There are probably very few situations in football quite so daunting: to be a Premier League goalkeeper in a relegation battle, under bombardment, and tasked with serving as that last crucial barrier. Norwich City’s John Ruddy is better placed than most to explain the mindset at such heights, given the amount of time he spent in England’s lower leagues. A few aspects still strike him, but also one particular opponent.
“The pace of play,” Ruddy says. “The pace of the ball, the movement of the strikers, the intelligence of them. I’ve obviously witnessed it with [Luis] Suarez in particular, the speed of thought he has. He’s taking shots people wouldn’t take in a million years and he’s pulling them off, making people look stupid.
“You just sort of stand there and think: ‘what’s just happened?’ I remember the Arsenal game [4-1 at the Emirates], when they scored the first [Jack Wilshere goal]. That was ridiculous. I remember just standing there and looking behind me and seeing the ball... it’s just so quick and so precise. You can only admire it really. But that’s what I want to be. I want to be in that situation, and hopefully I can stay there for many years to come as well.”
Such a situation will present itself again on 19 June in Sao Paulo when England take on Suarez’s Uruguay for what may be the World Cup group’s crunch game. “It’s very much a target,” Ruddy says. To even be involved on the bench would represent some rise, given where he was four years ago. While England were toiling around South Africa in the last World Cup, the young goalkeeper was spending his last days at Everton, where he had made just one League appearance but gone on nine different loan moves. As Ruddy admits, he was an “unknown”. It is probably for that very reason that he has a definite answer to an otherwise difficult question: what would he take: top-flight survival or a place in Brazil?
“Staying up in the Premier League, without a doubt. People might think that’s a bit strange but that’s my bread and butter, that’s what provides me and my family with a life, that’s what I enjoy doing week in, week out. The World Cup’s a fantastic opportunity but that’s every four years.
“Getting into the Premier League got me into the England squad so it can be done, and hopefully I can do both come the end of the season.”
Achieving that would also bring together another few strands of Ruddy’s career. The 27-year-old is effectively in competition for England’s reserve goalkeeping place with Celtic’s Fraser Foster – whom he replaced at Norwich in 2010 – and the injury-prone Ben Foster.
Newly promoted to the Championship, Norwich wanted to keep the on-loan Forster – only for his host club Newcastle United to price them out. Ruddy proved the next best option. In the top flight he has kept more clean sheets than everyone except Wojciech Szczesny, Petr Cech and Hugo Lloris.
“I think that speaks volumes, not just for myself but us as a defensive unit,” Ruddy says. “It shows how far we’ve come on this season. If you take a couple of games out, the Liverpools, Man City, Arsenal, I think our goals-to-game ratio conceded would be very good.”
Forster has broken Bobby Clark’s 43-year-old Scottish record of 1,155 minutes without conceding – but is operating in a lesser league. “I think if you are playing in the top league in England, you probably should [have an edge],” Ruddy says. “That’s not detracting anything from Fraser, he’s a top-quality goalkeeper. The record he’s just set speaks for itself. I don’t care what level you’re playing at, that’s a fantastic achievement.”
Today’s fixture has an edge quite apart from the fight for survival. Norwich have been involved in a legal dispute with Aston Villa over the departure of manager Paul Lambert. Speaking at the launch of Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Ruddy gives credit to his old manager for “taking a gamble” on him back in 2010. “Certainly, given where it’s gone, he’s played a massive part in [my career] without a shadow of a doubt. I can’t thank him enough for taking the opportunity to take me to Norwich. Without that platform, who knows where I’d be.”
Norwich’s current manager Chris Hughton has come under huge pressure, but his keeper insists the squad have great respect for him. “If there wasn’t a great liking for him, to be quite blunt, I don’t think he’d still be here,” he says. “There wouldn’t be that effort there, and I think that’s what you have seen in recent weeks.
“We feel like we can go into every game and win. Mentally we’re in a good place and performance-wise we’re in a better place, so confidence is fairly high.” Ruddy is far from daunted.
Aston Villa v Norwich City is on Sky Sports 3 today, kick-off 4.30pm.