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
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
12 Vinnie Jones
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
9 Johnny Giles
8 Ron Harris
7 Dave Mackay
6 Tommy Smith
5 Graeme Souness
4 Nobby Stiles
3 Gennaro Gattuso
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.”
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