The Harder They Come: Football’s Hard Men

In these days of namby-pamby, overpaid professionals it’s sometimes good to take a look back at when men were men on the football pitch! Those were the days when every team had its hard man. When players like John McNamee kept the other team ‘honest’! My memories tend to come from a certain generation, one in which every team seemed to have at least one player of this nature, Tommy Smith at Liverpool. Ron Harris at Chelsea, the full first team at Leeds, the list is endless. I believe there is still a place in the game for them too.

Who can forget Bill Shankly’s remark at Anfield when he invited the press to ‘come and have a walk around’ his new centre-half, man mountain, Ron Yeats? Tommy Smith, ‘The Anfield Iron’ was another much feared opponent. The man from rough, tough ‘Scotty Row’ in Liverpool would walk through walls for Shanks and his team-mates. The message was very clear – stay out of my way.

I was interested a while back in a message board discussion regarding football hard men – specifically Hibs examples in this case. I couldn’t help but agree with some of the choices offered; my own suggestion would probably have been Eric Schaedler who was not only a terrifically hard and tough player, but also a superbly strong and quick athlete. This was maybe where ‘Shades’ gained his advantage as he was indeed a very powerful man as many have mentioned. He was also a voracious trainer I heard, which no doubt accentuated his natural athleticism.

There have been so many names that I’ve had the pleasure to watch, aghast, and grimacing, whilst peeping through one eye. One of the first names that readily comes to mind is that of Kenny Burns, the former Nottingham Forest and Scotland Internationalist. Burns came to Forest as something of a gamble. His fee was but £400,000 – at the time not a huge amount. This was largely due to his ‘wildman’ reputation. Instantly converted from a battling centre forward type into a sweeper by Brian Clough, he set about terrorising opposing top flight strikers with quite some aplomb. The thing with Burns however was he could actually play too. Ask the likes of TV pundit Andy Gray who he would dominate on most occasions. Any Hibs fan will understand this when I compare him in some ways to our own John Blackley for a moment.

Burns struck up a terrifying centre back partnership with the huge Larry Lloyd, Larry was around sixteen stones of pure fish and chips and believe me these two took no prisoners. Of the many notable times I recall watching Burns one or two stick in the memory. On one afternoon I watched on from the terraces as Burns took a full-blooded driven shot square in the face from only a few feet away. This shot would have been enough to fell an African elephant but Burns merely stood his ground and glared at the shooter with that wild-eyed look of his – totally unmoved! I often refer to that technical term ‘mentalness’ when thinking of football hard men. Kenny had this in abundance; you only had to look at that wild stare. Apparently his mother loved him though.

Further, hardman can often be unlikely looking characters. There were some of these innocuous looking tough guys from the dim and distant. Back in my halcyon daze at secondary school, I remember from one day that I actually turned up at that seat of learning, an incident when a fellow pupil tripped another in the school corridor. Seeing this, a senior teacher gave the miscreant a good clip around the lug and admonished him thus: ‘We’ll have none of those Johnny Giles tricks in this school my lad ‘. I set about looking up the Irish midfielder’s fame on the TV and in Shoot magazine learning about his role in that infamous Leeds outfit and sure enough this man was extremely hard. Quite the midfield playmaker but with a spine of pure tungsten and certainly not a man to cross on the field of play.

Much in the way that Giles could actually play the game rather just kick people up in the air all afternoon was our old friend Graeme Souness. 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 from what looked like a flying drop-kick. I still wonder if that player ever fathered children.

Souness was the only man I ever saw rile John McGovern, Captain of Nottingham Forest and a very level-headed character. After a typical Souey assault on the Forest Scot, McGovern chased fully forty yards after his Liverpool adversary, by the look of him with murder clearly on his mind. Only several of his fellow players from both sides jumping on him halted his path. It’s probably fortunate for him that he never reached his destination though…!

Calm down, Calm down!

2 thoughts on “The Harder They Come: Football’s Hard Men”

  1. Excellent summary! I know exactly where your coming from, there is a sporting photograph that i once saw in the Card Bar in Newcastle, which shows Norman Hunter and Jackie Charlton trying to hold back the legendary John Mcnamee as he is about to tear Billy Bremners head off as Bremner tried to plead his innocence.
    Another vivid memory was at a match between Newcastle and Man utd when Wyn Davies shouldered charged Alex Stepney in the chest, after he had caught the ball, he was out for a few minutes at least. The score was 5 – 1 to Newcastle (honestly).

  2. My memory of ‘Big Bad John’ McNamee tells me that Hunter and Charlton would have had their work cut out! John was one of the very hardest players I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Remember those days when goalies weren’t mollycoddled like they are now? Big Wyn was a great header of a ball too.

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