Modern Day Hardman Cahill

The Best Modern-Day Hard Man Is…

John Nicholson

Excuse the homo-erotic subtext to this question but, where have all the hard men gone?

It’s not long since almost every top club had at least one hard man; one man who could frighten the crap out of opposition players with a mixture of intimidation, aggression and the occasional outburst of undiluted violence all mixed up with rugged tackling and crunching headers.

Football, like the English language is constantly evolving, and in recent years seems to have evolved to exclude the hard man from the game. Here’s my question; is it a good thing? Am I the only one to miss him?

The best hard men were not simply psychotic nutters who went around stamping on people, mthough they were that as well, no, the most effective hard men were physically strong, excellent ball winners, and good passers. Their job was to break up play, and protect the flair players from being kicked to death by the opposing centre-half.

In the olden days the best example of a hard man was Ron Harris. If you never saw him, Chopper was extraordinary. He’d shock any young fan of today’s game. His job was simply to hurt the opposition’s best players – anything football-related after that was a bonus, but not strictly necessary. Early on in the 1970 Cup Final, he stamped on Eddie Gray’s calf to reduce Gray’s effectiveness. It worked. Job done.

But I was never a fan of the Chopper-style hard man. Too often he ruined the game by maiming the players you most wanted to actually watch.

However, the 70s were full of hard men like Larry Lloyd, Tommy Smith and Norman Hunter, who, along with being ruthless tacklers, were also good distributors of the ball. They didn’t usually just deploy violence for its own sake, it usually had purpose and application. The principle of instant karma was always a popular one in 70s football; you hurt my tricky winger, you get a kick in the nads.

These were more visceral days – any player who was weak minded or physically lightweight was shown no mercy. It’s surprising no-one died.

Which brings me to Souey. Grame Souness was probably the most skilful hard man ever to walk a football pitch. He was an extraordinary, attacking midfielder, the like of which we will never be allowed to see again.

At times he mowed into players with a ruthless malevolence which was both utterly exhilarating and totally sickening in its sheer, raw violence. I once saw him in 1974, during his reign of terror at the Boro, taking revenge on a hapless defender for some perceived injustice.

As the player booted the ball away, Souey ran full speed into him, his boot up at thigh height. He stamped right down the bloke’s thigh, down past the knee, down the shin and stamped on his foot in one, king-fu inspired movement. Naturally, his victim fell to the ground in pain, but rather than leave the scene of the crime quickly, Souey leaned over him and screamed abuse in his face. Even by the standards of the day, this was extreme behaviour.

I have to say, the fans loved it. It might be morally wrong, and these days it’d bring the full weight of the law on and off the pitch into play. He’d be hauled up in front of the world’s media and castigated for his irresponsible behaviour. But these are different days. At the time, we loved it; all of us. Were we all thugs back then? Sometimes I do wonder.

In the 80s Souness continued his assault and battery style of playing at Liverpool and later, Rangers, while Vinnie Jones began his reign of bollock-grabbing insanity. The true inheritor of Chopper Harris’ slash and burn approach, his Wimbledon days will never be forgotten as a period of unremitting, ugly, but rather successful, thuggery.

But as hard as Jones undoubtedly was, easily the hardest player in the 80s was South Yorkshire’s finest, Billy Whitehurst. Alleged to have beaten the s**t out of Jones while they were both at Sheffield United, Billy is also supposed to have earned money while at Oxford doing bare-knuckle fights with local gypsies! Now that is f**king hard. You’d not catch John Terry doing that now would you, more’s the pity.

By the time Billy quit in 1993, the hard man was already in decline but ‘Razor’ Ruddock was still elbowing people senseless, and Stuart Pearce was still out there, playing with a broken leg and doing full-body tackles on anyone who stood still for long enough. Who didn’t love Psycho?

And then there was Roy Keane. In his pomp, Keane was one of the finest exponents of the hard man tradition. Sent off for vicious hacks and knee-breaking stamps, he brilliantly mixed his violence with high-voltage football skill of the highest order.

At his peak he was an irresistible force of nature. Mad, bad and dangerous to know, love or loath him, he was always compelling to watch, and he was crucial to Manchester United’s dominance and success.

His confrontation with Paddy Vieira in the tunnel a couple of years ago was possibly the last old school hard man moment. It was, in all senses of the word, great. Am I wrong to feel that? Maybe. But I do feel it.

I know in these more gentle football days of high skill and fast pace, the hard man is seen as an anachronism, and anyone who admits to a joy in seeing a bit of ruthless on-pitch aggression is seen as a retard, especially by younger generations of fans who have grown up with a different tradition of football. Perhaps society and sport is keen to be more sophisticated in the 21st century. Maybe play-acting and feigning injury have replaced the hard man. Times change…maybe it’s for the better, maybe it’s not.
I don’t see the Ben Thatcher-style forearm smash as part of the great hard man tradition. That smacked more of the over-reactions of a weak man. Anyone can just whack the living s**t out of someone, but the top notch hard- an knew how, when and why a player needed ‘livening’ up.

The hard man role – in the way we understood it in years gone by – has been made impossible by the outlawing of most forms of tackling, and the instant red cards given out by refs for players who sneeze too violently, let alone those who tackle someone around the neck with their muscular thighs.

In the Premiership, the art form barely exists at all, and where it does, it has had to change and adapt to the new football environment.

If I was to ask you for a list of hard men today you’d be hard pushed to make it a long list or draw it up very quickly. Take a player like Didier Drogba. I suspect he’s as hard as nails, but because of all the play-acting and wussy behaviour, you can’t call him a hard man. No hard man would ever pretend he was hurt when he wasn’t, nor would he show it if he was – that would be to show weakness. The Drog fails on all those counts.

A player like Paul Dickov is a tough little b***ard and like a lot of very small men could start a fight in a monastery, but he’s not a hard man in the Keane or Souness tradition.

Brian McBride, who shares his name with the boss of Amazon.co.uk – which incidentally is another place you can buy my book Footy Rocks – is a true hard b***ard centre-forward. When viciously elbowed by De Rossi in the USA v Italy game during the World Cup, he didn’t flinch, even as the blood streamed down his face. He stood there, dazed but resolute. We need more men in the game who can take a whack and not weep about it. McBride looks like the sort of tough-assed Irishman that gave the NYPD such a fearsome reputation in the 30s. Thick-necked and made of granite, McBride is as hard they come, but he doesn’t play the hard man on the pitch. He is just innately tough, he’s not an inheritor of the hard man tradition.

Liverpool’s John-Arne Riise took a good nutting last week and didn’t go down, revealing unexpected hard man qualities in doing so. But he’s not a player who uses that in his game as a rule.

So who does that leave? Richard Dunne and Andy Todd are tough sods, as is Scott Parker, but for me, the only true inheritor of the mad, hard b***ard role, the man who you’d least like to get the wrong side of, is Everton’s Tim Cahill.

Cahill has an assassin’s cold, dark, black eyes. His unusual Samoan/Irish parentage in itself sounds like a genetically tough-assed recipe.

He’s nasty, aggressive and though a bit of a short arse, is as physically strong as anyone who plays the game. He’s all muscle and he’s got the look of a feral dingo. He walks the line in most games and uses his aggression to progress Everton’s midfield attacking options incredibly successfully.

Like loads of Aussies, he’s competitive to a point where it hurts, and he hates losing. In his first season at Everton he was top scorer and he’s got five already this season – his good form is in no small measure responsible for Everton’s success.

In an earlier era, Cahill would have played more like Souness, and would have been encouraged to do so by Moyes, who likes the physical game. But maybe because he can’t play that way, we actually see the best of him, and because of that, football is the winner.

His game relies on controlled aggression, fierce determination, excellent timing and great positioning for all those late headers in the box he’s made his trademark. If he was busy kicking lumps out of everyone, the more skilful side of his game might be lost, and that would be a shame.

The old school hard men days will never return, but while there are players like Cahill around, in some way, the tradition is continued. Fair f***ing dinkum mate.

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~ by badkow on November 9, 2006.

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