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‘I was in a bad way’ – Liverpool defender who wound Eric Cantona up ‘happy’ again after losing nine stone in amazing transformation

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'I was in a bad way' - Liverpool defender who wound Eric Cantona up 'happy' again after losing nine stone in amazing transformation

‘I was in a bad way’ – Liverpool defender who wound Eric Cantona up ‘happy’ again after losing nine stone in amazing transformation

Neil Ruddock was in a dark place for many years after retiring from football.

The centre-back made 152 appearances for Liverpool during five years at Anfield during the 90s, before hanging up his boots following stints with West Ham United, Crystal Palace and Swindon Town.

Turning to drink, you would have hardly believed that the one-time England international, who was hardly a pristine athlete even at the peak of his powers, was once a top-flight defender for well over a decade.

But appearing on ITV show ‘Harry’s Heroes’ in both 2019 and 2020, as Harry Redknapp got together a squad of former England international footballers, getting them back fit and healthy for a game against Germany legends, was a sliding doors moment for Ruddock.

Fitted with a pacemaker in 2020, he later had a gastric sleeve fitted and would lose nine stone as a result. Now in a much happier and healthier place, Ruddock credits appearing on ‘Harry’s Heroes’ for saving his life.

“I have a gastric sleeve. I did ‘Harry’s Heroes’ and it saved my life,” he told the ECHO in an exclusive interview. “I was in a bad way. Mentally I was in a bad way. Hadn’t been a footballer for 20-odd years.

“Turned to drink. That made me happy. But went and did ‘Harry’s Heroes’ and that changed my life. I’ve lost nine stone and my kids have got their dad back. I’m happy.”

A larger than life character, it is good to see Ruddock looking well and back with a smile on his face. And while he has at times been a figure of fun in the game, let’s not forget he was first choice at Anfield in Roy Evans’ Spice Boys team of entertainers for a reason.

Some of his most iconic outings for Liverpool came against fierce rivals Manchester United, with Ruddock scoring a famous equaliser against the Red Devils in a 3-3 draw at Anfield in January 1994. But perhaps even more memorably were his methods to wide up the talismanic Eric Cantona, turning down his trademark upturned collar at every opportunity.

“I used to turn Eric’s collar down. Eric was one of the greatest players,” he recalled. “If I played against him fairly, he’d beat me because he was brilliant.

“So I was just trying to get in his head by turning his collar down. He used to say to me, ‘I will fight you in the tunnel!’ I won there, once he reacted.

“I was just trying to put people off. If they’re on the edge, wind them up and make them react. If they’re brilliant or massive or strong, tell them they’re brilliant and hard and magnificent.

“When you play against Duncan Ferguson, tell him he’s brilliant. Do not upset Duncan Ferguson! Everytime you play against someone, you know how to wind them up.

“They are the things you’d do. Win at every cost, other than trying to hurt people, win at every cost. Try and get in people’s heads.

“That’s what I tried to do, and he (Cantona) still remembers it. I saw him six months ago and he gave me a big hug and said we’re friends again.”

Cantona wasn’t the only Manchester United forward that Ruddock clashed with during his Liverpool days. He infamously broke both of Andy Cole’s legs with one tackle in a reserves match in 1996. Taking the opportunity to set the record straight, Ruddock insists it was just an unfortunate accident.

“Accident, accident! I went for the ball, got the ball, and the referee said play on,” he said. “It was a fair challenge, just one of them where our legs got tangled. It was unfortunate.”

One of the lowlights of Ruddock’s Liverpool career came when they lost a drab 1996 FA Cup final to Manchester United in a game remembered best for the Reds’ infamous cream suits. Cantona was the match-winner that day, with Ruddock overlooked despite his impressive record against the Frenchman.

But what did he do with the cream suit?

“If we had won that FA Cup final, they’d have been the greatest suits,” he said. “But because we lost, they’re the worst suits. I think Stan Collymore and I were drunk in Piccadilly Circus and ripped ours up.

“Man Utd were better than us in the 90s. We did all right It was only the champions that got into the Champions League. We’d be in the Champions League today.

“People would always say that Roy Evans wasn’t strong enough but he was a tough man, Roy Evans. He was a great manager, a great coach. It was just down to our players. We weren’t good enough.”

Ruddock’s Liverpool career came to an end in 1998 following the arrival of Gerard Houllier, with the Frenchman not even knowing who the defender was when they were first met.

But while Houllier swiftly offloaded a number of players following his arrival at Anfield, Ruddock’s exit had already been well in the works with one of his team-mates playing a key role in helping the defender move on.

“He (Houllier) didn’t know who I was!” he recalled. “I asked him if he’d been in a submarine for the last few months.

“I didn’t last very long, but before he came, I was going to West Ham. Had been for like six months before. There had been talks so it wasn’t a big surprise. I was always going to go to West Ham at the end of the season.

“People think that Houllier got rid of all the drinkers and the crazy players, but it wasn’t that. It was a case of just waiting until the end of the season for them to come in and I’d go to West Ham.

“Jamie (Redknapp) was my room-mate, so I used to speak to Harry and Harry used to speak to me. Liverpool gave us permission and we had to wait until the end of the season.”

Now at peace with his life as a former footballer, Ruddock has many highlights when he looks back on playing career. Playing for Liverpool is one of the biggest, and now thrilled that his own kids ‘have their dad back’, he’s just glad that he was able to make his own father proud.

“Highlight of my Liverpool career was signing for Liverpool, playing for Liverpool, and running out at Anfield in front of the old Kop,” he said. “When you used to run out in front of the old Kop, 20,000 people singing your name, it was the greatest feeling in the world.

“Other than making my dad proud of me. That was the greatest thing I ever did in my life, making my dad proud of me.”

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