Vinnie Jones Wants You To Be an Eagle

a man sitting on a bench with a group of jerseys behind him
Vinnie Jones Wants You To Be an EagleGREG COLEMAN

‘Do you want to be an eagle or a crow?’ asks Jones. It’s only after an awkward few seconds of silence that I release it’s not a rhetorical question. Unfamiliar with the fable, I ask him what he means.

‘Sometimes you got to be like an eagle,’ he says. ‘The only thing that can have a go at an eagle is a crow. A crow will peck, peck and peck at the eagle. But the eagle’s wings are wide enough and broad enough that it can soar to heights the crow’s unable to reach. So, as long as you set your sights high in life, the bad things, the bad people and the nonsense, will fall off you. You’ve got to be an eagle… sometimes.’

Jones emphasises ‘sometimes’. He’s aware that he’s not always been an eagle.

In the very many versions of the eagle and the crow fable, the eagle symbolises composure and majesty; by soaring high, it is able to remain unperturbed. The moral of the story emphasises the virtue of self-control, suggesting that true strength lies not in reacting to every challenge or insult but instead in maintaining dignity. Humility, composure, and restraint aren’t exactly words you’d use to describe Vinnie Jones.

In 1998, Jones was charged with assaulting a neighbour in a dispute over noise. Five years later, Jones was arrested for punching a fellow passenger during a flight from London to Tokyo and was subsequently fined and cautioned. During the filming of a movie, Jones was involved in a bar brawl fight, which was captured on CCTV. Drenched in blood, Jones needed over 40 stitches to his face. This is the same Vinnie Jones who was sent off 12 times in his career as a professional footballer and still holds the record for the quickest ever yellow card in a football match, being booked after just five seconds.

All very crow-like behaviour. And he’s perhaps, on the face of it, an odd choice to be the centre a new campaign by Three UK, Chelsea FC, and the Samaritans, that aims to encourage football fans to talk to one another about their mental health.

Jones doesn’t see it like that, believing he can talk from a place of experience, and help those who might be struggling.

‘You can regret things you’ve done in the past, but if you embrace it and learn from them, I think it makes you more powerful. I know young lads, and I say, “Please, please, listen to me, because I’ve done it. If you put your hand in that fire, you will burn yourself.” Some listen, but so many still want to put their hand in the flames to see how much it hurts when they get burnt.’

Jones, now 59 and 11 years sober, has burnt his hands many times. An angry young man, he was always ready for the fight, sometimes even searching for it. Looking back, was it perhaps poor mental health that triggered his behaviour?

‘Was I having a lot of mental health problems when I was playing as a young lad? Yes, pretty much,’ he says. ‘I’m sure I had poor mental health and I think it was a rebound of a devastating childhood through divorce. Look, I’m not blaming my parent because that’s life. But it became about their battles, which it does a lot with families, and it doesn’t become about the kid. And that’s where the kids suffer.

london, united kingdom april 01 qpr player vinnie jones c gets to grips with wolves player steve claridge as paul simpson l and neil ruddock obscured look on during a league division one match between queens park rangers and wolverhampton wanderers at loftus road on april 1, 1998 in london, england photo by alex liveseyallsportgetty images
Alex Livesey

‘There was no safe haven for me. There was my mate’s house, and my auntie’s couch, those were my safe space. It’s like a Molotov cocktail. If you mix that with alcohol, it’s going to make a loud bang and I think that’s what I did for many years.’

At the top level, football players don’t act like ‘Vinnie’ anymore. If they did, pundits and fans alike would most likely question their mental state. And that’s a good thing. For all that’s wrong with ‘the beautiful game’, education and awareness around issues like mental health have improved and slowly players are talking more about it. The crucial part is how to translate these messages for the average football fan.

As Jones points out, back when he played you didn’t dare talk about your mental health. Talking was weakness. ‘You’d be scared of it. There was a smell to it. You’d avoid those who talked about it. In the late 80s, if you said you had a bit of problem you’d be out of the team, you’d be in a fucking straight jacket and in a white van out of the training ground. Whatever your fears were, when you got out of the car and made your way into training, you had to put your armour-plated body gear on. And that’s just the way it was.’

Jones doesn’t hide the fact that he was very much part of this culture when he played. He was an influential player in Wimbledon’s notorious ‘Crazy Gang’; in order to survive and compete at the top level, the squad was built around fear and intimidation, the weak chewed up and spat out. A number of Jones’ former teammates have spoken about the bullying and harassment that went on inside the changing room.

wimbledon v liverpool fa cup final 1988 at wembley stadium, london saturday 14th may 1988 winners wimbledon fc, vinnie jones final score wimbledon 1 0 liverpool photo bydaily mirrormirrorpixgetty images

‘It was lad culture,’ says Jones. ‘One out of the trenches, who’s with you. You don’t consciously do it, but you join the tribe. There’s a Wimbledon documentary, and you watch it and realise that some of the lads were in complete turmoil, but you didn’t see that. When you look back at it now, we were the cowards really, because we were the mob. It was caveman stuff.’

A working-class kid from humble beginnings, Jones spent most of his Saturdays on the terraces at Watford’s Vicarage Road. When he reached his teenage years, he quickly realised he had a gift for football and knew this was his chance to make something of himself. ‘I didn’t want to watch from the side lines of life, I wanted to be a player,’ says Jones. But in order for Jones to remain a player, he had to fight for it. Football is tough, and careers are short, and Jones wasn’t going to allow those who were weaker to stop him from achieving his dreams. Perhaps it was this dogged mindset, fuelled by deep-rooted anger, that defined his approach.

Now, some 30 years on, Jones is different, as is the world we live in, especially when it comes to mental health. He will admit that he’s simmered – although can still reach boiling point from time to time – and understands more about mental health and the ways in which he might be able to influence people who are struggling.

‘We’re in a time where it’s ok to talk, says Jones, passionately. ‘No one is going to shove you in the back of a white van and put you in a nut house. Them days have gone. We’re now living in a society that wants to help. Take the help. Listen to what people are saying, those that have been through it. Go and talk. There’s no punishment for letting your feelings out.’

It has been five years since the passing of Jones’ wife, Tanya, at the age of 53 after a six-year battle with skin cancer. For a man who has grappled with anger management and battled alcohol abuse, Jones could have easily reverted to his old ways. Yet, he didn’t, showcasing remarkable resilience and strength of character. This serves as a testament to his personal growth and determination. Once more, Jones sees an opportunity to support those facing similar struggles.

‘We drink for joy, we drink for happiness, we drink for success, but we also drink to bury something,’ says Jones. ‘It’s a matter of realisation. When I lost Tanya, I could have easily used that as an excuse to go back on the booze, and just be a crow and fall off. But I wanted to be an eagle.

‘Negative thoughts are a lot heavier than positive thoughts, and the blanket of grief can come over you and you’re so tired you just want to crawl around on the floor. But it doesn’t have to be [that way]. You’re telling yourself it’s a blanket of grief, but it can be a joyous and a happy thing. Look back at the good stuff, the good memories. If you can, try and take the good out of everything. I know it’s hard, it is hard, because you’re being battered with a baseball bat while you’re trying to think of something positive. But you got to keep soaring, keep going higher and higher.’

vinnie jones mental health
Gareth Cattermole

Jones has made a remarkable journey from his days at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane. Transitioning from a professional footballer to an author, singer, and Hollywood actor, his pursuits have taken him far and wide. When he’s not tending to his farm in Sussex, you’ll find him rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The man has had quite the ride. Given his wealth of experience, and those who look up to him, what sage advice does he have to offer those who are struggling. What would he tell them?

‘You think things are bad, it’ll pass. This too shall fucking pass. Like now, all the success of The Gentlemen [the new Guy Ritchie series, in which Jones stars], I’m flavour of the month again, but in a few weeks it will all be fucking gone. Get up, make your bed, make those that you love proud of you, be a good person and take it all in. Oh, and be a fucking eagle.’

Three UK, proud partners of Samaritans, the leading suicide prevention charity, is encouraging football fans to open up about their mental health through its sponsorship of Chelsea FC.

As part of the #TalkMoreThanFootball campaign, Three and Samaritans are teaming up to offer free virtual and in-person listening skills sessions for football fans across the country to learn how to have more supportive conversations with their friends, colleagues and team-mates. To find out more click here. In the meantime, whatever you're going through, Samaritans are here to listen 24/7. Call free on 116 123.

You Might Also Like