March 1989 – we could almost be looking at present day Leeds United; a club stranded for years in the wilderness, suffering falling attendances and – bar a courageous cup run and a play-off final failure a couple of years previous – completely off the national radar. A season that had initially promised much was already effectively over – an upper mid-table finish, the most realistic of aspirations (we finished 10th). I dare say the graffiti in the North East Corner toilets about the shortcomings of John Stiles probably still remains…
But take a step back and look at the wider picture and things couldn’t be more different. First of all, we had a proper kit – none of this tacky Macron ‘team uniform’ shit, a simple, timeless, classic Umbro design with a sensible collar and the most minimal of trimmings; hell, we even played in all yellow away from home.
Off the pitch, we had a settled, established boardroom set-up; Leslie Silver had taken the reigns as chairman back in 1983 and all his experiences as figurehead had been confined to life in the second tier, but unlike Bates, he’d reached a crossroads, a point where simply keeping the club afloat as an everyday concern was no longer good enough. Unlike Bates, that old Devil called ‘Ambition’ had persistently poked Leslie enough with his fork that it gained a response. Suddenly, those concepts so foreign today, became bywords in the boardroom: squad investment, long term plans…they set the agenda.
Central to this new project was a manager who’d made his name in the Steel City, a man with a reputation as an exponent of the spirit sapping spectacle of ‘long ball’ football…but this man came from the blue side of the divide, rather than the red and unlike the current occupant of the LUFC dug-out, this man had ideas, a vision and a strategy to transform a club down on its knees, into one that would once again demand the attention of one and all – step forward, Mr Howard Wilkinson.
That said, to this point, although Sgt. Wilko had already performed an admirable job in lifting the club from it’s lowest ever (at that stage at least) ebb of second bottom of Division 2, the grand statements remained nothing more than words. That was all to change though this month…
The transfer deadline, a phrase now tantamount to extreme profanity in any Leeds fans’ dictionary, arrived and the activities of that final week transformed the mood, expectations and profile of the club instantaneously. Arriving in quick succession, Gordon Strachan and Chris Fairclough, two established top flight players commandeered from big clubs (Manchester United and Nottingham Forest) to be briefed and bedded in for this particular sergeant’s fresh campaign of assault – suddenly a bold statement of intent; Leeds were building for a serious tilt at promotion in 1989/90 and preparations were going to start early.
Those arrivals were merely the pre-cursor for a summer spree that topped £2m. Mel Sterland, John Hendrie, Jim Beglin, John McClelland, Mickey Thomas…and err, Chris O’Donnell all signed on as frontline foot soldiers in Sgt. Wilko’s all-out assault on the league. However, there was one other name, one that did more to awaken the dormant national press and excite the supporters than any other, a certain Vincent Peter Jones.
Vinnie made headlines from the moment he joined Leeds. The national press, still harboring a dislike for the club, rooted in success on the pitch in the 1970s and hooliganism off it in the 1980s immediately made a hasty bee-line for the ‘Dirty Leeds’ bandwagon. Serial offenders of the period, The Daily Mirror, greeted Jones’ arrival with the headline ‘Say the Leeds and You’re Snarling’ (a play on a local building society’s motto). Leeds were back and the haters were ready.
The ultimate anti-hero was born; a hod carrier and part-timer at Wealdstone plucked from obscurity by Dave Bassett, who became the most notorious member of the greatest of all the modern game’s upstarts. Now he’d had enough, he wanted a bigger stage and within minutes of asking Sam Hammam for the opportunity to take to one, he’d found himself as the focal point of a three man hard sell in London; it took little time for Bill Fotherby, Peter Risdale and Alan Roberts to convince him where he should come.
Leeds United for once, suddenly exuded an absolute belief and positivity about what it was doing; Jones was to later reveal that during his talks another player, due to sign from West Ham was dragging his heels over a possible move:
“Alan Roberts was like, ‘If you’re umming and aahing about coming to Elland Road you can f*** off.’”
It mattered not that Vinnie was to quickly discover that he’d not be playing for Howard Kendal, as he first thought; he was sold on the club and where it was going.
And weren’t the fans just sold on him too! Before he’d even kicked a ball, Vinnie became a cult hero quite unlike any other at the club. His distinctive trim, memorably described by Radio 2’s Stuart Hall as “an Alcatraz haircut, with a hedgehog on top” became the standard crop of choice in Leeds that summer and the bellow of “VINNIE!! VINNIE!! VINNIE!!” resounded around pubs and youth clubs even before his first steps onto the hallowed Elland Road turf.
Sunday 30th July was the date those first steps were made; a high-profile pre-season friendly against Anderlecht. As a warm-up exercise a complete disaster; Leeds having led 1-0 at the interval crashed to a 5-1 defeat and had Noel Blake sent off. Vinnie himself got involved in a ruckus, smacking a Belgian across the nose, smugly totting the incident as his first strike of the season…he hadn’t banked on a dressing down from Gordon Strachan after the final whistle, but he got one:
“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!”
Those were the reasoned words of Vinnie’s captain…in one of his more printable outbursts. They were to stick the new man in town throughout his time at the club, during the entire season he was to only accrue 2 bookings. He reasoned that because so many opponents were scared of him, he was afforded time and space to play when on the ball, while intimidation alone was half the battle won when attempting to retrieve it.
Everything was set for the big kick-off, a reformed, disciplined character and an adoring public, ready to consummate a passionate season long, love affair in LS11 – then disaster struck. Well, it seemed like a disaster at the time; an ankle injury set back Vinnie’s best laid pre-season plans and restricted him to a place on the bench for the opening day trip to St. James’ Park, but as with everything else, what seemed like a cruel stroke of misfortune was in fact, inadvertently all part of a masterful blue print in establishing a legend.
Four days on from a humbling 5-2 reversal, Leeds opened their home campaign against another fancied North East rival in the form of Middlesbrough. A positive response was essential and a frenzied Elland Road demanded it. On an evening of high farce off the pitch that resulted in large empty spaces in the South Stand but 3000 fans locked outside due to the vagaries of the membership scheme, Leeds dominated on the pitch. However, chances were squandered and when Bobby Davison’s goal was cancelled out, it appeared that the big opening night would end an anti-climax.
Then it happened with 87 minutes on the clock: Vinnie appeared from the dug-out, stripped for action, sent out with a mission to simply “make an impact”. The chants of “Car park, car park give us a song” ceased as he made his grand entrance. Entering the arena, arms pumping, like a footballing Ben Johnson, a crescendo of noise greeted his arrival. Vinnie responded by throwing out his arms and conducting the Geldard into one final vocal push toward the finish line.
In return for the backing, Vinnie ran around like a man possessed, hounding down every Boro shirt in possession; then in the dying moments he broke forward…he attempted a through ball – it was hopeless, but a mound of turf and Gary Parkinson conspired to beat Kevin Poole. Pandemonium in the stadium and Vinnie was centre stage. Moments later the final whistle sounded and Vinnie charged toward the Kop, clambering upon the fencing to celebrate with his fanatical band of followers. Twenty days after the departure of John Sheridan (for precisely the same £650,00 fee), the Kop had a new God – the King is dead, long live the King!!
From that point there was no stopping Vinnie, he was an irresistible force, ruling the hearts and minds of all Leeds fans through a combination of his performances, charisma and personality. His first start of the season against Ipswich was marked with a goal and the fondly remembered ‘celebratory cigar’ celebration. It was to be one of five goals that season, all of which were highly significant.
In retrospect, the most important of the five came at Upton Park that October; on a day that firmly established Leeds’ title credentials, Vinnie tucked away Mike Whitlow’s left wing cross to settle a crunch game. The London press reacted by condemning Leeds as cynical and dirty (despite the visitors not collecting a single booking, comparative to 3 in the West Ham side) a marker defiantly laid down.
Vinnie’s best however came undoubtedly against Hull – a stunning volley that looped into the top left hand corner from 30 yards; it was arguably his greatest game in the white shirt all things considered, his measured slide rule pass to Strachan setting up the dramatic last minute winner.
It would be reductive though when reminiscing about Vinnie to only look at those contributions notable in stats and records as a Leeds player while disregarding his wider legacy. I dare say very few amongst the disabled Leeds members will ever forget the way he always made a point of greeting those fans during the pre-match warm-ups and is there a more celebrated image from the last 25 years than that of Vinnie making the day (and an icon) of a mascot when he tripped him up when bearing down on goal in front of the Kop – how many Leeds fans would die to be able to be the central figure of that anecdote? Yes, me too!
Then those mannerisms too; the classic arms outstretched and aloft goal celebration, the long run-up and Herculean launch of those long throws, such a potent weapon in Leeds’ armour that season. There were those shorts – in a period where criminally short and tight shorts were still in vogue, I’d like to think that Vinnie’s thighs were every bit as responsible as Stuart Pearce’s in ushering in a new era (a couple years down the line) of more sensible, modesty preserving kit.
His humour too was special. Only recently did I discuss the infamous ‘rags to riches’ newspaper piece he did that season; he posed outside a large house in Alwoodley to show what he’d become only 3 years after leaving a building site…only it wasn’t his house!!
The fact is, Vinnie connected with supporters; and he did so like almost nobody else before or afterwards. He was identified as one of our own, regardless of his heritage – most players have to work to attain the status of ‘adopted son’…Vinnie, he just had to exist!
After only 14 months it was all over; Howard Wilkinson, forever the pragmatist, never the sentimentalist, judged that Vinnie’s job was done and granted him a move to Sheffield United where the shadow of summer signing, Gary McAllister would not restrict his opportunities. Despite that, Vinnie was never forgotten; a catalyst in that glorious midfield engine room, a man who connected with supporters in a way that even David Batty couldn’t dream of, the only star in Hollywood to sport a ‘Leeds United: Division 2 Champions’ tattoo on his leg – has anyone EVER left such a legacy on the back of a mere 46 games?
If any lingering doubts remained, then surely events on May 2nd 1995 dispelled them emphatically; that was the day of Lucas Radebe’s testimonial game. Despite the overwhelming desire to pay tribute to ‘The Chief” (nearly 38,000 attended), regardless of the huge array of talent on show and irrespective of Tony Yeboah’s return to the stadium he so graced, all eyes remained on one man – Vinnie!
At half-time, for one last time, Watford’s most beloved approached the Kop ahead of keeping goal in a penalty shoot-out, only this time he has a microphone in hand; he raised his arms then conducted those ahead in a chorus of ‘Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!’ Fists pumped, voice in full cry and finally a salute followed…it was a treasured, magical moment, but then again, that’s all Vinnie seemed to deal in.