How soccer somehow became less beautiful when its ugliest players disappeared
by Kevin Alexander
You knew them by the way they tackled: human cannonballs barreling through legs like they were duckpins. You knew them by the way they looked: hulking beasts with close-shorn haircuts, like bouncers on the midfield line deciding when to snap the rope. You knew them by the way they played: soccer-as-hot-potato — nobody wanted to win the ball more and keep it less. They were the Hard Men of English soccer, a pillar of the First Division for decades, a staple of the English game.
They’re all but gone now, relics of eras past, retired to the same soccer graveyard as black-and-white balls, tight shorts, baggy shirts, and Copa Mundials. It feels wrong to mourn them, these men who never spared a tender thought for anyone else, yet I do. The game is supposedly more beautiful without them, but I don’t buy that. In fact, I’ll put it to you this way: the same forces that led to the demise of soccer’s most brutal players have led us to a sport that is less soulful and even less elegant. Let’s call it the Hard Man paradox.
Half a century ago, English soccer thronged with Hard Men. “Every team had a couple of hard guys, a couple of nasty buggers,” says Peter Anderson, a midfielder for Luton Town in the 1970s and then player-coach at Millwall in the early ’80s. “You had to look after yourself out there.”
You can get a sense of their skill sets by looking at the nicknames of the Hard Men of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Chelsea’s Ron “Chopper” Harris and Liverpool’s Tommy “the Anfield Iron” Smith. (“Tommy Smith wasn’t born,” Bill Shankly once said, “he was quarried.”) My personal favorite is Leeds United’s Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter. Another Leeds Hard Man, Joe Jordan, was nicknamed “Jaws” because he refused to wear dentures after losing four teeth to a kick in the mouth. (When he transferred to AC Milan, the movie was so popular that the nickname followed: “Lo Squalo.”)
The game then was a scruffy ancestor to today’s handsome made-for-television affairs, more kick and run than pass and move. “There were a lot of tackles and a lot of long balls,” says Anderson. “Get it up to the center forward as quick as you could, get it down for the midfielders, cross the ball, get in the box.” All those long balls played over the top led to lots of high-speed collisions. “If you were a center back, your job was to clatter the center forward at the very earliest time.”
It’s worth pointing out that although we’ve cast the Hard Man as an English phenomenon, other soccer cultures produced their own specimens. The Hard Man is a vital archetype in Argentine soccer, as anyone who’s seen the infamous 1977 “friendly” between Scotland and an Argentina team coached by César Luis Menotti, or the more infamous ’86 World Cup quarterfinal with England, can attest. But the English league was defined by the Hard Man more than most, so we will keep our focus there.
Nor was the Hard Man defined by his position on the pitch. Sure, lining up your local bruiser at center back or central midfielder likely put him within an elbow’s radius of the opposite team’s star players, but goalkeepers, wingers, and strikers could all inhabit the role of Hard Man. In other words, it’s less a position, more a state of mindlessness.
Actually, I take that back. Hard Men were tough, but it would be unfair to classify them all as brainless thugs. In fact, it took a certain amount of skill to master the dark arts, wield them effectively, and manage to avoid detection, or at least expulsion, by the referee. Tackles had to be crunching and well-placed but not explicitly from behind or with the studs deployed. Aerial challenges, especially off punts and goal kicks, presented an opportunity to showcase sharp elbows, though it helped to swing them in a natural way. Corner and free kicks allowed for all manner of ball twisting, headbutting, and shirt tugging when the tangle of bodies obscured the referee’s vision.
Certain acts were beyond the pale, even for the nastiest Hard Men. Spitting or actually throwing a punch all but ensured an early trip to the locker room. Besides, these were the signs of an amateur, a wannabe Hard Man who was not only failing to manage his opposite number but who had also been driven to desperation by him. After all, a Hard Man’s gotta have a code.
For the true Hard Man, intimidating opponents wasn’t just about establishing physical dominance. The very best created an aura of terrifying invincibility. He might do this by cultivating a reputation for violence so extreme that he didn’t always have to use it. Billy Whitehurst, who played for 20 teams over a 15-year career and is up near the top of every toughest-player list, allegedly used to make extra money during his time with Oxford United by bare-knuckle boxing with gypsies. After Nottingham Forest’s Kenny Burns was caught on camera casually headbutting Arsenal’s Richie Powling during a free kick in 1977, manager Brian Clough fined him £50 — a small price to pay for a spot of prime “advertising.” Burns later described the incident to a reporter: “I knew I was wrong, but I also looked upon it as a chance to send out a message. If I was watching it on television, so were my future opponents.”
Some men were hard not because of the damage they inflicted on others but because they could withstand high levels of it themselves. Manchester City’s Bert Trautmann somehow famously played the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck. (Though he was a goalkeeper, a position that has its own taxonomy of crazy.)
Many could dish it out and take it in equal measure. My man “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter once broke his leg during a game but was so used to doing it to others that when the trainer told him the leg was broken, he asked, “Whose is it?”
Peter Anderson remembers his first run-in with a world-class Hard Man. Luton Town was playing against Middlesbrough. It was Anderson’s first season with the club. Early in the game, he lunged for a loose ball in the midfield. He got to it late and accidentally caught an opponent’s ankle. A bad ankle to catch, possibly the worst in all of England: the ankle belonged to legendary Hard Man and 1966 World Cup star Nobby Stiles.
“He’s howling and rolling around on the field,” Anderson recalls. “They bring the stretcher out. I’d just wanted to get the lad’s autograph and now I’m like, ‘Oh shite, I’ve broken his leg,’” Anderson says. “So I went over to apologize, and as he’s being stretchered off, he’s yelling, ‘I’ll fucking get you! I’ll fucking get you!’”
A few months passed. Luton Town traveled to Middlesbrough. As Anderson and his teammates were warming up, he suddenly got the feeling that he was being watched. He looked up, and there was Stiles standing on the halfway line.
“He’s pointing his finger at me and saying, ‘I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m still going to get you.’ And for the first five minutes of the game, all I did was run around, getting chased by Nobby. I was a bit younger and faster than him, so I’m still around to tell the story.”
Even the more creative, technical players of that time were much tougher than their analogues today. Getting cracked in the kidneys over and over will do that to you.
“If you played in England, you had to keep coming at the hard men,” says Anderson, “or you got kicked off the park.”
Liverpool captain Graeme Souness, a Scot, was known just as much for his fierce tackles as his exquisite touch. (Liverpool’s own website describes him as “a bear of a player with the delicacy of a violinist.”) Mark Hughes, who came up in 1980 with Manchester United, could parry challenges and shield blows with his barrel of a body while using his considerable skill to put the ball into the net.
In the late 1980s, things began to change. The style and technique of the top English clubs benefited from the introduction of foreign players and coaches who brought their foreign ways, namely a peculiar desire to possess the ball. The evolution from kick to pass had begun. But that didn’t stop the proliferation of Hard Men and their excellent nicknames.
Forest fans took to calling Stuart Pearce “Psycho.”There was Julian “the Terminator” Dicks of West Ham, Ipswich Town’s Terry Butcher (he of the bloody, bandaged face during a World Cup qualifier against Sweden), and, most infamously, Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang — a group of hilariously unskilled defenders that included John Fashanu, Dennis Wise, and Vinnie Jones, whose subsequent career as an action movie tough seems, if anything, to have required him to soften his behavior rather than amp it up for the camera. The Crazy Gang glorified the Hard Man persona almost to the point of parody, and Wimbledon eventually embraced it, going so far as to sew Crazy Gang patches on its jerseys.
But the hijinks and low blows of the Crazy Gang were the pinnacle of the Hard Man’s golden age. Even before opponents figured out how to neutralize and even exploit Wimbledon’s wacky and brutish play, sending the club careening back down into the lower leagues, changes to the way the game was being played meant that the Hard Man’s natural environment was beginning to disappear, and he soon became an endangered species. And to trace that transition, we begin with a lanky French coach, his lanky French midfielder, and a spitting-mean, tightly coiled Irishman who hated them both.
The crucial moment in the Hard Man’s demise may have occurred when Arsène Wenger took over at Arsenal in 1996, speaking openly and without deference to traditional English values about his desire for Arsenal to play what he called “modern football.” Wenger’s Arsenal would emphasize speed, possession, and movement — talents that don’t necessarily come naturally to the towering, lumbering bullies so beloved in the national folklore.
Wenger is credited with bringing new ideas to English soccer, but before we get to those, let’s discuss the new ideas that brought Wenger himself to England.
Today we tend to think of the Premier League era — which began when the top English clubs broke with the traditional league structure to keep more TV money for themselves — as a single, monolithic period. The reality is far messier. Even as the top English clubs restructured and began to enrich themselves like never before, the play on the field lagged behind. That first Premier League season, in 1992–93, was no different from the final season of the First Division the year before.
Meanwhile, English soccer was in a serious slump. Long gone were the glory days of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when English teams won the European Cup six years in a row — Aston Villa once, Nottingham Forest twice, Liverpool thrice. By the late 1980s, the balance of power had shifted decidedly to the Continent. Only one of the 10 European Cup finals played from the 1988–89 to the 1997–98 seasons did not feature an Italian participant. English clubs were excluded from the tournament after the Heysel disaster of 1985; once they returned in 1992, it took five seasons for an English team — Manchester United — to make it out of the group stage.
Wenger arrived during this transitional period, and he didn’t get rid of the Hard Man as much as tweak it to suit his style. He did this by bringing along fellow Frenchman Patrick Vieira, who joined from AC Milan in 1996. Vieira combined aggressive tackling and aerial dominance with supple touch and good vision. It was a rare combination, and Vieira’s only equal became his great nemesis: Roy Keane managed Manchester United’s dirty work, protected his teammates, tackled hard from box to box, and even scored crucial goals.
“I like dogs,” Keane snarled in his 2002 autobiography, “because unlike humans, they don’t talk shite.”
Vieira and Keane represented the Hard Man 2.0 — players who showed up to work carrying the Hard Man toolbox but added touch, vision, and the ability to finish. They showed that you could polish a Hard Man without removing all the sharp edges.
“People were actually scared of Keane,” says Anderson. “But Vieira didn’t back down.”
The two men battled on several occasions, including an on-field scrap in 2003 following a Vieira red card for attempting to karate kick Ruud van Nistelrooy, and again in the tunnel at Highbury before a 2005 match. There is video of Keane telling Vieira, “I’ll see you out there.”
Meanwhile, billionaires were purchasing English soccer teams. The Russian Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003; the American Glazer family did a leveraged buyout of Manchester United in 2005; and United Arab Emirates bazillionaire Sheikh Mansour snapped up Manchester City in 2008. These owners lacked the old bias for English players and operated free of the former restrictions on the number of foreign players allowed, and they used their giant piles of Scrooge McDuck money to acquire the best international players.
The internationalization of the league has been staggering: English players accounted for 69 percent of starters in 1992 but only 31 percent last season. For perspective, 50 percent of starters in the Bundesliga last season were German, 58 percent Spaniards in La Liga, and 56 percent Italians in Serie A. In 2015–16, players from 64 countries saw time in the Premier League, making it more diverse than any of the other top European leagues.
“Look at a team like Arsenal,” says Anderson. “We’re lucky if there’s one English player in the starting XI.”
With so many international players coming over, the game had to change. The skill level at every position was higher, the chances of making a roster spot lower. In other words, the odds of a Hard Man getting on the pitch to show off his repertoire of headbutts were not good. (There were exceptions, of course. See “De Jong, Nigel,” at Manchester City.)
Wenger’s style of play was ascendant, and it influenced his competitors. Traditional fullbacks were replaced by speedy wingers who could cross the ball. (Some of these players even had softer names, like Ashley Cole.) Teams that traditionally played in the most straightforward style, whose very hardness was baked into the club’s identity, were completely reborn.
Take Stoke City, for instance. The club had become a byword for booming the ball directly up to big strikers, firm tackles from the defenders, and hoping to poke the ball in from a corner kick or long throw-in, preferably aided by the wind and rain. But not even today’s Stoke plays Stoke-style soccer.
“You look at Stoke’s roster now and not one of those players even fits the mold,” says NBC Sports EPL analyst Kyle Martino. “And we’re not talking fitting the mold of Stoke in the ’90s. We’re talking Stoke three years ago.”
The final nail in the Hard Man’s coffin came from the league itself. The people in charge recognized that the investments in fancy strikers would be for naught if those players were injured by flying jump-kick tackles, so they began to penalize the worst offenders more harshly.
“It’s been a legislative decision to create protection for the entertaining parts of the game that have to do with execution of skill rather than demonstration of strength,” says Martino.
The writing wasn’t just on the wall — it was now in the league rulebook.
So this is a good thing, right? More skillful players, fewer bullies. The prettification of modern soccer isn’t just tactical — it’s all-encompassing, nudged forward by everything from increased money and endorsement opportunities to the rise of social media and locker-room selfies. Where yesterday’s Hard Men cultivated a tough look, modern toughs tend to coif and style and beautify themselves. They fit right into a world in which the meaning of the word “axe” has shifted from a tool one uses to chop wood to a scented body spray. You could cast Wayne Rooney in a boxing film; there’s no chance a guy like that would have worried about getting hair plugs in the past.
As the Hard Man went the way of Wayne’s natural hairline, the repercussions were not limited to the wave of central defenders suddenly applying for jobs in meat-pie shops. A certain type of attacker followed them out of the game — usually a slow-footed, powerful possession striker who could win the ball in the air, play with his back to the goal, and cause mayhem in the box. It used to be that a Rickie Lambert or a Christian Benteke had a guaranteed spot, but these days, players in that mold are having a tougher time finding their way onto the pitch at top clubs.
“Look at Pep Guardiola,” says Martino. “They’re not even playing with a recognized striker. Andy Carroll and his like are getting squeezed out of the game.”
In the midfield, laconic geniuses like Carlos Valderrama and Juan Román Riquelme have been supplanted by players who are capable of balancing their creative role with diligent defending. Or, to put it less charitably, are full of industry and relatively devoid of guile.
This is the Hard Man paradox: as quicker, more skillful players replaced them, space and time on the pitch became a much more precious commodity. It’s difficult to say how some of the decadent playmakers of eras past might fit into a modern game that prizes efficiency as much as flair.
Of course, there are still wonderful attacking players. And for all my lamentation, the Hard Man still exists — if you’re willing to redefine the role. Who represents the newest model? You could make a case that it’s the Hard Man striker — Jamie Vardy and Diego Costa come to mind — a player who presses hard, has pace, and goes into tackles with a reckless ferocity; a crafty player who recognizes that the game has been rigged to protect skill players from the Hard Men but tends to relax its rules when the situation is reversed. The Hard Man striker is poised to expose that discrepancy.
The hunter has become the hunted. Or something. And somewhere, Nigel de Jong is wondering how his world got turned upside down.
Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national writer-at-large and an avid fan of slide tackling. He thought of himself as a Hard Man until an unsuccessful attempt to play in England during the late ’90s convinced him otherwise. @KAlexander03