Last Monday, Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy took part in an ancient battle as old as time itself. Well, spanning back to 1993 actually; when Electronic Arts’ first instalment of the insanely popular FIFA series first hit the shelves just in time for Christmas.
Nonetheless, pitting your wits against friends, foes and online opponents via 22 computerised footballers is a pastime almost synonymous with my generation; FIFA 15, last season’s edition, was 2014’s best selling game in the UK and by January this year had sold 15.6million units worldwide.
In honour of EA’s latest release FIFA 16 – which was unleashed onto the public earlier this week – Ruddy, six more stars of the English game and one member of boyband McFly faced each other in the FIFA 16 Celebrity Cup, held in the particularly snazzy setting of Fulham Broadway’s Gfinity Arena.
The knockout tournament, also involving Rio Ferdinand, Kyle Walker, Ashley Williams, Nathaniel Clyne, Jason Puncheon, Adebayo Akinfenwa and McFly’s Danny Jones, produced one clear winner – the Liverpool and England full-back, who swatted away opposition, quite frankly, with immaculate ease.
Ruddy, meanwhile, was unfortunately muscled out of the competition by everybody’s favourite League Two striker Akinfenwa, dubbed ‘The Beast’ down at AFC Wimbledon and famed for being the video game’s strongest player. On FIFA 16, his strength stat is a whopping 98 out of 100 – but you wouldn’t have known from the way he delicately controlled Lionel Messi in a 2-1 comeback against the Norwich No.1’s Real Madrid side in the quarter-finals.
That early exit gave Football Fancast the opportunity to have a little mano-e-mano catch-up with the England international, getting his take on The Canaries’ strong start to the season, excelling at Anfield in the absence of Luis Suarez and of course, the newly released FIFA 16.
Well John, it’s a fantastic time to catch you after that draw at Anfield last Sunday. What was the mood like on the coach back to Norwich?
We were absolutely delighted, first with the result and second with the performance. I know a lot was made of Liverpool missing some important chances but I thought as a team we defended well for the majority of the game and we caused some problems on the break. Like the manager said before the game, we had to be brave on the ball. When you go to place like Anfield there’s no point sitting back and letting them have wave after wave of attack – we had to cause problems as well. I think certainly in the first half we put our foot on the ball and managed to imprint ourselves and our game plan on Liverpool. At the end of the day, if you go to Anfield and get a point you’ve got to be happy.
Former Liverpool star Luis Suarez and Ruddy have a bit of history. The 28 year-old never fell victim to the Cannibal of Mersey’s notorious on-pitch nibbles but that could well have been a lesser punishment; the now-Barcelona striker netted past Norwich twelve times in seven appearances during his Premier League career, including three hat-tricks, eleven goals of which came against Ruddy.
Sunday was the first time you’ve faced Liverpool without Luis Suarez and by all accounts you produced the best performance of the match. Did that feel like some well-deserved retribution?
Yeah it’s always nice. When Luis Suarez was still around I used to go up to Anfield thinking ‘right, today is my day – I’m going to have him today’ and within the first ten minutes he’d scored a worldie. So it was nice that he wasn’t there, but it was even more important to just get the result. There’s a lot of pressure on Brendan Rodgers at the minute but if you lose four players like Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, with the amount of time he’s been out, anyone’s going to struggle. I hope Sturridge coming back will reignite him and Liverpool as well.
The draw at Anfield leaves Norwich eleventh in the table after six games, with eight points. Is the goal for the season still simply survival or are you tempted to aim a little higher?
First and foremost, this is a big season for every team, certainly in the lower half of the table, to make sure they are a Premier League team next year. It’s no secret that the TV money coming in is massive for the club so to stay in the Premier League is the main aim. 38 points will probably see you over the line, maybe a couple more for that magical 40-point mark everyone talks about, and the quicker you can get to that the quicker you can relax. We’re trying to affect that and once we get to that point, we’ll see where we can go.
Would you put the strong start down to the fact this is essentially the same squad that was in the Premier League two years ago, so you’ve got that experience and familiarity throughout the team?
Yeah and I think the way the manager’s come in and set us up has made a huge difference. He’s really had his input on how he wants us to play, how he wants us to go about things in both attack and defence. We look at lot more solid at the back; I think it’s a lot harder for teams to get through us and we’ve now started pressing teams higher up the pitch, which means if we win the ball up there we’re in a better position to attack as well. We’re confident in our own abilities and like you said, we’ve got a good squad with a core of players who have played in the Premier League before and are used to the pressures that come with it.
The point against Liverpool is certainly testament to Norwich’s impressive form this term, but it won’t be the kind of result that preserves their Premier League status come the end of May. In the next ten games they’ll face Newcastle United, West Brom and Watford – three clubs equally desperate to ensure survival. Will those fixtures be the true test of this Norwich side’s capabilities?
I think that’s a fair point. I think we’ve gone into games this season already though, against Sunderland, Stoke and Bournemouth, saying these are the games where we need to pick up points. Sunderland was a fantastic performance, Stoke we should have beat and against Bournemouth we won as well. I think the performance levels in those games coupled with the performance yesterday really bodes well for us. The first thing we say to each other when we come in the changing rooms is no one works harder than us. As long as we maintain that and the performance levels, I think we’ll give teams a very tough challenge.
Two years ago, the Canaries were relegated after facing Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in their final four games. In a worrying sense of de ja vu, their 2015/16 campaign ends with visits to Arsenal and Everton and a clash with Manchester United at Carrow Road. Has the final run-in been discussed within the camp at all?
No because we over-talked that last time and we got up to it and realised we were in a bit of a pickle. But look, fixtures are fixtures and you’ve got to play these teams twice at some point during the season. It just so happens those three games are very tough but hopefully we have got enough points on the board by then and the way we’ve started the season indicates that we’ve got more than enough about us to get to the 40 point mark.
Once you get to that mark you can sort of relax almost and when you relax in football matches you tend to play with a lot more freedom, which will then hopefully result in better performances. But it’s all ifs and buts at the moment – we’re only six games into the season – so come back in nine or ten games and see where we are then. But I’m confident we’ll be in a similar position anyway.
When Alex Neil took the managerial reins from Neil Adams in January, Norwich were seventh in the Championship and appeared doomed to another season in the second tier. But the Scot lead them to 17 wins from 25 games at the end of last season, including victory at Wembley in the playoff final. His overall win rate as Canaries boss is now 64%, whilst losing just five times from 33 fixtures. What do you see as the biggest factor behind his success? How has he improved the team in such a short space of time?
I think it’s just him and his way of playing. It is his way, he wants us to do it a certain way, everybody has an individual job and he expects you to execute that. And if you don’t do in a match, more often than not you’ll be punished for that or find yourself out of the team. There’s no hiding place now. You can’t rely on other players to do your job for you. Everyone has their job; if someone can chip in and help you then so be it, but I think to a man we’ve gone about our game plan in every game really, really well.
We were unlucky against Palace in the first game of the season; if we’d scored before them it’s a different game; and like I touched on before, the Sunderland, Stoke and Bournemouth performances were superb. Southampton was the only game that we’re disappointed with but being down to ten men for so long makes it difficult anyway. Then obviously going to Anfield on Sunday was a superb result. I think there’s so many positives to take from the first six games of the season but it’s now about maintaining those standards and maintaining that work-rate.
In terms of management style, training methods etc, how does he differ to Neil Adams and Chris Hughton? What’s his defining trait?
I think his tactical knowledge that stands out. I’ve said this a number of times; for me he’s probably the best I’ve worked with tactically and to say that about someone who’s still only 34 is a big statement.
He has his way of doing it and there’s no grey areas. Everything is black and white; you know what you need to do when you go out on the pitch. I think that’s the key thing; certainly being a manager in the Premier League, you can’t afford to have grey areas and people unsure about what they’re doing. He’s come in and alleviated that.
He’s been fantastic so far and I’m very fortunate to work with him. I’m sure he’ll go on to a lot of great things in his career if he carries on in the same way.
We’re always hearing glowing reports about Josh and Jacob Murphy here at Football Fancast, the identical twins regularly representing England at youth level who Hughton could only differentiate by making them wear different coloured boots. Do you have trouble telling them apart?
Yeah, I just call them both ‘Murph’!
How far can they go in the beautiful game?
Listen, they’ve got all the attributes needed. They were getting a bit frustrated last year with lack of game-time but they’ve both gone on out on loan now for a sustained period and it’s vital for their development that they go play football and get used to the first team environment, so when they do come back they’re ready to step up. They had a good pre-season with us – looked sharp, looked ready for it – and hopefully they can come back better players from their loan moves. I’m sure they will because they’ve both got what it takes.
Amid fears the Premier League could lose a Champions League spot due to the new coefficient system and English clubs failing to reach the tournament’s quarter-finals in two of the last three seasons, many have questioned whether the quality of our top flight is beginning to decline. As someone who spent a year out of the Premier League and come back in, have you noticed a drop in quality during the first six games of the season?
No. I think it’s getting stronger if anything with the players coming over. Obviously, the TV money next year is massive so everybody wants to be in the Premier League. It’s where you want to be. You don’t see other teams in Spain and Germany now spending £50million on £60million on players like Man City have with Kevin De Bruyne and Sterling. They’ve spent £100million on two players! You don’t see that from Barcelona and Real Madrid as much now – maybe every so often. But I think the Premier League speaks for itself; the magnitude of it, the amount of countries it gets to. There’s no better place to be.
Now onto the FIFA 16 side of things. As a borderline addict myself, I always wonder how footballers feel about the game portraying them, what kind of influence it has on the dressing room and how often they actually get to play it. Any idea of your overall rating on the on the new game?
Well I’ve just been told my rating’s dropped by two since last year so I’ve got a bit of a point to prove – I need to get that back up on the live updates!
That’s a little harsh considering you’ve just been promoted isn’t it?
Some would say that and I’d probably agree with you, but we’ll let them crack on with it.
Ruddy married his partner Laura in summer 2012 – joking at the time that the broken finger which ruled him out of England’s Euro 2012 squad had allowed the wedding to take place. How much FIFA does a family man like yourself get to play?
Not as much as I’d like. My son – he’s eight in two weeks – he likes playing and when he asks me for a game I’m straight there but you know, the missus is usually telling me to get off it and help around the house! I get to play with my son every now and then but not as often as I’d like.
What about the rest of the team? Who plays the most at Norwich City?
We don’t play it in a social way too much nowadays. We had it on the bus last year but they’ve changed buses so we haven’t got it anymore. But the young lads – the Murphs, Nathan Redmond, Harry Toffolo and Reece Hall-Johnson – they’ve been playing it excessively. So the young lads are probably a step up from us lot.
Who’s the best, the worst and the sorest loser?
The best would probably be Nathan Redmond or one of the Murphys. The worst is probably Russell Martin – he doesn’t play it too often.
And sorest loser…
Yeah, you know, someone who accepts losing by smashing their controller to tiny pieces. We’ve all been there.
Yeah I’ve seen that a few times; Bradley Johnson did it quite a lot but he’s obviously left the club now. I think Russell Martin’s definitely got it in his locker, so I’ll go for him again.
Time for the serious stuff. Football Fancast’s world-famous, critically acclaimed, totally-not-a-rip-off-of-one-2-eleven segment Fantasy Five-a-side! We ask footballers to create a five-man dream team, but every player has a specific stipulation and no answer can be given twice. Ok John, your first player is the best player you’ve ever played with?
Ermm… Frank Lampard.
The second, the best you’ve played against?
The third, your footballing role model growing up?
The fourth, the player you view as the greatest of all time?
See, I’m going modern day now. I think it’s got to be Ronaldo or Messi. And for me, I prefer Ronaldo – I think he’s got a better all-round game.
And finally, Norwich City can sign any player in world football, who do you choose? No answers twice remember!
Haha, Messi then!
Thanks John, you’ve been delightful!