As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough the tough certainly gets going. There is no doubt that this is relatable to football’s hard men across the planet. Whether they adorn hoops, stripes or a plain kit, we have seen a wide variety of players who have roughed up the beautiful game.
In fact, football’s tough appearance can be traced back to the 60'sand 70's in the UK. It never used to be all manicured pitches and heated bench seats. Back in the day, football was played on pitches resembling quagmires and had its fair share of punch ups.
This was to be the inception of rough and tumble players such as Manchester City’s Francis Lee. His altercation with a Derby County player resembled something out of a pub come closing time. There were more punches thrown than George Groves landed against Carl Froch. Both men were given their marching orders but the struggle continued as both continued the contest.
During the 1970’s, Leeds United were also the perpetrators of the more physical attributes of the game. Johnny Giles as well as Norman Hunter were responsible for a host of crunching tackles where the latter was given the nickname “Bite Yer Legs”.
In the 80’s and 90’s football’s tough men featured ex Nottingham Forest legend Stuart Pearce. Nicknamed “Pyscho” Pearce is the current boss at the City Ground but he was infamous for his tough tackling nature and all out physical approach.
It seems the physical game of the 90's has been replaced with the tiki-taka stylings of FC Barcelona or the Gegen pressing that Bayern Munich has introduced. Yet, this dying breed is not going to be silenced that easily. Here are the top 15 toughest players of all time.
15 Neil Ruddock
Known as ‘Razor’ Ruddock, he was often involved in a number of different skirmishes in his career. The former Liverpool, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur defender had a fiery temperament and often enjoyed dishing out some hefty tackles to his opponents. He was often considered to be the linchpin in the Liverpool defence during the early 90’s. In spite of the fact that he was not the leanest of defenders, Ruddock’s hard man image ensured no one messed with him.
14 Marco Materazzi
Materazzi was a no nonsense Italian defender who was given the nickname ‘The Matrix’. This was largely in part down to his erratic personality. This took him to the heights of playing at the San Siro for Inter Milan in front of 80,000 adoring fans. The master of the wind up, he knew how to get on the wrong side of players. This was clearly demonstrated at the FIFA 2006 World Cup Final. Deep into injury time, France and Italy were tied at one goal apiece. Materazzi was then involved in one of the most dramatic episodes in World Cup history as he was alleged to have insulted Zidane’s family. Moments later, Zidane reacted with a head butt to the Italian’s chest. Zidane was sent off and the rest as they say is history.
13 Stuart Pearce
It was extremely difficult to leave this Englishman out of the list. Stuart Pearce is the epitome of a hard man. It was believed that Pearce attempted to run off a leg break during a game. In addition to this, Pearce was known for clattering into opponents to show them who really was the boss. Pearce had an illustrious career despite starting off in the non-league wilderness for Wealdstone. He made more than 800 appearances and achieved 78 caps for England.
12 Vinnie Jones
Ex-Wimbledon defender Vinnie Jones played a major role in the iconic Wimbledon team at the end of the 80's and early 90's. Dubbed the “Crazy Gang”, this team went on to shock the FA Cup by winning it in 1988, overcoming a dominant Liverpool team by one goal to nil. Jones was a genuine tough not and was harder than a macadamia nut. This hard man image was to remain throughout his playing days. Jones notched up an impressive 12 red cards and was infamously involved in grabbing a young Paul Gascoigne’s testicles during a match. His hard man stance has served him well where he has made an impact on the silver screen appearing in movies such as Guy Ritchie’s ’Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’.
11 Billy Bremner
One of the most iconic hard men of the late 60’s Scottish international Billy Bremner is someone to rely on. The Leeds United player was diminutive in size but was absolutely fearless when it came to a tackle. Known for often bending the rules in order to gain favour for his side, Bremner was part of the notorious Leeds United side of the 1960s and 1970s. He was also responsible for bringing the Whites plenty of success during his time at Elland Road. This included two League titles, a League Cup and reaching the European Cup Final. Bremner finished his career appearing more than 770 times for Leeds and even has a statue dedicated to him outside the ground.
10 Julian Dicks
West Ham legend Julian Dicks had a real impact on the Hammers defence. His tough man stance knew no bounds. After all, Dicks was nicknamed ‘the Terminator’ and he lived up to all expectations. Although this left back was known for his attacking play as a left back he also had a wonderful left foot. He put this to good use and often stepped up as free kick and penalty taker for the Hammers. A string of red cards and more than 20 yellows ensures Dicks features firmly on the hard man list.
9 Johnny Giles
This Irish international was the backbone of Leeds United’s most successful periods. Under the tutelage of Don Revie, Johnny Giles feared no one. He gained infamy thanks to his rough treatment of players no matter what size. On the other hand, Giles was respected for his all round game and was highly respected by his footballing peers. In tandem with Scotsman Billy Bremner, Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with during the 1960's and 70's.
8 Ron Harris
‘Chopper’, Harris was widely known as one of the hardest defenders around. Harris was to achieve FA Cup glory when his side won the world’s most infamous knock out tournament. Furthermore, Harris was to play an instrumental part in the Final where a free kick led to Chelsea equalising in the last minute to force a replay. His FA Cup win after a replay in 1970 saw the Blues win the trophy for the first time in their history.
7 Dave Mackay
According to Northern Ireland superstar George Best, Dave Mackay was the trickiest player he ever faced. That’s some compliment but it was well deserved as Mackay had plenty of fire in his belly. This is thanks to his return to football after two major injuries which threatened to end his career. Known for his slide tackle, Mackay was a Tottenham Hotspur icon and an incredibly aggressive player to come up against. However, he was a part of the famous Tottenham double winning side of 1961.
6 Tommy Smith
According to the great Bill Shankly, he declared that Tommy Smith “wasn’t born, he was quarried”. A defender of the highest calibre, Smith was one of the best players that Liverpool has ever produced. His defensive play was second to none, whilst he was given the utmost of respect by fellow tough nuts Hunter and Harris. Smith won the League on four separate occasions and is still talked about by Merseysiders to this very day.
5 Graeme Souness
This particular Scot features highly on the hard man list for his X-rated sliding challenges that left many a stud mark on players. Ex-Liverpool man Graeme Souness was one of the toughest tacklers around. His midfield prowess ensured the Red’s most successful period in their history picking up three European Cups. Souness was red in every sense of the word and often launched into challenges to make sure players knew he was there. Meanwhile, he has taken his brutal honesty and no nonsense approach into the television studios as a pundit.
4 Nobby Stiles
A Busby Babe, defender Nobby Stiles was indeed tougher than nails. His hard tackling nature enabled him to be a part of the infamous Manchester United side of the 1960's. Playing alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton not to mention George Best, Stiles was a rock in the United line up. He achieved lots of success on the field such as the 1968 European Cup and League title. Born and bred in Manchester, Stiles made 28 appearances for England. His gritty attitude ensured he is one of only few Englishmen to win the World Cup.
3 Gennaro Gattuso
Nicknamed the Rhino, Gennaro Gattuso was a beast of a player. Playing in the heart of the AC Milan midfield which featured the likes of Andrea Pirlo as well as Clarence Seedorf, the little general was a real tough man. Despite his small stature, Gattuso feared no one including the press. The finest example was when AC Milan came up against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League. Squaring up to a player is more than enough but Gattuso favoured the Spurs assistant at the time Joe Jordan. A hard man himself, it was Gattuso who planted an infamous head butt on the former Scottish forward.
2 Terry Butcher
If there is one image that really befits a tough man then look no further than Terry Butcher. The pride of England, Butcher soldiered on in spite of the fact his head was bleeding profusely. Butcher suffered a deep gash to his head whilst playing for England against Sweden. Having received medical attention and more bandages than a heavyweight boxer, the defender played on. By the end of the game, that British bulldog spirit was clearly evident as Butcher’s white shirt transformed into a sea of red.
1 Roy Keane
The toughest nut at the top of the tree goes to ex Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane. A hard act to follow quite literally, Keane was the heartbeat of the Reds midfield between 1997 and 2005. The midfield maestro pulled no punches and was always one for a crunching tackle. He never shirked out of a challenge, none more so than the infamous tackle on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Håaland. This was further supported in Keane’s autobiography where he declared; “I’d waited long enough. I f***ing hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c**t. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.”