Skip to main content

The Dirty Dozen: The 12 dirtiest players in Premier League history

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp may have ushered in an era of tiki-taka, heavy metal football in the Premier League but the English game’s reputation for roughhouse tactics remains alive and well.

Dirty tactics aren’t necessarily an exclusive preserve of the English game but the Premier League has been home to plenty of players willing to bend – and sometimes even break – the rules to gain the upper hand.

Sometimes there wasn’t even an upper hand to gain. Sometimes they were just plain mean. Here are 12 of the Premier League’s biggest serial offenders.

12. Lee Bowyer

Bowyer ranked among the Premier League’s very best midfielders in the early 2000s but there was a dark side to his game. A combative presence, Bowyer racked up five red cards and 100 yellows in the Premier League. However, his biggest sin came in the UEFA Cup, where a rash tackle and stamp on the head of Malaga midfielder Gerardo saw him banned for six games. Well known for his trials and tribulations off the pitch, Bowyer also generated negative headlines at Newcastle after instigating a fight with teammate Kieron Dyer during a 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa that saw both players sent off.

11. Patrick Vieira

One of the very best – but also one of the dirtiest – Viera was sent off a record eight times in the Premier League. The Frenchman’s only saving grace was that just two were straight red cards but, in truth, that number could have been higher. Never one to shy away from a confrontation, Vieira went five consecutive seasons from 1999 to 2004 with Arsenal in which he was sent off at least once and was embroiled in a series of ugly spats – including one where he quite literally spat at West Ham’s Neil Ruddock. No Arsenal player received more red or yellow cards under Arsene Wenger.

10. Duncan Ferguson

Ferguson’s reputation preceded him at Everton thanks to a three-month stint behind bars, incurred after he head-butted Raith Rovers defender John McStay while at previous club Rangers. That set the tone for a career that saw “Duncan Disorderly” get sent off eight times for the Toffees.  A solid target man who enjoyed a tussle, the Scot all too often let his temper get the better of him. One memorable confrontation saw him sent off after attempting to throttle Leicester City midfielder Steffen Freund, but Ferguson’s antics peaked in February 2006 when the Scot was sent for punching Wigan’s Paul Scharner. He’d been on the pitch for just seven minutes.

9. El Hadji Diouf

Diouf picked up just one Premier League red card but still managed to alienate an entire generation of Premier League fans with his nasty antics. He first hit the headlines at Liverpool in 2003 after getting caught on camera spitting at Celtic fans during a UEFA Cup tie. Diouf followed that up at new club Bolton by spitting in the face of Portsmouth’s Arjen de Zeuw a year later. A further stint with Blackburn yielded more bad press with Diouf first clashing with an Everton ball boy before later being branded “lower than a sewer rat” by QPR manager Neil Warnock for taunting Jamie Mackie while he lay stricken with a broken leg during an FA Cup game.

8. Richard Dunne

More clumsy than malicious, Dunne is deserving of a place on this list for the sheer number of cards received over his career. A solid centre back for Manchester City, Aston Villa and QPR, the Irishman probably got more tackles right than he got wrong but a tally of 78 yellow cards and 8 reds – the latter a joint Premier League record – suggests that when it went wrong, it went really wrong. The recipient of an impressive nine yellow cards during the 2005/06 season, Dunne’s City nadir came in 2008 when his early dismissal paved the way for a club record 8-1 loss to Middlesbrough.

7. Roy Keane

A fantastic captain for Manchester United, when the red mist did descend over Roy Keane’s eyes it usually ended badly for whoever was in the Irishman’s sights. An intense figure on and off the pitch, Keane was sent off seven times in the Premier League for Manchester United and was at the centre of a series of unsavoury but highly entertaining confrontations. He swung for Alan Shearer, stamped on Gareth Southgate and flew in with a vengeful knee-high challenge on Alf-Inge Haaland.  Famed for his rivalry with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira, their fiery relationship ultimately fuelled one of the Premier League’s great rivalries and a golden era in the English top-flight.

6. Joey Barton

Joey Barton likes to promote the image of himself as the thinking man’s footballer but his past misdemeanours run contrary to such claims. A once-talented prospect at Manchester City, Barton became embroiled in a series of ugly incidents both on and off the pitch that has cast a shadow over his achievements as a player. At City, Barton first made headlines for putting a cigar out on the eyelid of youth player James Tandy. He then followed that up a few years later by beating up teammate Oliver Dabo following a training ground disagreement. Sent off six times in the Premier League, Barton’s record is notable for the fact that five of those were straight red cards.

5. Kevin Davies

What Kevin Davies lacked as a goalscorer he more than made up for in sheer tenacity. Unfortunately, the Bolton target man’s overly physical approach came at a cost – fouls. For three consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2007, Davies committed more fouls than any other player in the Premier League. By the time he left Bolton, Davies had committed over 1,000 fouls, more than any other player in the history of the Premier League. Though he was never sent off, Davies’ tally of 99 yellow cards is the fifth highest in Premier League history. He even managed to pick up a cap for England, in Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro where, surprise, surprise, he was booked.

4. John Hartson

John Hartson averaged one red card every 26 games in the Premier League. From 1995 to 2001, the Welshman waged a one-man war on referees, opponents, managers and teammates alike, collecting six red cards along the way. He reached peak Hartson in 1998, a year that saw him score a career-best 24 Premier League goals for West Ham despite missing five games through a suspension picked up for elbowing Bolton’s Per Frandsen. It was also the year that saw him famously clash with Eyal Berkovic in a training ground fracas that ended with the Welshman booting his teammate in the face. A three-game ban, hefty fine and transfer to Wimbledon followed.

3. Francis Benali

A throwback to a bygone era when fouls were fouls and most tackles were robust, to say the least, Francis Benali found a way to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s dirtiest operators. The Saints’ number one sinner in chief, Benali bagged five red cards during a 16-year career spent entirely with Southampton. An overly physical full-back who rarely shied away from a tackle, Benali’s most notable dismissal came against West Ham in 1996 where, after coming on as a substitute, he managed to pick up two yellow cards in the space of just 26 minutes before heading in for an early bath.

2. Vinnie Jones

Vinnie Jones’ reputation as a hard man was already well established by the time the Premier League arrived in 1992, with the defensive midfielder’s aggressive approach resulting in 12 red cards throughout his career. Jones even holds the record for the quickest booking ever after being yellow carded just three seconds into an FA Cup game for Chelsea in 1992. And though he cut a slightly mellower figure in the newly-formed Premier League, seven of Jones’ 12 dismissals nevertheless came during this era. The fact that the most enduring image from his career is that of Jones squeezing the nether regions of a young Paul Gascoigne says it all.

1. Ben Thatcher

One of the more unpleasant characters to grace the Premier League, defender Ben Thatcher first gained notoriety with Wimbledon in January 2000 after elbowing Sunderland’s Nicky Summerbee in the head during the build-up to a goal. It was a challenge that saw the Welshman banned for two matches following a video review – but worse was to come. In 2006, Thatcher achieved Premier League infamy for his then club Manchester City after unleashing an elbow to the temple of Portsmouth midfielder Pedro Mendes that left the Portuguese unconscious and in need of medical attention. Thankfully, Mendes made a full recovery while Thatcher was banned for eight games and fined six weeks’ wages with the incident later investigated by Greater Manchester Police. 


Quiz! Can you name Liverpool’s line-ups from their last six European finals since 2001?

14 players who surprisingly played in Champions League finals