With Roy Keane’s fiery book revelations still making headlines, Michael Hogan looks at the sporting world’s combative, bloody-minded brutes
“You have to be a bit of a bastard to be a champion,” was a view to which Sir Nicholas subscribed. And he made a claim for it on the fairway. After leaving school at 16, the lad from a Welwyn Garden City council house hit hundreds of shots every day, not returning home until his hands were bleeding. His attention to detail meant he’d only cut his fingernails on Mondays so it didn’t affect the balance of his putting grip. The self-styled loner won six majors but few friends, shushing fans, snapping at reporters and eschewing the clubhouse bar for room service dinners-for-one. Faldo even had his children’s births induced so they didn’t clash with his schedule. His determination worked: he was ranked World No. 1 for two years and is the most successful Ryder Cup player ever. As his coach David Leadbetter said: “You don't have to be Mr Popular to win tournaments.” True to form, Faldo sacked Leadbetter by post. They haven’t spoken since.
In Seventies tennis, Björn Borg was the iceman and arch rival Connors was the street scrapper – a bad loser who warned Borg he’d “chase him to the ends of the Earth”. King of the five-set comeback, Connors vowed to “spill blood and guts out there” and admitted he was driven by “the two Rs: rage and revenge”. His gritty style of play, all two-handed backhands and ferocious returns, spilt over into F-bombs, crotch-grabbing and giving the finger to line judges – whatever it took to get him and the crowd fired up. It worked: the maverick lifted eight grand slam singles titles and, in his breakthrough 1974 season, won 95 matches out of 99, including three majors.
As the controversial passages in his new memoir make clear, Roy Keane isn’t a man of half-measures. He learnt from the best, having been brought over from his native Cork by Nottingham Forest führer Brian Clough – a man who once decked his protégé for conceding a goal. From stamping on Gareth Southgate to punching Alan Shearer, his tunnel bust-up with Patrick Vieira and the infamous horror tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, captain Keano’s playing days as a dominant midfield enforcer were one epic, bulgy-veined battle – a fight he won, as his haul of seven Premier League titles (and 13 red cards) demonstrates. His combative nature carried over into his punditry and managerial careers, in which he can still make grown men quiver with a glare from those blazing eyes. He had trouble at Ipswich because they played in blue (“City were blue, Rangers were blue, all my big rivals had been blue”) and changed his mind about bringing Robbie Savage to Sunderland because his voicemail message said “Hi, it’s Robbie – whasssuuup?” (“I can’t be f*cking signing that”). Stick your prawn sandwiches up your b*llocks.
Not to be confused with the legendary football commentator, we mean the rugby union pitbull. Moore was a troubled soul: abandoned by his father, given up for adoption, suffered depression in later life. But he says his traumatic childhood is what made him so viciously competitive on the pitch. The hooker won 64 caps for England and was known for his confrontational style, speed in open play, never-say-die attitude, habit of reading rousing passages from Henry V to his teammates before kick-off and for being caught doing red wine-addled aeroplane impressions on Sydney Harbour Bridge the morning after the Lions beat the Wallabies. He’s now an equally no-nonsense pundit, prone to yelling “You halfwit!” at English players who make mistakes.
He looks like a Sopranos hitman, and has the temperament of one, too. The 6ft 5in Swedish striker’s stellar career has been punctuated by violent flashpoints, usually with teammates: he kicked Antonio Cassano in the face and head-butted Oguchi Onyewu at Milan, threw a box of kit at his Barca boss Pep Guardiola, punched Mido and threatened to break Rafael van der Vaart’s legs at Ajax. He grew up in a tower block in a rough immigrant neighbourhood, a self-confessed “snotty little punk” who stole bicycles. Zlatan is the only player to have scored for six different teams in the Champions League and, as a recent viral video of him disdainfully regarding a marker who had the temerity to touch him shows, is still the king of footballing swagger.
Shortly before his death in 1961, baseball’s panto villain wrote: “In legend, I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport.” He undersold it. Cobb was an aggressive batter who stole more bases than anyone in history – sliding in feet first, sharpened spikes held up in case a fielder got in his way. He popularised physical conditioning and mind games, which he called “putting up a mental hazard for the other fella”. He wasn’t averse to using his fists, once climbing into the crowd, Cantona-style, to attack an abusive fan. Poet Ogden Nash immortalised him in verse: “C is for Cobb/Who grew spikes and not corn/ And made all the basemen/Wish they weren’t born.”
The ample-bearded all-rounder laid the foundations for modern cricket during his record 44-season career, leading its transformation from an amateur gent’s game to a professional sport. “The Doctor” (he was a qualified medic) popularised playing straight, bowling line and length, and perfected the art of fielding (well, until he got too fat to bend over). He could throw the ball 100m, which he attributed to chucking stones at crows as a boy. Grace was such a great opener that one opposing captain opined that he “ought to be made to play with a littler bat”. Fiercely competitive, he “approached cricket as if fighting a small war”. Grace once took three runs when the ball got lodged between his shirt buttons, and famously refused to leave the crease when given out LBW, informing the appealer: “They came to watch me bat, not you bowl.”
Paolo Di Canio
The Italian striker was once only mad in a lovable way. He played like a virtuoso, pushed referees over, wrestled the ball from bewildered teammates to take penalties, volleyed the fan-voted Goal Of The Decade, sulkily sat down on the pitch when he wanted to be substituted and sportingly caught the ball to stop play when the opposing keeper was injured. Then he returned to Rome, got matey with the Ultras and made straight-arm salutes. “I’m a fascist, not a racist,” he declared. Phew, that’s OK then. Some redemption came when he became boss of Swindon, where he helped pay the wage bill out of his own pocket, stayed up all night with fans clearing snow off the pitch and bought everyone pizza to show his appreciation. But that all led to a deranged draconian regime at Sunderland (he banned phones, ketchup, coffee, singing) where knee-sliding triumph turned to disaster after just 13 games.
The greatest ever Formula 1 driver, or a circuit-bully who frequently bent the rules? Probably both. Seven-time World Champion Schuey drove right on the edge, as Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve will attest, aggressively pushing the car and the laws of the track to their limits. The king of rainy conditions and the master of over-taking, he always prepared thoroughly for races, usually cycling round the circuit on a fold-up bike he took everywhere with him. The German was accused of dangerous driving many times, but his stats are unsurpassed. He became sport’s first billionaire, but donates generously to charity, especially Unesco. He’s, of course, currently recovering from a near-fatal skiing accident. Get well soon, Red Baron.
A burly 6ft 4in with a bushy handlebar moustache, Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes was already fairly conspicuous. He made himself even more of a bad guy with his sledging, snarling and colourful language towards the opposition – hence his nickname “Fruitfly”, AKA “Australia's greatest national pest”. When England’s Graham Gooch failed to get bat on ball during a fast Hughes spell, he growled: “Would you like me to bowl a f*cking piano and see if you can play that?” After Pakistan batsman Javed Miandad called him “a fat bus conductor”, Hughes took his wicket and celebrated with a cry of “Tickets please!” And, bafflingly, when Viv Richards hit him for several consecutive fours, Merv farted towards the West Indian: “Let’s see you hit that to the boundary.”