Football's Dark Horse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As the Olympics and Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory fade from memory, British sports fans are desperate to worship a new savior, preferably one who saves goals.
By Tracy Moran
If there’s anything the English enjoy more than kicking around the football (or soccer ball), it’s kicking around the English football team. You see, England has not won a World Cup since 1966, a scar far more visible on the national psyche these days than any loss of empire. Professional football in England is on the same level as the NFL and NBA combined, and for a sports-loving nation known for its self-deprecating rapier wit, the national football squad often serves itself up as a fleshy target for flagellation.
In recent years, few things have raised fans’ ire more than the disappointing play of England’s goalkeepers. Football fans have been left crying into their pints by David Seaman missing a flat-footed free kick from Brazil’s Ronaldinho in 2002 and Robert Green’s gaffe against the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup.
Still there is one thing that English sports fans love even more than a good whipping boy — and that’s an underdog. Andy Murray exorcised the United Kingdom’s collective Wimbledon demons this year, and with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on the horizon, there has never been a better time for a beloved underdog to step up and stop the shots that long-suffering England footie fans have been lobbing at their own net. And who better to do that than a goalie?
Enter John Ruddy. Good looking and extremely poised, Ruddy is a new breed of clean-cut, determined and well-behaved players who are changing the face of English football. With players like Ruddy ascendant, the bad-boy image of yesteryear’s soccer stars, along with their ”hooligan” fans, is fading from memory.
Despite his towering presence on the pitch at 6’4” and 210 pounds, the unassuming lad from St. Ives, Cambridgeshire, has managed to fly under many fans’ radar, even in his football-crazed homeland.
Discovered by chance at age 14, Ruddy has made a career of being the dark horse of English football. Now the starting goalkeeper for Norwich City, a team in England’s top flight Premier League, he was first spotted by a local professional coach while having what he calls a “kick-about with my mates.” Soon after, instead of joining the military as he had planned, Ruddy found himself on scholarship at Cambridge United, a Third Division team at the time, training with its youth squad. Within a year, he was playing for the first team.
Ruddy is a new breed of clean-cut, determined and well-behaved players who are changing the face of English football.
“I was going in, playing, cleaning boots and toilets, because I was on scholarship. I was cleaning the boots of the goalkeeper whose place I’d taken on the team. That’s what we had to do back then,” Ruddy says, chuckling at how far he has come.
Ruddy would soon be scouted again, only this time for the Premier League, four rungs up from Cambridge United to the top of the professional football ladder. Everton had been tracking his career and decided to come for him. At age 18, Ruddy was catapulted into the world of top-tier professional soccer. But once there, he waited in the wings for five seasons, getting loaned out nine times to smaller clubs.
Learning to wait, as any good goalkeeper learns in spades, has its advantages. With Everton coach and former goalkeeping great Chris Woods, Ruddy learned all he could. Woods was so impressed by his protégé that he predicted Ruddy would make it onto the national team, referring to him as a ”great reader of the game.”
Determined to get more time on the pitch, Ruddy joined Norwich City in 2010. The one-time apprentice who had bided his time at Everton took to the Norwich playing field determined to succeed.
Ruddy was almost unknown when he first arrived at Carrow Road, Norwich City’s playing ground, in 2010, but he quickly made a name for himself by playing 45 of 46 games and helping secure the club’s promotion into the Premier League. A turning point that season came when Ruddy saved a penalty shot by Swansea’s David Cotterill, helping his team win 2-0.
Ruddy continued making inspired saves during his first Premier League season. Fans roared when he blocked a shot from Ashley Young to help ensure a win over the legendary Manchester United, 1-0. The most notable save that season for Ruddy was his last-minute block against Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, which made him the hero of the match.
His consistently strong playing quickly drew attention from a higher level once again. In 2012, he got the nod all players dream of when the national coach, Roy Hodgson, asked him to join the England squad for the European Championship. He earned his first cap, or international appearance for England, in a friendly match against Italy that season. Now, with the 2014 World Cup looming, he’s hungry for more.
Ruddy’s fans know about his dark horse record, and they’re eager to cheer him on to international stardom. His main competition for the top spot and current starter, Joe Hart, has been struggling in recent months at his club, Manchester City, which has led to speculation over who will be England’s next starting goalkeeper. But Ruddy does not question whether the bleach-blond Hart, who has won the Barclays Golden Glove Award three years running for keeping the cleanest sheets in the Premier League, should retain his No. 1 keeper spot.
“Joe has established himself on the international stage very well and he’s never let England down. I want to learn from him and be where he is, but that’s something I know is going to take time,” Ruddy says, repeating a sentiment he has shared with the British press .
Those who have worked with Ruddy expect great things from him once he is given his chance to shine. “He’ll be waiting for that opportunity, and it will be just like he’s played 100 games,” Ricky Duncan , one of his coaches from Cambridge, said about him last year in an interview with the BBC.
Learning to wait, as any good goalkeeper learns in spades, has its advantages.
At just 27, Ruddy can expect to peak as a goalkeeper in about four years. He has just re-signed with Norwich City for another four years, showing his commitment to the club that has propelled his career onto the international stage. In that time, he will fight to keep Norwich City in the Premier League and do his utmost to save for England.
“I need to keep playing well for Norwich,” Ruddy explains. “As long as I’m putting in the performances for them week in and week out in the Premier League, then hopefully the international caps will follow.”
In early December, Hodgson learned just how difficult a task his England squad faces in next summer’s World Cup. The draw placed England in Group D alongside Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica, the sixth, seventh and 31st ranked FIFA teams respectively. England is ranked 13th.Ruddy says that a successful career would mean having a medal or cup for his trophy case and making his family proud. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Laura Smith, and they have two children, Jack and Sophie. Compared to the celebrity lifestyles of couples like Wayne and Coleen Rooney and the tabloid notoriety of Ashley Cole, Ruddy keeps his head down.If things go well, English fans may finally have found the unsung hero they have been waiting for all these years.
While they already know England’s first match will be against Italy, Ruddy and his teammates have to wait until June to find out whether they’ve earned their right to stay on the national squad and represent their country in Brazil.
Whether Ruddy’s chance comes in Brazil, in the next European Championship or in four years, you’ll be hearing his name in the world of soccer for the foreseeable future. And if things go well, English fans may finally have found the unsung hero they have been waiting for all these years.
Ruddy is not too concerned about having to wait his turn. “I’m quite good at being patient,” he says with a smile.