The game of soccer has definitely changed over the years with many fans believing it hasn’t been for the better. Critics of today’s version complain about the lack of tough tackles and players and yearn for the good old days. However, this list will show that there has been some hard men in the English Premier League since it was born in 1992/93.
Now, being hard and dirty are a bit different. Even though most hard men are also known for their dirty play, many dirty players simply aren’t regarded as being hard as they can dish it out, but can’t take it. This list consists of 10 players who were a combination of tough, dirty, and in some cases highly-skilled. But the reason they were feared the most by opponents was due to their unpredictability and intimidating presence on the football pitch.
10. Patrick Vieira
Midfielder Patrick Vieira was a legend with Arsenal when he played in London, but was probably the most mild-mannered player on this list even though he received 10 red cards in the Premier League. He had a great desire to win at all costs and is well known for his bust ups with Neil Ruddock and notorious agitator Roy Keane in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Vieira was also incredibly talented and skippered the Gunners for three of his nine seasons at Arsenal and was a part of the Invincibles squad that didn’t lose a game in 2003/04. The 6-foot-4-inch Senegalese-born played internationally for France and also suited up for Cannes, AC Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester City during his career from 1994 to 2011 and now coaches New York City of MLS.
9. Alan Shearer
You don’t score 422 career goals in all competitions and become the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer with 260 of them if you’re soft. Legendary English centre-forward and captain Alan Shearer was just 6-feet tall, but played like he was half a foot bigger. He played with Newcastle, Southampton and Blackburn between 1988 and 2006 and set all types of scoring records along the way. He also banged in 30 goals for England in 63 games. Shearer had to play a physical style to make room for himself and didn’t shy away from anybody, as Roy Keane would soon find out. Gordie Howe would have been proud of the way the striker used his elbows and let’s not forget he faced the other nine players on this list who were all out to stop him. He was often called dirty and over-aggressive, but usually got away with it.
8. Thomas Gravesen
If this list was ranked by threatening looks alone, then Denmark’s bald-headed Thomas Gravesen would have topped it. The tough midfielder’s Premier League career consisted of four years on Merseyside with Everton where he became a fan favorite as an enforcer-type player. His footballing skills were limited and most fans were astonished when he signed with Spanish giants Real Madrid. Gravesen would later wind up with Celtic in Scotland and then back at Goodison Park on loan. He was reportedly a member of a Danish bike gang and wouldn’t shy away from confronting his own teammates when he felt it was needed, even during training sessions. Gravesen was entertaining to say the least and helped Everton reach the Champions League by finishing fourth in 2004/05.
7. Nemanja Vidic
Serbian international defender Nemanja Vidic was known as a player who could both inflict and endure great pain on the football pitch. The 35-year-old starred with Manchester United from 2006 to 2014 and also played with Red Star Belgrade, Spartak Subotica and Spartak Moscow before joining the Red Devils. Vidic then played two years with Inter Milan before retiring in 2016. He was strong, powerful, and excellent in the air as he anchored United’s back four. He won numerous trophies at Old Trafford and made sure nobody took liberties with his teammates while he was on the pitch. His leadership qualities were formidable and he wore the captain’s armband several times with United. The skilled Vidic could always be depended on to protect his teammates if any trouble did happen to boil over.
6. Julian Dicks
Defender Julian Dicks played pro from 1985 to 1999 with Birmingham, Liverpool, and two stints at West Ham United, where he made a name for himself as a tough-tackling opponent. Dicks wasn’t one to try to get away with it either as he quickly became known as ‘The Terminator’ due to his rough and tumble playing style. Perhaps surprisingly though, he was also a skilled player who specialized at penalties and free kicks, resulting in 69 career goals and a couple of appearances with the England B Team. He picked up his fair share of yellow and red cards as well as suspensions and it eventually cost him the captain’s armband with the Hammers. However, he was named the team’s player of the year four times before retiring in 1999 due to injuries, mainly caused by opponents who were out looking for revenge.
5. Neil Ruddock
Although former defender Neil Ruddock was nicknamed ‘Razor’ after the famous heavyweight boxer, he also could have earned the moniker for the way he cut opponents down on the pitch. The punishing Ruddock played for close to two decades with teams such as West Ham, Tottenham, Southampton and Liverpool between 1986 and 2003 and was as hard as they come. The central defender wasn’t lacking in football skills, but he sometimes preferred to put them aside and play a more physical and robust style of game. Ruddock had some famous disagreements with stars such as Eric Cantona and Patrick Vieira on the pitch and allegedly caused some physical damage to the likes of Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley. Let’s put it this way, when opponents came down Ruddock’s part of the pitch they did so at their own risk.
4. Vinnie Jones
Younger readers may only recognize Vinnie Jones as a Hollywood actor these days, but before becoming a movie star he was one of the toughest and most unpredictable of footballers. The famous photo of him squeezing England star Paul Gascoigne’s testicles during a match can attest to this. Jones earned his reputation when playing for Wimbledon from 1986 to 1989 when the club was known as the ‘Crazy Gang.’ It’s debatable what other qualities the midfielder brought to the pitch during his career between 1984 and 1999 which also saw him play for the likes of Leeds, Sheffield United, Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers. However, the English-born Jones managed to terrorize international opponents as well as he appeared in nine games for Wales. He picked up an even dozen red cards during his career and once received a yellow five seconds after kickoff. Jones often plays the part of a hardened nutcase in the movies, but is he really acting?
3. Stuart Pearce
When it came to toughness, former England international defender Stuart Pearce was second to none, but he wasn’t one to run about recklessly on the pitch. However, his nickname was ‘Psycho.’ He was another player who could play through pain and also added some skill to his repertoire. In addition, Pearce had quite a shot and managed to hit the back of the net with it on 102 occasions, even on free kicks. In general though, he was a calm and quiet individual who would often erupt with fits of passion during games. Pearce was certainly regarded as a tough-tackling left-back, but also as a fair one who didn’t go out of his way to cause any damage. He played 78 times for his country and also suited up for teams such as Wealdstone, Coventry City, Nottingham Forest, West Ham, Newcastle and Manchester City between 1978 and 2002 before getting into management.
2. Duncan Ferguson
Duncan Ferguson had arguably the best nickname in sports history as he was known as Duncan Disorderly, an obvious play on words for drunk and disorderly and due to his four arrests. On the pitch, Ferguson was a lovable, mischievous and highly-entertaining scoundrel from Stirling, Scotland. He kicked off his career as a 6-foot-4-inch centre-forward at home from 1990 to 1994 with Dundee United and then Rangers. Ferguson then moved to the Premier League with two stints at Everton and one with Newcastle until retiring in 2006. He was a fine player with 126 goals to his name, the most ever for a Scotsman in the Premier League. Ferguson was best known for his violent conduct and nine red cards though. He was fearless and unpredictable and once paid for headbutting an opponent with a three-month jail sentence and 12-game suspension. The competitive and aggressive footballer also caught a burglar in his home in 2001 and made him pay for his indiscretion by sending him to hospital for a three-day recovery.
1. Roy Keane
There’s no doubt former Irish international midfielder Roy Keane was cold and calculating on the pitch and could be patient when it came to retribution. He’s a Manchester United legend who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and stick up for his principles as well as his teammates. He’s a complex and controversial man who played the game as hard as anybody before and after him. Keane nailed Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Haaland a season after the Norwegian allegedly wronged Keane on the pitch when Haaland was with Leeds. The former Ireland and United skipper than wrote a graphic X-rated version of his premeditated revenge in his autobiography. Keane also had noted bust-ups with Patrick Vieira and Alan Shearer. Despite his seven red cards, he was also a great footballer and the heart of the United squad from 1993 to 2005. Keane collected 19 major trophies during his career before retiring in 2006. He then carried on with his my-way or the highway attitude while becoming a television pundit and football manager.