So here he sits in a Dublin pub at lunchtime, one time Liverpool hard man Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock, larger than life — well, in truth, twice as large these days — a pint of stout in front of him, and a stream of uproarious anecdotes and one-liners pouring from his lips.
He’s actually here on business, promoting Setanta’s FA Cup coverage, but he’s not making hard work of it.
“You only got just the one England cap,” I say sympathetically. “Yeah, how many did you get?” he shoots back with a loud guffaw.
When he’s reminded he’s talking to an Irish journalist, he merely gives another ‘hur, hur’ before insisting that one England cap is worth at least 100 Irish ones or “700 Welsh ones”.
But it turns out that Ruddock can do serious too, as becomes apparent in when he’s asked why he once labelled Roy Keane “a pussy”.
At first, he feigns terror (‘E’s not ‘ere, is ‘e?”) but then gets down to contrasting his thoughts on hardness in a player and hardness in a manager.
“Years ago, I played against Roy Keane and we had a 50/50 tackle and I thought ‘he’s done me’. We both went in quite hard. Afterwards in the showers, I had a stud mark from my ankle to my goal machine. So I’m in the players’ lounge afterwards and I’m, ‘You done me,’ and he’s pulled up his trousers and he’s got eight stitches in his shin. So we’ve both jumped in and done each other but we’ve both jumped up saying we’re not hurt.
“So I’m voted the 17th hardest man in football and, on ‘Soccer AM’, I asked who’s first? They tell me it’s Roy Keane so I say he’s a pussy. I really appreciated him when he played for Man United against Liverpool and broke his foot — he got on with it, didn’t moan about it.
“I think it’s when he comes out of the game, he intimidates people. You can teach players to be fitter, you can teach players to be technically better, you teach players to live their life better. But if you’re not aggressive (as a player), you will not be aggressive. I think Roy Keane when managing, (from) the stories I heard, he’s trying to make players be more aggressive. It’s not like that. As a manager, you treat everyone different. The best managers I’ve had caned me, called me the biggest names under the sun and I’d react to that. Other players, if you done that (to them), you’d lose half the dressing room.
“When I played for Spurs, Terry Venables would destroy me. I could be the best player on the pitch and he’d destroy me. But then he’d go to Nayim: ‘You’re the best.’
“The story about Roy Keane — you think players are scared of him and you shouldn’t be scared of your manager. The manager should be the one you go to if you’re in trouble.”
He also offers what he believes is the contrasting example of Alex Ferguson, another gaffer with an intimidating reputation but someone Ruddock feels could better adapt to deal with different and even challenging personalities — as in his backing for Eric Cantona after the infamous kung-fu attack at Selhurst Park 20 years ago this weekend.
Ruddock always relished his battles with Cantona, rating him — alongside Bergkamp and Zola — as the best he played against. All the more reason then to “try to get into the head” of the Frenchman by turning down his trademark upturned collar during a game. “Fergie wrote in his book that I was the best at winding him up,” he grins. “I’ve got a few stud marks down the back from him.”
In particular, Ruddock recalls the aftermath of the player’s return from his eight-month ban in 1995, a 2-2 draw with Liverpool salvaged for United by Cantona’s late penalty.
“At the final whistle, I was gutted, he’d just scored and I get to the halfway line and I get (French accent): ‘Come on fatty, tunnel, tunnel.’ I want to kill him. I’m walking after him and one of the boys says to me, ‘Actually he’s quite big. He’s kung-fu kicked that fan as well, he’s quite hard actually.’ Then there is a doubt in your mind. Then David James comes over and says, ‘What’s the matter?’ I say ‘Cantona wants to fight me.’ And David James was like a doorway with a head on. He takes his gloves off and runs after Cantona who runs off. So I get to the end of the tunnel and I’m, ‘Where is he? I’ll take his head off.’ (laughter).
“We’re in the players’ lounge and I’m with Fowler who has his back to the bar and he goes, ‘Here he comes — Cantona’. So I’m, ‘Oh no.’ There is a tap on the shoulder and he has two pints and he says, ‘There you go, I enjoyed that game but you are fucking crazy.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m fucking crazy? You kicked a fan!’ But he bought me a pint. I had lots of battles with Roy but he’s never bought me a pint. And I’ve never bought him one.”
As a weekend of FA Cup action begins, Ruddock recalls how heartbroken he was to lose his place to Phil Babb for the 1996 final — another encounter with United decided by a Cantona goal. Still, there was some consolation for Razor — he got to wear one of those infamous Spice Boy outfits. “The cream suit, yeah, at least I got a suit, thanks for asking. Where is it now? Me and Stan Collymore were drunk that night in Piccadilly Circus. Collymore bunked me up and I got on the Eros statue and put my jacket on Eros in Piccadilly Circus. That’s the last time I saw it.”
A pause, another belly laugh. “Nobody else would wear it, would they?”