Commentary

The Premier League's ugliest feuds

Updated: September 23, 2011, 1:43 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

Besides the paralyzing Vulcan death grip that Manchester United has applied to the Prem after only five games, and the comedy gold that is Fernando Torres trying to roll a ball into an empty net, is there a more entertaining sight in the league than the continuing misadventures of Joey Barton?

Having evolved from a cartoonish, assault-happy thug into the multi-dimensional soccer equivalent of the Artist Formerly Known as Artest, Joey Everyman is now every bit as comfortable holding forth on the vagaries of truth and philosophy as he used to be discussing the fine art of putting out a lit cigar in a teammate's eye. But for me, Barton's greatest achievement is that he has kept alive the glowing embers of those old-fashioned, I-hate-you-and-you-hate-me-so-lets-throw-down EPL feuds that were all the rage when men were men and George Best stole their ladies.

Genuine soccer feuds are like decent American strikers -- they're a rare commodity, and in the social-media age Barton's weapon of choice in his burgeoning hatefest with Wolves' Karl "He's Not That Sort of Player" Henry is no longer a two-footed lunge but a prodigious updating of his Twitter feed.

Such wimpy, techno-geek efforts got me nostalgic for the days of yore and gore, when the English First Division boasted the kind of old-school rumbles that stirred the blood, and sometimes even spilled some.

[+] EnlargeRoy Keane and Patrick Vieira
Odd Andersen/Getty ImagesHigh Karate: Roy Keane vies for a ball with archrival Patrick Vieira in 2004.

I still fondly recall the snorting prematch staredowns between Roy Keane, United's talismanic captain, and Arsenal's resident hard man Patrick Vieira. Those two players embodied the snarling antipathy -- and grudging respect -- that coursed between the clubs back when the Gunners could actually be considered serious rivals to United. Each felt that he was the league's uber-badass, and they regarded their meetings as more of a war of alpha bulls than a game between the EPL's two best teams. What elevated their feud to mythic status was not just the fierce intensity of it, but its incredible staying power -- it lasted five and a half years, culminating in two famous confrontations during the 2004-05 season: the "Battle of the Buffet" at Old Trafford after United ended Arsenal's 50-game unbeaten streak in the league, and the "I'll see you out there" tunnel incident later that year.

That's why, when I see a player throwing down on Twitter, I long for someone who can channel his inner Keano.

Take Kevin Davies, for example. The Bolton striker -- who has led the league in fouls committed in six of the past eight Prem seasons -- is what Sir Alex once euphemistically referred to as "a difficult customer." That was in 2007 after Bolton had beaten United (they've been paying for that indiscretion ever since) and Patrice Evra complained that he had been the victim of more reckless challenges from Davies in that one game than in his entire career combined. At one point during the mayhem, Evra had asked Davies why he kept treating him as a human pinata. "Because I don't like you," Davies explained.

I suspect that Tom Cleverley, the United midfielder who Davies poleaxed eight minutes into their meeting two weeks ago, has similarly warm feelings about Bolton's bully boy. But whether the aggrieved Cleverly has what it takes to nurse his grudge into full-blown loathing remains to be seen. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with the following feuds that at least have potential to keep us entertained beyond 140 characters.

[+] EnlargeJoey Barton
Ian Horrocks/Getty ImagesYou talkin' to me? Barton claims that his incident with Gervinho scuppered a possible move to Arsenal.

Karl Henry vs. Joey Barton

It began last season when the pair met at Molineux and Joey received plenty of Barton-esque hacks from the then-Wolves captain. Though Henry tried valiantly to downplay their disagreements before last Saturday's game -- "I hate to spoil a good story" -- it didn't stop Barton, now at QPR, from goading him in the match itself, online, and in a scheduled TV appearance the day after -- an inspired spell of relentless vitriol. QPR won 3-0 with Big Brave Barton chipping in a goal, but nothing as satisfying as three points could possibly silence him, especially after Henry lunged at the Hoops' captain in the final minutes of the game and incited a verbal fracas in front of the referee. Rather than being content with tweeting half-baked Nietzsche quotes, perhaps Barton could spend his time Googling the definition of irony or stoking another spat he currently has percolating with Arsenal's Gervinho, who's surely eager to exact revenge for Barton's comical flop in in the Prem's opening weekend.

Barton, ever the paragon of self-effacing modesty, even insists that the scuffle with Gervinho ruined a proposed move to Arsenal that he'd discussed with the club in the run-up to the season.

Next Scheduled Bout: New Year's Eve at the Emirates.

John Arne Riise vs. Craig Bellamy

Riise has a howitzer for a left leg and Bellamy is notoriously one shortbread cookie away from a full tea service. In 2007, on the eve of a pivotal Champions League match at Camp Nou, the red-headed Norwegian and the flame-throwing Welshman proved that you don't have to be wearing different jerseys to consider yourself at war. With a week off before facing Barca, Liverpool had embarked on a "team-building" trip to Portugal, where it indulged in plenty of bonding exercises, including the ritual that made the ancient samurai strong: drunken karaoke. When Riise repeatedly declined to sing duets with Bellamy -- I can only assume they had "You're The One That I Want" from "Grease" cued up -- Bellamy brandished a golf club and tried to par-five John Arne's free-kick-blasting legs.

[+] EnlargeCraig Bellamy
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesFore! Craig Bellamy strikes a pose at Camp Nou after supposedly evening the score against teammate John Arne Riise.

The ensuing melee caused no shortage of embarrassment for oft-beleaguered manager Rafa Benitez, not that you'd have detected any discord when they actually played Barcelona. The Reds managed an unthinkable 2-1 away win with Bellamy and Riise scoring the goals, and Crazy Craig celebrating his with a mock golf swing.

Since then, the pair have bounced around Europe -- Riise enjoyed a long spell at Roma, while Bellamy took his combustible act to Man City before falling out with Roberto Mancini and skipping back to Anfield for a shot at redemption -- and appear to have mellowed. (Bellamy's even running a successful charity supporting children in war-torn Sierra Leone.) Still, it wouldn't take much more than a late tackle or choice expletive when their teams next meet to revive the "Nutter with a Putter" memories.

Next Scheduled Bout: Dec. 3 at Craven Cottage

Ryan Shawcross vs. Aaron Ramsey

Horror tackles are at the root of most blood feuds. Frankly, it's amazing to me that more Potters defenders aren't registered with local CSI units as a result of their penchant for chronic maiming. But Shawcross remains (to the best of my knowledge) the only one to actually snap an opponent's limb. Naturally, the mangled leg belonged to a Gunner, Ramsey. The 20-year-old, considered the future of Wenger's midfield (not that that's saying much these days), had his tibia and fibula fractured in a typically ugly challenge by the lumbering center back, coming barely two years after Birmingham's Martin Taylor similarly rearranged Eduardo's ankle. Though he sent the usual well-wishes for a speedy recovery, Shawcross' apology was repeatedly snubbed by the young Welshman. But I'm sure that the passage of time -- and Arsenal's abject collapse -- has Ramsey focusing on other things. If he's planning any kind of retribution -- surely impossible, given that Wenger has never witnessed a Gunner making a bad tackle -- it'll have to wait until the teams collide next month in the Battle For Eighth Place. See, I am an optimist.

Next Scheduled Bout: Oct. 23 at the Emirates

John Terry vs. Wayne Bridge

We all expect philandering, sexting and copious WAG-hunting from today's soccer players, but when the cuckoldry involves a teammate's girlfriend and mother of his child, is it any wonder that these two former best mates could be a mite peeved with one another? Bridge and Terry played side-by-side at Chelsea from 2003-09, before Bridge jumped at Sheikh Mansour's mega-bucks offer and the married Terry jumped on Bridge's girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel. After the Blues' captain tried unsuccessfully to suppress the gossip with a high-court gag order -- also known as the Ryan Giggs Superinjunction Special -- John & Wayne's BFF-dom turned into C U in Hell.

Fabio Capello, believing that his role as England manager also makes him the team's Moralist-in-Chief, stripped Terry of the captaincy in February 2010 (only to bizarrely restore it barely a year later) to show that the armband is more than just a bit of elastic around the biceps and couldn't possibly be worn by someone so ethically bankrupt -- not to mention so epically bad at taking Champions League penalty kicks. At the same time, Bridge retired from the England team on account of the humiliation. Since then, Mancini's spending binges have moved the defender to his club's periphery.

When City met Chelsea later that month, Terry held out his hand for a gentlemanly greeting in the pregame warm-ups. But Bridge left him grasping at air before his side went on to thrash the Blues 4-2. So what if it's a lame burn worthy of junior high? All we can hope is that Wayne gets the nod the next time the two teams line up against one another, but considering the fact that he hasn't featured in an EPL game since December 2010, the only snub Terry should be worried about is Andre Villas-Boas benching him again.

Next Scheduled Bout: Dec. 10 at Stamford Bridge.

Until then, we'll always have Twitter.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."