12 of the hardest bastards to play in the Premier League: Keane, Batty, Jones…
Everyone loves to see a hard bastard playing for their team – and Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United have benefitted from some of the best in the Premier League era.
They’re something of a dying breed, but the 1990s were a breeding ground for tough tackles and bust-ups aplenty.
It certainly isn’t a definitive list, but here are some of the most famous and most brutal hard men to play in the Premier League.
Former Manchester United captain Keane was infamous for his hard-man image, with his bust-ups with Patrick Vieira and that revenge tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland just two examples.
So much was his ferocious nature that he could frighten anyone, with former referee Mark Clattenburg saying: “I still smile at the first time I came across Roy Keane.
“He screamed at us for a corner and I’m sure it was a goal kick, but because he screamed at us so loudly, I gave a corner. I was that petrified of him.”
He’s still terrifying people today.
The staple member of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’, any highlights from the Premier League’s early years is likely to feature Jones launching himself into tackles yet receiving just yellow cards and warnings from officials.
“Jones would always say, ‘Look at him, he’s bricking himself, and if a ball came in they would always say they would destroy you,” recalled former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, adding that he remembered the midfielder “headbutting the toilet door”.
And in 1995, he even extended to journalists when he bit Daily Mirror reporter Ted Oliver on the nose, three years after angering the FA by releasing a Christmas video entitled ‘Soccer’s Hard Men’.
A cult hero at every club he lined up for, former Leeds academy graduate Batty was famed for his no-nonsense, unapologetic style of play.
“In the trenches, I want Batts alongside me,” said former team-mate Tony Dorigo, who recalled a training incident where Batty broke Keith Curle’s jaw.
“I think he’s gone up for the ball, elbowed him right in his jaw and broken it. Curley comes back to the table at dinner time after getting his jaw done and Batts is there sitting next to me.
“Of course, all Curley can actually eat is soup through a straw. So we’re all laughing, obviously, and we’re thinking Batts is going to say something.
“He said absolutely nothing and just got up, finished his meal and went back to his room. I’m thinking, ‘Batts, just say sorry!’
“There was no sympathy. He was ultra-competitive, a great player, but if you get out on that pitch you better watch out.”
In his early days at Rangers, Ferguson famously spent three months in jail for headbutting Raith Rovers’ John McStay during a match – though he didn’t even receive a yellow card for the incident.
Another famous story is regularly recounted where Ferguson found two burglars in his house, with one escaping and one spending three days in hospital as a result of their, ahem, encounter.
Former Everton team-mate James McFadden recalled: “We played Charlton and Herman Hreidarsson was running about smashing people and Big Dunc is sitting on the bench getting annoyed.
Ferguson came on. “I say ‘aw no’. As soon as the ball comes in, Hreidarsson thought he was getting a nudge but no, he cracked him, and he just fell like a domino. He just walked off and says ‘sorry lads’.”
Ok, so the bald head and menacing glare add to it, but Stam’s feisty side made him a notoriously difficult centre-back to play against.
In a 2012 interview, Stam was asked if he was a hard man, to which he responded: “A player recently came at me with a head-butt, so I grabbed him and put him in a head-lock. He looked a bit blue when I let him go.”
Another Dutch @ManUtd legend is back for the Soccer Aid World XI. Tough tackling Japp Stam will make his 5th appearance ⚽️🇱🇺
— Soccer Aid (at 🏡) (@socceraid) April 12, 2018
When a player’s nickname is ‘Psycho’, the clues are definitely already there.
His unforgiving style of play led to Matt Le Tissier describing him as his scariest opponent ever in his autobiography, while Pearce was so hard he once played on with a broken leg.
He suffered the injury during the first half of a match against Watford, making it to half-time before trying to make his way out for the second period before being held back.
“He put his boot back on and said ‘I’ll give it a go’,” said manager Harry Redknapp. “Even he can’t run off such a bad injury.”
Perhaps the hardest of them all, Harford was a throwback even in the early days of the Premier League.
A truly archetypal No.9, Harford still has a scar today on his lip from a Sam Allardyce elbow – but unsurprisingly he got his own back in an FA Cup clash down the line.
“I just tried to hurt him, to be honest,” Harford told the Daily Mail in 2017.”I went in two-footed and threw elbows until I caught him once on the forehead and there was a little trickle of blood. That was probably when I was at my most vindictive on the football pitch.”
Harford holds no grudge against Allardyce, though, saying it’s “just the way it was” and describes himself as a brave player rather than a hard one: “I wouldn’t say I was hard. Just brave, really. I put my head in where it hurt and never shirked a challenge.
“All I wanted was for my team-mates to think I was a good player.”
He was indeed a good player – Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign Harford for Manchester United in 1992 – but as for not being hard, any centre-back who ever had to play against him would definitely disagree.
“I only meant to break one of his legs, not both.”
Razor told talkSPORT of an incident in a reserve fixture in which Andy Cole was found to have fractured both left and right leg – though it was found one of the injuries could have been an old problem.
Enjoying entertaining on-field clashes with Vieira and Eric Cantona among many others, Ruddock also fractured Peter Beardsley’s jaw in a 1995 testimonial match.
“Julian Dicks was an animal. I remember him having a go at Vinnie Jones once and Vinnie was shitting himself. His arsehole fell out. Dicks epitomised West Ham. When he kissed that badge, he meant it.”
Ok so it was West Ham fan and on-screen hard man Danny Dyer with that quote, but that epitomises everything Dicks was about.
“It would have been nice to have played 20 or 30 years ago,” the former West Ham man said. “You could get away with murder then, elbow people, everything. The game’s changing for the worse.”
And it helps that he loved to absolutely hammer penalties in.
Vieira’s rivalry with Manchester United captain Keane is written into Premier League folklore, the pair famously clashing before they’d even got onto the pitch at Highbury in 2005.
The clash began when Vieira squirted his water bottle at Keane, who went on too utter the famous line “see you out on the pitch”.
Later, Keane said of that day: “If it had come to a fight, Patrick could probably have killed me.”
Perhaps an understated hard-man of the Premier League era, Gravesen earned the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ during his time at Everton.
He was missed when he left for Real Madrid, where he angered manager Fabio Capello after a crunching tackle on Robinho in training.
“The way he is, we won’t have problems with him,” Capello said. “He’s just a little bit particular. I don’t mess with him, he works well tactically.
“His behaviour is like this, and I don’t like it, everything has to be done like he wants it to be done.”
Never afraid to give it out, Huth didn’t complain about receiving it either. Although maybe that’s simply because he didn’t feel pain.
In fact, in January 2013, Huth suffered a head injury within three minutes of Stoke’s game against Wigan which required 28 stitches – but the German did not have them put in until after he’d completed the full 90.
He also hates feigning injury. “Pretending to be hurt – it just goes against any sport,” he told The Times in 2018. “The weakness of it all p***** me off. I can’t think of another sport where it’s acceptable.
“We spent the past 15, 16 years with nutrition, gym work, making footballers the strongest they can be. Are you telling me a [small touch] is enough to make one go down.”