Premier League when hard men could be found at every team; going at loggerheads against one another every week and becoming box office hits with armchair supporters and terrace fans alike.
Who could forget those explosive Manchester United v Arsenal clashes that featured legendary midfielders, Roy Keane and Patrick Viera and their notorious confrontations, sometimes even before setting foot on the pitch.
Nowadays clashes between the two sides are less animated affairs, with the battle between Patrice Evra and Thomas Vermaelen hardly having the same entertainment value.
Other well noted hard men included Vinnie Jones, who was part of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang; spending two spells at the club and marshalling the midfield excellently in the team’s prolonged spell in the English top flight.
More recently, Liverpool had Javier Mascherano playing in the holding role with considerable success; despite conceding a number of fouls and having a reputation as a ‘dirty’ player, he provided a vital source of protection to the Reds’ defence.
But in today’s top-flight, one would struggle to name too many tough tackling players willing to take the game by the scruff of its neck; with England’s growing obsession with flair causing this type of player to be ushered out of our game.
Of course, there a few players of this kind left. Nemanja Vidic and Vincent Kompany still marshal their defence with an iron fist, while the likes of Scott Parker can still ruffle a few feathers at the heart of Tottenham’s midfield; but they are among a dying breed.
The way in which referees have toughed up on supposed reckless challenges has also hindered the number of hard players coming through the ranks. This could be considered to be a good thing, but surely a player should be able to go into a fair 50-50 challenge without the fear of getting booked or sent off?
Of course the old challenges where players could easily break someone’s leg when going for the ball have rightly been stamped out of the game, but it has gone a step too far; with some players choosing to dive despite minimal contact. This could be preventing aggressive players from showing their true strength on the pitch; with the fear of perhaps being conned by a quicker, more skilful player.
When watching the top sides today – the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal – the importance of having technically gifted players as opposed to those who are stronger and more aggressive is clearly evident.
In midfield particularly, there has been gradually transformation in central players from being a typical box-to-box player to someone who is more of a playmaker, someone that can pick out a killer pass.
It could be argued that Chelsea have made the biggest transformation of all the top sides; after the success of players like Claude Makelele and Michael Essien in the clubs’s recent title-winning sides, players including Eden Hazard and Juan Mata have allowed the Blues to adapt to a more continental style of play.
Despite not being considered a hard player, the Blues losing Didier Drogba in the summer means they have lost even more of a physical presence; now using Fernando Torres as the club’s top frontman.
City have also lost Nigel de Jong; a player who may not have been easy on the eye, but certainly someone who helped Roberto Mancini’s men to become more solid unit.
Meanwhile, United’s leaky defence could have resulted from the recent absences of Darren Fletcher and Phil Jones; the former has now returned to action, but Jones in particular is someone not afraid to put his foot into a challenge and halt an opposition attack.
It could be argued that this transition to flair is making our top-flight more entertaining with more goals conceded, but it would be good to see more of a balance between flair alongside sheer grit and strength.
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