Towards the end of the 1996-1997 football season, Richard Keys paid a televised visit to the Wimbledon dressing room.
Keys’ broadcasting career would end up punctuated with poor ideas, but this trip to the engine room of the outfit affectionately known as “The Crazy Gang” – named in recognition of their unconventional and unpredictable behaviour – was a particularly bad move.
As he got close to the dressing room and began speaking to camera, the once moderately-regarded Keys was accosted by half a dozen players and dragged to the doorway.
Club captain Vinnie Jones emerged from off-camera with a pair of scissors and chopped straight through Keys’ tie – cutting off his microphone in the process.
This clip plays in my mind as I prepare to meet Jones face-to-face. Despite being retired for 16 years and having featured in film and television projects since, the man who defined Wimbledon’s hard-as-nails reputation throughout the 1980s and 1990s has remained something of an enigma to English football fans since his abrupt departure from the game in 1998.
I arrive at Tracy Park Golf and Country Hotel to an empty clubhouse. Jones is doing some shots out on the final green as part of his filming programme for a BT Sport documentary chronicling the rise of the 1988 side (The Crazy Gang, BT Sport 1, Boxing Day, 9pm), leaving me to pick at an untouched three-table buffet.
In his previous life, Jones, now approaching 50, would have been face to face with a portly, balding match official at this point in the afternoon. Instead, he is posed on the lawns of the club looking as physically imposing as ever, if slightly ill at ease with his surroundings.
When he does walk up the steps through the French doors to join me, it is with some horror that I realise we’ve picked identical outfits for the interview. If there was anything more likely to get my theoretical tie cut, this was it.
Instead, I get a non-committal “very nice, son” and we shake hands. Gesturing towards the television in the corner of the room, the notoriously off-message Jones suggests we watch the Sheffield Wednesday – Nottingham Forrest lunchtime kick-off on Sky rather than the Manchester United meeting with Burnley over on BT. There is some uncomfortable shuffling among the production staff over my left shoulder as they try and get pictures of us without the Sky emblem in shot.
He sounds bored at first, no doubt expecting a raft of non-football questions. I sense that he is keen to get his media obligations out of the way before reliving what looks to have been a frustrating round of golf. I have the best part of an hour in his company – this could be tough.
“I must confess that I have a hidden interest in the Wimbledon story,” I begin. “I was actually born the day after you won the FA Cup in 1988, so the story has always been a significant match in my mind…”
“Really? You were born on 21 May 1988?” I don’t have the heart – or nerve – to tell Jones that the most significant game of his football career was actually played a week earlier than he remembers. Mindful of the Keys story, I nod enthusiastically.
Perhaps Jones’ memory lapse is understandable. Even without their crowning glory, Wimbledon’s story remains extraordinary. Promoted to the Football League at the expense of Workington ahead of the 1977-78 season, Dave Bassett’s men took just nine seasons for the club to ascend to the top flight and, once there, another year to reach the FA Cup Final, as they did on 14 May 1988.
Liverpool – the pre-eminent force in European football throughout the 1980s – was expected to bury Wimbledon in the Wembley showpiece. Fresh from a fifth league title in seven years, Kenny Dalglish’s men dominated. Despite the pressure, Dennis Wise crossed for Lawrie Sanchez to nod the London side into the lead just before the interval and Dave Beasant saved a second-half penalty from John Aldridge as Wimbledon held on.
26 years later, it remains arguably the biggest shock in FA Cup Final history. And, despite going on to win the league title once more in 1990, Liverpool have rarely been the same side since.
Jones famously quipped at the time that he thought winning the FA Cup would make the whole side millionaires overnight. The truth was somewhat different.
There were some successes, although few of these came the way of those behind the club’s rise. John Fashanu had a brief England career before becoming the face of ITV’s Gladiators series. Match-winner Sanchez found some coaching success with Wycombe Wanderers, Fulham and Northern Ireland before slipping into punditry. Wise played Champions League football with Chelsea as well as adding two more FA Cups to his trophy cabinet. Beasant, now 55, is enjoying a coaching career of his own, and – in the midst of an injury crisis – sat on the bench for Stevenage earlier this season.
Jones proved the most successful of the gang. After retiring from football in 1998, he found critical acclaim in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels before appearances in Snatch, Mean Machine and Eurotrip catapulted him into his current Hollywood niche.
For the club he left behind, the FA Cup triumph failed to pave the way for a dynasty. The Wimbledon story is defined by a core band of players who gave their careers to one major cause before the roof came down. “We played with that fear that once we got relegated, that would be the end of it all,” he shrugs. There was a dearth of young players coming through the academy to pick up the mantel and a lack of funds to spend on increasingly expensive imports, meaning that within three years of Jones’ final departure from the club, the ship had sunk without trace.
It’s hard to remember, but Joe Kinnear was a highly-rated Wimbledon manager before becoming a punchline on Mike Ashley’s tenure as Newcastle owner. Kinnear’s exit after a heart attack in 1999 set in motion the side’s rapid descent.
It is mention of Kinnear that suddenly awaken Jones. Interest piqued, he reels off a host of anecdotes that could easily have been replaced by far more glamorous tales of Hollywood life. Ruddy-faced Irishman Kinnear is held in much higher regard in Jones’ mind than Bobby Gould, the man who managed Wimbledon to their 1988 triumph.
“Joe was a major force,” he says of Kinnear. “He was absolutely ideally suited to the whole Crazy Gang spirit whereas Bobby Gould wanted to get rid of it. Kinnear said he knew that it was what the club needed.”
The relationship between coaches and captains was fundamental during the early years of the Premier League era when Kinnear arrived at Wimbledon. Sir Alex Ferguson lured Roy Keane from Nottingham Forrest to enforce Manchester United’s most successful decade in their history. Arsene Wenger relied heavily on Tony Adams throughout his first six seasons at Highbury.
For Jones and Kinnear, the dynamic was no different: “We were best of mates. Outside of football we were going racing together, the wives were going to New York shopping, we’d go to the dog track together. It was a great trust.”
His relationship with Gould remains unrepaired. There was an infamous clash between the pair in the dressing room towards the end of his international career (Jones admits to pushing his manager against a wall) and, despite the passing of more than 15 years, the wounds are raw.
He names Wise and Fashanu as former teammates he stays in regular contact with and laughs at the memory of being able to give former teammate Wally Downes a role in his 2001 film Mean Machine.
I wonder if, after 30 years of talking about the “Crazy Gang” idea, it was a bit of a lazy cliché. Does Jones feel annoyed that his abilities as a footballer have been scrubbed from the history books as a result?
“It suited us,” he barks. “Some of the players used to get a bit pissed off with it. They used to get the wrong idea about what it meant.”
“You know it was a bit like the Milton Keynes Dons game against United the other day [MK Dons beat Manchester United 4-0 in a League Cup match three days before the interview]. It should have been about how well they played and all that, and it was all about how bad United played. We got that week in, week out.”
In some quarters, the end of the story was a welcome relief. Unfair complaints about the pragmatic style of football aside, rumours about a bullying culture that would have made Kevin Pietersen write three autobiographies were never far away. Although by the time Richard Keys made his trip to the dressing room seven years after the FA Cup triumph, a number of the key protagonists had moved on.
For Jones, the final staging post of the era, the loss of those men heralded the end of one of the more bizarre sagas in English football history. “I think Joe went, Sam [former chairman Sam Hammam) went and that was it. Inevitable. Inevitable. Really, how long could we maintain it? And the part of it where people said, ‘We need good atmosphere, we need team spirit,’ but you need the characters to carry that off.”
When those characters slowly began to empty from the Selhurst Park dressing room, the implosion was catastrophic. Attracting an average weekly attendance of under 20,000, a rudderless Wimbledon were relegated on the final day of the 1999-2000 season. In 2002 the club moved to its current home in Milton Keynes before formerly changing their name to MK Dons in 2004.
AFC Wimbledon started at the base of the English football pyramid in the aftermath of the bitter ramifications of the stadium move and name change. They beat their raison d’etre for the first time this season. Jones feels that the old spirit from his Wimbledon days has finally been restored.
“I felt that now that everything has been sorted out with MK Dons, I thought it was time to give the medal back to [AFC] Wimbledon,” he says of his decision to hand his 1988 honour over to the club for safe keeping.
“I wanted to put it in the trophy room to let the lads see what was achieved, to remind them. We started non-league, I started non-league and went all the way through. It’s not an impossible task but it was something that I thought would boost morale.”
Jones’ gesture has suddenly become all the more meaningful. AFC Wimbledon will make their debut in the FA Cup third round against, almost inevitably, Liverpool. That tie – the first such meeting since the 1988 showdown – will be contested little over a week after the documentary is screened.
I wonder how Jones rates the club through the prism of modern football and the continued affection for players and sides who follow the Wimbledon model of success.
“People talk to me about Stoke. But really, Stoke? We came from non-league football on no budget. Nothing. These guys have spent millions.”
Photo: BT Sport
Conversation switches to other football characters of 1980s and the subject of that iconic photo from 1987- one where Jones tests Paul Gascoigne’s tolerance for pain in the most sensitive of areas during a meeting between Newcastle and Wimbledon.
Gascoigne spawned his vulnerable clown image that day while Jones’ reputation as one of the hard men of English football was quickly being established. Gascoigne’s own downward spiral in the intervening years is one that really hits the Welshman hard.
Jones’ battles with depression are well documented. In a 2012 interview with former England cricketer Andrew Flintoff, he confessed to taking a shotgun into the woods near his house with the intention of never coming back.
He attributes the turnaround, at least in part, to giving up alcohol. “I’ve been sober for two years now. It makes everything far simpler. You think clearer.”
For Gascoigne – also moving into his sixth decade – his relationship with the bottle has been infinitely harder. “I’d give anything to help him out, I really would. I’m always worrying about him.”
Symmetry is often drawn between Gascoigne’s recent troubles and the last years of George Best’s life. Jones accepts the comparisons. “I remember seeing George towards the end of his life. I think it was just after his liver surgery and he was really struggling to stay off the booze. Desperately sad. It’s the sort of thing that never leaves you.”
Jones is not a typical showman. His reluctance to trade on his football career in this country means that he is rarely seen on these shores. This August filming session – the fruits of which are due for broadcast on Boxing Day – is a considerable shot in the arm for the credibility of the project.
A third-place finish on Celebrity Big Brother aside (“Don’t remind me,” he growls) Jones has been a bona fide top-level film star for the best part of 15 years and has spent the vast majority of that time living in Los Angeles.
The absurdity of his situation – the ability to walk out of a relegation-threatened QPR dressing room and onto a film set with Angelina Jolie less than seven days later – is not lost on Jones. Now, however, as the big roles have begun to dry up – can he envisage a return to English football?
At the time of the interview, Leeds owner Massimo Cellino was in the news after sacking manager David Hockaday after only six games. I suggest that, perhaps, the Italian would be the sort of chairman that Jones – a former player at the club – would have railed against.
He has form in that regard. Jones’ Wimbledon chairman, the equally controversial Hammam, once labelled the player a “mosquito brain” after a run-in with the FA during the 1990s. The pair had a tumultuous relationship at times.
“Not a bit of it,” he smiles. “He’s just a really passionate supporter who cares for his club. You need more of those. When the job last came up, my wife had to keep the phone out of my hands…”
He allows the words to hang in the air like a threat although, as he casually admits, his successes with Hollywood FC (where he claims to have overseen a number of league title triumphs) would hardly prepare him for one of the biggest management challenges in English football.
Jones is most animated when discussing the end of his nine-cap international career. His former Wimbledon manager Gould was in the midst of an ill-fated spell in charge of the Welsh national time. Gould dropped Jones from national service in 1997. “I was a Premier League captain and he dropped me for a non-league player” he says, suddenly visibly angry. Little over a year later, both men had slipped out of the game.
It suddenly occurs to me, as we dissect, in detail, Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Jones’ Wimbledon in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final that the date “mistake” at the start of the interview might have been a test of my general knowledge.
“People don’t realise we never actually lost to Middlesbrough that year,” he says of Wimbledon’s League Cup exit from the same season. He seems angrier about that lack of recognition than anything left over from his legacy with Gould.
He continues: “I speak to kids today and I’m not Vinnie Jones, footballer, but Vinnie Jones, film star. I have to make them watch YouTube to find out what I used to do.”
I wonder if, despite the thawing of his attitude towards the media, if he might be open to helping me with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge I’ve just received a nomination for. It might, I suggest, stir some old memories.
“I’ve been asked before,” he says. “I fucking hate Twitter.” We shake hands again, the matching waistcoats forgotten, and he turns to go.
“Why didn’t you ask him about Angelina Jolie?” whispers one of the production staff as Jones strides past the buffet and out of the French windows.
Somehow, I think he would have preferred it had I invited him to Sunday dinner at the Gould household.
BT Sport is to premiere the next instalment in its BT Sport Films series, “The Crazy Gang”, on 26 December on BT Sport 1 at 9pm, with an in-depth look at the story of Wimbledon FC in the 1980s. It features in-depth interviews with the likes of Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise, Lawrie Sanchez, John Fashanu, Dave Beasant, Bobby Gould and other members of the team.