Happy Birthday today to former Leeds United star Vinnie Jones, who revealed recently that he has had several small tumours removed since being diagnosed with melanoma – the most potentially serious form of skin cancer. Jones, an integral part of Leeds’ 1990 promotion squad, initially discovered a small lump underneath his eye back in February, but had thought it was simply “a blackhead or a wart”. However, a check-up revealed the seriousness of the situation. Jones at first feared for his life, but swiftly resolved to fight “with everything I’ve got”. Melanoma kills some 1,300 men and 900 women every year, but is treatable if caught early enough.
If anyone is equipped for battle against such an insidious disease, it’s our Vinnie. Nobody in the whole club at the time of that Leeds United promotion campaign epitomised guts and drive, as well as sheer fist-clenched, vein-throbbing commitment and fight, better than Mr Vincent Peter Jones. His influence on the club, his rapport with the fans and his driving, compelling example on the field must make him one of the best transfer bargains in United’s history. And yet at the time he was signed it was, if not a shock, then at least a major surprise – and not in a particularly good way.
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 maverick – still more hod-carrier than footballer, famous for a ten-second dismissal and for his promise to Kenny Dalglish before the 1988 Cup Final against Liverpool to “tear off his ear and spit in the hole”. Still, despite these immaculate credentials, marking him out as a potential Gelderd End hero, 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 initial 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 still having trouble seeing what the Jones Boy would bring to the United table, although our lunatic-fringe fans seemed well suited. 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”.
Vinnie also created this amazing rapport with the crowd, the kind 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 against Ipswich. 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 five year-old mascot Robert Kelly in the area with a signature sliding tackle, much to the delight of the Kop – and of young Robert himself.
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 tattoo: “LUFC Division Two Champions” 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.
At a time of intense transfer speculation, the question could be asked: what do we need more right now than another Vinne type, as we hope to secure 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.
It’s really difficult to say who if anyone could now play the Vinnie part – but if it were possible, in this transfer window, 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 after the major disappointment of the Rochdale non-performance. It would provide the incentive for the crowd to roll up its sleeves, having vented some spleen at the players and manager, and get behind the team again for the remaining battles in this 46 game-long war of attrition.
Just imagine the fillip that our season, our whole club would receive – if only we could have him or his like in our ranks now. Happy Birthday to the one and only Vinnie Jones, honorary Yorkshireman and Leeds Hero First Class. Good health to you – and many happy returns.