Profile: Football's unacceptable face

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IT IS one of the unspoken oddities of English football. Nowadays it's all crash bang wallop, all lungs and legwork and never mind if you know how to kick a ball, but for some reason there are many fewer hard men on the scene than in days of yore. All the leading sides used to have one, but the likes of Harris and Hunter, those Robocops of the round ball, those studded amoralists, have disappeared down memory lane every bit as far as Hudson and Hoddle. The psychopath is in exactly the same boat as the quixotic genius: they just don't make them like they used to.

All we have now is, on the one hand, Paul Gascoigne, and on the other the player made infamous by that sequence of photographs in which he grasps Gascoigne's testicles in his hod carrier's hands.

The image people have of him is of a player who regards it as a matter of personal honour to intimidate the nation's finest, to castrate them with a shattering, late tackle early in the game, to rip their ears off and spit in the hole. The image portrays a man whose playing methods are so neanderthal, so lacking in those things that allow one to describe a footballer as 'educated', that it seems deeply fitting that no one knows how to spell his name.

Is it Vinny or Vinnie? Rothmans says Vinny; the Wimbledon programme says Vinnie. Newspapers regularly print both versions on the same page. The confusion mirrors a confusion put about by Vincent Jones himself. His crewcut and tattooed shins tell one story, but as the seasons passed since he left the backwater of Plough Lane in 1989, a Cup winners medal clutched in his fist, he tried to tell another. When he returned to Wimbledon last month to make his home debut against Blackburn Rovers at the club's new home of Selhurst Park, he explained in the programme, alongside a photograph of him posing chummily with the club chairman Sam Hammam, the change his times with more fashionable clubs had wrought in him. It's worth noting in full what was absurdly undermined by what has happened since.

'There are always going to be those who are going to be waiting for me to step out of line,' said Jones, 'both from inside the game and in the media. Because of my reputation any little thing I do in a game or even off the pitch is going to make headlines, and I have to accept that. I know that I did some stupid things when I first went into the game, but I was young and naive and it was a whole new world for me. I thought it was great to have my name splashed all over the papers for whatever reason, good or bad. But as you get older, the only time you want your name in the paper is for something positive, and that is what I'll be hoping to do with Wimbledon.'

By half-time he had been sent off. In a match characterised by refereeing of startling impetuosity, he fell foul of that little remembered rule that says you are not allowed to swear at another player. If this was a genuine law of the game said his manager Joe Kinnear, throwing in a handy example or two, then come the final whistle there wouldn't be anyone left on the pitch.

Suddenly one began to see Jones's point of view. Perhaps he was much maligned after all, perhaps the rapscallion had reformed. Last winter he was splashed on the cover of Esquire in black tie, the stud in his ear and the light in his eye glinting with raffish charm, over the headline, 'Is football's psycho a softie?' And he made a favourable impression on Garth Crooks's Great Britain United, the Channel 4 documentary about black footballers in Britain. Decrying racism on the terraces from which he himself, like David Batty and Gascoigne, was rescued by a career out on the pitch, he he almost came over like a liberal. Then along came this video, Soccer's Hard Men, and Jones turned out to be a recidivist. Hammam, not quite so chummy now, called him 'mosquito brain'. Jones has since apologised for his part in the 'video nasty' that profiles the tough nuts of football, but the damage has been done.

What is most offensive about his contribution is not the bag of dirty tricks he opens up for inspection - all the ways of leaving physical and psychological scars on a troublesome opponent, most of which have been quoted on television and in the Press - but the words which close the whole sorry compilation of late lunges, elbow jabs and bodychecks.

'I'm definitely the opposite to Gary Lineker because Gary Lineker has never been booked,' says the man who has been sent off six times in five years in the game. 'Your passion, your urgency and enthusiasm must lead you into areas where you are gonna cause some problems. It's the same old story. Would you want Gary Lineker in the trenches with you or would you want Vinny Jones in the trenches with you? Because at the end of the day you know that Vinny Jones will get out of the trench and run towards the enemy, whereas I think Gary Lineker would sit in the trench and say, 'After you.' '

The offence is not so much that Lineker, one of the few players who has consistently given modern English football a good name, has turned into one of the game's few sacred cows. It is the suggestion that having Jones in your side could by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as preferable to having Lineker. Football as trench warfare, football as the Battle of the Somme: is this one man's fantasy, or has it really come to this?

'Good luck to the fella,' says Ron Harris, the old Chelsea captain who is also profiled in the video, 'he's probably earning a few bob from it, but I just think it typifies the sorry state of English football when you've got a fella like him who has had four transfers over the last few years, and people are paying a million pound for him. Let's be fair, you ask the majority of people what they think of him and I wouldn't think too many people (and I'm talking about ability now) would give him too much credit. We can't all be wrong, can we?'

Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds United manager, did give him credit, and brought him up from Wimbledon. Johnny Giles, one of the uncompromising midfielders into whose boots he stepped at Elland Road, was prominent among those who decried the signing of Jones, but Wilkinson thought he was the ideal player to get the club out of the Second Division, and so it proved. But when Gary McAllister arrived it was clear that Wilkinson was after a slightly sleeker model and Jones played just once for them in the First Division before being sold down the road to his old boss, Dave Bassett at Sheffield United, who needed somone to get them off the bottom of the Division and duly found him in Jones.

One of the telling truths about Soccer's Hard Men is that, apart from Harris and Jones himself, all the players profiled are internationals. They could take an opponent out, but as the video shows, they could play a bit too. Even Ron Harris, who was hardly one of football's stylists, would rather not be mentioned in the same breath as the player whose first nickname at Wimbledon was Chopper.

'I never went around mouthing off that I was the so-called hard man,' says the prototype Chopper. 'It just seems strange that a fella should come out with something like that. Squeezing people between the legs and when the ball's down the other end sticking one on the chin - to me they're not hard people, are they, that do things like that? If you look at my record over the years any time I was in trouble with the referee it was for either doing some bad tackles or some rash tackles (of which there are some atrocious examples in the video), never giving somebody a right-hander when the ball's down the other end.'

Before Jones was a footballer he was a hod carrier. It's easy to quip that nothing has changed, that he's still an unskilled labourer. But he must have had something. It is known by every one of the thousands of youngsters who yearn for a career in professional football that only the creme de la creme see their dream come true. Jones, who was released by his local club Watford at the age of 14, certainly knew it. But, as the man who signed the Tremeloes and turned down the Beatles can tell you, anyone can make mistakes. Spurs spurned Des Walker. Liverpool let Kevin Sheedy go. Those talent spotters charged with sorting out the wheat from the chaff cannot get it right all the time, and somewhere along the line someone decided that Vinny Jones, unlike countless other young plodders, was wheat.

That someone, the man who saved him from the downward spiral 'towards the Scrubs' (Jones's words), was Brian Hall. Hall was coach at non-League Wimbledon in 1975 when Dickie Guy took his place in FA Cup folklore by saving Peter Lorimer's penalty at Elland Road, but in the early 80s he was manager of Wealdstone, where he gave Stuart Pearce his first break.

'I met Vinny because he was the groundsman in Bushey where I was doing pre-season training. The first thing I noticed was that he led the running all the way in a side that had quite a few senior non-league players that had all had League experience.' What Hall didn't notice, and continues to regard as a media invention, was the trait for which Jones has become infamous. 'In the 18 months he had at Wealdstone I think he had two cautions, and I don't think either of them was for anything naughty. I didn't have any problems with Vinny Jones. He was a very uncomplicated person. I think it's an absolute storm in a teacup.'

Bassett had played under Hall at Wimbledon, and despite the chasm that separates them professionally (Hall's second stint at Wealdstone was terminated last month) they remain friends. Their friendship was Jones's pathway to the First Division. 'All credit to Dave Bassett, he's probably the only person who was prepared to take that gamble on Vinny,' says Hall. 'He was just overjoyed at being given a chance to go to Wimbledon. He would have walked there if he had to.'

He has recently returned there, after four years away. This time round there was never the threat of having to walk. He has a lot more money in his pocket and if anything he would have had to be dragged. One senses that Jones never wanted to leave Chelsea, the kind of club he had always wanted to play for - metropolitan, fashionable, acceptable - but also followed by a hard core of like-minded fans. Although Ron Harris says of the current team, 'half them fellas never even would have got in our reserve side years ago, and he's one of them,' Jones was playing the best football of his career there. 'I don't think he's had a bad time at Chelsea,' says Hall staunchly. 'Don't take anything away from his football qualities. He's got a reasonable first touch, he can run all day, and he can pass the ball, he's as brave as a lion. But then people say he can't play. He's not frightened of anything.'

If he is frightened of anything it should be his footballing future. At the age of 27 he is back where he started, and where does anyone go from there? No one had ever gone back to Wimbledon before, but he has been rapidly sold on three times now and it's scarcely likely that another glamorous club will come in for him. And no one, not even Chelsea's most famous fan, has so publicly owned up to his misdemeanours and got away with it. The FA has yet to act, but the consensus is that it's about time Jones gets what's been coming to him. He says he plays the part of this law-breaking, gun-slinging character for the fans, whose mentality he understands so well, but Wimbledon attract precious few of them to Selhurst Park. So who, apart from opponents who have to negotiate 90 minutes with him in their shadow, will be watching out for him? Is this the beginning of the end for Vinnie, or Vinny, or whatever he's called?

(Photograph omitted)