Tuesday, November 25, 2008

'Footy's Top Ten' Hardest Men - Part One!

In these days of namby-pamby, overpaid professionals it's sometimes good to take a look back at when men were men on the football pitch!
Those were the days when every team had its hard man.

It is fair to say that the modern game has taken away the stereotypical hard men, largely down to the camera scrutiny the players now experience on a pitch. You no longer witness, the subtle kicks, pinches or whacks that was part and parcel of the game then. These were the make-up of the real hard men who went about their business quietly and effectively.

My recollections are conjured up using a combination of books & news articles I have read over the years, archived television footage, as well of course as witnessing some of the players in question at first hand, with my very own eyes as a paying spectator.


My first introduction to a genuine tough man was Billy Whitehurst (Sheffield Utd, Hull City, Newcatle & Oxford Utd), a strong man with both a big physique and a reputation to match. I remember in one match Billy kicking out the front teeth of the then Coventry City skipper, Brian Kilcline, a big tough opponent in his own right.

Nobody would deny that he was seriously hard. He once apparently offered out the entire Crystal Palace side in the players' lounge at Hull. When he was at Oxford, he was rumoured to be supplementing his weekly pay, and winding down by means of bare-knuckle fighting with the local gypsies. Neil Ruddock said that, when Billy whispered sweet promises in his ear mid-match, 'I used to start shaking.'

Vinnie Jones, a colleague at Sheffield United, recalls in his autobiography how Billy (right) nipped an escalating rumble with a phalanx of Sheffield Wednesday fans in the bud by knocking out stone cold the opposition ringleader with 'one of the best right-handers I have ever seen - inside or outside a ring'. During that spell at Sheffield United, he was sent out to roam the green with the explicit instructions from his manager, Dave Bassett: 'Go and cause some bollocks, Billy.' He so rarely disappointed.

Italian's have always had a reputation for being 'hot-headed' & 'synical' & in Claudio Gentile (Juventus, Fiorentina & Piacenza) you had the ultimate symbol of Italian cynicism. There was nothing remotely 'gentile' about Claudio!
He was one of the Italian defenders to make up an infamous 'defensive trio' alongside Bergomi & Tardelli in Spain in 1982, where together they led Italy to World Cup glory.

Gentile came to international acclaim in the 2nd phase match against the title-holders Argentina, when he man-marked Diego Maradona out of the game by kicking & flooring him constantly throughout the game. In response to his performance against Maradona, Gentile famously quipped, 'Football is not for ballerinas!'

One of Gentile's most favored tactics was to stand behind the striker who had the ball while kicking between his opponent's legs to play the ball, leaving the opposing player's legs beaten and bruised - a tactic adopted by top-flight defenders ever since. Gentile was also a master of the hard tackle to get the ball, not the player, and was rewarded for his skill by a career that lacked even a single sending-off.

In Dave Mackay you had the hardest footballer in an era when the game really could be termed a man's game. Mackay came back from a twice-broken left leg to dominate in midfield for Tottenham during the 60's before a late and glorious swansong at Derby.

Mackay could show anger, but never, pain. Not because, he thought it showed weakness to the opposition, but because the part of his brain that registered pain or fear had apparently stopped working. After he suffered a grotesque leg-break at Old Trafford in 1963, which would keep him out for almost two years, he barely grimaced, and as he was stretchered off he sat up leaning on his elbow, looking almost bored. Truly, types come no stronger, or silent.

Mackay was definitely one of the good guys: a genuinely outstanding left-half and a truly honorable man, who used his clout to put the hurt on opponents but never ever to seriously injure them.
Nonetheless he was intimidating enough to send the opposition, psychologically, for an early bath.

Engaging with him aggressively was not to be advised.
Billy Bremner discovered this when he kicked Mackay's bad leg. The picture of Mackay, teeth gritted so hard that it seems like they're about to splinter everywhere, grabbing a terrified Bremner by the shirt is one of football's most iconic hard-man photos (right).

Dave Mackay was the indestructible hero.

Where to start with Duncan Ferguson,(Dundee Utd, Rangers, Everton - twice & Newcastle). His career was often punctuated by controversy both on and off the pitch, and by injury. The ex-con has been branded everything from hard man to hooligan, but to Everton fans, he was a hero.

'Big Dunc' was brandished the yellow card a total of 37 times in his 269 Premier League games & shares the dubious record for the most Premier League red cards, collecting a whopping eight along with Patrick Vieira. He was once sent off for punching Paul Scharner in the stomach and a subsequent fracas with Pascal Chimbonda resulted in a total match ban of seven games.

He was capped for Scotland seven times, but made himself unavailable for selection by his national team due to a dispute with the Scottish Football Association.
He has scored the most goals of any Scottish player in the FA Premier League.

Ferguson also frequently found himself in trouble with the law, leading to four convictions for assault, two arising from taxi–rank scuffles. However, his most memorable on–field confrontation was with Raith Rovers defender John McStay in 1994 while playing for Rangers. Ferguson headbutted his opponent and this led to a three-month spell in prison.

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