Our countdown of Leeds United cult heroes reaches its conclusion - and there’s no surprise over number one.
Very few footballers will be greeted at a new football club by an entire city’s worth of children copying their hairstyle.
When Vinnie Jones turned up at Leeds United, that’s what they did. Many of them were suspended for imitating his ‘V’ cut.
It was understandable - Vinnie, the tough tackling midfielder signed from Wimbledon, was another big money signing in a summer that boded well for the club finally making an exit from the second division. The club spent £2 million on players, adding Mel Sterland, John Hendrie, Jim Beglin, John McClelland and Mickey Thomas too.
His addition was something of a coup for the Whites as well. While only 15 years prior they had been one of the biggest sides in the country and Europe, attracting a recent FA Cup winner to a second tier team was nothing to sniff at.
Vinnie’s reputation preceded him, but he was not playing the same character that saw him suspended by the FA for six months for releasing a video entitled ‘Football’s Hard Men’.
Jones was taken aside by Gordon Strachan during pre-season after he was involved in a brawl with Anderlecth players, and the captain spoke to him about his disciplinary record and the fact the club needed him on the pitch.
Strachan said: “You’re not here to kill people, you’re here because you’re a good player and we know you can pass the ball!…We’ve got a lot to do this season and we can’t have this childish bulls**t. We’ve got to be this force to be reckoned with!”
As a result, he only picked up three yellow cards over the entire season.
By the time he made his debut against Middlesbrough, the Elland Road crowd were baying for him. He said: “The welcome I got from the Leeds fans on my debut made me feel immortal.”
Leeds had lost 5-2 against Newcastle United on the opening day of the season, with Vinnie on the bench nursing an injury, and the first home game of the campaign, against Middlesbrough, was petering out to a draw.
In the 87th minute, Wilkinson turned to the new hero. Vinnie ran onto the pitch, hyping up the crowd. He ran, hassled and harried. With only a minute left to play, he burst forward and attempted a through ball. It was a misplaced pass, but it bobbled off the turf, hit Gary Parkinson and trickled past Kevin Poole. The response? Pandemonium.
With the final whistle blowing only seconds later, Vinnie charged to the Kop and climbed the fence. The resultant photo would be one of the most iconic of the season.
Vinnie kept Leeds going - the next game saw him strike home against Ipswich. Against West Ham in October, he settled a crunch clash to prove Leeds’ title credentials. There was also the looping volley against Hull, part of his best game in a Leeds shirt.
Beyond the football, Vinnie’s relationship with Leeds United’s disabled supporters is still spoken about to this day. He also used to go out of his way to greet fans pre-match. While the photo of him climbing the fence against Hull is remembered by Leeds fans, the one of him slide tackling a mascot has entered football folklore.
Promotion was about as much as Wilkinson foresaw for Vinnie at Leeds, replacing him with Gary McAllister the following summer. Dropped from the team, Vinnie drew a rifle on his manager. He was joking, but Wilkinson played him against Luton Town. It was the last time he’d appear for the Whites.
However, his departure did not stop the connection between the player and the fans. He had celebrated the return to the top flight by getting a tattoo of the Leeds badge on his leg, a permanent remind of what Leeds meant to him. Fans responded in kind, giving him a hero’s welcome when he returned for Lucas Radebe’s testimonial.
He’s been back since, despite his Hollywood commitments, accompanying die hard Leeds fan Josh Warrington to the ring during fights at the Leeds Arena.
In all, there will likely never be another player at Leeds who does as much in as short a space of time as Vinnie did, or one who is as quickly held in as much esteem as him. When I spoke to him last year, Vinnie said: “The only picture I have up on my wall in Hollywood is me in a Leeds kit.” That says a lot.