It is an unfortunate fact that, over the last couple of decades, Queens Park Rangers have had their share of unpleasant characters in the playing squad. Some names, who I will come back to in due course, are pretty obvious on that front. But perhaps the man who has incurred my own personal displeasure more than anyone else is a certain Vinnie Jones. He was, as we all know, a disastrous signing for the club; but to see why QPR got into such a mess with Jones in the first place, you have to go back to the beginning of the season that we signed him.
Prior to the 1997/98 campaign there was a fair amount of optimism. Rangers had finished the previous season in pretty decent form, and manager Stewart Houston was given the opportunity to bring in the players he wanted. With an attack of Kevin Gallen, record signing Mike Sheron, and the Championship’s outstanding striker of 1996/97, John Spencer, there appeared to be sufficient firepower to get the goals that would provide a genuine promotion charge. The signs were encouraging in the midfield, as well. The talented Trevor Sinclair was still at Loftus Road.
Alongside him, there was the experienced presence of Simon Barker and Gavin Peacock. And providing a good balance were Nigel Quashie and Paul Murray, who had both made appearances for the England Under-21 team. The defence was also bolstered, with Houston returning to Arsenal to bring in Matthew Rose and goalkeeper Lee Harper, alongside new club captain Steve Morrow, who had arrived towards the end of the previous season.
But somehow the pre-season optimism never really materialised on the pitch. Even a winning run, which saw Stewart Houston win the Manager of the Month award, failed to capture the imagination of the supporters. Sure enough, a poor run of form followed. The defence was a mess, and the forward line - which seemed to offer a wealth of possibilities - wasn’t functioning either. Houston’s position became untenable, owing to the fact that he was one of the few QPR managers who had the opportunity to spend money, rather than sell, when building a Rangers squad. And the fact that he was such a dour figure, who made no connection with the supporters, pretty much sealed his fate. He and his assistant, Bruce Rioch, were gone.
His replacement was Ray Harford. Hugely experienced, and amiable to everyone he encountered, Harford was a very different personality to his predecessor, it looked like he would make significant changes to what went before him. And sure enough that happened in the form of even worse performances and results. Rather than being the man to revitalise the promotion charge, Ray Harford was now taking Rangers in the wrong direction.
Any goodwill that was extended towards the new Rangers manager was rapidly running out as the season went on. The home defeat to Swindon Town was one of the most shambolic defeats in the club’s history. The visitors were reduced to ten men, after goalkeeper Fraser Digby was sent off. Of all people, former defender and QPR legend Alan McDonald went in goal for the Robins. In a game the R’s badly needed to win, they hardly got a shot on target against Macca. With ten men and no recognised goalkeeper on the pitch, Swindon Town won 2-1. Another lacklustre defeat by the same scoreline followed at Stoke City. It was about now that alarm bells were ringing amongst supporters. Clearly, the feeling was mutual from within the club as well - and prior to the away trip to Huddersfield Town, Rangers made the double signing of Vinnie Jones and Neil Ruddock.
Now, before I go any further, whenever I see online discussions about some of the worst footballers ever to play for Queens Park Rangers, Jones naturally enough gets lots of mentions - though I am surprised that Ruddock is often mentioned alongside him. I freely admit that I don’t generally care for Neil Ruddock as an individual. And he certainly cuts something of a pitiful (and grossly overweight) figure these days. He endured a very public bankruptcy, and has been reduced to appearing on TV programmes like Celebrity Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and The Jeremy Kyle Show. But he only ever came to Loftus Road for the one loan spell of his career, and did an adequate enough job. His acquisition was a measured gamble, one that didn’t do any noticable damage. Subsequently, whatever faults he might have, if I were to draw up a list of the 100 worst permanent and loan QPR signings, I doubt Neil Ruddock would even scrape into that list.
So let’s take a closer look at the Vinnie Jones signing. In March 1998, he joined Queens Park Rangers on a contract for three years, plus the remainder of the 97/98 season. According to one website, he cost over £750,000. A shocking amount of money at the time, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he had already celebrated his 33rd birthday, so it was a big ask, expecting him to be part of any long-term plans. And secondly, Jones had already being involved in a lengthy list of controversial incidents that had blighted his career and divided opinion about him. He would enjoy a good debut, when he scored a fine goal at Huddersfield, controlling the ball and hitting a shot on the turn, which found the bottom corner of the net. The Terriers equalised and the score finished one apiece.
And so began an unusual run of six successive draws. Following the game at Huddersfield, Rangers had a goalless draw against Wolves. Next up was the most credible of these results, in the form of a 2-2 draw at Sunderland. The Wearsiders had been in contention for promotion all year, and went two goals up. But QPR responded in the form of a brace from Mike Sheron. Kevin Gallen then scored in back-to-back 1-1 draws, at home to Oxford United, and then away to Bradford City. This run of draws concluded with the 2-2 draw at Manchester City, when Jamie Pollock wrote his name into Queens Park Rangers folklore. This game also saw the more predictable side of Vinnie Jones come to the fore, when he got involved in a row in the tunnel with a Manchester City steward.
This run of results meant that by the final game of the season, at home to Bury, only a freak set of results would send Rangers down. It was just as well Ray Harford’s side weren’t relying on three points from their final game, as Bury won 1-0. The club had escaped relegation, but even at the time, I always felt there was little to celebrate. QPR had only won two league matches in the second half of the 1997/98 season. And THAT Pollock own-goal did much to gloss over numerous problems that weren’t going to go away, come the start of the 1998/99 campaign.
By the start of the new season, Vinnie Jones had become assistant to Ray Harford. Already some of the more critical Rangers supporters were vocal in their belief that this new role was the only way Jones huge transfer fee could be justified. Had he enjoyed some success, in his new position, such complaints would probably have died down. Instead, he would give the R’s faithful plenty to moan about. Without the aid of points in the bank, like when Harford took over the previous season, QPR struggled. A sending-off in a reserve game added to Jones’s ever-growing list of red cards. Ridiculously, he was signed with the threat of a prison sentence hanging over him. A failure to turn up for a subsequent community sentence bought more unwanted headlines. And he even managed to get into a dressing-room bust-up with Mike Sheron following his one appearance for the first team that season, in a 2-1 defeat at Watford.
The straw that would break the camel’s back came away at strugglers Oxford United. In their previous game, they had been hammered 7-0 at Sunderland. When Rangers visited the old Manor Ground, a rejuvenated Oxford thumped us 4-1. The way the QPR defence conceded the goals that day was a complete and utter shambles. Ray Harford got the message - and not just because his car got broken into on the way back from the game. He quit a couple of days later. Jones had no intention of going so quietly.
It was about this time that Vinnie Jones’s autobiography, Confessions of a Bad Boy, was released. In this (for want of a more apt description) book, he said of his partnership with Ray Harford that he hoped, as a duo, they would become a successful coaching pair like “Joe Mercer & Malcolm Allison or Brian Clough & Peter Taylor”. So it was ironic, given this outlandish claim, that by the time his story hit the bookshelves he had discovered a new career path, thanks to his role in the Guy Ritchie film Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.
Rangers now had a big problem, with Vinnie Jones having largely moved from the playing side of things to a more prominent role in the dugout. Despite the poor performances from the team, clearly Jones was well past his sell-by-date. Footballing-wise, he simply wasn’t a good enough player, whose presence would make a struggling Rangers side any better. And regarding any role in the management set-up, his poor behaviour and the results picked up under him and Harford made that idea a complete non-starter.
With fellow coach Iain Dowie - who was starting to build a decent reputation from his work with the reserves - given the job of caretaker-manager, and then Gerry Francis taking over the reigns on a permanent basis and Dowie retaining his coaching role, there was no room in the new set-up for Vinnie Jones. Whilst some sympathy towards Jones might have been understandable initially, that soon abated when it became clear he was no longer turning up at Loftus Road. The exact contents of his contract have always been something of a mystery - and this remained a moot point for the duration of his time as a Queens Park Rangers employee. Equally, his big money move to the club saw him yield a mere nine appearances in a hooped shirt. Not once did he even play in a winning QPR team. And as assistant to Ray Harford he was a disaster - this off the back of QPR taking a chance on a 33-year-old who could have ended up in prison, on an assault charge, away from football. A little bit of humility on his part would have been nice.
But that was never his strong suit. His Wikipedia page describes him as been an actor and former footballer. Yet any ability he had in those areas were dwarfed by the one thing he excelled at most - that as a self-publicist. During his no-show at Loftus Road, he was turning up everywhere - chat shows, newspapers, magazines, radio and television adverts. You name it, and he was there - promoting his book, promoting his film and, ultimately, promoting himself. Just about the only place you could be guaranteed not to see him was our very own matchday programme. The club didn’t handle this situation very well.
New manager Gerry Francis quickly washed his hands of this sordid affair, which was understandable given he had nothing to do with Vinnie Jones being at the club. And with a relegation battle, he already had enough on his plate to deal with. But the lack of comment from owner Chris Wright or any of the directors was both unusual and disappointing. Much later, we would find out why.
Naturally enough, there was a lot of anger amongst Rangers supporters that Jones was enjoying his media merry-go-round at the club’s expense. His response was to aim abuse back at the fans in a News of the World article, claiming we should be grateful to him for keeping QPR up. Now, of course, this was a myth that Vinnie Jones was happy to perpetrate time and again, to make himself look good with the national media. Had Jones’ time with the club, coincided with a winning run that took us out of the relegation places, he might have had a valid point.
However, Queens Park Rangers were never actually in the bottom three, during the 1997/98 season, despite getting dragged into that mess, owing to an inability to win matches. If Jones really believed we should be grateful for his one goal and appearances in a run of draws, we might as well have put Jamie Pollock on the payroll, while we were at it.
With the box office success of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Vinnie Jones conveniently forgot that he was a great football manager in waiting, and was now concentrating on his acting career. As the club faced up to another relegation battle, attention well and truly turned back to events on the field. Yet we were still left with one very embarrassing and expensive problem - in that QPR were still paying his wages. Towards the latter part of the 1998/99 season, we had the breakthrough that we wanted. Well, of sorts. The club agreed to pay him a six-figure sum and his wages for the duration of the season, and then both parties would go their separate ways. The fact that he was still earning money for the duration of the campaign was annoying. But looking at the bigger picture, the club had saved themselves the burden of paying his wages for a further two years.
After QPR, Jones effectively severed his links with sport - or at least he did, in the professional sense of the word. In the Evening Standard newspaper, he laughably touted himself for the Wimbledon manager’s job (just prior to their Premier League relegation in 2000) and would also claim in FourFourTwo magazine that Rangers would never have been relegated had he been put in charge. Only someone like Vinnie Jones could treat that spell as QPR assistant-manager like some sort of feather in his cap. If he actually believed he was the miracle worker that he would have everyone believe, did it never enter his head that there would be bigger football clubs out there, desperate to acquire his services? He even put his name to another video glorifying football violence on the pitch. This after he nearly got a ban some years earlier, having put his name to Soccer’s Hard Men. His actions were at times, truly laughable.
Ray Harford’s tenure at Loftus Road was not a happy one. Terrible results, some of the worst football that I ever saw from a Queens Park Rangers team, and his signings were, by and large, pretty dreadful. So it would have been understandable to blame him for another duff transfer. Yet the responsibility for the Jones debacle, actually laid elsewhere. Another autobiography brought to light the events behind Vinnie Jones coming to Loftus Road.
In Chris Wright’s book One Way or Another, he revealed going out for a meal with the Chelsea pairing of Ken Bates and David Mellor. For reasons best known to themselves, the pair urged Wright to bring Jones to Rangers. And rather than telling them “If he’s that good, you bloody well sign him for Chelsea...”, our hapless owner acted on the advice of this dodgy duo, financing the deal himself. With hindsight, Chris Wright gambled so much on getting Queens Park Rangers back into the Premier League within two years of the 1995/96 relegation. Had it happened, Wright would have been lauded by supporters, and BBC Radio Five’s 6-0-6 phone-in would have had a succession of supporters of other clubs moaning that they want an ambitious owner like Wright. It wasn’t to be, and he made numerous bad decisions.
Chris Wright’s autobiography did reveal one other interesting snippet of information. Ray Harford’s parting advice when he left Loftus Road was under no circumstances give the job of Queens Park Rangers manager to Jones. Harford’s role is certainly an interesting one. Although he shouldn’t be blamed in any way for Vinnie Jones even being at the club, he was wrong to let such a volatile and inexperienced individual have such a vital and damaging influence at Rangers. And, I have to add, those photos of Vinnie Jones shouting from the dugout, with Ray Harford standing alongside him looking bored, are amongst the most cringeworthy images that come to mind where Queens Park Rangers is concerned. But given Wright’s knack of making poor decisions, perhaps Harford’s view on the future of his one-time number two was one of the few good calls he made for the club.
What I find most annoying about the whole Vinnie Jones saga is the fact that Rangers were guilty of not learning important lessons. Jones arrived at Loftus Road around a year after Mark Hateley had returned to Glasgow Rangers. Although the Hateley signing was prior to Chris Wright taking ownership of QPR, he would have seen close-up what a negative influence Hateley was. Repeating the mistake of bringing in an ageing player on a big transfer fee and contract was amateurish beyond belief.
A perennial source of discussion among supporters is of which individuals would make the line-up of a worst-ever Rangers XI. Among players who have worn the blue and white shirt during the period I have watched Queens Park Rangers, my own choice for this rogues gallery would be made up of some big money flops, the poorest of attitudes - and those who, frankly, were just pretty abysmal when it came to playing for the R’s. As he believed he was meant to be a leader at this football club, Jones is given the skipper’s armband in the following line-up of not-so-Superhoops.
Goalkeeper: George Bankole
Defence: Jose Boswinga, Ned Zelic, Gus Caesar, Christophe Warren;
Midfield: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Vinnie Jones (captain), George Kulcsar, Tony Scully
Attack: Mark Hateley, Robert Taylor
Almost 18 years have past since Vinnie Jones was a player with us. Although he is well and truly from a different generation, I still view him with contempt. Even now, I refuse to watch any film he is in, regardless of whether it is the cinema or television. And I am a keen film watcher. And none of us needed to see a national advertising campaign telling us that Jones is one of the last people we want to see win the jackpot on the National Lottery. The fact that they are giving him work makes me less rather than more likely even to buy a ticket in the first place. I have been glad to give Vinnie Jones a wide berth all these years. I just wish that Queens Park Rangers had done the same thing, back in 1998.
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