The Premier League’s era of extreme justice began on August 19 1992. That warm evening saw Southampton’s Micky Adams and Manchester City’s Niall Quinn sent off by referees Ray Bigger and Stephen Lodge respectively. They were the opening pair of more than 1,700 red cards shown in a Premier League game thus far, 114 of them by the irrepressible Mike Dean. But while referees collect dismissals with pride and a sense of duty, for the players it can be a mark of shame, particularly if the subsequent suspension rules them out of one or more key matches. Then again, many of them will argue that the decisions they made in the heat of battle were the right ones.
But who exactly are the players who have been sent off the most in Premier League history? Who are the bad boys of Our League? Read on to find out.
Patrick Vieira (eight red cards)
Referee Stephen Lodge (see above) was still operating in 1998 and he had the honour of showing the first of the eight red cards that Patrick Vieira received in the Premier League. Undoubtedly one of the finest midfielders the English top-flight has ever seen, Vieira marshalled Arsenal in their greatest era with an incredibly wide range of footballing ability. Goals, assists, passes, tackles, pressing; you name it, Vieira could do it.
He also played with a ferocity that occasionally saw him fall foul of those high priests of bureaucracy, the refereeing community. Vieira antagonised some of the biggest names in turn-of-the-century officialdom, sent off by the likes of Uriah Rennie, Mike Reed, Graham Poll, Steve Bennett and twice by Andy D’Urso. Vieira’s big-game mentality inevitably saw him collect a lot of his red cards in significant matches, like the Monday night game between Arsenal and Liverpool in 2000 that saw Poll send off Vieira as well as Gary McAllister and Dietmar Hamann. Indeed, the early 2000s were the apotheosis of the red card era in English football, big men going in studs up and emerging with the ball, sometimes. There were few braver men on the field than Vieira and he has the war stories, and the red card count, to prove it.
Duncan Ferguson (eight red cards)
POV: you’re in a pub quiz and you’re asked to name one of the three Premier League players to have collected a record eight red cards. Panicking, unsure, you rise to your feet and take the safest choice you can make. “um…Duncan Ferguson?” Of course it’s correct. Rarely has a footballer exuded such menace as the former Everton and Newcastle United man, a player for whom injury spoiled much of his career but still spread eight sendings off across 11 years of Premier League football. Everyone will have their favourite but perhaps the final red was the ultimate example, away at Wigan, ordered off by Mike Dean and launching the comedy career of Jimmy Bullard in the process.
Richard Dunne (eight red cards)
It seems unfair that Richard Dunne appears destined to be known for red cards and own goals in his career because he was an often underrated player, who earned a place in the 2009-10 PFA Premier League Team of the Year, alongside such names as Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas and Didier Drogba. But this article is about red cards and Dunne was indeed shown eight of them, two apiece from Andy D’Urso and Mike Dean. At least you can’t score an own goal when you’re taking an early bath.
Lee Cattermole (seven red cards)
Lee Cattermole was never far away from a disciplinary problem. Combative midfielders are cherished by some managers, feared by others, but it should never be forgotten that it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll be able to function and thrive as a Premier League player if all you have to offer is aggression alone. That said, Cattermole and aggression went hand in hand, so much so that one of his managers at Sunderland, Gus Poyet, said: “With Lee, we know when he is frustrated he will make this kind of tackle. I know many managers have tried and have talked about him in the past and I will try manage him my way, internally and we will see if we improve that reputation he has in England, where he can’t make a tackle.” It turned out that you could make a tackle, you just had to win the ball fairly, as per the laws of the game. Who knew.
Alan Smith (seven red cards)
When Alan Smith emerged at Leeds United at the turn of the century it was as a blond, fresh-faced striker. As his Premier League career progressed, the hair and face remained the same but his role as a footballer changed. The goals refused to flow so Smith dropped back into midfield, where his cherubic looks belied an aggression that many referees, particularly Rob Styles, found irresistible. In the rough and ready period between January 2001 and December 2004, no Premier League player picked up more red cards than the five Smith accrued (level with aggressive vowel icon Franck Queudrue). Sadly, Smith’s career was ultimately shaped by the commitment with which he conducted it; a broken leg suffered when blocking a John Arne Riise free-kick against Liverpool in a 2006 FA Cup tie, from which he never really recovered and which affects him to this day.
Vinnie Jones (seven red cards)
Talking of aggression, has there ever been a footballer more reliant on it than Vinnie Jones? A pantomime villain and defensive midfielder wrapped inside a Guy Ritchie script. Jones’ career spanned the end of the First Division era and the start of the Premier League age so it was no wonder he featured prominently in adverts for the reconstituted top-flight in 1992. As with every player in this list, Jones could play, it’s just he relished his role as a menace-fuelled free radical, illustrated most purely by his yellow card after three seconds (3s) in a Chelsea versus Sheffield United FA Cup game in 1992.
In the Premier League Jones picked up seven red cards, and, for Wimbledon in 1995-96, was the first player to get sent off three times in a single season, something since emulated by six other players. None of them have the Hollywood-approved reach of Vinnie Jones, though. A screen icon? Perhaps not. A football discipline icon? Absolutely.
Roy Keane (seven red cards)
The fourth Premier League player to have collected seven red cards is Roy Keane. Two of Keane’s seven reds came against Newcastle United, his seemingly eternal rivalry with Alan Shearer spilling over into raw violence. Keane’s sending off at St James’ Park in September 2001 is one of the most iconic in the league’s history, with the two men fully committed to each other’s demise. “If you’re going to get sent off, the worst thing is, I pushed him. If you’re going to get sent off you might as well punch him properly because you’re going to get the same punishment,” Keane mused decades later. That red came only five months after Keane’s infamous revenge attack on Alfie Inge Haaland at Old Trafford in the Manchester derby. Somewhere in the north of England, Haaland’s nine-month-old son Erling shifted angrily in his cot and, in 2022-23, at last had the chance to face Manchester United and turned the tables once more, scoring a hat-trick in a 6-3 win in October.
As it stands, there are 12 players with six red cards (Nicky Butt, John Hartson, Andy Cole, Martin Keown, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Nemanja Vidić, Joey Barton, Younes Kaboul, Franck Queudrue, Luís Boa Morte and John Terry) and barring a sensational turn of events, none are likely to add another one to their record.
Of current players, Jonjo Shelvey (five red cards) is the most likely to enter this pantheon of greats but we also have to face up to the fact that the red card’s great era has passed. Four of the six Premier League seasons to see 70+ red cards came between 1999-2000 and 2005-06, and each of the last seven campaigns have seen fewer than 50 dismissals, with 2022-23 yielding the second fewest ever (30). Modern players generally concentrate on tactics and constructive play, and less on the sort of demented tackles that send shudders through a nation. It increasingly looks like 2014-15, also likely to be the final season to see a José Mourinho title win, will be the last Premier League campaign to witness a proper old-school glut of red cards (71). And that’s probably a good thing, but let’s not forget the sheer aggressive effort that the players in this list put into their careers. We’ll all end up limping one day but only the best of us will have the war stories to go with it.
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