Neil Ruddock: ‘Souness wouldn’t drop players, he would tackle you instead’

Neil Ruddock: ‘Souness wouldn’t drop players, he would tackle you instead’

Neil Ruddock gets his swearing from his mother. It’s 10am on a Tuesday and in the den at the back of his house ‘Razor’ doesn’t hold back with the Fs and Cs. But the swearing comes naturally, and as Billy Connolly once suggested, there can be a poetry to it, which is certainly true in Ruddock’s cockney drawl. It is sometimes crass, or superfluous, but it’s also who Ruddock is. He’s the son of a swearer, so naturally he became one.

It’s a rule that could be applied to Ruddock’s life. He’s a product of his environment and, for better or worse, that is what has shaped his experiences and larger-than-life character. The youngest of three Millwall-supporting boys, Ruddock was schooled at Southampton by two of the hardest footballers to play the game – Jimmy Case and Terry Hurlock – before earning big moves to Tottenham and Liverpool where certain standards of professionalism had not quite caught up with the era’s wages, brought on by the birth of the Premier League and Sky Sports. It will come as a shock to nobody, then, that Ruddock was a rugged player who enjoyed himself off the pitch as well as on it.

In the early 1990s, even the clubs were not particularly professional. “I once injured my knee at Liverpool,” remembers Ruddock, “and Ronnie Moran ran out of ultrasound gel, so he ran to the kitchen to get some washing-up liquid instead.

“When I first arrived at Liverpool, the doctor used to come into Melwood on Thursday afternoons. That was it. So if you got injured Friday, you were fucked. They didn’t get a physio in until two years after I arrived.”

Ronnie Moran ran out of ultrasound gel, so he ran to the kitchen to get some washing-up liquid instead

When Ruddock signed for Liverpool in 1992, for £2.5m, he briefly became the most expensive defender in the world. “Loads of teams were in for me,” he says. “Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea, Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Walter Smith at Rangers, Brian Clough at Forest and Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn all put offers in.

“Graeme Souness convinced me to choose Liverpool. He was still the best player in training at five-a-side. He wouldn’t drop players, he would just tackle you instead, put you out for a couple of days so he wouldn’t have to pick you. It was normally Don Hutchison. If you were on Souness’s team on Friday, you knew you were playing the next day.”

Souness’s managerial stint at Anfield was not successful. Players such as Peter Beardsley and Steve Staunton were sold and expensively replaced with poorer models. Despite the presence of John Barnes and Ian Rush, and the emergence of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Rob Jones, Liverpool would sometimes languish in the bottom half of the table. An embarrassing FA Cup home defeat by Bristol City in January 1994 led Souness to resign.

Roy Evans was ushered in, and so the era of the Spice Boys began. Results improved, a League Cup was won, the now-infamous white suits were ordered for an FA Cup final. “Footballers were the new pop stars. Sky came in with all the money but as the Spice Boys we only went out when we were allowed. We went on an end-of-season trip to Marbella. Fowler, Barnes, Redknapp, Dom Matteo, John Scales, Phil Babb, big Ron Yeats. We had to have a member of staff with us, and big Ron was the only one daft enough to come.

“Ron was brilliant. He told us the story of when he himself signed for Liverpool in 1961, that Bill Shankly had called the Everton manager [Harry Catterick] up and said: ‘I’ve just bought a big centre-half. Why don’t you come over and we’ll take a walk around him.’”

Neil Ruddock (left) check his cards with Robbie Fowler on the way to Wembley for the 1995 League Cup final.

Another on that trip was Robbie Williams. Music and football were entwined at that time. Oasis would wear Manchester City shirts at their gigs. Mick Hucknall would travel on the Manchester United team bus to European away days. Redknapp married a member of Eternal.

“Robbie used to come and watch Liverpool,” says Ruddock. “He was meant to be in the studios with Take That but he came away with us instead so they sacked him after that. But I like to think that if I hadn’t kidnapped him, there would be no ‘Angels’ or Knebworth.”

Dominic Matteo

(@Dominicmatteo21)

Marbella 199???? Sporting half an eyebrow after @Robbie9Fowler scalped me! @RealRazor @robbiewilliams phil Babb John Barnes Ron Yates Mark redknapp Lee prior big al pic.twitter.com/GzasIxQ9RM

Ruddock and Williams are still mates, and the pair recently reconnected via a video call. Ruddock has spent much of lockdown like this, reminiscing, collecting his memories and stories into a new book. It is dedicated to his wife, Leah, “who got me back on the straight and narrow and made me the happiest man on earth”.

Ruddock is certainly happier than he was. Last year he featured in Harry’s Heroes, a television show that brought former England footballers together for one final veterans’ match, under the guidance of manager Harry Redknapp. Ruddock had some sobering conversations about his weight and his drinking, but the show also uncovered some serious heart problems.

Neil Ruddock shows off the tattoos on his right arm.

“It was a wake-up call for me,” says Ruddock. “I’ve got my pacemaker fitted now but I didn’t know that my heart was racing. It was resting at 130 beats a minute; it should be about half of that. My heart was stopping for seven or eight seconds a night.”

Particularly towards the end of his career at Crystal Palace and Swindon, Ruddock’s weight proved problematic. “I did have a weight clause at Palace. I had to be under 15 stone and I was fined if I wasn’t. I was always around that. Sometimes I just used to think: ‘Fuck it, I’d rather have nice food.’

“At Liverpool, when we did eventually get a physio, he put me on a running machine for 40 minutes and went off to X-ray someone. As soon as he went, I just jumped off and went to the cafeteria and got a coffee and a bacon sandwich. When he came back, I chucked a load of water over myself and collapsed on the floor. The physio came back in and was delighted, and started telling all the academy kids nearby what a brilliant attitude I had.”

Neil Ruddock prepares to celebrate after competing Liverpool’s comeback to draw 3-3 with Manchester United in January 1994.

It is easy to forget that behind the endless bravado and banter, Ruddock was a top-class player. He was excellent for Southampton, shining in a team that included a young Alan Shearer, who is godfather to Ruddock’s daughter. “He couldn’t drive so I used to pick him up every day for training, would lend him a tenner when he needed it. We still speak on the phone – he’s a special friend.”

Ruddock also captained Spurs with distinction in 1992-93, played for England and was instrumental in helping West Ham to finish fifth in 1998-99, partnering a young Rio Ferdinand in defence.

His battles with Liverpool against Manchester United were lively. He scored a wonderful header to complete a comeback from 3-0 down to secure a draw at Anfield in 1994 and often clashed with Eric Cantona. “One of my mates gave me the idea to turn Cantona’s collar down,” Ruddock says. “All I tried to do was put him off his game. And I did. He tried to square up to me in the tunnel afterwards but I hid behind David James.”

Paul

(@Hea1y)

Remember when Ruddock kept puttin Cantona’s collar down? Hahaha. pic.twitter.com/ZY35wzDAoG

There was also a tackle on Andy Cole in which Ruddock broke both the striker’s legs in a reserve match in 1996. In a TalkSport interview in 2010 Ruddock said it happened “because he annoyed me. I didn’t mean to break both his legs, if I’m honest, I only meant to break one.” He has apologised for those comments and now says: “It wasn’t even a free-kick. The ref thought it was an honest tackle. I didn’t know the damage I had inflicted on him. After the tackle, I nearly had darts thrown at me at Old Trafford. I had bullets sent to me in the post. We had to get the armed police involved. I wasn’t allowed to warm up on the pitch at Old Trafford because it was too close to the home fans.”

Ruddock accepts he made mistakes but he is not interested in the suggestion that he wasted his talent. His arm is tattooed with “seen it, done it, worn the shirt. Have you?!” to complement others with the mottos of three of his former clubs, Millwall, Tottenham and Liverpool.

“People thought I was a hard man, but I don’t know about that,” says Ruddock. “I wasn’t shy. But you don’t captain Spurs and the other teams I played for if you couldn’t play football.”

The World According to Razor: My Closest Shaves by Neil Razor Ruddock is published by Constable, £20.00. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £17.40