For all the adulation given to the club’s great goalscorers and creators, Liverpudlians have always loved a top-class centre half.
From Bill Shankly’s ‘Colossus’ Ron Yeats, who provided the backbone to the legendary Scottish manager’s awakening of the sleeping giant which was Liverpool in the early 1960s, to the sublime elegance of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson in the 80s, right through to modern-day defensive totem Virgil van Dijk, Anfield has been blessed with numerous talented stoppers who were able to provide the platform at the back for their attacking colleagues to flourish.
Identifying those with the ability and talent to fulfil such a role, however, is often something of a gamble however and over the years there have been those who arrived with great hopes of being the Reds' next bedrock at the back only to fall way below expectations.
READ MORE: Liverpool added edge in Man City title battle is open secret in Jurgen Klopp's squad
READ MORE: Luis Diaz prompts X-rated Jurgen Klopp outburst as Liverpool duo send message
And few have plumbed the depths more than Neil Ruddock, whose abilities saw the Reds break the world transfer record for a defender to bring him to Anfield, but ultimately came to be in many ways the poster boy for a frustratingly disappointing era, with the tales of his misdemeanours highlighting just how far standards had slipped in the 1990s as the club’s agonising 30-year wait for a league title took hold.
The Wandsworth-born defender had made his league debut against Liverpool in November 1987 as a 19-year-old having emerged through the ranks at Millwall to join Tottenham Hotspur only to suffer a broken leg following a collision with Gary Gillespie. After a brief return to the Den, he joined Southampton for £200,000 and established himself over the next two and a half years at the Dell as a rugged, uncompromising presence for the Saints, being schooled in the some of the game’s dark arts by former Liverpool midfielder Jimmy Case and former Millwall team-mate Terry Hurlock.
His ability on the ball and cultured left foot showed there was more to his game than just the physical side and won him a return to White Hart Lane in the summer of 1992 for a fee decided by tribunal at £750,000, and he helped Spurs reach the FA Cup semi-final, where they were beaten by eventual winners Arsenal, also showing his threat from set-pieces with a goal against Liverpool earlier in the campaign when Graeme Souness’s struggling side were beaten 2-0 in a game memorable for a blockbusting Nayim volley.
The Scot’s return to Anfield as manager in the wake of Kenny Dalglish’s shock resignation in 1991 had been in stark contrast to his hugely-successful playing career with the Reds, which saw him win five league championships, four League Cups and three European Cups, the final one of which he captained Joe Fagan’s Treble-winning side to against AS Roma in the cauldron of the Italians’ own Stadio Olympico. Although Liverpool would win the FA Cup in Souness’s first full campaign at the helm, a league finish of sixth was the club’s lowest since 1963 and indicative of the sustained decline ahead, with the following campaign being even worse, featuring embarrassing domestic cup defeats to Crystal Palace and third-tier Bolton Wanderers as their defence of the FA Cup ended at the first hurdle in front of a distraught Anfield.
A flurry of wins towards the end of the campaign would see Souness’s side eventually match the previous season’s league finish of sixth, but they had only been three points ahead of the relegation placings in early March and, with manager’s reputation already terminally damaged after he sold his story to the S*n newspaper - reviled and boycotted on Merseyside after its repugnant and deceitful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster - his absence from the dug-out for the final game of the season (ironically a 6-2 victory against Tottenham and Ruddock) led many to assume the Scot was about to be relieved of his duties.
At an Anfield press conference the following day, however, chairman David Moores confirmed Souness would continue as manager with Roy Evans being promoted to assistant, a decision which caused club director Tony Ensor to resign in protest. The board would back their under-fire boss one more time in the transfer market despite a series of poor acquisitions, and after bringing in front man Nigel Clough from Nottingham Forest for £2.2m, Souness identified Ruddock as the man to bring some much-needed steel to the Liverpool defence.
Despite the Londoner’s impressive first season back at White Hart Lane, his support for manager Terry Venables in the future England boss’ war of words with owner Alan Sugar, which ultimately saw him sacked, had led to speculation over the 25-year-old defender's future and Souness swooped, agreeing a £2.5m fee which was briefly a world record for a defender for a week until Sheffield Wednesday brought former Nottingham Forest defender Des Walker back to England from Sampdoria in Italy for £2.7m.
"I had a phone call about Liverpool from Sammy Lee when I was in Portugal. I played with Sammy Lee at Southampton so I knew him very well," Ruddock told the ECHO in 2021. "But I also had Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn calling, Graeme Souness at Liverpool, Walter Smith at Rangers, Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea, Kevin Keegan at Newcastle and Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. I promised I would speak to everyone and then make my decision.
"I met Kenny on the Monday and then had a meeting with Souness on Tuesday at Anfield. He took me onto the centre circle at Anfield, spun me around and said, 'can you imagine playing here?' I said 'yeah' - and that was it. I didn't even speak to anyone else. I remember playing against Liverpool at Anfield, and it was not a nice place to go. My first game at Anfield was with Southampton when I was 18. Former Red Jimmy Case was my captain and I remember walking onto the pitch and saying to Jimmy: 'From corners, is it one hand up for the near post and two hands up for the far post?' He then said. 'let's just get a corner first'."
The new boy managed to make unsavoury headlines before he even made his league debut. Five days before the opening league game against Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool took on Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United in a testimonial match for Ronnie Whelan and within the first minute Ruddock left Peter Beardsley with a broken cheekbone, which left the former Reds attacker - who had just returned to St James Park after a spell with Everton - later writing in his autobiography he felt it was a deliberate act.
"If anything the slight rearrangement of his face did Pete a favour…”, Ruddock callously replied in his own book later telling LFCHistory. “It wasn't even a free-kick, it was play-on. Peter Beardsley was going to sue me but his surgeon said, 'wait for the swelling to go down', and and I am still waiting for him to sue me.”
Liverpool supporters hungry for a sign of better days ahead were heartened when Sheffield Wednesday were beaten 2-0 the following weekend to get the new season off to a winning start with Ruddock assisting the second of fellow new acquisition Nigel Clough’s brace and, after a 3-1 win at Queens Park Rangers, the Reds’ new centre-back notched his first goal in a 5-0 win at newly-promoted Swindon Town that put Souness’s men top of the Premier League.
Three defeats in the next four games, though, showed another season of struggle was looming with Souness’s judgement again questioned in mid-September when the day before Liverpool were due to cross Stanley Park for the season’s first Merseyside derby. he bought another self-styled defensive hard-man in West Ham's Julian Dicks in an exchange deal for title-winning left-back David Burrows and talented youngster Mike Marsh. An abject 2-0 defeat the following afternoon to an Everton side who would only survive relegation by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season, and which featured Bruce Grobbelaar and Steve McManaman fighting each other on the pitch, only served to further highlight the lack of discipline and quality the Scot’s side were rapidly becoming known for.
By the turn of the year, Souness’ future was again the subject of persistent speculation with the Reds already 20 points adrift of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League and having been knocked out of the League Cup by Wimbledon. There was brief respite from the gloom encircling Anfield when Liverpool produced a remarkable comeback from being three goals down after only 23 minutes to grab a draw against Alex Ferguson’s runaway league leaders, Ruddock showing flashes of what he had been bought for by thundering home a header for the equaliser after a move he himself he helped create.
But another desperate defeat to lower-division opposition, this time second-tier Bristol City in the FA Cup, was the final straw for the Anfield board, and with Liverpool’s season effectively over in January for the second year running, Souness was sacked and replaced by Evans. The Scouser who had graduated to the top job from the Boot Room having been brought in by Bill Shankly after a short-lived playing career with his boyhood club remodelled Liverpool’s much-maligned defence in his first pre-season in charge, favouring a three-at-the-back system instead of the conventional 4-4-2, and spending close to £7m by bringing in centre-backs John Scales from Wimbledon and Phil Babb from Coventry City. With captain and former England centre-back Mark Wright out of favour and thought to be on his way following a pre-season row with Evans, which saw him and Julian Dicks left out of the club’s pre-season tour, Ruddock made up the trio at the heart of the Reds’ defence and would go on to have his best season at Anfield, winning him an England call-up by the end of the campaign.
With young players like Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Rob Jones beginning to show their undoubted potential, it was a season of real promise and hope at Anfield with the first silverware in three years arriving when the League Cup was won following a Wembley triumph over Bolton Wanderers. Evans’ side also reached the FA Cup quarter-finals while finishing fourth in the Premier League. All was not rosy behind the scenes, however, with Ruddock not reacting well to Evans’ claim it had been beneficial to him to be ‘guarded by these two guys’ and saying, “I liked playing with Mark Wright and then (Steve) Nicol. He never seemed to have a bad game. Scales and Babbsy... I didn't know what the f*** they were gonna do. Half the time Babb didn't know what he was doing anyway.”
Bolstered by the £8.5m British record signing of Nottingham Forest striker Stan Collymore, Evans’s developing side flourished for much of the following campaign, playing an attractive brand of football which won admirers across the country and was effective enough to keep then in contention for the top prizes. The epic 4-3 win over Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in April 1996 which many still laud as the best ever Premier League game thrust Liverpool right into the title race mix only for a 1-0 loss at Coventry City three days later to highlight their fatal flaw in being unable to deliver when the pressure was on, a fact proved again the following month with an anonymous performance in the FA Cup final which left Manchester United - who the Reds had taken four league points off that campaign - as Double winners.
The infamous white suits Liverpool wore ahead of the Wembley showdown against Ferguson’s men led to the ‘Spice Boys’ label which is also associated with that Anfield era and tapped in to the theory, sadly borne out by results, that the well-meaning Evans was unable to instil the kind of discipline his Old Trafford counterpart could into the new breed of footballer the new money-rich Premier League was producing. Ruddock had already been subjected to a hefty fine earlier that campaign after punching Robbie Fowler as the team returned from an early round UEFA Cup tie against Russians Spartak Vladikavkaz.
"We were in high spirits after victory and enjoying a celebration drink on the plane home when Steve Harkness thought it would be a good idea to relieve himself in Robbie’s shoes as our young striker slept amidst the mayhem,” Ruddock said. “When Robbie woke up, by which time I was fast asleep, he put his feet back in his shoes and quickly realised what had happened. Understandably, he wasn’t too pleased and when he demanded to know who’d done it, the lads pointed to me. As a result, he went into my bag and pulled out my new pair of £300 Gucci boots and proceeded to cut them up, thinking he’d got his revenge on the dirty culprit who’d p****d in his shoes. Bad move. When I woke up as we came in to the land, the lads were still in hysterics and it didn’t take a genius to work out why. It wasn’t until we were going through the airport I confronted Robbie, told him that I’d had nothing to do with the original stunt and demanded that he bought me new pair of boots to replace the ones he’d ruined. There was a big argument, a bit of pushing and shoving and having had enough of his bravado; I decided to teach him a lesson by punching him on the nose."
Ruled out for nearly three months in November after picking up a groin injury during Liverpool’s League Cup defeat at home to Newcastle and with time on his hands, Ruddock’s personal life began to unravel as well with a tabloid expose revealing an extra-marital affair and an incident which saw his £57,000 Porsche Carrera written off by his agent in a car crash leading to a court case in which a police officer accused him of telling ‘blatant lies’ to which the Londoner replied: "Not blatant lies. I just didn't tell you what I knew. I didn't want to be a grass. I know I was wrong but I had had a few beers."
“It was the worst season of my career,” Ruddock recalled. "It had all been going so well in my first two years at Anfield. I had cleaned up my game, established myself as a Liverpool regular and was playing well enough to win an England cap and be a regular in Terry Venables' squad. But I set about wrecking all the good work. It was like I was hell-bent on a mission to self-destruct. I missed the first couple of games at the start of the season with a hamstring injury but got back in and was playing well. Then I got suspended after getting two bookings against Vladikavkaz in the UEFA Cup and the team played so well I couldn't back in. When I did get a recall I did the splits against Newcastle and injured my groin, putting myself out for three months. During that time I lost my fitness and put on weight. It was over Christmas and that's a bad time to be injured - there are a lot of temptations. You pile on the pounds and basically it was downhill from then. I'd never really been out for a long spell through injury before. And injuries do affect you. Someone like me needs to train every day to keep my weight down and keep fit. Most players can drink 10 pints and eat five hamburgers a night and not put an ounce on - but I can't. My marital problems and all the publicity about it were a big distraction. I bitterly regret the hurt it caused my wife and kids. It was a big mistake and I'm big enough to hold my hands up and say so. But at the time I just got carried away with it all. I'm not the first person to stray and I won't be the last. The temptations are great for young footballers with the money we get. I've always been a social animal and like to enjoy myself by going out with the lads.”
Two goals in a 5-0 victory over Leeds United shortly after his return to the side in January showed what he could still bring to the side and, even with questions being asked over his general fitness, Evans still handed him a starting shirt in some big games as Liverpool’s season reached the business end including the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park and the FA Cup quarter-final replay and semi-final triumphs over Leeds and Aston Villa respectively. But the Reds boss opted for Babb’s extra pace ahead of the Wembley showdown against newly-crowned champions Manchester United, a decision which left the Londoner devastated.
He said: “When we trained on Friday afternoon, which was my birthday, I was running past Roy at one point and he said to me: ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but..’ and that was it, I was out of the final. What a birthday present that was. I was so upset I told him to f*** off and stormed off. I was in tears and I just couldn’t believe I was being denied the chance to fulfil a childhood dream. I had never felt so gutted or let down. I might be a big bloke and have the reputation of being a hard man, but I cried like a baby when he dropped that bombshell. From that day on I lost a little respect for him and I’m sure the way I reacted caused him to lose a little respect for me too. But that’s the way I am. Roy admitted after that he made a mistake. At that time I was getting the better of Cantona and he wasn't playing too well against us. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I tell people exactly the way it is. From then on my Liverpool career went even further downhill because the following season, I again had problems to contend with off the field as well as on. I almost wrecked everything I’d worked for in crazy six month spell during which I made Gazza look like a saint.”
It would be mid November before Ruddock made a first Premier League start of the new campaign in which he scored in a 2-0 win at Leeds, but by then had already courted further controversy by breaking both of Manchester United striker Andy Cole’s legs in a reserve game at Anfield. Having said at the time, “I can only assume it was the way he fell", he inflamed the situation years later and was forced to issue a public apology by admitting he had done it deliberately.
"Basically, I loved kicking Andrew Cole," Ruddock told Talksport. “I’m great friends with Teddy Sheringham and Teddy Sheringham didn't like him - and if Teddy Sheringham didn't like him, I don't like him. I didn’t mean to break both of them if I’m honest, I only meant to break one. It wasn’t even a free kick, the referee waved played on. It was excellent because he let the ball run past him and I absolutely destroyed him. I know it’s big and it’s not clever, but it was great.”
1996/97 would see Liverpool’s most credible title challenge of the Premier League era to date but a dismal run-in saw them finish fourth in a two-horse race and bow-out tamely to Paris Saint Germain in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup. With Ruddock only making 19 starts over the campaign, his future at the club looked in doubt with a change of approach clearly needed and, although he lost a stone over the summer, a knee injury early into the opening game at Wimbledon ruled him out for another two months. He scored an own goal against Everton at Goodison Park on his return and another woeful performance days later in a 3-0 UEFA Cup hammering by French minnows Strasbourg would be his final appearance in a Liverpool shirt before he joined West Ham for £300,000 the following summer.
It was only after he left Anfield, however, that the scale of his shameful unprofessionalism was laid bare, outraging those still angry at the wasted promise of that under-achieving Liverpool side of the mid 90s which never delivered the trophies their at-times sparkling football hinted they were capable of, Anfield legend Ian St John saying the Londoner “offended my idea of what a Liverpool player should be“.
It was Ruddock who first drew attention to a game he and some of his Liverpool team-mates would play during matches which depressingly tied into the Spice Boy mythology many of them still rail against to this day, when he revealed to Soccer AM, "We used to play this game on the pitch. We had a pound coin you had to pass round and whoever had it in their hand in the 90th minute had to take all the lads out and buy the drinks all night. There was one game when we were lining up to defend a free-kick and it was being passed along the wall. We lost 2-1.”
He also boasted to Paddy Power how he hoodwinked the physio team at Anfield by avoiding fitness work and laughably claimed to have inspired some of the talented Reds’ youngsters who were watching on.
He said: “Me and Stan Collymore, we were just coming back from injury, and it was really f*****g hot. The gymnasium, the doors were open, and it was too hot in there. So, all the apprentices were in, about 20 apprentices doing all their weights, all their circuits. The physio went: 'Right, do the circuits. All the boys do the circuits. Razor and Stan, I want you to do half an hour on the running machine'. I’m thinking, 'f*****g half hour? It’s about 90 degrees in here'.
“The physio said: 'Right, I’ll be 20 minutes. I won’t be long'. He had to take someone to the doctors. So, I got one of the apprentices to run around – give him some money, run round the café, get me a bacon sandwich. So, I got off the running machine but let it keep going, so I just sat there eating a bacon sarnie. When the physio came back in, I jumped back on the running machine, poured loads of water on me, and I was just flagging like that.
“He came in and he went to the apprentices: ‘You see? That’s a modern professional. He don’t like doing it, but he’s doing it for his fitness. You won’t get anywhere unless you’re as good as him at what he does’. So, there was a young Steven Gerrard, there was Jamie Carragher, there was Michael Owen, all in there, all the apprentices watching. It made them. If it weren’t for me, those three wouldn’t have made it!”
After two years with West Ham following his Anfield departure, Ruddock had a spell with Crystal Palace before ending his career at Swindon Town where he briefly teamed up with former Reds boss Evans as player-coach. Since retirement he has been involved in after-dinner speaking and television programmes such as Celebrity Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Harry’s Heroes.
Does he regret the behaviour and lifestyle which prevented him achieving more during his playing career and which has led to health problems in later life and caused him to have a pacemaker fitted at 52 after almost dying on the operating table?
"I carried on like a teenager. I was a bloody fool,” he told the Mirror in 2004. “Put any red-blooded, heterosexual male in a room filled with scantily dressed women, fill the bloke with booze, tell the women you're a footballer earning £10,000 a week - it's a recipe for disaster. The problem was the other Spice Boys were all single and I was married with a family. So I had more to lose. I was a horny footballer - like a kid in a sweet factory when I was out clubbing with the lads. At 18, I was driven. But by my late 20s, I was overweight, drank and partied too much. I betrayed my wife and let my family down. I should have had the discipline to resist temptations."
His view seemed to have changed by 2021 when he claimed to the ECHO he sweated blood (rather than water from a bottle while eating a bacon sandwich) for the Liverpool cause, which he suggested Reds fans who had watched him in action would be unable to dispute.
"You can say now, 'could I have tried harder there? Or could I have done this? If I hadn't have played that pass there'... but I loved my time there. I could have had a nightmare, it could have been all right and it could have been brilliant. For any Liverpool fan that remembers back then, they can say that I always tried my hardest. I was always out there, running my legs off and putting my head where people wouldn't put their feet. I sweat blood for the badge, always tried my hardest and I don't think anyone can say anything against that."
Virgil van Dijk predicts Joel Matip moment that sparked applause from Liverpool squad
Liverpool 'considering' Roberto Firmino replacement who already passed Anfield audition(Video) Hammertime of our Lives. Season: 1995/96.
Full Liverpool squad available for Man City as several stars to miss Community Shield
Liverpool new dates confirmed as five Premier League fixtures moved for TV
Joe Gomez changes Liverpool squad number ahead of new PL season