Show no sign of weakness, never let them know that you’re hurt and if they do hurt you, make sure you get them back. So many players of years gone by have had this mentality. Roy Keane, Julian Dicks, Vinnie Jones, Patrick Vieira, ‘Psycho’ Stuart Pearce and many others went through their careers with the tag of being a ‘hard man’. Now, this didn’t mean that they didn’t have skill in other areas of the game, as many of these were also lauded for their playing ability. What that label does mean for a player though, is that they epitomise strength both mentally and physically and that they will not bow down no matter what the situation. Whether it was Terry Butcher playing with a bandage dripping with blood wrapped around his head, Duncan Ferguson bullying an opposition centre back or Graeme Souness clearing out an opponent, football’s hard men have always been at the forefront of the sport.
The early 2000s seem to have seen the final group of these warriors in their traditional form, with the Vieira–Keane rivalry and players like Gennaro Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Tomas Repka representing the robust players of the sport. Now, in a game overridden with diving, increased player protection and a desire for the extravagant it can be argued that this breed of player is beginning to disappear or drastically change at the very at least. The players who are often considered the tougher men in football are the likes of Pepe and Diego Costa. This is understandable when the intimidation that they can cause an opponent is considered, however, the fact that they are often found rolling around on the floor at the slightest touch surely takes away from the whole effect, adding some farce to their hard exterior. The thought of Ruddock or someone of his mould laying on the floor after minimal or no contact in order to get a free kick is something that just can’t be imagined.
Even goalkeepers don’t seem to be as crazy as they once were. The likes of Oliver Kahn and Rustu Recber are long gone. During the 2002 World Cup these two were by far the best goalkeepers in the tournament and the impact their mere presence had on both their defenders and the opponents has to be seen as a part of that. Recber, with war paint placed upon his cheeks in every game was one of the cover stars of the tournament after its conclusion alongside the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, due in equal parts to the tremendous performances that he had put in to help Turkey towards a third place finish and the persona that he had. The Turkey keeper had a relatively successful career in his homeland and he ended up winning five Super Lig titles, as well as three domestic cups and also earned a short-lived move to Barcelona. There really doesn’t seem to be anybody at the top level now who has the same type of aura as he once did. Even Manuel Neuer, who is arguably the most imposing and intimidating goalkeeper at the top has been humbled on multiple occasions. Most notably when he called out Lionel Messi in the media prior to a Champions League meeting between Bayern Munich and Barcelona, saying “I’ll show Messi who’s boss” before being beaten by a stylish chip over his shoulder after watching his team mate Jerome Boateng being put on the floor by the Argentine’s skill.
However, there are still some players in the tail end of their career, who still represent a harshness that used to be key to the reputations of so many players. Nigel de Jong, who is now 32 years of age, is an example of players who still have this tag, but are edging towards retirement. De Jong will forever be remembered by many for the outrageously poor challenge that led to him essentially kung fu kicking Xabi Alonso in the chest during the 2010 World Cup final and how he somehow only getting a yellow card as punishment. However, he has an Eredivisie, Premier League and FA Cup win to his name. The grit and determination that players of this kind have shown on the pitch throughout their career to get as much success as possible is something that should still have a place in the modern game. Can you really imagine John Terry doing so well at Chelsea, or Carlos Puyol becoming a Barcelona legend if they had ditched their combative style to focus their energies on becoming a fashionable ball playing centre-half?
Many players are now being asked to do that though. Take a look at the top teams of the Premier League for example. Chelsea have a brilliant defensive unit that was difficult to breach, with David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill in defence as well as Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante in front of them. These are the men central to that success but are hardly the sort of player that you would want to steer clear of to avoid an inevitable loss in a confrontation. They are all brilliant players in their own right, but none of them can be considered hard men. Look at Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool and you would be very hard pressed to find a man imposing enough to put the fear of God into another on the pitch through intimidation now that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is leaving Old Trafford.
It could be argued that the demise of a figure to be feared is a contributing factor to why smaller teams in the league are able to go to the giants of the English game and get a result. The loss of their fear factor. Take Liverpool as an example. In the past, there have been Graeme Souness and Dietmar Hamann among others in the centre of midfield to offer support to the brilliance of technical players such as Kenny Dalglish and Michael Owen, as well as a certain Steven Gerrard who was able to do pretty much anything. However, if you look at their side now, while they still have quality in abundance thanks to Phillipe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and plenty of other talented players, Jordan Henderson or Lucas are not the type of player that will make Anfield an imposing place to play. The fact that there is no single player in the side who is able to suppress the confidence of the opposition with a threatening demeanour and tough challenge allows any Anfield visitor to have hope of winning if they are able to keep out the Reds’ attacking stars. They can now come to big stadia like this looking to do more than just sit back and settle for a draw.
Although this could just be another evolution of the beautiful game, that results in it losing the grit that slightly hid its shine at points through the years. As players become even more well groomed and the line between a good, hard tackle and a foul which is worthy of a booking has become blurred, it is clear to see why clubs are tempted to veer away from players with a combative style or dirty streak. Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka has picked up 12 yellow cards and two red cards this season and has rightly been widely criticised for this disciplinary record, with the main attributes of his game being completely ignored by the majority because of it. Therefore, it is understandable that managers and clubs wouldn’t want to sign a player who will kick their opponent up in the air whether they win the ball or not.
However, there are still those tougher players who choose to show their weaker side. As somebody who considers diving as something that tarnishes the game, it is hugely disappointing to see big burly players so ready to dramatically throw themselves to the floor for the sake of a free kick. Although it will be argued that employing a tactic that has been so widely used in the modern game doesn’t stop somebody being considered a hard man if they are daunting for their opposition. This does, however, show a shift in the role of football’s toughest players. Where they were once deployed to rough up their opponents before and during the game, as the likes of John Fashanu would do on a weekly basis, to maintain an heir of invincibility and toughness in any situation. It would take a very brave man to stand up to these people and it was usually only when two of this breed met that they would be confronted on the pitch.
It goes to show just how much this has changed when Diego Costa, a man considered amongst the most physically imposing in the Premier League was goaded by 21-year-old Rob Holding in an FA Cup final after the Chelsea man had seemingly lost his head early on. The lower echelons of the football pyramid will still have players with the bite and grit to try and drag their team up the leagues, but it seems the traditional hard man has been left in the past when it comes to the top leagues. It would be a big risk for a top level manager to bring one of these players back considering the rulings on fouls in the modern game. However, as football moves progressively further away from its original principles and looks to become more fashionable by the day, it would be brilliant to see a ‘Psycho’ type of player take the game by the scruff of the neck and show just why they will never be outdone.