Thursday, December 18, 2008

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

I shall now conclude the final chapter on the subject of 'Football’s Hardest Men' with the final three names that I would consider as the most suitably apt nominees to complete my 'Top Ten' inventory.

In Part One on the 25th November, I focused on Duncan Ferguson, Claudio Gentile, Billy Whitehurst & Dave Mackay.

In Part Two on the 28th November, the men in question were Frank Barson, Norman Hunter & Andoni Goikoetxea.

Now in Part Three, I am going to focus my attention on the following 'hardmen' who have graced our beautiful game.

Before football became a non-contact sport, players frequently spoke about the first 10 minutes of a game as a period in which you had to 'earn the right to play,' essentially by being hard!
In the same breath it was arguably even more important the other way round: you had to earn the right to be hard by showing you could play; otherwise you came across as a sort of cowardly fraud, presenting the facade of being hard.

Step forward Graeme Souness.
Did Souness 'pass that test? He gave the test!'

In his playing days at Liverpool, Sampdoria and Rangers, the Scottish international midfielder was known as one of the toughest competitors in the game.

Graeme Souness, was similar in many ways to say Johnny Giles. He could actually play the game, he didn't need to just kick people up in the air all afternoon. Everybody knows what a gifted technician Souness was on the field, but if you're like me what you might well remember him for was some of the most horrendous tackles he unleashed on his opponents - potentially career ending ones. Perhaps the worst I ever saw was when he was playing for Scotland against Iceland one time. The Icelandic player had the temerity to go for a fifty-fifty with Souness and collected most of the Scotland man's studs firmly in his groin.

One of Bob Paisley's majestic trio of Scottish captures, with Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen, he cost £352,000 from Middlesbrough in January 1978. Five months later he supplied the pass at Wembley for Dalglish to score the only goal to beat Bruges & retain the European Cup. In general during his Anfield career the Scotland captain responded brilliantly to Paisley's demand to curb his explosive temperament and he became a midfielder of immense stature.

In six successful seasons as a Liverpool player Graeme Souness was at the heart of Liverpool's triumphs. Memorably described as 'a bear of a player with the delicacy of a violinist,' he was a high-octane blend of amazing strength & bewitching subtlety (centre left).

But when the legs & to a lesser extent, the eyes went towards the end of his career, he had to rely on an inadvertently hilarious thuggery.

He moved to Italian football in 1984, but returned to the UK as player/manager of Glasgow Rangers.

In 1986 Souness marked his Rangers debut with a red card inside half an hour, for a two-footed outrage on Hibernian's George McCluskey, thus sparking a mass 22-man brawl. (Souness actually nobbled the wrong gangling mullet, an easy mistake to make in Edinburgh in the mid-80s).

Even as a football manager he seemed to court controversy wherever he went.
Most famously in 1996 he nearly caused a riot while boss of Galatasaray, by planting a Galatasaray club flag on the centre spot of the pitch, of fellow Turkish side & arch-rivals Fenerbahce.

In Ron Harris, the man they called 'Chopper' you had a guy who was considered the unacceptable face of a talented Chelsea team in the late 1960’s & early 1970’s.

In that footballing era, every side had a so-called destroyer, a hatchet man, whatever you want to call them. There was at the Arsenal, Peter Storey, at Liverpool Tommy Smith, at Man Utd you had Nobby Stiles......& so on.

Harris was said to have tried to intimidate opponents even in the tunnel before a match, with a choice sentence perhaps containing the word 'ambulance'
Harris denies this saying that in fact he seldom used to speak to anyone before or during a game. However he said his manager at Chelsea at the time, Tommy Docherty did give him a tip about man-marking.
'He told me to larrup somebody in the first few minutes, and after that just to stay behind them & cough every now and then, to show them I was not too far away.'
The tactic plainly worked in the case of Tottenham’s Jimmy Greaves, marked by Chopper 19 times, scoring just the once.

It is Greaves, in fact, who wrote a foreword in a book saying, 'I've been acquainted with Ron Harris, better known as Chopper, for longer than I care to remember - and for most of that time I thought he was an evil git.' Harris came into his own in the 1970 FA Cup Final & subsequent replay against Leeds – two of the most bruising games ever seen!

His assault on Eddie Gray in the replay was one of the reasons the Blues won the trophy. Today there would not have been a player left on the pitch come the end of that Final. Nowadays it seems that too many teams have a soft centre where their midfield should be.

The game is much faster these days, of course, and the timing of a tackle is becoming a thing of precision. Old Chopper Harris, who was so short-sighted he had to be pulled back from scything down his own team-mates, would be permanently suspended these days.

Dissent is a major cause of cautions. And it seems that more modern players have difficulty in controlling themselves after being fouled. In the old days a player was willing to bide his time before getting even!

Last but by no means least, the final player to make my 'Top Ten' list of football’s hardest men is Forest legend Stuart Pearce.

Pearce was signed by Brian Clough in 1985 from Coventry City & he became a stalwart of the Nottingham Forest side of the 1980s & 90s. Pearce forged a reputation as one of the most uncompromising defenders in world football.

Given the nickname 'Psycho' by Nottingham Forest fans, the left-back cultivated a 'hard but fair' image that had him respected up & down the country.

There can be no doubt that Pearce was a hard man. He did possess an uncompromising tackle, but there was more to his game than that. He was a great crosser of the ball & had a fearsome shot on him whether it be from open play or a dead-ball situation. Probably his most notable goal was the bullet free-kick he scored in the 1991 FA Cup Final at Wembley.

Pearce was physically tough. He once tried to run off a broken leg in the twilight of his career at West Ham. But it was his mental strength to take a penalty for England in a shoot-out against Spain at the 1996 Euro Championships, which will live longest in the memory of all England fans, as he exorcised the ghost of 1990!

Pearce had missed a vital penalty-kick in the World Cup semi-final against West Germany in 1990, but made no mistake against Spain & the joy and relief on his face along with his clenched fist salute to the crowd when he scored, wiped out the memory of that miss & is one of English football's most enduring images (right).

Pearce later said in his autobiography of his penalty miss in Turin in 1990. 'My world collapsed, I had been taking penalties for as long as I could remember, but now I'd missed the most important penalty of my life.'

The 1992 Euro Championships saw him come up against a certain Frenchman Basil Boli. The giant Frenchman headbutted Pearce, without the referee noticing. Pearce was visibly angry and had to wipe blood from his face. Normally you would have given Boli five minutes at the most before 'Psycho' sent him to the treatment room. But the England captain surprised us all when he just got up and continued with the game.
You wouldn't have blamed Pearce for flooring the Frenchman, such was the ferocity of the headbutt, but Pearce showed he was better than that and beat his man by 'playing football.'

He won countless trophies with Forest and scored some classic goals. He made 522 appearances, & scored 88 goals for The Reds.
Whilst for England he made 78 appearances & scored 5 goals. Not bad for a left back!

*Putting together a list of foootball's top ten hardest men was no easy feat, & I am well aware that I had to leave out many other well-known players, who some of you might consider more worthy contenders than the players I did eventually choose.
So before I sign off I will add an additional list of some of the other players I considered but overlooked before I decided on my final ten
- Nobby Stiles, Joe Jordan, Marco Tardelli, Kenny Burns, Tommy Smith, Terry Butcher, Luis Medina, Peter Storey, Antonio Rattin, Roy Keane, Jose Batista, Billy Bremner, Vinnie Jones, Miguel Angel name but a few!

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