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The Top Ten: Sunderland AFC's Toughest Tacklers

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Following on from the midfield battle that was waged on Saturday lunchtime I got thinking about the players down the years that have enjoyed putting a good old fashioned tackle in. Players whose careers are ultimately defined by their love of a tasty, firm but fair 50/50 challenge. Not necessarily nasty footballers that entered the field of play with the intent of causing injury to the opposition but help their side gain the upper-hand mentally through their intimidating style of play and leadership.

With the modern game evolving in front of our very eyes, every mistimed challenge is scrutinised to the hundredth degree thanks to Sky HD cameras and super-slow-motion footage, the hardmen of the sport are slowly but surely being phased out. Protection of the Nani's of this world is not only demanded by their managers but is afforded in spades by the officials. Some would argue that this is the correct stance to take from the governing bodies and I suppose I would ultimately agree, but whilst we still can let's not forget the importance of the footballing "hardman".

It would fair to say that SAFC have had had their fair share of tough tacklers down the years and here is my Top Ten!

Number 10: Alex Rae

Before Alex swapped his midfield bearth for a managerial position the Scot made his name as a goal scoring midfield general. Perhap's Rae's most memorable moment in the Red and White, apart from an absolute screamer against Charlton, came at the expense of former SAFC boss Roy Keane. The now infamous moment when Alex bounced the ball squarely off the angry Irishman's head not once, but twice. It takes a certain competitive mentality and a massive set of balls to pull that stunt off!

Number 9: Mick Harford

Whilst born a local lad here on Wearside Harford is better known in the footballing world for his time with both Luton and Wimbledon and only enjoyed a brief spell at Roker Park. It was with the Don's however that Harford truly earned his Cult Hero status for reportedly being the only player that was afforded the luxury of not having to undergo the "Crazy Gang" initiation ceremony based upon his reputation alone. Even Vinny Jones was scared of the intimidating forward. 

Harford was also the victim of a Sam Allardyce elbow which saw him hospitalised requiring over one hundred stitches across his face and inside of his mouth. Mick being Mick however discharged himself one the work was done and headed home. That's not just "hard" that's mental!

Number 8: Chris Makin

Chris is one of my all time favourite SAFC players. As a vital cog in the Sunderland Machine which played such eye-catching football, Makin's involvement in the success of the right hand side in partnership with Nicky Summerbee should not be underestimated. Chris was also not afraid to get stuck in when required and never lost a 50/50 tackle during his spell on Wearside. (This may or may not be factually correct but it certainly sounds about right)

Number 7: Lee Cattermole

Lee has certainly made a name for himself over his short career to date and not always for the good. Bruce is clearly an admirer of the tough tackling central midfielder as he has signed the lad twice already over his managerial career, putting up quite the fight for his services on Wearside. Lee's ability however is often overshadowed by his god given gift of getting himself into bother with the referee. It may be argued that Cattermole's card has been unfairly marked by the officials for his past misdemeanours but that said his love for a tackle combined with the busy area of the pitch he marshalls adds up to Lee receiving more cards than Justin Bieber on Valentines Day. Hopefully Lee has learned his lesson, as even his biggest fan seems to be losing his patience with his disciplinary record.

Number 6: Richie Pitt

Whilst Richie's footballing career was heartbreakingly short, a knee injury sustained just months after the '73 Cup Final would end his playing days, it was his influence on that game as a young defender which he will be forever remembered for. When you think back to to that famous day in May you will of course remember Porterfield's goal, Montgomery's saves and Stokoe's celebration but it would be scandalous to allow Pitt's input to go amiss. 

As huge underdogs going into the day Sunderland had to make an impact on precedings and fast. Up stepped Richie Pitt. With just thirty-three seconds on the clock Pitt threw himself into a robust tackle on Leeds' Alan Clarke and as the man himself said:

"That tackle set the tone for the match"

It would be hard to argue.

Number 5: Billy Whitehurst

When beginning to look into putting this piece together I turned to my fellow Roker Report colleagues for any suitable candidates that should make the list. There turned out to be one overwhelmingly popular candidate, with even the Captain getting excited at the mention of his name, which is testament to the legacy which Billy left despite his short stay on Wearside. Whitehurst had already built quite the reputation before his move to Roker Park, including his questionable off-field methods of bringing in a few extra quid to supplement his wages - bare knuckle boxing with the local gypsies.

Alan Hansen, who was no shrinking violet himself, had this to say of the tough centre forward:

"He was six feet tall and weighed more than thirteen stone and he knew how to exploit this. Indeed, because of his power in the air, aggression and courage, he was one of the opposing strikers who frightened me the most - and I do mean frightened!"

Number 4: Lorik Cana

As the saying goes, "Looks can be deceiving" and never has an SAFC player epitomised this more than the Albanian midfielder. Signed from Marseille with a reputation for being a strong, robust and influential central midfielder Cana was instantly rewarded with the Captain's armband. Whilst Lorik was picking up female admirers for his rugged good looks, the fella's in the stands were just as impressed with his endearing combative style of play.

Bruce and the FA on the other hand were not so impressed however as the enigmatic midfielder began to struggle for form and fitness when he wasn't sat in the stands serving a suspension. Lorik's days were numbered, but he left having made quite the impact on the fans.

Number 3: John Kay

Ah, the old Red and White Tractor, a career defined by a moment which would also lead to the tough tackling full back being forced to hang up his boots. It was in a 1-0 home win over Birmingham in 1993 that the no nonsense Kay threw himself into a characteristically robust tackle that the Roker Park faithful had become accustomed to seeing week in and week out. However, whether the waterlogged pitch, or Kay's sheer determination was to blame, or a combination of the two, John's leg was left badly broken.

However that horrible, painful moment would conjure an image that all in attendance will never forget. Whilst in today's modern game a footballer suffering a similar injury would be grateful for medical treatment there and then on the pitch, receiving oxygen, painkillers etc. Kay was bundled onto a stretcher and carted off to hospital. Not before sitting upright and "rowing" himself off the sodden pitch to the roars of appreciation from the stands however.

Number 2: Gary Bennett

Whilst Benno was a relatively calm and assured central defender he was also known for having a fiery temper which could raise it's ugly head on a rare occasion. However it was never as fiery as during his scuffle with Coventry's windup merchant extraordinaire David Speedie in a League Cup tie at Roker.

Bennett probably shouldn't have played that day as he was still, obviously noticeably to Speedie, suffering from a knee injury, an injury that Speedie was not afraid to target. Bennett took offence to the Scotsman's blatant attemptto take advantage of his injury whilst the pair competed for a loose ball on the touchline under the Clock Stand.

Speedie was unceremoniously dragged off the field of play by the scruff of his neck by the centre half and dumped into the home fans whilst the officials struggled to regain control.

Number 1: Kevin Ball

Well who else was it going to be!? Mr. SAFC epitomised everything that the fans' wanted to see from their Captain; passion, commitment, determination and a tough tackle or twelve. For a man that was not from the local area, heralding from Hastings, there have not been many players that have represented Sunderland over the years who would willingly give blood for the cause, literally on many an occasion, quite the way that Bally would have.

OK, so maybe Ball wasn't the greatest footballer in the World and I am sure he would be the first to admit it, but in the 1990's SAFC were certainly better off with Bally in the side for his leadership and commitment alone and what better way to raise the fans than for one of Kevin's trademark tackles.