Football: Razor's sharpness restores cutting edge: Neil Ruddock is popular with Liverpool players and fans alike. Joe Lovejoy talks to Anfield's latest recruit

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TWO highly impressive wins, and a third on the cards at Swindon tomorrow. Liverpool are back, their edge restored by the man they call 'Razor.'

Desperate situations warrant desperate remedies, and the worst season anyone at Anfield cared to remember had them doing the unthinkable. Those teak-tough northerners overcame the prejudices of a lifetime and signed one of the Londoners they deride as pearly kings.

Not that there has ever been much danger of anyone calling Neil Ruddock a southern softie. When his agent was negotiating a boot endorsement deal this week, someone asked if Puma came in hobnails.

Shankly would not have approved of too much that has happened in his old domain of late - the importing of namby-pamby foreigners, the demolition of the Boot Room, the decline to sixth place in the league - but he would have loved 'Razor.'

It is difficult to imagine old Bill inviting reporters to circumnavigate Nicky Tanner or Torben Piechnik, as he once did with Ron Yeats, but a walk round Ruddock would have had that gimlet eye gleaming. As centre-halves go, they come no tougher. More to the point, and as a growing number of good judges will testify, the English variety come no better.

Ruddock gained Anfield's acceptance even before the season started with his refusal to recognise the term 'friendly.' Newcastle's visit was no more serious than a testimonial for Ronnie Whelan, but a typically forthright challenge put Peter Beardsley out of the game for six weeks.

Scousers sympathised with an old favourite, but deep down they loved it. For a couple of years, their defence had been a soft touch, but no more. Not with this latter-day Tommy Smith to put the frighteners on all comers.

Ruddock is not averse to the iron man image - witness the Desperate Dan stubble - but it is a stereotype he prefers to play down.

'People have had a false impression about me. I got a reputation at Southampton, where I was booked too often, but with a small club like that you're hardly seen on the telly - maybe once a season - and people form their opinions on what they read.

'At Tottenham you're in the limelight more, and I think I surprised a few people - the ones who hadn't seen me, but used to read all that crap about The Wild Man. When they saw me, they realised I wasn't just a hard nut after all.

'The gaffer (Graeme Souness) bought me for a bit of steel, but also because he thought I could play. I like to pass the ball and play the Liverpool way. I'm not just big and strong. I play a bit of football.'

He wasted no time in proving it. A towering contribution to the opening day victory over Sheffield Wednesday had 40,000 chanting 'Razor, Razor', and The Kop had a new hero. The players, too, are deeply impressed, and Ian Rush is already tipping Ruddock to succeed him as Liverpool's captain.

The master striker said: 'I'd hate to be glancing over my shoulder this season, waiting for him to clatter in, and I always make sure he's on my side in training, because he doesn't ease up in practice, either.

'There's not an ounce of compromise in him, so I've not been surprised by the impact he's made, but he doesn't want to be seen just as a hard man, and it would be misleading to say he was that alone. He can also play. He has good distribution and a superb knack for hitting long, diagonal passes that can split defences.

'He also attacks the ball at set pieces with more ferocity than anyone I've ever seen. He is bound to break into the England squad, and his partnership with Mark Wright looks like becoming the perfect foundation stone for us.'

Liverpool's approbation is matched only by the sense of loss at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham's best centre-half since Mike England had remedied a weakness stretching back 20 years.

Ruddock's departure last month, for pounds 2.5m, was almost as acrimonious as that of his mentor, Terry Venables. When one went, after a boardroom coup, the other felt compelled to follow. Promises Venables had made were not being honoured by the new regime and, feeling 'let down', Ruddock agitated for a transfer, and eventually had his way.

There followed a great deal of criticism over his demand for a so-called loyalty bonus, which was, in fact, no more than an instalment of the signing-on fee negotiated when he rejoined Spurs from Southampton for pounds 750,000 last year. Frustrated by his inability to defend himself, he explained that Alan Sugar made him sign an undertaking not to discuss such matters as a condition of his release.

No prizes, though, for guessing why he insisted on a move. Ruddock, after all, had been the one who mobilised the Tottenham players to try to fight Venables' dismissal, and they are still in regular contact.

Gagged by Sugar, Ruddock has had a bad press. Unfairly so. The desire to go back to Spurs, for whom he first played between 1986 and 1988, had the Battersea rottweiler return for pounds 1,000 per week less than Leeds were offering when he left Southampton, 13 months ago. He also stood a considerable loss of the sale of his Hampshire home. Not the actions of the money-mad mercenary he has been portrayed as.

'I really thought I'd gone back for life. Before the Venables thing, I was happy as a pig in shit. That Spurs team was a good one, and could only have got better. Now, I can see it all breaking up, which would be a terrible waste.'

When Tottenham finally agreed to sell him, they had more inquiries than BT, and Liverpool had to take their place in a queue which included Newcastle, Everton, Chelsea, Leeds (again) and Blackburn, who were the early favourites. For once, however, Uncle Jack's largesse was not decisive. Blackburn made Ruddock their offer, and a good one it was, too, but Souness topped it and got his man.

Money obviously played a big part in the decision, and his earnings now are such that he is about to move into the same millionaires' row as Alan Shearer, an old friend from their Southampton days. There were other considerations, though.

'The gaffer bent over backwards to sign me, and that meant a lot. When I met him and the chairman, they made my mind up for me. They're down to earth people, like me, and really made me feel welcome.

'Then there was the thought of playing in front of a home crowd of 44,000. The atmosphere at Anfield is everything people say it is - and more. The place is buzzing right now because they think this is going to be our year and, touch wood, we'll get back to where Liverpool belong.'

Ruddock's recruitment to bolster a brittle defence has not been the only significant improvement, his arrival coinciding with that of Nigel Clough, who is already furnishing Rush with the effective support he lacked last season.

The two newcomers are chalk and cheese - one dapper yet reserved to the point of introversion, the other the Ramboesque man's man. An odd couple, certainly, as they glance at each other across a hotel lounge, Clough conferring with business advisers over afternoon tea while Ruddock swaps bar room tales with Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp. There is not much in common between the two tables, other than mutual respect.

The Londoner affects an accent which is more Arthur Scargill than Clough senior in saying: 'The Young Man has done very well. He's scored three goals in two games. There's only one problem. He doesn't like a drink.' Guffaws all round, and sarcastic cries of: 'Just like you, then.'

Morale is evidently high, yet only three months ago dissension in the ranks very nearly cost Souness his job, and the old adversaries are still in place. Could renewed unrest wreck a promising start?

'I can't see that happening. Everyone is getting on all right. As far as I can tell, some people made a mountain out of a molehill last season. Senior players who were left out got a bit upset, which is only natural. With a big squad, you can't keep everyone happy. There's nothing wrong now, though. No problem at all.'

It is likely to remain that way. With 'Razor' ready to cut up rough on Souness's behalf, the dissidents will think twice before trying it on again.

(Photograph omitted)