John Ruddy has earned Norwich City priceless Premier League points
Four goalkeepers have been among the winners of Norwich City’s player of the season award – and John Ruddy would be a worthy addition to this select band.
In the first 45 seasons after the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy was introduced, only Kevin Keelan, Chris Woods, Bryan Gunn and Andy Marshall of the goalkeepers’ union managed to get their hands on the silverware.
Keelan (1972-73 and 1973-74) and Gunn (1987-88 and 1992-93) were double winners, Woods topped the poll in 1983-84, and Marshall was the last of the quartet to collect the prize in 2000-01, one of his last acts before joining Ipswich Town in the summer.
This season’s vote closes at noon on Monday and I believe 25-year-old Ruddy has the best claim to the accolade, though he doubtless faces tough competition from the people’s favourite.
Skipper and top scorer Grant Holt will be a leading candidate to become the first player to receive the trophy three times – and it would be a genuine striker’s hat-trick after just three seasons with the club.
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Holt has completed his remarkable journey, in the words of his own T-shirt, from “Unibond Prem to the Real Prem” and his 13 top-flight goals have included some absolute beauties.
When this season is long gone, we will still be able to close our eyes and picture the way he coolly dispatched the dropping ball at Chelsea, the bravery of the header at Anfield, the nifty footwork at Goodison Park, the lethal finish in a crowded goalmouth against Manchester United, and the deft flick over Wolves goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey that was followed by a nonchalant nod into an empty net.
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They were all magical moments in what has been – despite the last three results – another season to remember, both for the player and the club.
In spite of Holt’s considerable contribution, for the past two seasons I have plumped for Wes Hoolahan as my player of the year. A fat lot of good that endorsement has done him, you might say, though the little Irishman did take third place in the fans’ vote last season.
For me, watching Hoolahan is like watching an old-fashioned footballer, a throwback to another age, a man who finds time and space where there doesn’t appear to be any.
There were those who said he couldn’t make an impact in the Premier League, that the pace of the game and the physical challenge would be too much for him. But I reckon he’s made a pretty good job of stepping up to the next level and he might have had even more of an influence had he not started 13 Premier League games on the bench.
Flicking back through the pages of the Evening News over the past nine months, I noted that Hoolahan had taken our post-match “Top Man” nomination six times. The only man to equal that tally was Ruddy, though defender Zak Whitbread was the choice four times in the space of eight games during his injury-free period.
Ruddy had to wait for his chance at Premier League level after five years at Everton yielded just one first team appearance.
He had a difficult start at Carrow Road before winning over the home crowd and missed just one Championship match in the promotion campaign.
The current season started in dramatic fashion with his penalty save from Stoke’s Jonathan Walters in the second Premier League fixture and a red card at Chelsea in the third game.
But week in, week out, home and away, he has almost certainly been City’s most consistent performer.
There has been the odd difficult day, not helped by playing behind a long list of different central defensive partnerships. Ruddy is unlikely to look back on the two Manchester City fixtures, or last week’s 50-yard special from Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, with any great affection. The back four has creaked and cracked in certain games – but Ruddy, the last line of defence, has saved the Canaries many crucial points.
Managers are sometimes reluctant to single out goalkeepers for particular saves on the basis that it is their job. It’s what they are paid to do. But Paul Lambert has not been slow to praise his ’keeper and back his claims for international recognition.
Some of Ruddy’s saves this season have been truly exceptional. For a top three, how about the stoppage-time save from Suarez at Anfield, the header from Steven Caulker he tipped over the bar in the closing seconds at Swansea, and the one-handed stop from Benoit Assou-Ekotto at Tottenham when the match was delicately poised at 1-1? Those three efforts alone were worth an extra five points and went a long way to averting a nail-biting end to the campaign, for which we should all be grateful.