Football: Why football can't avoid the verbals

From Hell Razor to Peacemaker, Ruddock urges a calmer official approach to the goading game
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The Independent Online
THERE'S SOMETHING endearingly anachronistic about the epithet "Razor" Ruddock, evoking, as it does, a character from the Graham Greene- based film noir Brighton Rock, or the gangland haunts of the Fifties East End.

Yet it can have a powerful effect on a player's peers and, for that matter, an influence on authority. A forward would no more blithely ignore the threat of such a defender than a gangster would cross a confederate of that name. Once Ron Harris became "Chopper", the Chelsea defender was always going to instil an element of irrational fear in his opponents. So, too, "Psycho" Stuart Pearce. It may have been a subconscious response, but forwards were instinctively wary of such characters, who also undoubtedly come under increased scrutiny from referees.

While some encourage the notoriety of their nickname, others merely indulge it reluctantly. Ruddock falls into the latter category. Indeed, if there hadn't been a big boxing night at White Hart Lane a decade or so ago, the West Ham defender would probably have remained "Jacko", after a toy monkey his parents gave him when he was a child.

Instead, he was invested with the title "Razor" Ruddock by his then Tottenham team-mates after the name of the Canadian fighter who was on the under- card of that night's Frank Bruno-Joe Bugner bout. It has stuck and that, along with the occasional much-publicised confrontation over the years, has encouraged the view of him as a pathological destroyer.

In fact, the West Ham def-ender has wallowed in an early bath only five times in his career, and on two of those occasions the offence was a professional foul. This season, when the cards of both hues have been brandished copiously, he pleads guilty to a mere two yellows, which demonstrates that you should never judge a man solely by his nickname, or his reputation. It perhaps explains why he refuses to join the universal condemnation of Arsenal, even though you could readily comprehend it if, in the aftermath of the Upton Park incident when he was spat upon by Patrick Vieira, Ruddock would gleefully luxuriate in their misfortunes.

"In football, your reputation precedes you and Arsenal are getting a lot of stick of late," he said, seated in the corner of a dimly lit Soho bar - somehow appropriate that, given his sometime wayward image - where he was launching his new autobiography Hell Razor.

"I can sympathise with them. Referees are maybe looking for them a bit. They are going to be marked now, especially after the Spurs game [last Sunday, when Fredrik Ljungberg and Martin Keown were sent off]. Yet, I don't think they're an over-physical team at all. I feel sorry for teams like that when it happens, because it's happened to me over the years."

Admittedly, his empathy with the Gunners doesn't necessarily extend to their manager, Arsene Wenger. Following imputations of "racism" - vehemently disputed - Ruddock was invited to a pow-wow with the FA's Graham Bean, although informed sources say that he would have instigated legal action had charges actually been preferred. Nevertheless, the result has still been hate mail and a besmirched standing in the game. "I think [Wenger] has got to worry about his own players and not bring other people into it," Ruddock said.

"The bad press I've got and the threatening letters have been unbelievable. As far as I'm concerned, I did the right thing in walking away when he spat at me. It shocked me and if we had been losing I might have reacted, but we were winning so I let it go."

That brouhaha has brought into sharp focus the whole question of players verbally, and occasionally physically, intimidating each other. He does not attempt to deflect responsibility on that score. "I've been in the game 14 years, and it's gone on in every game I've played and it won't stop," conceded the 31-year-old, who has captained Southampton, Liverpool, Tottenham, West Ham and the England B team. "Some of it you wouldn't want to repeat, but they have a go at you, your wife, anything. It's just banter. You have to take it with a pinch of salt."

Not everybody is capable of doing so, as Eric Cantona demonstrated, more than once. Ruddock succeeded in inducing la rage in the enigmatic Frenchman by repeatedly turning down his upturned collar - a particular affectation, it will be recalled - when the defender was playing for Liverpool at Old Trafford. He did it for a dare after being challenged by a comedian friend, Willie Miller.

"By the fourth occasion [Cantona] was so wound up that he swung an elbow at me and just missed my face," Ruddock recalled. "Undeterred, I did it again and again until he snapped completely and launched into a knee- high tackle on me from behind, for which he got a yellow card. You would receive an automatic red card these days but I'm glad he stayed on because it gave me another opportunity to wind him up."

Ruddock added: "Eventually, he turned round, looked me straight in the face with mad, bulging eyes and yelled, `Me and you, we fight in ze tunnel'. At the end I went over to David James - the biggest bloke in our team - and asked him to walk off with me. Brave, or what?"

Cantona never carried out his threat, and the next time Ruddock saw him was in the players' bar. The Frenchman was standing right behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

Ruddock feared a continuation of the afternoon's hostilities. "Instead, he just produced a pint of lager and handed it to me and then gave me a little wink."

Many of Arsenal's problems stem from a similar propensity for retaliation. Ruddock has long learned the futility of such a response. "Ten years ago, I had a short fuse, I was getting suspended, I was losing my place in the team, I was getting fined and it was costing me money," he admitted. "Eventually, you start thinking, `Hold up, relax'."

Hence his value, other than his defensive attributes, to Harry Redknapp's team. The once cut-throat Razor is now responsible for smoothing the too- often rough complexion of football. "When I'm playing alongside Rio [Ferdinand], and he loses his temper I just say, `Come on, f****** calm down. We need you on the pitch. If you go off, we lose'. You just have to keep talking to them.

"Little Frank [Lampard] in front of me, he loses his cool every now and again, too. As soon as I see a situation blowing up, I'm in there to calm it down. I think they respect me and listen to me."

Maybe members of the Referees' Association should, too. "If you weren't a follower of football and saw the number of cards, you'd think we must be fighting each other every week," Ruddock said. "That's nowhere near the case. There's so much pressure on players nowadays, in the heat of the moment you're going to say bad things and lose your rag, and all the ref needs to say is: `Just calm down. Give yourself a chance and don't make it hard for us.'

"That's how they used to speak to you, people like George Courtney, Keith Hackett, Roger Milford and little Brian Hill. Brilliant referees. Now, the card's out straight away." Rarely for Ruddock, though, and that should be a salutary lesson to the miscreants of Highbury.