Story by Aaron Bliss
Some call them nutjobs, some call them mavericks. They become cult heroes to some; perennial villains to others. They are usually passionate, volatile, loose cannons with a hair-trigger fuse. They inspire as much as they disgust with their actions, and clubs will forgive their indiscretions because of their undoubted contribution to the greater success of their club. Stability is most certainly something you do not expect or receive, but there are times when these mad, polarising characters reach heights that rivet them in fans’ hearts more than any other players. Welcome to my top eleven Premier League headcases, not so much in order of success, but in order of sheer scale of unpredictable behaviour. They will not make a balanced team in any sense of the word!
Number 11: IAN WRIGHT
Having joined the professional ranks fairly late from being a brickie, Ian Wright was a true working-class hero, of the Sun reading ilk. He was an exceptional goalscorer, and his shooting only got more deadly from the lip. Wright was notoriously mouthy, often referring to referees publicly as ‘muppets’, as well as other tactless indiscretions. When he broke Cliff Bastin’s Arsenal goalscoring record in 1997, Bastin’s widow was recorded as insinuating she’d have preferred someone a little more respectful to have overtaken her late husband’s feats. Wright also notoriously tangled with Peter Schmeichel, when he launched into a two-footed tackle on the Dane, continuing bad blood between the two players. He has continued this lack of verbal restraint in his post-football career, losing his job presenting ‘Live from Studio Five’ after falling out with co-presenter Melinda Messenger and berating his bosses. He also accused the BBC of using him as a ‘comedy jester’, after quitting Match of the Day punditry. There is no doubt Wright was a master goalscorer: his final career total was better than one in two, while with England, despite many of his 33 caps being substitute runs, he almost acquired a one-in-three ratio, with 9 goals. He was undoubtedly also a Class A hothead. He also came in my shop once. True story.
Number 10: DUNCAN FERGUSON
In at number ten we have the Toffees’ favourite son: ‘Duncan Disorderly’. The tall and brawny Scot with the wild eyes arrived on Merseyside first of all on loan in 1994, before a permanent move in 1995, following a brief stint in the clink for headbutting Raith Rovers’ John McStay. Amusingly, he did not receive a red card for the incident, though on review was found guilty of assault, and jailed due to it being his fourth such offence. Ferguson shares the honour of most Premier League cards with Patrick Vieira and Richard Dunne, with a resounding eight, though Ricky is still playing, thus bound to make a play for the title to add to his own goal record, also currently standing at eight. Big Dunc was a headcase in the sense that he could snap at the most curious provocation, and when he snapped, blood was usually spilt. Here’s a classic moment that Steffen Freund would probably rather forget:
And, lest we forget, Ferguson has beaten the living daylights out of burglars too. All the assets of a cult hero, particularly to Everton fans.
Number 9: WAYNE ROONEY
Coming from a troubled Merseyside sink estate, controversy has followed Rooney around since he was an impetuous sixteen-year old, who charged like a bull, but with the feet of a slight Brazilian playmaker. After announcing himself in iconic fashion with a winner crashing in off the crossbar to end Arsenal’s record unbeaten run in 2002, Rooney’s career took off, though he is known as much for his powder-keg temperament as his genius on the ball. Rooney has displayed an alarming lack of composure under provocation, particularly for England, the most recent example being his senseless red card for kicking Montenego’s Miodrag Dzudovic off the ball in England’s last qualifier for Euro 2012. He has also been fined for swearing directly into a television camera, and upsetting Manchester United fans and Sir Alex Ferguson by demanding a transfer in 2010, before getting a much-improved contract. To go with these follies, he has also broken records and provided moments of pure class; winning the best Premier League goal for his overhead bicycle kick against rivals Manchester City, as well as scoring a hat-trick on his Champions’ League debut at just 18. He is ninth in the all-time England goalscorers’ list, and still England’s shining star, despite his lack of impact at major tournaments since 2004. Sometimes, his frustration leads to outbursts against his own supporters:
Having said all of that, Rooney still only has half as many Premier League red cards as Cristiano Ronaldo received.
Number 8: LEE BOWYER
Now known as a wasted talent, Bowyer seemed a classic case of a player who let his troubles go on the football field. As a youngster in the notorious O’Leary Leeds team of the early noughties, Bowyer seemed like the box-to box goalscoring midfielder of England’s dreams. He was already no stranger to indiscipline, having been suspended in 1995 for failing a drugs test while with Charlton. Unfortunately for Bowyer, the most prolific years of his career were overshadowed by a court case in 2000, where he and Jonathan Woodgate were accused of grievous bodily harm against an Asian student. It didn’t help that Bowyer had history for racial abuse in 1996. His England chance seemed to pass him by with the court case, and after the case was over, he won just one cap for his country. His hothead credentials are made complete by holding the record for most yellow cards in Premier League history, with 98! Oh, and this incident of course:
Number 7: ERIC CANTONA
My hero as a child, Eric was King Maverick. He took to the pitch with a collar-up swagger, and had the gift of dictating a game’s tempo when the ball was at his feet, as well as conjuring crucial, deciding goals. He won a league title at the end of every season he completed from 1991 until his retirement in 1997; two of these seasons culminating in doubles. But there was another side to this imperious footballer: call it ‘Gallic passion’. In 1988, he responded to being dropped from the France national team by calling coach Henri Michel a ‘sac du merde’ (pardon my French), and was dropped indefinitely. After Michel was sacked for failing to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, Michel Platini recalled Cantona. With a great scoring record of nearly one in two, Cantona should have represented his country for a generation, but, just as he was made captain, he stunned the football world on 25th January 1995. In the midst of a bad-tempered match at Selhurst Park, Richard Shaw yanked on Cantona’s shirt to avoid him going clean through. Cantona responded by kicking him under the referee’s nose, and received a red card. As he was walking from the pitch, he suddenly burst clear of his chaperone and launched at abusive ‘fan’ Matthew Simmons, who is now a convicted football hooligan; kung-fu kicking, then punching him repeatedly before being dragged away. The resulting ban saw him also stripped of the French captaincy, but even when he returned, his national team place had been taken by a young upstart called Zinedine Zidane. Whether he was scoring a hat-trick in the Charity Shield, or being red-carded for a two-footed challenge in a pre-season friendly against Rangers, whether scoring the winner in an FA Cup final, or calling every member of the French disciplinary panel an idiot after being banned for hurling the ball at a referee, Cantona was pure theatre in every way. And thus, he of course makes his iconic number seven on my list.
Number 6: JENS LEHMANN
There is always one opposition player that you are instructed to wind up, in the hope they will explode and leave their team down to ten men. Jens Lehmann was one of these players, and gives our team a fragment of balance in that he was a goalkeeper. Lehmann, who looked like a camp German model, and had the petulant attitude to match, was notorious for his wildly diverse performances. He could go from the sublime to the ridiculous in a moment, and opposition teams used this to their advantage, often treading on his toes from set pieces and other such tricks. More often than not, Lehmann would bite the bait and hit out, which made it all the more likely the tactic would be deployed again. He was renowned in Germany for setting clean sheet and red card records: he holds the record for most red cards for any player of Borussia Dortmund as well as for any goalkeeper in the German Bundesliga. Strangely, Lehmann actually scored two penalties for his first club Schalke, and helped win his teams penalty shootouts in the UEFA Cup Final for Schalke, and the German World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, for which he was lauded. He also holds the Champions’ League record for most consecutive clean sheets, at Arsenal. Then again, he would drop a clanger when you least suspected it, normally involving lashing out at a player in his penalty box. In the Invincibles season, in which Lehmann made his claim for greatness by playing in every unbeaten game, he almost gave it away a few times, once when Arsenal claimed the title against rivals Spurs. Despite being 2-0 up, the Gunners were pegged back to 2-2, chiefly down to Lehmann losing his cool and pushing Robbie Keane over in the box for the equalising penalty. He was also red-carded early in the Champions’ League final against Barcelona, which most agree contributed heavily to their exit. Like fellow ex-Gunner Ian Wright, Lehmann loved a tactless soundbite, and often mouthed off to the press about how he should be Germany’s number one; a claim which later came true. Love him or hate him, Lehmann never calmed down, and the football world is a duller place without him. I leave you with perhaps his finest hour:
Number 5: TOMAS REPKA
Repka was the kind of manic, temperamental hardman those hardcore East-Enders love. With a tackle that could cripple a statue, Repka was renowned as the kind of defender attackers legitimately feared facing, if not for his prowess on the pitch, then in the car park afterwards. Where Jens Lehmann’s head rushes were understandable in their context, Repka’s explosions would often bewilder his manager and team-mates. He twice wiped out his own team-mates with mistimed scything challenges, was sent off on his West Ham debut, and his second appearance after suspension! He is renowned for inexplicably losing control, including attacking game officials and a cameraman on his return to the Czech Republic in 2007, and scuffling with officials at a game his son was involved in, after his wife had sworn at a player who had fouled him. He has racked up an incredible 18 red cards in his career, and has yet to retire at 38. The Hammers fans took the tattooed nutcase to their hearts, and sang his name in his final West Ham game, prompting him to leave the pitch in tears, finally knowing what some of his opponents felt like!
Number 4: PAOLO DI CANIO
The nutcase’s nutcase, Paolo Di Canio, certainly made waves, some forgiveable; shoving Paul ‘Bambi on Ice’ Alcock over, some not so; connections and sympathy for the fascist ‘Ultras’ in Lazio. Ignoring his reprehensible political views, Di Canio could be a magician on the pitch, and command the fans’ respect with his Italian passion. He won Goal of the Season in 2000 with a stupendous leaping volley struck with the outside of his boot, and actually redeemed his Alcock moment by winning the FIFA Fair Play award in 2001, after catching the ball to stop play when Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard had collapsed injured on the edge of the box, rather than attempting to score. Like Repka, Di Canio became a Hammers cult legend, providing moments of genius as well as mindless moments of dissent, usually with management or playing staff. As manager of Swindon Town he tasted promotion in his first season, but not before nearly fighting one of his own players; Leon Clarke, who was later ejected from the club.
Number 3: JOEY BARTON
The reason young Joey does not score higher on our list is that he has very little going for him in the ‘pro’ category, compared to the ‘con’. Though most would struggle to argue that having a convicted axe murderer for a brother affects you in a negative way, Joey has gone above and beyond in acts of sheer stupidity. From his two-footed lunges and waist-high studs challenges, to his meltdown in the final game of last season against former club Manchester City, Barton has a record as long as your arm. And leg. And longer. Stubbing a cigar out in a young player’s eye, beating a team-mate senseless on the training ground, insulting Gary Lineker on Twitter: you get it all with a man to whom self-control seems to be an alien concept. The problem with Joey is that, in the playing sense, he has had very little success. Sporadic excellence for Manchester City and Newcastle have been overshadowed by suspensions, off-field antics and mediocre performances. Mention his name and most people are likely to roll their eyes or sneer. Just to complete the condemnation, he does not just dish it out. He also doesn’t seem to be able to take it:
Number 2: MARIO BALOTELLI
Balotelli is 24-Carat Gold in terms of unpredictable entertainment. The young Italian came from an already turbulent background: a teenage black player in a notoriously intolerant white-dominated Serie ‘A’, and only the second black player ever to turn out for the Azzurri, before he arrived in Manchester. Balotelli is notoriously uncontrollable, and you never know whether you will get a superb match-winning moment, or a brainless, career-threatening tackle. When he does turn it on, he does it with an arrogant swagger, just the right side of loveable: witness him knocking the ball over the line with his chest, or lashing a cruise missile into the net in the Euro 2012 semi-finals. The folk tales of Balotelli have made him almost as much a myth as a man, and unfortunately most, like the one about him giving a grand to a homeless man, are untrue. The truths are almost stranger than fiction though: he threw darts at a youth player as a prank, and almost burnt his house down after a party guest set off fireworks in his bathroom. Brilliantly, he then appeared in a public awareness campaign about the dangers of fireworks! He often spits his fury at being substituted, and has twice been guilty of ridiculous challenges on Arsenal midfielders. Jose Mourinho famously found it impossible to work with him, and Mancini has more than once threatened to wash his hands of the temperamental youngster. That said, his entertainment value alone is worth the entrance fee. Having just won a league title to go with his FA Cup, ‘Super Mario’ makes it to number two on our hotheads XI countdown.
Number 1: ROY KEANE
A true hothead should be both gifted and unpredictable; living on the edge and demanding of all around him. By far the most successful, and possibly intimidating, character in our list is my number one: Roy Maurice Keane. Keane did not just deal out aggression: he accepted it himself. In his autobiography, he described being laid out by a punch from Brian Clough after being culpable for an opposition goal, and being sworn at and threatened by Kenny Dalglish, after backing out of a move to Blackburn at the last minute. Besides his glittering Manchester United career, the peak of which was his superhuman Champions’ League semi-final performance against Juventus in 1999, Keane has had some moments of pure infamy, which usually displayed his take-no-prisoners-take-no-crap attitude. He walked out of Ireland’s 2002 World Cup squad, citing the unprofessional attitude and amateur preparations of the FAI, and dished out what he later described as retribution, with a vicious knee-high challenge on Alf-Inge Haaland, though claims he ended his career were fallacious, leading to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Haaland. His exchange with Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel was the stuff of legend, although he recently appeared as a pundit alongside Vieira on ITV’s Euro 2012 coverage, along with Gareth Southgate, who Keane stamped on in a 1995 FA Cup tie. He has yet to appear on Match of the Day, alongside another of his former nemeses: Alan Shearer, who he belted round the head in a stormy league game. If we need any more evidence that Keane is top dog in the Premier League loose cannons list, it is that Keane brought a new phrase into the English lexicon. While Cantona had his seagulls waiting for sardines, Roy admonished the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. A no-nonsense box-to-box midfield heartbeat with an acerbic tongue, here is an example of Keane at his typically combative best:
Honourable mentions should go to Peter Schmeichel , Bruce Grobbelaar and John Hartson, though El-Hadji Diouf fails to make the list on the grounds that he has no redeeming features to balance out his crimes!