise is a whole-hearted competitor, a pantomime villain, incapable of doing real harm (that Gary Stevens who was forced to retire after a Jones tackle, is he a wimp or what?)

Hammam reckons Vinnie is one of the game's great characters being brought low by a deliberate, unjustified and wicked campaign - and if he pulls that trick off, it will be the smartest seasonal con-job since Lapland started day-trips to Santa's real grotto.

CAUTIONARY TALES: EIGHT MORE PLAYERS WHO HAVE REGULARLY SEEN RED AND YELLOW

GRAEME SOUNESS

Clubs: Tottenham Hotspur, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Sampdoria, Rangers.

Career: 1970-1991.

Appearances: 420, 54 internationals.

Brilliant midfielder who combined steely tackling with flair and vision. Sent off aged 16 in an FA Youth Cup match for Tottenham for a foul on Dennis Mortimer of Aston Villa. Hard-man reputation peaked when involved in incident against Dinamo Bucharest which left a Romanian nursing a double-fractured jaw. Souness was left out of Scotland's team for a subsequent match against Romania - reportedly due to fears for his safety.

NORMAN HUNTER

Clubs: Leeds United, Bristol City, Barnsley.

Career: 1962-1982.

Appearances: 675, 28 internationals.

Norman 'bites-your-legs' Hunter was a player with great talent, but he was also a fearsome defender. Had a habit of putting his arm round the referee to apologise after every incident. A match against Crystal Palace, in November 1972, typified his effectiveness. With Palace leading 2-0 with two goals from John Craven, Hunter crunched into the legs of the Palace forward. Leeds went on to earn a 2-2 draw.

MARK DENNIS

Clubs: Birmingham City, Southampton, QPR, Crystal Palace.

Career: 1978-1990.

Appearances: 259.

Sendings off: 12.

Dennis was not a hard man in the mould of a Ron Harris or a Graeme Souness, but his fiery temper saw him clash regularly with referees. As well as his 12 dismissals, Dennis received a total of 64 bookings in his career. A full back who was by no means without talent, his career was almost certainly held back by his disciplinary record.

RON HARRIS

Clubs: Chelsea, Brentford.

Career: 1961-1983.

Appearances: 706.

Formidable defender. Remembered as the man who stuck to his man rather than the ball, 'Chopper' Harris said of himself: ''I like to think that apart from being a bit of a butcher I have something else to offer.'' George Best once wrote of Harris that even if the ball was a few yards away from him, he would still have his mind set on his man.

NOBBY STILES

Clubs: Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Preston.

Career: 1960-1974.

Appearances: 412, 28 internationals.

World Cup winner whose value as a talented and fearsome midfielder was recognised at both club and international level. Stiles, who blamed his fouls on his bad eyesight, had a formidable reputation at home and abroad. When Manchester United travelled to Argentina to play Estudiantes in the first leg of the World Club Championship, Stiles was branded an "assassin" by the local press. He was sent off shortly before the final whistle and banned from the second leg.

JULIAN DICKS

Clubs: Birmingham City, West Ham, Liverpool, West Ham.

Career: 1985-

Appearances: 301 (to the end of last season).

Sendings off: 9.

Signed for Liverpool by Graeme Souness, a man with his own fearsome reputation, in 1993. Recently banned for three games after he stamped on the head of John Spencer of Chelsea in September. Dicks claimed he had been the victim of trial by video. Spencer sent the FA a letter saying he believed the incident had been an accident. Career total of 55 bookings.

TERRY HURLOCK

Clubs: Brentford, Reading, Millwall, Rangers, Southampton, Millwall, Fulham.

Career: 1980-

Appearances: 483.

Sendings off: 7.

Hurlock's fearless football earned him a reputation as the poor man's Graeme Souness. Swashbuckling style helped him win place in England's B team alongside David Platt and Paul Gascoigne. Currently out of action with a broken leg, suffered during a pre-season friendly, and a damaged wrist.

WILLIE JOHNSTON

Clubs: Rangers, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City, Vancouver Whitecaps, Hearts.

Career: 1972-1979.

Appearances: 218. Internationals: 22.

Sendings off: 15.

The record holder in football's 'Hall of Shame' with 15 dismissals, 'Bud' Johnston still managed to earn a Championship medal with Rangers. In his autobiography, Johnston talks unashamedly of his time with Rangers, especially about stamping on the neck of John McMaster, then of Aberdeen.

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