The men who took Leeds United back into the top-flight the last time it happened in 1990 are, of course, legends now. They rank alongside some of the Revie boys because they rescued the club from eight years in the wilderness and restored us to the big time. We had our own diminutive red-haired midfielder as a sort of latter-day homage to Billy Bremner – wee Gordon Strachan, who played a mighty part in the renaissance of Leeds with his leadership and goals. It was a team effort though, and it was as a team that they succeeded – Strachan apart there was no major star, but the guts and drive of the collective effort eclipsed all rivals by the end of that fantastic season when we were crowned Second Division Champions in sun-drenched and strife-torn Bournemouth. And nobody in the whole club at that time epitomised guts and drive, as well as sheer fist-clenched, vein-throbbing commitment and fight, better than Mr Vincent Peter “Vinnie” Jones.
I’d been aware of Vinnie, of course – who hadn’t? His Crazy Gang antics were legendary and he’d lifted the FA Cup, but he was regarded as a bit of a maverick – still more hod-carrier than footballer. So never in my wildest dreams did I imagine him as a signing for Leeds United, where stirrings had been going on ever since Sergeant Wilko marched in and started shaking the place up. The “marquee signing” – you didn’t actually hear that phrase in those days – was Strachan, plucked from under the nose of his old Man U mentor Ron Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday to provide the quality at the heart of the Leeds engine room. Now that was the sort of signing I’d hoped and prayed for, and with the likes of Chris Fairclough joining Gordon at Elland Road it seemed to bode well for a real challenge as the close season wore on and 1989-90 loomed closer.
I was in a caravan on the east coast when I heard on the radio that Vinnie was signing for Leeds for around £650,000. I frankly didn’t believe it, but when the reality sank in, my reaction was to think – bloody hell, Wilko, what are you playing at? The signings of John Hendrie and Mel Sterland reassured me somewhat, but I was having trouble seeing what the Jones Boy would bring to the United table. The early signs were not encouraging. Strachan tells of an incident in a pre-season game against Anderlecht, where he saw an opposing player go down with his nose spread halfway across his face and blood greatly in evidence. Vinnie had casually “done” him en passant before sidling off looking innocent, and Strach recalls thinking: my God – what have we signed here? Vinnie himself remembers his early days at the club, and being moved to violence by the negative attitudes of some of the players being edged out as Wilko’s new broom started to sweep clean. Among this disaffected few was John Sheridan, something of a Leeds legend – but Jones stood for no nonsense, and there were punches thrown and people seized by the scruff of the neck as he explained his views on solidarity and team spirit. Vinnie was obviously going to be a kill or cure measure – there were signs he might have much to contribute to the collective effort, but equally that he might turn out a loose cannon which could blow up in all our faces. Yet Wilko had a magic touch in those early years, and generally it was proved that he knew what he was doing.
In the event, and despite an uncertain beginning, Vinnie played a massive part in our promotion that year. The fans took to him from the start – the sight of him coming on as a sub in the first home game against Middlesbrough will live long in my memory. I can see him now, in the middle of the park with the game poised at 1-1, shouting and screaming as he conveyed encouragement and instruction in equal measure, arms pumping in an ungainly, baboon-like way, team-mates and opponents alike staring at him aghast. And then he frightened a Boro’ defender into scoring a late, fluky own-goal and we had won, setting us on our way after a disastrous opening-day defeat at Newcastle.
Vinnie just carried on making a difference. He worked and worked, encouraged and exhorted, fought for the cause and put the fear of God up the enemy wherever he encountered them. He scored spectacular goals, important goals. He showed flashes of genuine ability and some of his passing was sublime. He avoided disciplinary trouble to an amazing degree, given his lurid past. He sold himself to no less a judge than Strachan as an honest performer who could “play a bit”. He created a rapport with the crowd I’ve rarely seen before or since, chilling and joking with the wheelchair-users at the front of the West Stand before games, and smoking imaginary cigars as he took the plaudits of the adoring masses after finding the net. In the warm-up before the Wolves match at Elland Road, he provided one of the great moments of humour in a tense campaign, bringing down 5 year-old mascot Robert Kelly in the area with a signature sliding tackle, much to the delight of the Kop. Vinnie loved Leeds, the players and fans loved Vinnie and the partnership proved fruitful. Up we went, and when Vincent Jones finally took his leave for the humbler surroundings of Bramall Lane and Stamford Bridge, it was with a “LUFC Division 2 Champions” tattoo proudly inked onto his expensive leg, a partner for the “Wimbledon FA Cup Winners” one on the other limb. He was a Leeds United legend in only a little over a year at the club, a larger-than-life personality of massive ebullience and impact – and he is held in the highest of esteem in LS11 even to this day, when he mixes effortlessly in the rarefied, glitzy atmosphere of Hollywood.
So what do we need more right now than another Vinne type, as we hope to embark on another long-overdue return to the top table? Those Jonesy ingredients of passion and power, guts and gumption, are just as important in this league today as they were in those far-off times as the eighties became the nineties. Who could possibly fulfil that role now? I’m really not too sure – Joey Barton maybe? Even he could hardly be a greater culture shock than Vinnie was 25 years ago, but Barton is likely to be far beyond our purse – and to be frank I think he lacks Vinnie’s essential honesty and sheer bad-boy charm. It’s difficult to say who if anyone we might secure to play the Vinnie part – but if it were possible, in advance of the season before us, to distil essence of Jones, or to clone him right from his bloodstained boots and tattooed ankles up to his fearsomely-shaven head, then I’d do it, and I’d present the result gift-wrapped for Brian McDermott to deploy as he saw fit.
A man in the mould of Vinnie Jones would be just the shot in the arm our club needs right at this point in time, just the incentive for the crowd to roll up its sleeves and get behind the team for a series of battles in a 46 game-long war of attrition. If only we could have our Vinnie back now.