Footballer-turned-Hollywood actor Vinnie Jones is back in Leeds next week for the premiere of a new documentary film. Paul Robinson spoke to the Leeds United cult hero about his time at Elland Road.
FOR Leeds United fans of a certain age, the club’s 1989-90 promotion campaign remains the greatest nine months of their sporting lives.
Yes, the league title may have followed just two years later, but there was something extra special about the season that saw United returning to English football’s elite stage under the guidance of manager Howard Wilkinson.
Top Man on the kits and top men on the terraces, generating a white-hot atmosphere that prompted one fanzine to describe Elland Road as “the most intimidating arena in British sport”.
And the team? Oh, what a team it was. Gordon Strachan, the livewire captain and Sgt Wilko’s on-field brains.
David Batty and Gary Speed, two young lads in the process of making it very big indeed.
Then there was Vinnie Jones. Signed from Wimbledon as part of a ‘promotion or bust’ spending spree overseen by United’s flamboyant managing director Bill Fotherby, Jones arrived with a reputation as a bad boy who preferred X-rated tackles to passing the ball.
He became an immediate cult hero at Leeds, as quick with a smile for the fans and the Elland Road staff as he was with a snarl at the opposition. It turned out he could play a bit as well. We loved him, he loved us.
And, more than 25 years later, the midfield hard man-turned-Hollywood actor still feels the same way.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post from Los Angeles ahead of his return to Leeds for the premiere of a film about Wilkinson’s United revolution, Jones says: “It’s probably the most special time of my life, even though it only lasted a year, 18 months.
“We were loved around the town, we were clapped around the town. People ask me the difference between the cup final [with Wimbledon in 1988] or winning the Second Division with Leeds.
“The cup final was over very quickly, but there was so much at stake at Leeds for a whole season.
“I don’t think anyone knows the pressure the club was under. Everybody threw everything in – the kitchen sink, the lot. How could you not play your heart out every game?”
Reflecting on his first impressions of Elland Road after heading north in the summer of 1989, he says: “[General manager] Alan Roberts took me round. I walked in and met Fotherby and he was larger than life, obviously.
“Alan was quieter but you could see the passion – if you cut him he bled Leeds. I thought ‘this is what I’m all about, this is exactly what I’m all about’.
“Alan walked me out on the pitch and said ‘here it is, can you imagine this with 30,000 here every week?’.
“He told me there was a player, I think it was a West Ham player, that had come to sign in centre midfield instead of me. He said to Alan and Fotherby, give me 24 hours to think about it.
“Alan Roberts said if anyone needs 24 hours to think about joining this club, we don’t want them, it’s not the club for them.”
The season ended with a win at Bournemouth that sent United up to the old First Division after eight years away.
It was party time that evening in the middle of Leeds and, after travelling back from the south coast, Jones was more than ready to join the celebrations.
“There was me, Batts and Speedy and we were driving round and round by the Queens Hotel,” he says.
“We were hanging out the windows, Speedy was out the sunroof, people were just going nuts.
“We kept on driving round and you didn’t want it to end, you just didn’t want it to end.”
The end for Jones at Leeds did come, of course, and sooner than anyone could have expected, with the king of the Kop being sold to Sheffield United just four months after that unforgettable day in May.
This Monday, however, will be all about the good times as Do You Want To Win? gets its premiere at the Everyman Cinema in Trinity Leeds.
Jones was interviewed for the film along with Strachan and other United stars of the era such as Gary McAllister and Mel Sterland.
Monday’s premiere will form part of the inaugural Leeds International Festival, billed as a celebration of music, moving image and technology and running from April 22 to 30 (see page eight).
“I haven’t seen the film yet and I’m looking forward to seeing it,” says Jones. “But it will be even more special if Leeds get in the play-offs this year.
“I do believe in fate and all that kind of stuff and with the film and the festival and everything else going on in the city, this might be the year they go up. Leeds have to be in the Premier League, they have to be.”
Vincent Peter Jones. He’s Leeds and he knows he is.
Five of Vinnie’s greatest moments in a Leeds shirt
* Celebrating his first goal for the Whites, a diving header against Ipswich Town, by scaling the old fencing at Elland Road’s South Stand before puffing on an imaginary cigar;
* Providing one of football’s funniest images with a slide tackle on a pint-sized mascot before a game against Wolves at Elland Road;
* Hitting a 30-yard volley against Hull City that proved once and for all that the Jones boy was no mean footballer;
* Sending the fans into raptures by wrongly informing them that Leeds were up after they won their final home match of the season. Promotion would have to wait another week.
* Bringing the house down at Elland Road by rugby-tackling Lucy Ward in front of the Kop when she scored in Lucas Radebe’s testimonial game in 2005.