Football's dirtiest players?

Our sports writers look back at the careers of some of football's most feared hardmen.

Tom Hardwick
4th March 2019
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To some, these players are the archetypal footballing hardmen, partaking in an art form of heavy tackles and utter fearlessness that is slowly dying. To others, these footballers are nothing more than dirty, resorting to the most unpalatable of tactics in order to secure victory. However you choose to label them, our sports writers look at some of the most renowned players to have straddled the line between these two categories.

Vinnie Jones- Tom Hardwick

If ever there was a player born to fulfil the role of the footballing hardman, it was Vinnie Jones. He would do just about anything to stop an opposing player, flying into a slide tackle with all the force and momentum of a freight train. He was sent off a remarkable 12 times throughout his career, with 7 of those coming in the Premier League, a record that sees him ranked equally with other notorious hardmen Roy Keane and Lee Cattermole.

Jones also holds the distinction of having been booked after just 3 seconds for a foul on Sheffield United’s Dane Whitehouse when playing for Chelsea, a dubious record that exemplifies how aggressive Jones’ playing style truly was. Jones wasn’t afraid to quite literally go below the belt to gain the advantage in a game, a fact that Paul Gascoigne knows all too well, and yet it is unlikely that there would have been anyone brave enough to tell Vinnie to do otherwise.

The fact that Jones soon landed Hollywood roles in ‘Snatch’ and ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ further cements his hardman credentials, proving that whether it is on the pitch or on the silver screen, Jones will be remembered for being hard as nails.

Sergio Ramos- Tom Hardwick

Sergio Ramos is a player that certainly likes to push the rules to their very limit. Ramos was deemed to have intentionally received a yellow card in a game against Ajax, in order to ensure that his bookings were wiped off the slate in the event that Real Madrid made the Champions League Quarter Finals. Subsequently, Ramos received a 2-match ban, adding to a list of controversies that have propelled him into contention for the title as one of the world’s dirtiest players.

The red side of Merseyside reviles Ramos for his foul on Salah in the Champions League final last season, with Ramos escaping the referee’s attentions but forcing Salah off with a dislocated shoulder. Salah left the pitch and Real Madrid eventually triumphed, and as much as Ramos’ underhand tactics may be distasteful to some, it is clear that he is willing to win by any means necessary. Ramos has received more yellow and red cards than any player in both La Liga and the Champions League, as well as holding the honour of the most booked player to represent Spain.

Ramos' disciplinary record is as sprawling as his honours list,  having 4 domestic titles, 4 Champions League titles, 2 European Championships and a World Cup under his belt. Ramos may well be perceived as a dirty player, but he is definitely the most successful dirty player to have played the game.

Dominic Lee- Ryan Shawcross

When you think of a traditionally “hard” or “dirty” club one of the teams on the tip of your tongue will undoubtedly be my beloved Stoke City- typified by our long-time captain Ryan Shawcross.

Shawcross is your classic “hard Brexit” footballer. He resembles the British “lump at the back” central defender who’s hard as nails, slow and tough in the tackle. Ryan has also mastered what I call the “diagonal hoof”- his favourite pass- in which he boots the ball from one side of the field to the other, usually going out of play or otherwise nowhere near the intended recipient. Joking aside, Stoke’s number 17 was an excellent defender in his time and provided a tough challenge for strikers such as Diego Costa who relied on strength.

However, when his career is over Shawcross will be remembered as “dirty” rather than talented. This is most likely because of Aaron Ramsey’s horrific leg-break against Stoke back in 2010. Shawcross clearly didn’t mean to break Ramsey’s leg, the challenge could easily have gone the other way and Ryan was clearly apologetic after the challenge, as I saw him crying as he walked off the pitch with my own eyes. The outpouring of hate against Shawcross only served to fuel the belief that he was a dirty player and Stoke were a dirty team. We weren’t the friendliest side sure, Shawcross was- and still is- a “no nonsense” defender and formed a formidable partnership with Robert Huth, who we affectionately nicknamed the “Berlin wall”.

However, as his career has gone on Shawcross has regressed and is a shadow of his former self. He is no longer able to use his strength as an advantage and is somewhat cumbersome in his defending which leads to him having to resort to “route one” Pulis-esque defending strategies, which occasionally involves a crunching tackle or a shove.

Rebecca Johnson- Lee Cattermole

Lee Barry Cattermole. Three words that spark fear in any opposition side. Catts is a “proper” defensive midfielder, hard as nails and gets any job done the way he has to. Unfortunately his methods have seen him get a bit of a reputation.

Playing for Sunderland this season in League One, Catts already has eleven yellow cards under his belt. With only another couple of months of the season to go, he only needs another three to surpass his record of fourteen yellow cards in one single season, achieved in 2014/15. He’s already beaten his achievement of ten last season.

Arguably, Cattermole’s greatest dirty moment must have been against local rivals Newcastle. On home turf, former Sunderland player Jack Colback was playing for Newcastle, when he got the full Lee Barry Cattermole treatment. Catts spied him from afar and planted him spark out with a horrific sliding tackle, producing the iconic image of a menacing Catts stood over Colback.


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