Nicknames, all on their own, can often determine how a player is perceived in the public eye. All too commonly, they are derogatory and can cast a dark cloud over a footballer’s career, such was the case of ex-Tottenham winger Darren Anderton, who, despite being a recognised England international, will forever be remembered for his terrible injury woes thanks to his flippant nickname: ‘Sicknote’.
In some cases, however, they can perfectly encapsulate the essence of a player; none more so than for Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock. Given the nickname after heavyweight boxer Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, it stuck throughout his football career and would come to perfectly reflect a player renowned for his love of hitting the opposition hard.
Razor was the archetypal football hard-man. A no-nonsense centre-back, never to shy away from a challenge and never afraid to use his physical strength to his advantage, often to the detriment of whichever striker he was up against. No supporter could ever fault his desire on the pitch to drag his team to victory.
But to describe him simply as a brute of a defender would be unfair. Deceptively confident in bringing the ball out from the back, Ruddock was a fine passer and was also capable of producing the odd moment of magic, such as a 30-yard strike into the top corner against Norwich, while playing for Tottenham. Despite playing for a long list of significant clubs, which also included Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton, it was a career that would be overshadowed by controversy.
Razor struggled with his weight and a litany of off the field issues which would see his ability frequently called into question, while some controversial incidents would also see him widely criticised. However, his flaws should not detract from the impact he had on football in the 1990s and many fans of the clubs that Ruddock played for still fondly recall the toughness and tenacity he brought to their team.
The tale of this iconic figure began somewhat uncharacteristically quietly during the 1980s. After starting his career at Millwall, Razor moved to Tottenham Hotspur in 1986 before making a return to Millwall just two years later. It wasn’t until a move to Southampton that Razor would begin to sharpen. Still a very young man at this point in his career, Ruddock won the hearts of Saints fans for his fearless attitude so clearly displayed in a moment which has gone down in club folklore.
On 1 April 1989, Southampton were in the midst of a Division One relegation battle. Without a win in 18 games and drawing 0-0 at home to fellow strugglers Newcastle, striker Rod Wallace won a penalty in the 89th minute. With the regular penalty taker out injured and the team unsure of who would take it, Ruddock decided he was the man for the job, and right he was. It wasn’t just the penalty that is remembered by Saints fans either, what followed was a celebration so unusual and so beloved that it was given its own name: The ‘Ruddock Stomp’, in honour of him jumping up and down, waving his hands around wildly.
Southampton would stay up that season and Ruddock would continue to impress in red and white, even reaching the Full Members’ Cup final – created following English clubs’ ban from Europe after the Heysel disaster – with the club in 1992, only to miss out on the silverware, losing 3-2 to Nottingham Forest in extra time.
But the good times would not come without the bad, along with the ugly. In a moment of utter madness, in 1991, Ruddock sprinted the entire length of the pitch to land a headbutt on Notts County’s Craig Short, something Razor himself described as a turning point in his career. Nevertheless, his performances were good enough to persuade Tottenham to resign the defender, just four years after he’d last left.
While his first spell at the club as a teenager largely failed to see Razor make an impact, his second stint would see considerable improvements, following his £750,000 transfer. In the Premier League’s debut season of 1992/93, he helped Spurs to an eighth-placed finish but, again, he would endure cup heartache.
After wins against non-league Marlow, Norwich City, Wimbledon, and Manchester City, Spurs set up a north London derby in the FA Cup semi-final with rivals Arsenal. Unfortunately for Razor, after falling short in the Full Members’ Cup with Southampton just a year earlier, he would do so again, with a Tony Adams goal giving the Gunners a 1-0 win. Arsenal would eventually go on to win the competition.
Razor would later leave Spurs under a great deal of controversy. The sacking of chief executive Terry Venables by chairman Alan Sugar would prove a key factor in the departure of the central defender. With Liverpool then looking set to win the battle for his signature, a dispute over the money owed by Tottenham to Ruddock would see the deal delayed. Eventually he would sign for Liverpool for £2.5m, making him then the world’s most expensive defender. That was until Des Walker signed for Sheffield Wednesday from Sampdoria for £2.7m, just a week later.
The amount of money Liverpool committed to Ruddock’s acquisition showed enormous faith in the ability of a player whose temperament had been doubted and appeared to be a sizable risk to take. Even so, his combination of resilient defending and composure on the ball had been enough for the club to part ways with, what was back then, a vast sum of money.
The ups and downs of Razor’s career would be perfectly defined in his four-year spell on Merseyside. His time at the club would see him finally win a piece of silverware and impress enough to win his first (and only) England cap, yet it was arguably his moments of controversy that he will be most remembered for.
Ruddock battled with weight issues throughout his time at Liverpool, making him an easy target for the tabloid press, particularly given the money that was spent on him. It’s something he still struggles with today, with Harry Redknapp recently sitting down with his former defender in ITV series ‘Harry’s Heroes’ to urge him to change his lifestyle.
There is the tale Ruddock still tells today, of a time he was busy working his way back to fitness in the gym. Running on a treadmill, the physio disappeared for a short while, prompting Razor to get off the machine and go for a cup of tea and a bacon butty. Before the physio returned, Ruddock got back on the machine and, for added effect, threw water over himself to make it look as though he had been sweating, resulting in some far too kind praise from the physio regarding his professionalism.
They say you should start as you mean to go on, but in Ruddock’s case that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Not long after making the move to Merseyside, Razor took part in Ronnie Whelan’s testimonial against Newcastle. Just a couple of minutes into the game, he broke Peter Beardsley’s cheekbone in a clash between the two, something Beardsley would later claim was a deliberate act.
But while incidents like this are what many remember Razor for, there were also the high points. In 1995, he would help his side beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 to take home the League Cup. This came just a few months making his England debut under Terry Venables, starting in the Three Lions’ 1-0 victory over Nigeria. Unfortunately for Razor, it was to be his only game for his country.
Sadly his time at Liverpool, a club with so much history and so much expectation, went largely without success. Part of the ‘Spice Boys’ squad under manager Roy Evans, which included the likes of David James, Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman, and Robbie Fowler, the 1990s would form the start of the club’s decline from the peak of English football, last winning the top division in 1990.
One of the most infamous moments of shame during Ruddock’s career came in 1996, when a tackle on Manchester United striker Andy Cole in a reserve game broke both of the forward’s legs. An admission in an interview with TalkSport, when he said he “only meant to break one”, would see him come under fire when the clip resurfaced last year, leading to Razor claiming that he was only joking and apologising to Cole for the incident.
There were moments of excellence, including a thumping headed goal against Manchester United, but injuries, off the field issues, and disciplinary problems would dominate his spell at the Reds and, as the end of the Nineties approached, things were starting to change. The Premier League had been going for a few years, Sky TV cameras were capturing more than had ever been seen at football games before, and an influx of foreign influence was altering the English game. The introduction of Gerard Houllier as Liverpool manager would ultimately spell the end of Ruddock’s time at the club.
Though his career might have appeared to be over at the top level of the game, Harry Redknapp opted to give Razor a chance to revive his Premier League career at West Ham. His first season at the club was a huge success, helping the Hammers finish fifth, which is still their highest ever Premier League finish.
In some ways, Ruddock and the Hammers were a perfect match, more so than at Liverpool. They are a club whose fans, more than most, appreciate a player who is physical, in Agra I’d of getting stuck in; something Ruddock was, of course, famed for.
Some will believe that he was lucky to play the game at the level he did for so long. Razor rarely lost a tackle on the pitch, but his inability to tackle his weight problems contributed significantly to his struggles with fitness and, if it were today, he probably would have lost the patience of most top-flight managers, particularly given his many, many incidents of controversy in his career.
Yet, at his peak, Ruddock represented everything that was so beloved in an English defender: he was commanding in defence and possessed a calmness and confidence that is not always found in a centre-back. Razor wasn’t perfect, not long by a stretch, but his exploits in the 1990s saw him leave his unmistakable stamp on the game, one which several strikers are probably still feeling to this day.
By Dan Bennett @dandbennett97