The phrase ‘blood and thunder’ is not one that was created by the footballing world, but rather one that has been adopted into the lexicon of the game. Blood and thunder is generally used to describe individuals or teams who are committed to the cause and willing to do absolutely anything to secure victory, with the use of an aggressive approach the most often associated method. For a long time in football, it was inconceivable that a manager or club captain could adequately do their job without meeting these criteria.
THE RETURN OF BLOOD AND THUNDER
The phrase returned to Premier League press-conferences in February, as Everton caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson called for a blood and thunder performance ahead of his first game in charge: “We have to bleed on the pitch tomorrow,” came the impassioned cry. “We have to bleed for this club.”
Ferguson, while not specifically remembered as a captain, is one example of the blood and thunder players of the past. A centre-forward, the Scot used his physicality to his advantage, bullying defenders and specialising in the air. Like many of his contemporaries using this approach, he was also quite partial to a red card. He was equally feared and respected by those he came up against as a result.
The immediately obvious former players who joined Ferguson in employing this individual approach are Graeme Souness and Roy Keane. Unlike Ferguson, both are notoriously remembered as captains. As for their traits on the pitch, both are remembered for their hard – sometimes extremely so – tackling, ferocious leadership and the high standards they expected from teammates, which they of course set on the training ground and the pitch.
If Ferguson’s goal record showed his success, the trophy haul of Souness and Keane emphatically highlights theirs. A combined 29 trophies, including four European Cups/Champions Leagues, were collected over the pairs’ careers, with the wins often coming as a direct result of their blood and thunder attitude.
Keane’s shining moment came for Manchester United against Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi final, as he single-handedly turned the game, scoring a header and running himself into the ground to secure a 4-3 aggregate comeback victory.
His approach to the game was personified by the fact that this performance came despite having picked up a yellow card that would see him banned for the final. His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, summed up the performance: “Pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose.”
Reminiscent of Duncan Ferguson’s call for his players to “bleed” for Everton, Keane seemed willing to sacrifice himself that night in Turin, putting in an almighty display, despite the cost of having to miss the final.
However, both players’ pasts are also marked by occurrences of their aggression taking them too far. Keane and Souness both received their fair share of red cards in their careers, but one particular Souness red card – for Rangers in 1988 against Steaua Bucharest – has since been described as an “assault” by the Scotsman himself.
Having been nibbled at by Steaua’s Iosif Rotariu, Souness saw it as his duty to retaliate, and he did so during a 50/50 challenge. With the ball in between the two players, Souness made no attempt to tackle, instead extending his leg over the ball and planting his studs firmly into Rotariu’s knee, before raking his studs down the Romanian’s leg. The ‘tackle’ ruptured tendons in Rotariu’s knee and he was sidelined for two months.
Over 30 years on, listening back to Archie MacPherson’s understated “Ohh that’s a booking” commentary reaction to the incident shows that this type of play was not necessarily out of the ordinary. In some ways, it may even have been encouraged; would you have dared put a foot in on Souness knowing what sort of retaliation could await you afterwards?
While Keane and Souness may be the posters boys of this blood and thunder attitude to the game, countless other leaders have done the same: Alan Shearer was a famously fierce competitor and would not be shown up either in training or on the pitch; Leeds United’s Billy Bremner had a notorious reputation for rough-housing opponents, but his teammates would undoubtedly follow him into battle, and often emerge victorious; Diego Maradona led differently, preferring to single-handedly pull his team to victory, but always with an immense passion that some could never match. However, you only have to watch the aftermath of the 1984 Copa Del Rey final to witness how that ‘passion’ he brought on to the pitch could boil over.
“THE GAME’S GONE SOFT”
The reason that the myths and stories about the exploits of such players are still heard and that the need for blood and thunder is still perpetuated is because of where these players now sit.
For those less skilled in the art of management, another medium usually awaits their inputs: the TV studio. The likes of Souness and Keane are regular fixtures on Sky Sports’ football coverage, and interestingly, the reason they may well be in these studios is down to their leadership style not suiting modern day management, or at least not at the top level.
While both have coached in the past and had varying degrees of success and failure doing so, neither has held a position as manager since 2011. Whether or not this is down to their management approach is hard to say for certain, but it is telling that Keane in particular – despite his undeniable record as a player – is still unable to find a post as a head coach, which he claimed only last year he would still be interested in. Souness, on the other hand, has admitted that management may longer be a career that he is suited to.
Now sharing their views from the TV studios as pundits, when the likes of Ronaldo appear to go down easy in the penalty area, or Van Dijk turns away slightly from an oncoming shot, the seeming urgency to lament the player’s indiscretion is all too clear.
Accusations of ‘that wouldn’t have happened in my day’ and ‘he’ll be disgraced with himself when he watches that back’ are predictably thrown around at half-time or full-time. And of course the classic ‘gone soft’ accusation is continually made about modern players and teams.
To make such an accusation about modern football is to ignore some more recent proponents of blood and thunder football: Carles Puyol had no time for his teammates over celebrations or niceties, instead focused solely on the success of his club; his Real Madrid counterpart, Sergio Ramos, has used his natural ability as a passionate leader to cover up a decline in defensive ability in recent years, but his ferocity in training did once led him to pelt a ball point-blank at a Real Madrid youth player; Daniele De Rossi made no effort to hide his dislike of modern players’ attitude in the dressing room – “When I see them do live Instagram videos from inside the locker room before a game, I’d like to take a baseball bat to their teeth” – and the warning sign tattooed on his leg gave an indication of how he played on the pitch as well.
Meanwhile, on a whole team level, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid prove to be the exception in modern times, using the blood and thunder approach across their entire team. From Diego Godín and Gabi, to Koke and Diego Costa, playing hard and with ultimate commitment and passion is simply the default for those playing under El Cholo.
While the ‘gone soft’ tag is likely just an overreaction to incremental changes in how the game is played, such players do now appear to be the minority. The modern leaders in world football are composed of the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Virgil Van Dijk. All four captain their respective countries, but would rarely be described as having a ‘blood and thunder’ approach to the game.
That does not mean that they lack commitment or even a level of aggression when playing, but rather that they do not see that form of leadership as conducive to how the game is played now.
AN EVOLUTION IN FOOTBALL LEADERSHIP
One reason for this evolution of leadership is a change not just in football, but society as a whole. For much of the 20th century, trait theory dominated the discourse of what made someone a leader, with this theory implying that there was a select list of natural attributes – or traits – that made an individual an effective leader. Some of the traits on the various lists created by researchers, such as dominant, achievement-oriented and self-confident, fit perfectly into the blood and thunder approach that dominated leadership in football at that time.
More modern, behavioural-based theories, however, have moved away from this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Instead, they see leadership as something that should be tailored to the individual and the situation they and their followers find themselves in. Meanwhile, theories that still list traits which determine a successful leader are now much wider in scope, and also accept that these traits can be learned through training growth and experience.
In the era of this greater acceptance for a variety of approaches to leadership, we have still seen certain teams dominate and build dynasties similar to those experienced by the teams led by Keane and Souness. This time, however, it was with leaders of a different ilk at the centre.
Messi, for example, has surprised many in how he has grown as a leader at Barcelona, and often leads by example, carrying his team much in the same way as Roy Keane had to in the past. But where Keane would intimidate with ferocious tackling, Messi does so using his ability to dictate the game’s rhythm through his movement and passing. Both approaches require passion and skill, and both happened to suit each leader when they used it.
It would also not be conducive for Harry Kane to kick-out at an opposing defender in order to intimidate as Souness had once done. The resulting missed games as a result of the red card would simply not be worth the sacrifice.
At a whole team level, Manchester City dominated the 2010s domestically, winning four Premier League titles, all led by the admittedly authoritative, but rarely aggressive, Vincent Kompany. Bayern Munich and Barcelona also experienced a decade of domestic and European greatness, but they have rarely been led by an enforcer-type player. Rather, the likes of Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Xavi and Messi, respectively, came through the teams’ youth systems and used that passion, combined with skill and drive to lead their teams.
The likes of Diego Simeone, Jose Mourinho and even Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, have found ways around this shift in the game through the use of cynical and rotated fouls. So perhaps blood and thunder can still exist, just in a tactically smarter and more subtle form.
ARE THE DAYS OF BLOOD AND THUNDER LEADERSHIP IN FOOTBALL OVER?
During the aforementioned debut of caretaker-manager, Duncan Ferguson, his Everton side beat Chelsea 3-1 in a markedly improved performance compared to previous games under Marco Silva.
While believing that a rousing, Braveheart-like call to arms had inspired this new look Everton to victory makes for a good story, it does not show the full picture. That game saw Ferguson switch to a 4-4-2 formation, while attackers Richarlison and Dominic Calvert Lewin were given more freedom in attack. This tactical switch has since continued under the much more languid Carlo Ancellotti, and results have continued to pick up for the Toffees.
With Keane’s most recent experience coming as assistant manager for the Republic of Ireland, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, and Ferguson forging a successful career as assistant to Ancelotti, perhaps blood and thunder is a useful tool to have in a management team, though not necessarily as the default option. Rather, these coaches can use their experience and the fear-factor they may generate in players to come down hard on them, so as saving their manager from having to do so. This is exactly the role Keane played under Martin O’Neill for the Republic of Ireland.
So are the days of blood and thunder in football over? In short: no. The size and globality of the game means that trends and different playing styles tend to come and go in different leagues, and the blood and thunder-type player is no exception to that. For example, if the geggen-pressing style so in demand across Europe currently continues to develop, it could well develop a more aggressive strategy, thus leaving the door open for the return of the Ferguson’s, Keane’s and Souness’ of football.
Therefore, as with the example of Ferguson’s debut match, the use of blood and thunder to inspire and lead a team may for now be just one of a number of approaches a coach on the touch line or a captain on the pitch has up their sleeve. If combined well enough with the other variables such as man-management, club culture and of course tactics, it may still have a place in the modern game.