7 wind-up merchants who made their opponents see red
1. Alan Shearer (vs Roy Keane, 2001)
As reputations go, Roy Keane spent a career carving out his share of the market as resident rascal far more so than Alan Shearer ever did. Notwithstanding the afternoon at Leicester when the former England captain sent Neil Lennon’s head rolling down Filbert Street with one swing of his devastating right foot, Keane held something of a monopoly over on-field mischief during his Manchester United reign.
All the more surprising, then, that it was Shearer whose cheeky aside sent Keane over the edge in the final minutes of United’s 4-3 defeat at St James’ Park in 2001. Keane had set the ball rolling – literally, by bouncing it off Shearer’s head after a throw-in had gone against him – but something the Newcastle skipper uttered out of view of the cameras sent the Irishman into meltdown as he took an almighty swing in Shearer’s direction. They say the mark of a great striker is being in the right place at the right time, and Newcastle’s No.9 certainly was that as Keane swiped at fresh air before skulking back to the dressing room looking like a chump.
2. Robbie Savage (vs Michael Hughes, 2004)
Even at the fourth or fifth watch it isn’t completely possible to tell who the main aggressor was when Robbie Savage and Michael Hughes both saw red during Northern Ireland’s visit to Cardiff for a World Cup qualifier in 2004. Hughes’ chop on the Welshman was reckless but Savage’s characteristically flamboyant flop to the ground was seemingly what lit the touch paper, before the whole thing well and truly erupted.
Savage had a go at pulling down the Northern Irishman’s shorts, which drew a predictable reaction from an already-riled Hughes: he took a swipe at Savage, who took five, six or possibly even seven steps backwards before arriving on his backside some 15 yards away, as the game temporarily collapsed into a melange of chaotic red and green. In other circumstances it could have been deemed to have been Savage at his combustible underhand best in getting Hughes sent from the field – had it not been for the fact that he was following him down the tunnel.
3. Marco Materazzi (vs Zinedine Zidane, 2006)
There is probably a part of every football fan that is still coming to terms with what happened in the 108th minute of the 2006 World Cup Final, when Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi became embroiled in a pithy war of words.
There was a barrage of speculation about exactly which words caused Zidane to abandon all sense of context and floor the Italian with one almighty nod of the head – some of which even landed a trio of British newspapers in the civil courts – but there can hardly have been a more outrageous example of a player using and losing his head in World Cup history.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy (vs Patrick Vieira, 2003)
When Arsenal's Patrick Vieira felt both of Ruud van Nistelrooy’s knees plant firmly into the back of his neck at Old Trafford in 2003, the yellow card referee Steve Bennett had shown him two minutes earlier probably wasn’t the first thing on his mind. That Martin Keown was first on the scene to try to administer some form of peace as the embattled Vieira prodded a war-like leg at the Dutchman offered a curious footnote to the belligerence which was about to descend, but it had been over Van Nistelrooy’s baiting of the Gunners’ skipper that Keown ultimately and famously snapped.
The Manchester United striker had used the early-season outing as a testing ground for just how far he could push Vieira, and the Frenchman’s dismissal with a little over 10 minutes to go at Old Trafford – with the game fretfully poised at 0-0 – marked a surly victory for Van Nistelrooy’s clinical skulduggery. That Vieira’s petulant kick fell someway short of making contact was not deemed by either ref Bennett nor Van Nistelrooy to be any reason to diminish its consequences.