Vinnie Jones: “Winners get stronger and losers get weaker”

The footballer turned actor talks being misunderstood, career advice he got from Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins and the grief of losing his wife Tanya

When I was 16 I was in love with football. That was my whole life. I loved the outdoors; the fishing and the shooting and the woods and the rivers. But paramount was always football. You’d never, ever, see me without a football. When I was in a classroom I’d just be looking out the window at the playground, working out who would play against who at break time. That’s all I’d look forward to. I left school at 15 and I went straight into working on the building site with my dad.

I’d been signed to Watford as a schoolboy. There were about 15 of us who’d been taken on and it was a great honour. I remember the headmaster getting me up at assembly and saying congratulations. So when I got released, when I was 15 – that’s like a bombshell, you feel like it’s the end of the world. For 10 years your whole life is playing football and then you get the devastating news that they’re not going to take you on. I remember it well – they called me and my best mate Graham in together. And the manager said, Graham, if you keep playing and keep your head down you could maybe be a professional one day. And he turned to me and said, Vinnie, your problem is you treat life as one big joke. I said thanks very much and laughed. I went out and I was working on the building site the next day. Reality hit hard but there was no one to talk to who could help you. It was just, get on with it.

Sixteen was already a hard year because we had just gone through a very bad divorce with mum and dad. I’d had a great life, I was always laughing and bubbly, really happy until the divorce and then I became angry. I rebelled against my dad, which I suppose was partly because of my age, going through puberty and all that. I got angry and at the same time I started drinking and then fighting came into it. I think young men have a lot of anger and in them days a curry and a fight on a Friday night was the norm. And this all came at the same time as the divorce and being dropped by Watford. And also moving away, with my dad, from all my lifelong friends – that was another devastating blow. So it was a hard time for me.

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I thought about joining the army for a while. I just wanted to be around a lot of blokes. All the camaraderie, I craved that. So when Dave Bassett finally signed me to Wimbledon in 1986 it was great. Thirty blokes every day, all the banter that young blokes do, I was very happy. But I was also a really hard trainer. People said, oh he’s lucky. There was nothing lucky about it. You need breaks, but when you get them you’ve got the make the most of them. I think winners get stronger and losers get weaker. When I had to go to Wealdstone [where his semi-professional career began] I used to get two buses and a train, it was pouring with rain and about a mile-and-a-half walk home. There was nothing lucky about that but I did it and I did it and I did it.

I don’t feel guilty about anything I did when I was younger. There was a lot of beer drinking and that but that was the norm. You can’t control bombs. My life was bombarded. The fucking biggest devastation in my life was when my mother and father split up and I had to go with one or the other. At that age it’s like incisors in your guts, and it takes years and years and… probably now I still haven’t got over it. That’s why I always say, don’t be quick to judge people when you don’t know what their background is. Unfortunately the press and everybody else have been very quick to judge me. They never asked about my background, no one said, oh, actually, bloody hell, you went through all that. But anyway, I move on. I won’t let the grass grow around me. I don’t feel sorry for myself; my glass is always half full.

I still remember the first time I saw Tans [his wife Tanya, who died of cancer in July last year]. We were 12 years old in Watford. We’d gone to a cricket match, and we met while the dads were playing cricket. And then we met again when we were 16 and I walked her home from the pub. I was showing off. Was she impressed? I think so, because we stayed together forever. Now I take things day to day. I get up in the morning and I have a little chat with her when I’m making my bed. And then I somehow muddle through the day. And I think of her in the evening. It’ll be a year on Monday [July 6] since she passed and it was our 26th wedding anniversary on the 25th of June, so it’s been a hard couple of weeks. The grief sort of creeps up on you like the fog. And you have to get through it and get to the sunshine on the other side. Monday will be a tough day. I’ll probably go down and say a few words in the church. Our daughter’s in LA so she’ll go down to the grave and put the flowers on. I just want to get through it.

Everywhere I’ve gone in football I’ve loved it. I was always popular with the lads, always up for the craic. Leeds was great, Sheffield United I was captain, that was fantastic. Chelsea was great fun. With Wimbledon we won the FA Cup but that was all so quick it was kind of a blur. Winning the league with Leeds was fantastic and it took all season so you could take it in a bit more. Gordon Strachan was our captain. I got close to him and I’m still close to him now. He’s a very good man, I have a lot of admiration for the wee man.

Getting into films was a complete random accident. I got a phone call from Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie and they said, we’re going to do this movie [1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels] and we’ve got a little cameo for you. I said yeah, no problem, and I went and done a couple of days’ filming. At the end of the film Guy asked me to do some reshoots and they made my role bigger. I didn’t think I’d be especially good at it but I just related the character to a couple of angry people I knew. It was, as the Watford manager said, just one big joke really, and then look what happened.

When Lock, Stock first came out there was a couple of articles that sort of crapped on us, then all of a sudden, the whole public turned. So obviously the couple of journalists that had shit on us disappeared and the other journalists that were savvy enough to wait for the verdict came out and everybody was, way hay, this is what we’ve been waiting for, this is British. I think it’s up there with The Long Good Friday and The Italian Job. I think it’s a British gem. And I think the British people own it now.

After Lock, Stock I had people like Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine say to me, you’ve got a career in this, and I said really? And they said, you have got a massive screen presence – the minute you come on screen you just take over, no matter who’s on the screen with you. Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine both said that to me. And now with The Big Ugly I’m an actor, producer and writer. And I’m really excited about the future.

If I could go back to any moment in my life, I think it would be just after Snatch, and I took everybody – the whole family – out to LA when I was doing Gone in 60 Seconds. Actually I took friends and family, housekeeper, laundry lady, gardener – I booked 62 return flights to LA that year. I remember when me and Tans went to sign the deal, flying into LAX, and going straight to a meeting with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie. I turned to Tans and said, is this really happening? And she was laughing and she said, I hope so.

The Big Ugly is in cinemas and on digital from July 24