Pepe’s Headbutt and the Death of the Premier League Hardman

“This literally couldn’t be less true. I’ve retired! (I just haven’t done an interview and cried about it)” Robert Huth (Twitter), 11.08 AM, 11th January 2019.

Robert Huth’s frankly iconic Twitter profile picture.

Premier League hardmen, time of death, 11.08 AM, January 11th 2019.

Huth was the last of the Woolly Mammoth’s, Premier League hardmen are officially extinct, and no one even lifted an eyebrow.

I binged watched Apple TV’s Ted Lasso last week, which features a classic ‘hardman’ footballer called Roy Kent. The name an unashamed nod to Roy Keane, the character a fantastic cocktail of grunts, testosterone and carpet-esque chest hair, and it got me thinking. Where have all the hardmen gone?

When you take a look around the Premier League, there is a hole. We have the mild-mannered Ndidi marshalling the midfield in the midlands. At Arsenal you have Thomas Partey, who is all action, but I wouldn’t have any qualms asking him for a selfie, and in Manchester United’s midfield, there’s far more showmanship than gamesmanship. Gone are the days when we’d watch Keane and Viera leading their respective teams out of the tunnel and feel the crackle of anticipation because anything could happen. We haven’t had a player in the league who demands this kind of respect since Huth bowed out, even Burnley have come over a bit polite despite the growling’s of Dyche on the touchline, proving that the Hardman(ager) is still alive and kicking.

The grit has gone, the niggle is negligent, and never more so than on Sunday when Alioski crumpled under the challenge of Nicolas Pepe. Let’s be honest, no player should crumple under the challenge of Nicolas Pepe. Talented though he is, Roy Keane he is not. No player should feel the inclination of a head towards them and react as though their ankles have been scythed.

I am not saying that I think Pepe should have avoided all consequences, but let’s call a spade a spade. I’ve seen a fair few headbutt’s on night’s out, and Pepe’s was not a headbutt. Book him. Give him a yellow card, and let the rivalry play out. I would have much rather seen eleven vs eleven with the potential for Alioski or Pepe to be involved in taking down the other. The potential for performative celebrations rather than performative reactions. All played out with a niggle that would have perpetuated the game afterwards, imbued it with a little passion.

I won’t blame you if you can’t handle the truth. Never again will you see a Robert Huth.

Let’s see the Keane’s. Where are the Viera’s?