Last week I was on Twitter and saw a glorious vine. A brief compilation of one of my favorite players of all time. It had no name but I like to call it Eric Cantona’s greatest hits. You might be thinking of the FA Cup winner against Liverpool or the chip against Sunderland. Sorry, this clip was about the bad tackles, stomping and just plain violence of the man. I sent this to Rishay and he said “That player writhing in agony after being stomped made me so happy.” In a strange way, I happily shared these sentiments.
It’s not that I’m a violent person or necessarily condone this type of behavior. However, it goes back to how I feel about the game itself. Football is the beautiful game, one whose grace and dynamism make it more akin to art than any other popular sport. However, art is not just meant to capture the human essence at its best. It’s supposed to capture the true duality of humanity. Therefore you can’t have the good without the bad. Football is trying too hard to be good and that has made it a little stale for my taste.
No one better epitomized that than Roy Keane. The hardest man in the Premier League era and we all loved him. He was a gladiator in the vain of Maximus and don’t you dare tell me you didn’t root for him. Look at what he has to say about his rivals: “Was he at the back of my mind? Of course he was. Like Rob Lee was, like David Batty was, like Alan Shearer was, like Patrick Vieira was. All these players were in the back of my mind: ‘If I get a chance I’m going to fucking hit you, of course I am.” Football is meant to be a little bit bad don’t you think? Arsenal should know by now that nice guys in England finish last (well maybe 4th consistently). A mean streak is needed to reach the top. Their best teams had Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Sol Campbell and the man my father calls the criminal; Martin Keown (he still doesn’t know his name). A perfect mix of panache and punishment. Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem to understand this any more. As we saw in their recent 2-0 defeat to Chelsea, the Gunners are far too nice. Except for a Welbeck tackle on Fabregas that would’ve been applauded at Old Trafford, only Wenger himself was up for a fight, quite literally. Chelsea swarmed and fouled their opponents repeatedly, showing them no mercy. Cahill almost ruined Sanchez and believe you me, the Chelsea fans enjoyed it, and Jose Mourinho enjoyed it the most. They are the last evil team left in England and we need more of them.
The game really has changed, the players have changed and coaching philosophies have changed. Where have all the evil “reducers” gone? Vile, aggressive holding midfielders and centrebacks used to be the norm. You still find a few evil centre backs, John Terry, or Martin Skrtel for example. However, defensive midfielders have become really nice and it makes me upset. Maybe people were so shocked by Nigel De Jong’s assassination attempt on Xabi Alonso, causing a massive shift in people’s thinking.
It’s evident that the type of intimidation tactics that Vieira and Keane used to pull just don’t happen anymore. Fergie replaced Keane with Carrick and nice guy Hargreaves. Daley “couldn’t hurt a fly” Blind is now in that position. Arteta and Flamini at Arsenal are non events in that position against big teams. They might as well let Jack Wilshere do that role. His heart and desire are a joy to watch. Chelsea and City have the players with the right physique for the role in Matic, Mikel, Ramires, Fernando, Fernandinho and Yaya but none are truly evil. They are henchmen at best. Whereas Keane, Vieira and even Mark Van Bommel were more like “The Shredder”, these guys are the foot clan (any one watch Ninja Turtles?). They follow instructions, but they don’t lead the riot. Keane and Vieria would start a fight to get their teammates and the crowd going and turn the tide. They knew that football was a psychological game and perfected the art of emotional manipulation by assault. To a degree, the Chelsea players understand this the best because it’s the way of their manager. He’s the evil one and they obey, but he has no deputy amongst his playing staff. Sure Mourinho had Makelele during his first evil empire at Chelsea, however, it wasn’t until he went to Real Madrid and employed the most evil man in football, Pepe, against Barcelona that we really saw Mourinho go Darth Vader on us.
As the world and English game has evolved, the talentless lump of a centre forward has almost been phased out. Before, the only way to combat a big oaf of a centre back was to legally fight him on the pitch. Jon Hartson and Duncan Ferguson were the best thug forwards I’ve ever seen. Andy Carroll tries but he can’t even clean their boots – or stay fit. Then we have the pure flawed geniuses. We’ve already mentioned Eric Cantona so the next in line is none other than Paulo Di Canio. He physically abused referees and opponents alike. No wonder Sir Alex wanted to sign him in 2001. Luis Suarez is the closest thing we’ve seen to a real evil genius centre forward but the biting thing isn’t what I have in mind when I say I want the old times back.
All this violent reminiscing had me thinking of the best EPL Thug XI. We struggled with this list but one man’s inclusion was unanimous. He has the ability and the notoriety and quite frankly the lunacy to warrant place amongst some world class players. Ladies and gentleman, that man is none other than Joey Barton.
No one is asking for the return of Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon. Or maybe you know them as the ‘Crazy Gang’. However, football is a game of passion, a game for fierce rivalry. Be nice to each other off the field, but on it let’s see fireworks. Paul Scholes recently said he was shocked that opposition players are all friends these days. Paul, I agree with you sir, 100%. Then again, he didn’t even have many of his own teammates phone numbers (lonely git).
So while we enjoy the quotes from Roy Keane, we need to reminisce about football at its best. A perfect combination of guile and grit, poise and poison, good and evil. The best teams in England have always had both in tandem.