Each player’s road to West Ham hero status is as individual as they are.
Manuel Lanzini went from Argentina via Abu Dhabi before finding his way to east London, and Michail Antonio’s route took in more stops than a cross-London tube train before finally delivering him to the club.
But it is safe to say the route from Millwall to West Ham via two stints at Tottenham is the road less travelled. That, however, is the road Neil Ruddock took.
Centre back Ruddock, who joined in summer 1998, spent two memorable and colourful seasons at Upton Park at the turn of the millennium, when Harry Redknapp’s cocktail of a once-in-a-lifetime crop of amazingly gifted homegrown youngsters, mixed with seasoned top-class pros brought in from outside, made for some of the most lively, successful and entertaining football fans have seen in years.
‘The vast majority of Millwall fans were fine about me joining West Ham, they like to see a local lad go on and do well in his career,’ said Ruddock, who comes from a Lions family. ‘My brothers are Millwall season ticket holders, but even they sneaked in to cheer on West Ham when I was playing. They weren’t fussed if we lost, though, they just wanted to see me play well!’
In his new book, The world according to Razor: My Closest Shaves, Ruddock lifts the lid on many of the most memorable characters and stories from a career that saw him turn out for Millwall, Spurs, Southampton, Liverpool, QPR, Crystal Palace and Swindon, as well as West Ham.
Maybe crossing the great Thames footballing divide was made easier by the fact it was not a straight swap.
Ruddock came to West Ham from Liverpool, where in 1993, Graeme Souness, never a man to duck out of a tackle, signed him from Spurs for what was briefly a world record fee for a defender, £2.5 million.
But Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier, who succeeded Souness, were less kindred spirits with Ruddock, and in 1998, as much for family reasons as footballing ones, he felt it was time to be on his way – and he knew where he wanted to go.
‘I absolutely loved my time at Liverpool, and it was a great part of the world to live, but I had three years left on my contract and the age the kids were, it would have involved getting them settled in school and then been difficult I’d wanted to move on later, so I decided I wanted to come back down south,’ he said.
‘Jamie Redknapp was my best mate at the club, so I was asking him to put in a word for me to his dad for months. Towards the end of that season, Liverpool sent me on loan to QPR and I helped them stay up in the Championship and send Manchester City down to League One! I think that helped seal the deal.’
Just a few weeks before Ruddock joined, Redknapp signed another larger and louder than life character, Ian Wright, from Arsenal.
As Ruddock mentions in his book, at first the pair could not stand one another, until put together as room mates on England duty, when they realised what similar characters they were, and a lasting friendship was born, one that flourished at West Ham.
‘Harry knew exactly what he was doing there – he had this amazing crop of youngsters, like Rio, young Frank, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, and he brought in people like me and Wrighty to bring them out of their shells and turn them into men,’ he said.
‘It didn’t matter if you’d played 600 games or one game, Harry was all about everyone feeling part of the family.
‘He didn’t want people going out on their own, he wanted us to be friends on and off the pitch, and that’s what happened.
‘We used to take the young lads out with us and have a laugh with them – admittedly, there were a few times when that backfired and it got a bit lively, but it was huge fun.’
At that time, the West Ham dressing room was as loud as any in the Premier League.
‘After the pre-match team talk, when you were feeling a bit nervous, the bell would go to get you out on the pitch, and we’d stick on Country Roads by John Denver, and have a really loud sing along at the top of our voices, slamming the walls and getting really pumped up. It was fantastic – those seasons we finished fifth and ninth, and had a fantastic time.
‘I remember a game against Manchester United where we walked out into the tunnel after they’d heard our sing song, all pumped up, and Teddy Sheringham said to me: “I wish I was in that dressing room”. Wait your turn Teddy, your time will come.’
One of the first games featuring the Wright and Ruddock double act was a 1-0 home win over Southampton, when their humour as well as their play made the headlines.
‘Wrighty said: “When I score – not if, when – let’s do the pushing the ref thing to celebrate”, copying Paolo di Canio pushing over Paul Alcock, so when he did score, we did it.’
The Football Association failed to see the funny side, fining the pair over the incident, but the players had the last laugh when, three months later, di Canio became the latest player added to an already lively West Ham dressing room.
‘He was furious when he saw us, he said he wanted everyone to forget about it but we’d reminded everyone! Paolo was absolutely fantastic to play with, though.’
Di Canio’s arrival came around the same time as the departure of John Hartson, following his infamous training ground bust-up with Eyal Berkovic, which was caught on camera.
‘John is the nicest I’ve ever met,’ said Ruddock. ‘He’s not the person you see on the pitch at all, he’s not all elbows and getting in people’s faces, so that was totally out of character, but I think the trigger was that he thought his time at West Ham might be coming to an end, and it got to him.’
Life at West Ham in Ruddock’s time was nothing if not colourful. ‘My first season, we kept clean sheets in our first three games, and then played Wimbledon at home, live on Sky,’ he said. ‘We went 3-0 up after 20 minutes, and ended up losing 4-3. It was a very Spurs-y West Ham that night.’
A fifth place finish in the 1998-99 season was enough to earn West Ham a place in the long-forgotten Intertoto Cup, which in turn gave them a place in the UEFA Cup, and provided Ruddock with one of the most unexpected but exciting moments of his career.
‘When I was a kid, I absolutely loved the TV series Dallas, I’d even been to Southfork Ranch in Texas, where it was set,’ he said.
‘It turns out they’re absolutely mad about it in Romania as well, and when we went to play Steaua Bucharest, for some reason Larry Hagman, who played JR Ewing, the show’s biggest star, was at the game by the side of the pitch. I couldn’t believe it.
‘As we were going out onto the pitch, I stopped to talk to him and said: “I’ve been to your house”. The younger kids in the team didn’t have a clue what I was going on about, but this was JR Ewing, the biggest star of the lot. I couldn’t believe it.’
Just a couple of weeks before that, Ruddock was himself at the centre of a thrilling drama, West Ham’s 2-1 win over Arsenal.
A week and a year after Sheffield Wednesday’s infamous game against Hillsborough where he was sent off and pushed over referee Paul Alcock, di Canio, now playing for West Ham was in inspired form with his goals putting the Irons 2-0 up.
Patrick Vieira, who had been at the centre of the Hillsborough incident, had seen enough, so kicked di Canio up in the air, twice. And just to make sure he knew which way to go, Ruddock decided to get involved.
‘I knew exactly what I was doing,’ he said. ‘I’d been getting under Vieira’s skin all game.
‘Marc-Vivien Foe was giving him the runaround, so I kept talking to him about it, all the time, saying how much of a better player he was.
‘I could see what was going to happen, so when he snapped, I knew I’d done my job – see you later.’
Having already been shown the red card, as he left the pitch Vieira then spat at Ruddock, which saw his FA punishment increased to a six match ban and a £45,000 fine.
But the good times were not to last much longer for Ruddock, who was approaching his 30th birthday later in the season, and having been a regular starter in the first half of the season, his appearances became more and more rare.
‘I had a hamstring problem all season that I couldn’t get rid of – looking back I should have had about three months out to get over it properly, but that would mean being left out of the atmosphere and I’m terrible with that, I can’t stand my own company, so I always said it was fine and came back too early,’ he said. ‘I ended up doing myself harm.’
In July 2000, just after his 30th birthday, Ruddock’s time at West Ham came to an end, in abrupt but comic fashion.
‘One Monday morning Harry called Trevor Sinclair and me into his office, and if you’re called in on a Monday, that usually means you’ve done something wrong, but I hadn’t so, I said to him: “What have you done?” and he said: “Nothing, what have you done?”.
‘As it turned out, Harry said that the club was selling me to Palace – just like that. “Why?” I said. “Because you’re ruining Trevor,” he said. “Get rid of him then,” I replied, and Harry said: “No, he’s good.” And that was it – that afternoon I signed for Palace, cut and dried, that’s how I left!’
With his injuries having already taken such a toll, and age not on his side, Ruddock is realistic about the club’s decision.
‘I knew my hamstring was a problem, and all that time out meant I wasn’t as fit any more, and the club had Rio coming through, so it wasn’t really much of a wrench to leave,’ he said. ‘I knew I was coming to an end, and that’s how it goes, a club doesn’t wait around for you to decide, they make the decision.’
Redknapp merits his own chapter in Ruddock’s book, and the bond between player and manager evidently still runs deep – so much so, that in fact Redknapp indirectly played a role in changing Ruddock’s life recently, in the latest of his numerous reality TV outings, Harry’s Heroes.
‘During the making of that, it emerged that I had a dodgy heart, and it was stopping for seven seconds every night when I was asleep, but I didn’t know, so earlier this year I had a pacemaker fitted, and the doctor said I needed to take it easy for the next six months,’ he said. ‘Then corona came along and there was no way I could go out and do anything anyway, so it got rid of temptation.’
At the age of 52, Ruddock seems in a good place in his life, and, thanks to his pacemaker, in good health. And he has a career full of great memories to look back at, with the happiest ones coming from his time at West Ham.
‘I’m a Millwall fan, so they will always be my club. Southampton made me into a man, Spurs made me a better player, and at Liverpool I felt like I was playing at the best club in the world, but my two years at West Ham were without doubt the funniest, most enjoyable of my career,’ he said.
‘On the pitch we had two good finishes, off the pitch they were the nicest people to play for and an amazing club.
‘When we were winning, the fans were the absolute best, and when we were losing, I was that so-and-so from Millwall! I had everything in my time at West Ham.’
The World According to Razor: My Closest Shaves is out now, published by Little Brown