Over the course of his career, Vinnie Jones was more than happy to play up to his hard b*stard reputation.
This is a man that once served a six-month ban for ‘bringing the game into disrepute’ for presenting a VHS tape called Soccer’s Hard Men.
Ultimately hamming up that hardman image led to a lucrative Hollywood career in Jones’ post-playing days, from playing a mob enforcer in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels to the Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand, who possessed all the (lack of) subtlety you’d expect of a character with that name.
As with Samuel Jackson’s most (in)famous line from Snakes On A Plane, Jones’ immortal words from X-Men – “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” – were written into the script off the back of an online meme. Evidently, the former footballer wasn’t too concerned about descending into self-parody.
But there’s much more to Jones than meets the eye. Whilst at Leeds United, Jones went to great lengths to strengthen race relations in the city when the National Front’s influence was at its most poisonous.
In recent years, he’s spoken candidly about grief and the emotional toll of his wife’s death. He’s no shallow caricature.
Ask fans of any of his former clubs and they’ll tell you that his image did a disservice to his quality as a footballer. Jones was so much more than the one-dimensional hatchet man that history unfairly remembers him as being.
He’d be the first to admit that his physicality and fearlessness were a major part of his game. His finest hour – Wimbledon’s FA Cup victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final – is best remembered for his brutal early-doors reducer on Steve McMahon.
This Vinnie Jones tackle in the early moments of the FA Cup Final is 34 years old today.
Steve McMahon jumps back to his feet. No booking. On with the game, chaps…pic.twitter.com/es7Cifiuyc
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) May 14, 2022
You can almost hear him shouting “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” as he clatters into McMahon with a hilariously late challenge. Amazingly, that’s not even far from reality.
“The boys knew I was going to smash him because I’d told them that if I could early enough, the referee wasn’t going to send me off in front of in front of about 100,000 people, but I didn’t get too much of a response from the lads, so it was a bit of a gamble!” Jones later recalled in an interview with talkSPORT.
“So when the ball came into him, I started running. I was about 30 yards away and I kept thinking, ‘just open up’, and he did and thought. ‘Merry Christmas’. BOOM!”
The challenge would almost certainly be a red card today but didn’t even result in a booking back then. Yet it’s now forgotten that Jones put in an otherwise exceptionally disciplined performance at Wembley that afternoon, nullifying Liverpool’s midfield and playing a major part in the Crazy Gang’s iconic 1-0 win.
Later on, he’d receive just three bookings during his starring role in Leeds’ 1989-90 promotion-winning campaign under Howard Wilkinson.
There are few better examples of his ability than his wonderstrike against Liverpool back in 1991-92, one of the greatest goals in Chelsea’s pre-Abramovich history.
Unlike in the mid-noughties when Liverpool and Chelsea became appointment viewing as one of English football’s best-matched contests, there were streets between the two clubs in the early 90s.
Chelsea could barely lay a glove on Liverpool during their imperial era. They were often in the second tier when the Reds were racking up league titles in the 1970s and 1980s and were a distinctly bottom-half club when they travelled to Merseyside in February ’92.
“I can remember my first ever game at Liverpool when I was screaming at one of the boys and he was only eight yards away and he couldn’t hear me,” Jones later recalled of the experience of playing at Anfield back then.
“We were defending a corner in front of the Kop and when you play in front of the Kop you know it. It’s like a train rushing through the net at you. It’s just so loud. The buzz is so fantastic.”
England were six months off lifting the World Cup when Chelsea had last won away at Liverpool. The last league victory at Anfield was way back in 1935.
That hoodoo ended that February afternoon. Jones needed just 20 minutes to open the scoring, one of six goals he scored in his one full season at Chelsea.
The build-up was fittingly agricultural for the era, the ball eventually dropping to Jones from about 25 yards out after Liverpool failed to clear their lines with a couple of hoofs forward.
Jones took a touch, setting himself up on the half-volley, before absolutely walloping it over Bruce Grobelaar and in off the crossbar.
It’s the 28th anniversary of this Vinnie Jones strike at Anfield.
Fucking hell. He’s hit that cleaner than he did Steve McMahon in the 88 Cup Final.pic.twitter.com/hEfZyW8Jpu
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) February 1, 2020
This was long before xG entered the football lexicon. You don’t imagine Ian Porterfield was giving any whiteboard lectures on ‘low percentage chances’ and the importance of recycling possession.
And so we were treated to an archetypal 1990s thunderbastard, one that almost certainly featured on at least one of the aforementioned 1990s compilation tapes that were all the rage in that simpler, pre-internet age.
Liverpool did equalise, but Chelsea regained their lead through Dennis Wise and ultimately went on to claim three points they’d been waiting decades for. And the opening goal was worthy of the occasion.
It was classic Jones. There was the power and all the physicality, of which he made himself famous. Yet there was also technique and genuine ability, qualities that those who watched him remember all too fondly.
By Nestor Watach