They may not have a place today but we sure miss football’s old-school hard men

They may not have a place today but we sure miss football’s old-school hard men

Some people hate them, others love them. Many will find themselves somewhere in the middle on the topic of the hard man, the enforcer, in football – so long as it suits their mood and narrative at the time. We remember the names of Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Graeme Souness, Nobby Stiles, Ron Harris, Vinnie Jones, Tommy Smith and so many others for more than just their brilliance with a ball at their feet.

It used to be an art form – the thousand-yard stare from the tunnel onto the pitch. An emotionless façade of cement skin and a maniacal stillness borne in the hellfires of competition. The sight of bone-crunching tackles to make a statement and “to set the tone” mere minutes into the first half was normal.

The character of the hard man performed best expected three-act plays, which would start with a moment of madness, before it all kicked-off with the posturing and gesticulating to the opponent, the fans and the officials. And eventually, it would end with a red card for the offender and a stretcher for the target amid the cacophony of cheers and boos.

These moments of madness – or as commentators often referred to it: “a rush of blood to the head” – was calculated, but more interestingly, it was accepted. The role of football’s enforcer seemed simple from the outside looking in. But nothing in this game is simple.

In the decades since the 1960s, the life and role of the enforcer has evolved and changed with the game – almost in lockstep. But the game has moved on and the demands of this player no longer rank high within the sport at any level, anywhere.  

It’s tough to say who was the last of the true enforcers, especially in the Premier League era, but Roy Keane probably owns that title. So what happened to football’s hard man? 

A major shift occurred in the late 1980s, a few years before the Premier League. At the time, the tactics and playing styles of the successful clubs saw an obvious improvement, with the introduction of foreign talent in both players and coaches who opted to keep the ball, defend as a team, and not rely on the do or die approach that accounted for a player to risk getting sent off merely to send a message.

The evolution from kick-and-run to pass-and-move was well underway. The game required fewer long balls being launched forward with impunity, which decreased the frequency of high-speed aerial collisions between defenders and centre-forwards. Defenders simply couldn’t get away with lining up an attacking player with his back to goal and driving a knee between his shoulder blades without consequences.

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When the Premier League kicked off in 1992, the face of the game and how it would be played continued to change as the money and media dictated much of what happened on the pitch. Sport has an obligation to function as a spectacle, demanding skill and a degree of civility. The game has changed, as have attitudes as to what is acceptable on the pitch and what is not. Sadly, this has impacted on one of the game’s great sights.

For a myriad of reasons, it can be (and perhaps should be) argued that the enforcer has no place in modern football. The game is different. The enforcer proved himself to be more of a liability than an asset as football evolved. The game today is simply too fast and skill-based to accommodate the warriors of yesteryear. Additionally, when suspensions, injuries, excessive bookings, red cards, and bad press are the stats of note, the enforcer essentially self-immolated over the decades. Although the modern game has moved on from giving affordances to the ‘butchers in boots’, something else emerged in its absence. 

The truth is that the villains and sinister players still exist, but the necromancy and action just looks different these days. A more sinister dark art has permeated football’s surface and is rotting it from its core. They go by many names: the jester, the cheat, the diver, the actor. Today, what is considered ‘tough’ is hardly that; it is more devious and an act of the dark arts, almost always theatrical in nature and execution. All of this is part of the exhibition and entertainment, an obligation and social currency that defines professional sport.

Without the on-field general, the rules of engagement have irrevocably changed. An apt comparison is what happened when ice hockey eliminated the need and role of the ‘Enforcer’. Most importantly, skill won out. However, what was borne out of eliminating the regulator was a figure known as the ‘Rat’: the perpetrator who injures and cheats his opponent and the game with no fear of retribution. The sport had to trade one brand of injurious play for another, which arguably serves it better than fistfights and an accepted and unspoken culture of peer-enforcement.

The overt violence and clear head-hunting stopped. With that, star players were subject to a new brand of lawlessness: late hits, high shots to the head and cheap hacks to star players now go relatively unpunished. What took its place was the ‘repeat offender’ playing the role of the innocent agitator. And so the conundrum balances excessive fighting and over-the-top rough play with extreme consequences, with the hope that the retribution will be enforced by the officials and not by the players.

Football has this element, too. It’s called the ‘shithouse’. 

Much like the ice hockey counterpart of the rat, this player serves a risky yet invaluable function. Modern fans call it “shithousery”. Today, it is clear and present in every football match: the antics and playacting to prod and invite overly-aggressive reactions, which result in red cards and free-kicks, and dubious calls aim to sway the officials at every turn. This element of the game is intriguing in that is shows the duality of a con-man turned coward at a moment’s notice, all in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.

You also see it away from the bright lights of football’s best stadiums, on the soggy and torn-up fields in the shadows. It is honed on the court and on the street – where there are no cameras, there is nothing but pride to play for. In other words, this brand of football is played by an unwritten set of amorphous rules that operate more as social constructs than actual laws of the game. 

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Shithousery has always been a part of football. It is one of the sport’s most misunderstood phenomena. Most players see themselves capable of being a shithouse, but like being a hard man, this is about a character trait more than a skill-set. 

As a subject, shithousery has been defined as cheating, deceiving the official, conning and playacting. It is both frowned upon and praised in a paradoxical way. The art of being a shithouse comes down to pushing the laws of the game as far as possible while keeping within the accepted interpretations to render them arbitrary and wholly subjective. 

Today’s football is skill, speed and finesse. Today’s football is also deceptive. The chaotic and ironic difference between an enforcer and a shithouse is with the latter; there is no room for honesty. As cynical as a hard and dirty tackle was seen in previous eras, it was out there in the open and that somehow made it more accepted. In the absence of that, shithousery prevails.

The fascinating aspect about this game within the game is that it takes its alchemy and art of deception to a dangerously entertaining degree. The very act being caught on camera – to be replayed on social media in perpetual loops – and missed by the officials on the same pitch makes it intoxicating and repulsive at the same time. 

Progressive football eradicates archaic thought-processes, tactics and even roles. The sport leaves what does not serve a clear purpose in its wake. Imagine football functioning like Foucault’s Pendulum, but instead of demonstrating the earth’s rotation, it demonstrates football’s rotation around the way the game is played. The pendulum does not slow down to wait for tradition, nor does it dawdle so people can decode what is happening to the game. In this evolution, the crude behaviour and lawlessness of previous eras has led to rule amendments and continual review of the laws of the game.

These improvements were inevitable and even necessary and the sport’s dynamic shifted. Away from its governance, the standard of play and requirements of the modern player changed, too. The explosive evolution of a simple game made complex by people and politics produced a different kind of player.  

The modern player became stronger and slimmer. The leaner frame produced a more balanced player with a heightened skill-set who must be much more versatile so as to fit into the constant progression of modern tactical deployments. These progressions move away from the perceived traditional, rigid systems to more fluid and flexible tactical schemas – although it can be argued the best traditional systems have not changed, they have just been optimised with a smarter and more universal player. 

And so the boots became lighter, flashier and made with artificial compounds borne out of modern-day alchemy. The pitch itself – once the great equaliser allowing the less-skilled taskers and butchers to headhunt and to catch up to the daring stars of yesterday – is now a smooth green canvas. Hydration shifted from boozing to drinking water and replenishing electrolytes. Diets became balanced instead of an eating competition of post-match impunity. 

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There was a time when that unbalanced (and unhinged) force dictated a match. One can look back 20 years to understand the function of the game’s enforcer – at least a version of it. The further back in time that examination goes, the more raw and visceral the findings are unearthed. And one must only turn on the television to see that the modern game and its collective acceleration has left football’s hard man archetype far in the past, cast in the shadows. 

Of course, there are still those deemed to possess an obscured tactical sense and a lower skill level; players who make the grade against the odds and kneel at the altar of football’s Church of Dark Arts with yet another sacrifice on offer – a skilled player maimed by a black-booted wraith. In the unspoken and unforgiven sense, the game may still need this element, as unpopular as the opinion may be to admit.

Indeed, relegating the enforcer as an unskilled hack is a mistake. These were not merely absent-minded thugs history props them up to be; their role required them to manage their emotions and control those of others while playing the game. Additionally, the tackles had to be not only well-timed, but effective in nullifying the potency of an opposition player. 

This player existed in every position. Most played in the middle of the park or patrolled the back line, but plenty of attacking players were hard-hitting on the pitch, too. In the 1990s alone, Mark Hughes, Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer had an edge that struck fear into defenders.

In the days of aerial challenges off sky-high punts and errant goal kicks, the opportunity to inflict damage and make a statement through relentless physical play showcased the dichotomy of the player. Long before video replays and additional eyes on the game, set-pieces were mini-melees where kidney punches, grabbing, pulling, poking, clawing, stamping and head-butting were elements of the exchange. 

There is an allure to the enforcer, a code to live and play by. Perhaps this what is most missed and admired in a dominator controlling the chaos he is wholly capable of unleashing. Blindly throwing punches and spitting; these were signs of pure petulance, signals that even the toughest players can be goaded into foolish actions and snake-bitten by their own poison. True enforcers, though, were not wannabes. They knew an early dismissal would lead to suspension and would ultimately hurt the team. 

And so, the mystique of the enforcer resided not in the power of his tackle but in his capacity and propensity to enact violence. The physical battle was only part of the role. Creating an aura of imperiousness was the real trick. Any player with expertise in carving out a reputation of being violent, operating on the outer edges of what is deemed insanity, controlled everything to the point their reputation did most of the work. 

Seeking retribution nowadays is going too far and asking for too many additional problems in football. But in this absence of the fear of retribution, the game may find itself in a contentious conundrum.

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Even if it doesn’t want to admit it, the modern game may be calling out for an enforcer to return in some form or fashion. Its return is an interesting concept to consider. At some point, the wolves will be reintroduced into the ecosystem to promote balance and a workable order of things. 

As brutal as the game of yesterday looks through today’s high-definition lenses, there is a nostalgia borne out of the sheer bluntness of the tackles, posturing and prowess of that version of football, where the skilled maverick pits himself against the hard blade of a man whose sole purpose is to stifle skill. There remains an odd romanticism in knowing that, very often, an Arbiter of Retribution shared the pitch with everyone else.

And when two forces of equal ruthlessness on opposite sides collided and confronted one another, games turned to gladiatorial contests whose governance, in hindsight, is not only by an entirely different set of rules, but by the code of what is acceptable and tolerable. This is something entirely alien to the modern game. 

There’s no point in shirking the point or dancing around the issue: the game may need its butchers back. In the age of VAR, hyper-scrutiny, simulation and feigning injury in an attempt to sway games, perhaps football is calling for the butchers to don their mud-stained kits like a meat-carver dons a faded red-hued apron and “goes to work”. In an odd way, the game has crossed a divide and is at a precipice between aesthetically appealing tragic D-list acting.

Football itself is a type of performance art. It has always been – performance art with an element of the theatrical added to the crockpot of ingredients that fans and corporate consumers of the game salivate over during the marinating process. As the temperature rises and elements begin to bubble and eventually boil over, the contest hits a crescendo. And, naturally, fans will eat it up by the platefuls and ask for seconds. The positive attacking play, the shoddy defending, the diving and rolling around with a feigned touch: it’s as much a frustration as it is an instrument in football’s arsenal of tools used to attempt to win. 

People pay good money to be entertained for 90 minutes, and the prices will continue to increase. The game is as skilled, fast, athletic and tactically and technically precise as it has ever been. Access to it across the globe allows fans to consume matches with ease. Football is no longer under the microscope for the select few allowed in the laboratory. It is firmly locked in the powerful, all-seeing telescope of global eyes, and what has been revealed is a new world; sides to the game that have created a chasm between competitive sport and professional improv. 

The farther out one looks, the further in one sees. The game has veered from one path to another, but for some, it has sold its soul in irreversible ways. Perhaps it will take something soulless to rectify and dole out retribution. 

It is unlikely that the enforcer will be allowed to emerge from the cavernous underpasses of the gladiatorial arena to wield an unruly skillset learned away from the floodlights and adoring and approving eyes. 

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The reality is that these players will never be welcomed back. The sheer crudeness and cynical nature of their game still haunts many a mind laden with the memories of bullies brandishing sharpened blades on their boots. And so there seems to be a moral dilemma: what type of sport is football to become as the art of the tackle fades and it continues to celebrate the flop? What type of honest competition remains when full-backs simply have to fall down and grab the ball when they detect a hint of opposing pressure in the defensive third?

The rules of the game will not accommodate the lawless. Nor will the modern fan understand the subjective nature of competition bordering on isolated combat. What would happen if the star players are constantly injured and lost to the waves of reckless tackles? Would a shift in the game’s dynamic clip the magic out of the very players whose wings are best left unclipped so they can soar highest? It is difficult to imagine what modern enforcers would look and play like. 

Traditionally, they were human howitzer shells crashing into opponents at every opportunity. The fluidity of the play mattered less than it does today. Possession was not the objective – how can the opponent be snapped if they don’t have the ball? These soldiers of fortune were operators, not exactly playmakers – however, they very much dictated the play in a variety of ways. 

The usefulness and utility of the enforcer cannot be understated. As tough in the tackle and ruthless as they could be to opponents, the role served as a galvanising function. The identity of the enforcer could shift the spirit and confidence of a team in a single tackle. Players of this ilk were often champions of the everyman ethos – something supporters could rally behind because they patrolled the outer edges of the rational animal that is a human fixated on the power of a game made tribal and primal at its boiling point. In other words, the enforcer seemed to speak to and for the frustrations of the people. 

Tactically, it served a variety of functions, too. The nullification of an opposing playmaker through tough and persistent tackling is the obvious deployment. But these maestros of malice also could turn a match’s momentum in favour of their team by becoming a tenant in the opponent’s mind, rent-free. The idea that reputation could lead to retribution at any moment distracted an opposing side’s decision-making. Players comfortable receiving the ball to feet all of a sudden thought twice about showing. Those disinterested in legal combat on the pitch learned how to hide in plain sight – an act of self-preservation, really. 

The enforcer also elevated the game creatively. Players had to be smarter, faster and more selective in their approach. The misunderstood beauty of the role is also its irony, which has always been on display. There is no greater duel than a creative, skilful showman evading a terrier in the tackle. On the other side, there are few more satisfying sights than seeing someone taking liberties on the ball get stuffed in a well-timed crunch. 

We may never see the likes of a Ron “Chopper” Harris or Tommy “The Anfield Iron” Smith – the latter of whom Bill Shankly said, “Tommy Smith wasn’t born, he was quarried.” People with long-serving memories recall the sight of Joe Jordan, nicknamed “Jaws” after refusing to replace the four teeth he lost after a kick to his mouth, or Norman “Bites yer Legs” Hunter and countless others taking the pitch and in so doing, taking souls before a ball was even kicked.

But these players are gone. And what remains is a paradox of sorts. The game has never been more beautiful and fluid; it has never championed attacking play and theatrics more. And yet, it is missing the other side of the coin. Although tarnished, it’s still worth its weight.

By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3

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