While most people watch football as a positive experience, as a release from outside pressures and troubles, there will always be certain players that just rile us up, causing anger and aggravation. Whether it is because they are known for being dirty, for always scoring against your team, or just for having a stupid haircut, we had some of our writers talk us through who they believe to be football’s greatest villains.
James Bolam- Sergio Ramos
Where to start with Ramos? Perhaps it could be the 171 yellow and 20 red cards in La Liga? Or the 40 yellow cards and 4 red cards in the Champions League? Or indeed the record 24 yellow cards for the Spanish national team? When it comes to cards, Ramos surpasses them all.
His first act of villainy came early at home town club Sevilla. He came through the youth ranks with Jesús Navas and stared as they qualified for the UEFA Cup. This attracted the interest of Real Madrid and the lifelong Sevilla fan swore his allegiance to the club, promising never to leave. He promptly left anyway.
The acts of shithousery are legendary. From dislocating Mo Salah’s shoulder in a Champions League final to deliberately getting a second yellow in a routine win at Ajax in the same competition. He was suspended for the second leg which resulted in an Ajax win and elimination for Los Blancos. There was a Sergio shaped hole in the defence as Ajax progressed. If that’s not enough he broke the hearts of millions of Spanish men as he married one of Spain’s most desirable women in Pilar Rubio. The wedding itself was the epitome of bad taste.
It’s also been said that on Spanish national team duty he would battle Gerard Piqué for control of the dressing room stereo, playing a mix of Reggaeton music. Pique would insist on the likes of The Stone Roses and New Order. Pique an angel, Ramos the devil.
Even in times of triumph Ramos could be called upon to be the bad guy. During the open-topped bus parade of the 2011 Copa del Rey, Ramos waved the trophy about above his head and then dropped it. The bus ran over the treasured item, crushing it in the process.
There is no doubt That Sergio Ramos is one of the best defenders the world has ever seen but this is called greatest villains not greatest defenders. Sergio Ramos take your place in this hall of infamy.
Dave Proudlove- Tony Pulis
From 2008 until 2018, Stoke City spent ten seasons in the Premier League, and the first five of those were overseen by Tony Pulis, one of English football’s most derided or respected managers, depending on which side of the fence you sit.
The Potters had spent more than two decades outside of the top flight when Pulis arrived at the Britannia Stadium for a second spell at the helm, and between him and super-rich Chairman Peter Coates, hatched a plan to return.
And when they returned, Pulis was determined to keep them there, and he was successful in doing so.
After talking to Sir Alex Ferguson about what he might do to keep the club in the Premier League, he took steps to turn the Britannia Stadium into a fortress. He pitched the club as the underdog but played on the area’s working class culture, and developed a siege mentality. He had the playing surface kept long to hinder footballing sides. And he had the pitch shortened to the minimum dimensions allowable to take advantage of his side’s secret weapon: Rory Delap’s incredible long throws.
Numerous managers expressed frustration at how their teams crumbled in the Potteries, while Pulis and his tactics were often the subject of rage from fans of other clubs. However, what probably annoyed them was that it was effective. Tony Pulis established Stoke City as a Premier League club, took them to their first ever FA Cup Final, and the last 32 of the Europa League. Both Pulis and Stoke City have since departed the Premier League, but everyone remembers them.
Jack Wills- Steve McManaman
For the accolade of football’s greatest villain, several candidates come to mind, players and managers new and old being the obvious choice. My candidate is a former player, but his villainy has nothing to do with his playing career, but rather his post-playing performance. The man in question is ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder, and currently BT Sport co-commentator Steve McManaman.
In a world where we have been blessed with commentator icons like John Motson, or co-commentators like Sky Sport’s Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, the disdain that the nation appears to have whenever McManaman announces a big Champions League tie is overbearing. The excitement which builds to a big Champions League knockout tie is often burst the moment he opens his mouth. Where your average football fan would consider the chance to commentate in these iconic stadiums, watching decorated teams do battle with world cup an honour and a privilege, McManaman seems to take great pride in doing the bare minimum research and applying lazy stereotypes.
It may seem odd to class a co-commentator as a villain, ahead of so many controversial players, but for every Roy Keane or Pepe, there are a group of fans who adore them. Type Steve McManaman into the Twitter search bar on a Champions League matchday and you’ll gain a feel for his stature in the game. He isn’t good at his job and the fans know this, yet somehow, he remains in a job.
I’m sure he is a lovely person, but as a commentator, he is draining. Listening to him say “Fletch” about 30 times a game is torturous and his voice has genuinely seen me watch many a game on mute. The sooner he is removed from the primary showpiece on BT’s Champions League coverage will be a glorious day for Champions League fans.
Rodney McCain- Maurice Johnston
Maurice “Mo” Johnston. Just the utterance of the striker’s name in certain parts of Glasgow might get you more than a “dirty look”. Johnston, a devoted Celtic fan as a boy, had fulfilled his childhood dreams when signing for the Hoops from Watford during the summer of 1984. He was prolific for a Celtic team in transition, scoring 52 goals in just 99 appearances, before getting tempted to try his luck in French football with Nantes in 1987.
By then, the ‘Graeme Souness Revolution’ was beginning across town at Rangers; it would become a bleak decade to be a Celtic fan or player as Rangers established a vice-like grip on Scottish football for a decade or more. Having declared that he had no intention of ever returning to Scottish football after moving to France, Johnston suddenly appeared to have had a change of heart when he called a press conference in the spring of 1989 to announce that he would be re-signing for Celtic the following summer.
The Celtic fans were jubilant at the news; it was the return of their long-lost “prodigal son”, who appeared to have lost none of his predatory sharpness in front of goal whilst playing in Ligue One (22 goals in 66 appearances). Celtic even sold prolific hitman Frank McAvennie to West Ham United, anticipating that Johnston would shortly be arriving to take McAvennie’s shirt. Imagine their shock, their absolute horror, when Johnston appeared in a RANGERS shirt, stood beside the devil himself, Graeme Souness, in July 1989!
In an instant, Mo had transformed himself from hero to arch-villain in the eyes of one set of Old Firm fans. Meanwhile, ‘Gers fans were divided by the news. Some welcomed Johnston, recognizing the unbelievable coup that Souness had just achieved over their old enemy, not to mention Mo’s undoubted ability on the pitch. Others were less enamoured, especially given Johnston’s past allegiances and the fact that he was Catholic.
Johnston eventually became a bit of a cult-hero with the majority of Rangers fans, particularly after scoring and openly celebrating a late match-winning goal against Celtic in November 1989. He scored an excellent 31 goals in 76 appearances for the Ibrox club before moving to Everton in 1991. However, he was never forgiven for the ultimate act of betrayal by his boyhood club. He remains the shining example of an arch-villain in Scottish football to this day.
Elliott Brennan- Cristiano Ronaldo
Long before Cristiano Ronaldo became the sporting icon he is today, the Portuguese forward was once targeted as the sport’s insidious villain.
Once upon time, Portugal and England were locked in a tense World Cup quarterfinal in 2006. At the hour mark, the fixture changed. Out of anger for not getting a foul, Wayne Rooney lost his temper and stamped on Ricardo Carvalho. The 21-year-old Portuguese immediately displayed his anger and complained directly in front of referee Hector Elizondo and Rooney. The English striker shoved his Manchester United teammate for his reaction, prompting Elizondo to show his red card at Rooney. Walking away, the TV camera’s captured Ronaldo winking towards his teammates.
Alan Shearer’s, Alan Hansen’s and Ian Wright’s contemporaneous reaction on the BBC was one of the first signs of the fury brewing. Ronaldo’s infamous wink left the panel stunned. It even incited Shearer to say, “there is every chance Rooney could go back to the Man United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo.” The matter was made worse when Ronaldo scored the winning penalty after extra-time. The young superstar was officially public enemy number one.
The angry reaction spilt into the semi-final. The BBC reported English and French supporters were united together to jeer Ronaldo. BBC’s Phil McNulty writing captured the contempt England had for Ronaldo at this stage. He referred to how his “amateur dramatics” was a “sorry scar” on his talent and the “variety of feints, step-overs and dives are a blot on his landscape”.
The English labelled Ronaldo a “winker” and charged him with crimes against football. They stirred the possible division embedded in the United squad. Ronaldo admitted he was fearful of English supporters and that he wanted to leave England that summer.
Nonetheless, behind the scenes, Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney and the whole United team put everything in the past and rallied behind Ronaldo. Rooney forgave the Portuguese quicker than any furious media outlet. That season, Manchester United renewed its dominance by winning the league for the first time since 2003. It was the start of a three-peat title run. Leading the way? It was none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pete Spencer- The Birmingham Six
Back in the early 1980’s there was a notorious group of players at St. Andrews, Birmingham, known as “The Birmingham Six”. They were tough, hard, rowdy yet never thuggish or loutish. Their moniker was based on the phrase given to men wrongly accused of the IRA bombings of Birmingham in 1975. Mick Harford, Howard Gayle, Robert Hopkins, Tony Coton, Pat van den Hauwe and Mark Dennis made up the group.
They were always getting into scrapes around the city, often late at night. Yet they were always ready for the competition of a football match come Saturday.
The team was regarded as one of the hardest around, but unlike the circus at Plough Lane a few years later these boys were hard but fair. It was a common held view if you kicked one of them, they’d just kick you back, but harder.
They were regularly seen in places such as Rum Runner, Peppermint Place and Mr Moons. They drank like fish, fought fans of rival teams, mixed it with taxi drivers, trashed cars and got run over by buses. Gayle was from the tough part of Liverpool, Toxteth. Dennis was the original ‘psycho’, sent off 12 times in his career. Hopkins, on one occasion fed up listening to a player in the club bar after a game, knocked him spark out.
Many players of the era, when asked who the hardest player they came up against was would reply; “what, you mean after Mick Harford?” Needless to say, Blues fans loved them.
Graham Hollingsworth- Diego Simeone
30th of June, 1998; my first experience of heart-break, aged just seven. It was the second half of the round of 16 match between England and Argentina, with the scores locked at 2-2. Michael Owen had announced himself at the biggest stage with, in my opinion, the greatest goal of all time. England looked dangerous. Then, in a flash, it all began to unravel.
Diego Simeone smashed into the back of David Beckham, sending him to the ground. Beckham, incredibly petulantly it has to be said, kicked out at the Argentine midfielder, making minimal contact. Simeone then acted like he’d been hit by a wrecking ball in the stomach, and tumbled down to the ground. All this played out right in front of the referee, who brandished a yellow to ‘El Cholo’ whereas ‘Golden Balls’ received a straight red. England, who had been on top to this point, struggled on with ten men, before losing on penalties. It was that day that my dislike for Simeone began, and it has only grown in the following years
His Atlético Madrid side are incredibly tedious to watch, playing incredibly negative (though it has to be said, effective) football. His team are a spitting image of him; nasty, niggly, and master of the dark arts.
More recently, his antics in the Champions League Quarter Final last season also incredibily irritated me. He spent the whole tie dancing up and down on the touchline, hysterically appealing every single decision, desperately trying to wind up Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool bench and the Anfield crowd. Such an annoying man, who I hope never manages a side in the Premier League.