So said Harry Storer, the Derby manager of the late 1950s who was one of Brian Clough’s mentors. Yet it could easily have come from the mouth of Diego Simeone, the Atletico Madrid manager. Simeone would surely take such a description association as a compliment – and he’d be right to do so. Simeone, his team and even the Atletico Madrid fans are a bunch of glorious b*****ds, who have done two extraordinary things in the last 18 months. They have broken the most powerful duopoly in the history of football; and, more important still, they have given football its battle fever back.
‘The Battle Fever’ was a phrase used by the late Rangers manager Jock Wallace, who had a Simeoneish effect on his players. These are managers for whom players would run to the ends of the earth – or up and down Murder Hill, the almost vertical incline on which Wallace eased his players into pre-season training at Rangers.
When he went to Leicester he found something similar, and there is a wonderful video showing the Leicester players going about their summer work. It could have been named Wallace and Vomit; many of the players were physically sick as their bodies surrendered.
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Such labours enabled those players to go the extra mile on the field. And, while there is no Murder Hill in Madrid, Simeone’s players have a similar ability – and a similar strain of the battle fever. They come onto the field with their dukes up, at least metaphorically, and every week provide an exhilarating reminder of how much better and more soulful football is when it has a physical edge and a touch of machismo.
When Atletico beat Chelsea in last season’s Champions League semi-final, Simeone shared the praise after him. "I want to thank the mothers of these players," he said, "because they gave birth to them with balls this big." The mothers do indeed deserve credit for giving Simeone something to work with, but his plastic surgery is by far the most significant factor in the size of his players’ balls.
The ultimate manifestation of that came in their La Liga decider at Barcelona in May. Atletico were 1-0 down at half-time, and a wonderful season was in serious danger of going to waste. We don’t know what Simeone said during that half-time interval, but what followed suggests it was among the most rousing speeches known to man. In the first four minutes of the second half they could have scored four times: David Villa hit the post and missed two chances before Diego Godin rammed in a title-winning header. It was astonishingly rousing stuff, an explosion of furious intent that deserves to be ranked alongside Brazil’s immortal three minutes against the USSR in the 1958 World Cup.
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These were not feral idiots charging around surrounded by cartoon clouds; it was a controlled yet murderously purposeful response to significant adversity. And it all stemmed from the manager, an endless well of mental strength into which the team can dip. The hard man may be almost extinct on the field, but UEFA haven’t yet worked out how to quell the hard manager. Simeone is currently serving approximately 48 different touchline bans, yet even when stuck behind glass up in the cloudshe was the star of the show in Atletico’s outstanding victory at the Bernabeu on Saturday. Sky brought back PlayerCam for one afternoon only at Old Trafford yesterday; Simeone is an increasingly compelling case for the introduction of ManagerCam.
Atletico’s La Liga triumph last season was among the greatest achievements in football history, entirely without precedent. Led by Simeone, they go down as compliantly as Tony Montana and have the will of Keyser Soze. At the end of last season, through Diego Costa, they even tried to defy hamstring injuries, which is the football equivalent of attempting to cheat death. Then again, Simeone would probably offer out the Grim Reaper.
Watching Atletico is a dual thrill, because the high-stakes, high-class football is accompanied by the knowledge that it could go off at any minute on the pitch or the sidelines. There is a bit of Danny Dyer in most football fans, though you wouldn’t know necessarily know it since football adopted a misguided value system that has its roots in the more ludicrous realms of political correctness.
What started as a worthy and necessary attempt to reduce the excesses of the 1980s has now gone way too far, and is never more irritating than during sanctimonious reaction to any vague aggravation. When Simeone marched onto the field at the end of last season’s Champions League final in an attempt to engage Raphael Varane in urgent discourse regarding the importance of respecting one’s elders. It prompted the usual faux outrage and sanctimony. "We don’t like to see that kind of thing." Oh yes we do Jeff!
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There are a lot of people throwing crowd-pleasing shapes on Twitter and in other public forums, but it would be a big surprise if they were remotely representative of the silent majority of football fans. Most supporters relate to displays of physicality – not because they are nutcases who go round bottling people every Saturday night, but because that side of the game has a visceral and sometimes vicarious appeal and because it captures the us-against-the-world mentality that is the essence of football supporting.

There are thousands of moments that have gone into folklore. Think of Norman Whiteside storming Anfield, Graeme Souness leaning over Jimmy Case in full why-I-oughta mode, Roy Keane literally offering Patrick Vieira outside, Arsenal’s team-bonding exercise in manhandling Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gary Bennett uniting fans of 91 league clubs via the medium of David Speedie’s throat. Phil Neville’s season-changing reducer on Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 even had its own Facebook group.
Most of those incidents, when watched nowadays, have one thing in common. They are very, very funny. They is no more consistently reliable comedy that watching a grown-up completely lose it. We’re not talking about the talking about cynical, manufactured outrage of, say, the 2010 World Cup final, but that moment when you look at a man and realise: his noggin has gone. Like with Joe Kinnear’s wonderful rant in 2008, a case study in the occasional inexorable rise of the human temperature from the moment he calmly delivered one of the great opening gambits. The same is true of bad tackles; provided nobody is hurt, they are a source of consistent amusement. Watch this clip of John Fashanu unwittingly engaging the Richter Scale; if it doesn’t prompt at least a snigger, you should probably ask your doctor to prescribe a cure for a dangerous dose of seriousness.
There was a delightfully confused nobility in the ways players used do things. "Get a whack and give a whack and, clichéd as it sounds, have a beer afterwards," said Mick Harford. "I was playing against Coventry once and big Sam Allardyce’s elbow caught me a treat. The lights went out. I had 70 stitches and was in hospital for four days. You could see my teeth through my lip. It taught me a lesson – to look after myself. I bore Sam no grudge."
We know that football shouldn’t return to those days, and extreme violence on the football is not something we’d encourage. Yet it has never been adequately explained why football should have been emasculated to quite such an extent. The premature end to Marco van Basten’s career was a legitimate catalyst for change, and it’s good that FIFA has outlawed tackles from behind and X-rated challenges. The problem is that football now has a U certificate.
This is not football as nature intended. "In the football of the future," he said, "we have to ban tackling." And that was in 1997. Nothing in football is as new as you think. For at least 20 years, Chopper Harris has been wheeled out once a year, every year, to tell us that football is becoming "a non-contact sport". He’s right, mind. Football was never a beautiful game, never mind the pretty one it is becoming. At its best football is fusion of skill and steel; and if it has a bit of needle, so much the better. English football has never been better than during the furious rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United between 1997 and 2005.
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God gave with both hands when he made Graeme Souness, a marvellously talented beast, and Souness summed up the way football should be in an episode of Match of the Eighties. "Do you wanna play football with us, or do you wanna fight us?" he says with industrial quantities of relish. "Because either way, we’ll match you."
Skill and steel are often seen as being almost mutually exclusive, which is nonsense. Like the two sides of the brain, they often work together. Diego Maradona’s greatest performance were fuelled by two things: divine ability and bronca, which he defines as: "A very Argentinian word to denote anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent." In his autobiography, Maradona regularly talks of vaccinating opponents, and he’s not speaking as a qualified medical practitioner. The same is true of his spiritual heir Luis Suarez, whose vengeful dismantling of England at the World Cup was a classic mixture of skill and mongrel.
Once upon a time teams had to, as the cliché went, earn the right to play. Now it is an entitlement. Yet elite sport should always be a test of character and courage, both physical and mental, as well as ability. The hard men, as Michael Parkinson put it, are the salt in the stew. There are few of them around now, which is why it’s impossible to compare Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with the greats of the past. Modern footballers are hopelessly mollycoddled. They will never score a goal like this from George Best, when he stayed on his feet despite being hit by a passing locomotive called Chopper Harris. These days attackers don’t have to cope with defenders who roam the turf with malevolent intent. And the pitches are green, too, which they rarely were before the mid-1990s. Messi and Ronaldo are playing a different sport to Maradona and Pele.
Other sports have managed to modernise, and reduce the threat of significant injury, without losing their physical nature. Before Saturday’s win over South Africa, the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said: "You're going to get physicality and it's going to be tough and you wouldn't want it any other way." The brutal fast bowling of Mitchell Johnson against England and South Africa last winter is widely recognised as one of the best things to happen to cricket in decades. "Cricket is a far better game when there is a physical threat," wrote Mike Atherton after Johnson ran riot at Brisbane.
Atherton is one of the smartest thinkers around on any sport. Yet if you make a similar observation about football, you are likely to be dismissed as an oaf or a philistine. There is no sense of nuance. Nobody wants to see players with broken legs, or skilful players being kicked out of the game, or cloggers abusing the laws as they did in the 1980s. But a balance can be found where football can embrace a variety of human qualities which make a successful sportsman. The greatest stories in any area of life are usually triumphs of the human spirit.
"There are all sorts of ways to win a football match, and there were plenty of occasions when Manchester United, for all our gifted players, relied on a bit of brute force," said Gary Neville in his autobiography. "Physical toughness is an essential part of the game … There are all kinds of attributes that make up a football side." Neville is perceived as English football’s most relevant voice, and it is hard to reconcile that with the fact that so many in the media dismiss a view that he shares.
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There are umpteen reasons why English football in particular has changed so much, many of which surely stem from the gentrification of the game and the consequent insecurity and identity crisis. There is also a sense of a sport whose spokespeople are desperate to present both it and themselves are being more intelligent and sophisticated than is actually the case. Blue-collar crimes have been replaced by the more acceptable white-collar crimes or diving and play-breaking or rotation fouls. Yet there are many who find those profoundly more dispiriting than the sight of a hairy-a**ed defender putting a reducer on an opponent in the first few minutes.
Football has got itself into quite a lather, with many in the media so preoccupied with what they think they should think that they are no longer sure what they actually think. Thus it is easiest to fall back on the ostentatious dance of political correctness, and piously opine that all aggression is bad.
There are different reasons for this. The human brain is both easily washed and excellent at self-deception, while in an age of split personalities – real and digital – it is clear that many people construct a dishonest but unimpeachable identify for public consumption. If there’s one thing worse than sanctimony, it’s disingenuous sanctimony. In fact, it’s enough to give a man the battle fever.
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Rob Smyth
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team',which is out now.
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