'I never liked Eric Cantona... but he was my favourite player' - Neil Ruddock
"Come on, fatty. Tunnel!"
Neil Ruddock was having a good day of it, but Manchester United were always a tough team to put away, especially with Eric Cantona back in town.
In October 1995, Cantona was returning from an eight-month ban and, as luck [and convenient TV schedules] would have it, he would make his comeback against a Liverpool side with title aspirations.
Neil Ruddock was not going to stand on ceremony for the Frenchman and famously turned Cantona's upturned collar down mid-way through the match. United had taken the lead through Nicky Butt only to be pegged back by a Robbie Fowler goal.
Fowler then put Liverpool ahead and, with Ruddock doing a decent man-marking job on Cantona, it looked like it could be Roy Evans' day. That was until Cantona slipped Ryan Giggs through on goal and, when the Welshman was fouled, stepping up to slot home the penalty and the game ended 2-2.
"Genius," Cantona would later declare, "is about digging yourself out of the hole in which you sometimes find yourself in."
This October will be 25 years since that compelling Premier League encounter but, for Ruddock, the memories are still fresh.
On one of his last visits to Dublin, the former Liverpool star spoke with SportsJOE about his rivalry with Cantona. The United playmaker had been handed a lengthy ban after he plunged into a section of Crystal Palace fans to deal with abusive fan Matthew Simmons. Ruddock commented:
"I used to get 10 times more abuse then Cantona, and he was brilliant but I was rubbish! I never liked Cantona but after that [Palace incident] I was delighted. It took all my frustration away because I always wanted to do that.
"I watched it on the telly. I was as shocked as anyone else but I did think, 'Yeah, good boy, well done!'"
"Cantona didn’t want to play he wanted to fight me," said Ruddock as he recalled that Old Trafford encounter. "He used to turn his collars down after that match.
"He would hit me, kick me up the bum, try just get at me. On my side, he would play in the hole so I would go at him and stamp on his toes and all that. I don’t think he had a kick until the last minute and that was when he equalised and did the famous celebration [swinging around the pole behind the goal]."
Before the game finished up, Cantona would mock Ruddock's physique by gesturing that he had a large stomach and, the defender told BT Sport years later, offer him out in the Old Trafford tunnel when the game was over. Despite the pair's numerous run-ins, Ruddock has nothing but respect for Cantona.
"As a player, he was my favourite. Best players I ever played against were Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola.
"People would say about today’s game but there were no three players better than them. Football has got quicker and they have more knowledge but I think the biggest dramatic difference would be the quality of the pitches the pitch got quicker, the ball got quicker and so the players got quicker."
Liverpool had a talented squad, in 1995/96, but finished third in the league - 11 points back from eventual champions United - and lost out to their old rivals in the FA Cup final.
Ruddock insists the squad were focused on winning trophies but there were plenty of 'team-building' sessions and trips away.
"We had a Tuesday Club at Liverpool," he recalled. "If you didn't drink, you'd still go along and have a Diet Coke and then go. Because we were mates, on and off the pitch. The manager knew where you were. You'd have your club; get it out of your system. They knew where you were, you didn't have anyone sneaking off (on other nights). So, on Wednesdays we'd run it off."
There were many nights out in Liverpool while it was not uncommon for some of the squad to decamp to Dublin, where the regular haunts were 'The Big Tree, The Roundabout, Tamangos, then Temple Bar'. Ruddock explains that midweek nights out often doubled as a talk-shop, for players to air grievances against team-mates.
"We'd go around the table and sort it out on our own. If anyone ever had a problem with another lad, you'd sort it out. I played judge a few times. It never came to fisticuffs or anything like that. It was banter. It was only when they got really drunk that they were really horrible with each other."