Back in the day – and might I give mad props to that particular colloquialism for meaning people no longer need to be specific when referencing events past – every football team would have at least one hard man. You know the sort; usually an uncompromising centre half with thighs like tree trunks, nose smeared across his face and shorts stained with an opponent’s blood.
The removal of much of the contact from the contact sport that is football in recent times has meant the hard man of yesteryear is no longer a necessity. Take a look at the squads of the twenty current Premier League incumbents and you’ll be hard pressed to find many members who fit the mould of the hard man of days gone by. Where once stood Vinnie Jones, Patrick Vieria and Roy Keane, now lie the somewhat less intimidating figures of the likes of David Silva, Roberto Firmino and Ander Herrera.
Football moves on and those who don’t go with it get left behind. Arsene Wenger was more than happy to comply with English tradition when he first arrived here all those years ago, keeping the likes of Adams, Bould and Keown at the core of his team whilst adding in the flair to complement it.
As time passed, Wenger changed. The current Arsenal team is more flair than fight, though by 2016 standards, Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi might consider themselves at least in some way comparable to the brutes who went before them.
So who would be the Premier League’s hard man in the present day then? I think I’ve got the answer and it may surprise you. The thought came to mind as I watched Chelsea labour to a ninth straight win against a stubborn if tedious West Bromwich Albion. Claudio Yacob might fancy his chances as a hard man but to my mind he’s more of a calculated breaker up of play. His tackles/fouls tend to be either niggly or sneaky – not qualities associated with the hard man of yore.
No, my vote for the Premier League’s hardest hard man goes to…….Eden Hazard. Seriously, it’s Eden Hazard. As he was scythed down in typically brutal fashion by Chris Brunt, the realisation dawned on me. Hazard was clearly in pain but hobbled to the side line to get treatment and waited patiently to be told he could come back on. When he re-entered the playing area, he was clearly feeling the effects of the tackle but what separates Hazard from most players of his style is that there was not one word of protest to the referee.
Perhaps Hazard feels there’s simply no point in him pleading with officials for more protection. Hazard has been amongst the most fouled players in the Premier League in each of the past two seasons and is on course to be near or at the top of that particular table again this time around. His skill obviously contributes greatly to the number of times he’s fouled. Often his fleet of foot is simply too baffling for opposing defenders to deal with, the only resort being to tap the ankles (or sometimes do more than tap) and bring the brilliant Belgian to a halt that way.
Hazard deserves immense credit for the way he’s able to old his temper. Perhaps someone can point out some instances I’ve missed but I genuinely can’t recall an occasion where Hazard has served up a volley of abuse to an official or tried to dive to get a decision when he’s being kicked from pillar to post.
Brian Clough used to describe his son Nigel as a hard man, pointing out that the black and blue ankles the striker sported after every match were proof of his toughness. Hazard is much the same. This shot of his bloody ankles during a Champions League game against Galatasaray a couple of years back is illustrative of the sort of brutality Hazard is subjected to on a match by match basis.
Hazard usually has the last laugh though. He can exact retribution using his talent rather than brute force. That he manages to keep cool in the face of such provocation is a testament to his character but it must leave Antonio Conte wincing every time another crunching challenge leaves his number 10 writhing in agony. Hazard has shown remarkable powers of durability during his time in England. He gets knocked down but he gets up again. Eden Hazard: Premier League hard man.