For three decades and more, football’s midfield hard men roamed centre-circles, their steely gaze locked onto the next calf they planned to rake, the next rival they intended to reduce with a ‘reducer’.

Enacting their misdemeanours in plain sight, safe in the knowledge that the lenient laws of the day meant they could commit at least three actual assaults before the ref would even consider brandishing a booking, these no-nonsense behemoths dominated the English footballing landscape via their sheer force of personality and their studs.

And yes, even in the modern era, when the game is much more aesthetically pleasing – even on occasions, beautiful - and even though it’s now played on a carpet of lush grass, not a muddied, bloodied theatre of war, they are truly missed. Their thuggery and all.

Because witnessing players in the present roll around in faux-agony from the faintest of touches, or when we grimace as a shirt-pull is condoned as a ‘tactical foul’, there was, looking back, something endearingly honest about their malice.

We knew where we stood with them. Or, in the case of some unfortunate soul who received a pass a committed lunge away from a scowling Graeme Souness or Terry Hurlock, where they fell, their ankle sore to the point of throbbing. 

Wingers stayed well clear of these men, remaining out of harm’s way close to the touchline whereupon they would be routinely clattered by full-backs, but so be it. Anything was preferable to entering the belly of the beast - though occasionally you’d see them accidentally stray inland, their eyes panicked and wide like an antelope that had wandered into lion country.

Forwards meanwhile – bar the quarried types such as Billy Whitehurst or Mick Harford – would be reluctant to drop deep, for fear of encountering a fully-functioning psychopath. 

All of which left the midfield area a lawless battlefield, populated only by warriors and bruisers, so many of them looking at least five years older than their actual age. Almost all of them playing with their socks down, an important sartorial choice for any exponent of the dark arts. 

It was a boxer jutting out his chin. Go on then. I dare you.

They are extinct now, of course, these hard men, their skillset made obsolete by ever-tightening laws that first harvested yellows, then straight reds. Zero tolerance on barbarism of any kind has left them shouting at clouds in a pundit’s chair, talking of a time when men were men and sounding thoroughly out-of-kilter with the 21st century in the process.   

But in their prime, what a sight it was, those centre-circle duels. With not an inch given or ceded, it was little short of box-office.  

Determining precisely when midfield hard men became redundant brings us to a fascinating period of phasing out that takes in the first ten years of the Premier League. 

Still allowed to leave a calling card, but only a scant number of them before punishment was administered, Nineties midfielders became box-to-box athletes first, footballers second, and hard men thirdly, but their propensity to leave a little something on a player was always in their locker.   

Roy Keane is an obvious example of this ilk, undoubtedly one of the best Premier League midfielders of all time, but when the red mist descended – and it did, often – would you have liked wearing a different coloured shirt in his vicinity?

Patrick Vieira is another in this regard. A rangy, skilful baller, capable of pinging passes to feet from any distance. Yet he was also combative, that being a polite way of saying downright dirty. 

With these two alphas sublime with the ball at their feet but also ferocious when a trailing leg was in their sights, it meant that any Manchester United v Arsenal clash was always a hard one to call in the sports betting.

Two immovable heavyweights collided and we essentially just waited for the dust to clear to see who was still standing. 

Talking of Keane, the fiery enforcer also excelled at an often downplayed role for any hard man, that of bouncer to his team-mates. 

It’s no coincidence that the Irishman received almost half of his seven red cards around 1999 and 2000, a period that saw United at the height of their unpopularity beyond Old Trafford and a period too that had David Beckham so widely castigated, in some quarters even reviled.

Time and again, he took one for the team by leaving one on an opponent. This altruistic violence incidentally was not a new phenomenon, hard men long considering themselves their team’s protector. 

When Ryan Giggs was a stick-thin precocious teen he was calmly informed by a veteran full-back that he would have his leg broken that afternoon.

Notified of this Giggs’ captain Bryan Robson instructed that they swap places for ten minutes and promptly stamped his authority on the situation, both figuratively and literally. 

Not a hair on the Welsh wizard’s head was touched thereafter.


Stephen Tudor is a freelance football writer and sports enthusiast who only knows slightly less about the beautiful game than you do.

A contributor to FourFourTwo and Forbes, he is a Manchester City fan who was taken to Maine Road as a child because his grandad predicted they would one day be good.