By Jay Jaffa
Norwich City are perilously close to dropping back into the Championship after Sunderland’s superb win at Old Trafford put distance between the Black Cats and the bottom three while relegating Cardiff City and Fulham on Saturday, yet for goalkeeper John Ruddy it presents an opportunity to make his case for a move to another top flight club this summer.
Realistically the Canaries must gain at least a point at Stamford Bridge on Sunday before their final game at home to Arsenal or face the prospect of dropping out of the Premier League. Though it may not seem much consolation to a man who has been at Carrow Road for four years, Ruddy is in the shop window - such is the reputation he has forged at the perennial top-flight strugglers.
Had events turned out differently, it may well have been Ruddy staring down Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday - such was the interest in the Norwich No.1 from Chelsea. Wisely, as the evidence has shown, the Canaries did well to get their goalkeeper to pen a new deal and stay with the club in October, though the club’s current plight somewhat overshadows that.
Speaking to Goal in February, Ruddy seemed completely at ease with his decision and happy to be playing regularly after an injury-hit 2012-13 - though he did express a desire to be competing for trophies. But then, who wouldn’t?
Perhaps it nags away at the Cambridge-born shot-stopper; the chance to move to a Champions League club doesn’t come along often, but Ruddy has always exuded a professional and down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t seek the limelight, perhaps a product of a young career spent around the lower leagues on loan before an exceptional spell at Motherwell highlighted his potential.
At 27, age is on his side and there should be no lack of interest from pretty much any club outside of the top seven.
And so, barring a miracle, Norwich’s final two games of the season may morph into an exercise in self-promotion; an inadvertent opportunity to earn a place in the Premier League at a new club.
Not only was Chelsea’s interest well known over the summer, there have been cursory glances toward the 27-year-old throughout his time in the Premier League, heightened after another season in which the number of goals conceded betray the technical ability of a very able shot-stopper. This is, after all, Roy Hodgson’s third-choice goalkeeper for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.
Norwich have conceded 60 goals in the Premier League this year - the third worst in the division - and that goes some way to explain their predicament, while Ruddy has started every one of their 36 games. He's not blameless but the statistics show the Canaries have a goalkeeper at a higher level than their own.
Ruddy has kept 11 clean sheets this term, the same number as England rival Joe Hart, meaning the 60 goals he has shipped have come at a whopping 2.4 goals per game, yet he has faced more shots at goal (548) than any other goalkeeper aside from David Marshall (646) at Cardiff.
His save percentage from shots inside the box (60.33%) - often a marker of a high-class keeper - is higher than his England compatriots Hart (57.89%) and Ben Foster (53.97%).
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Again, he's produced encouraging figures in certain respects but undoubtedly has areas to improve in - not a major criticism for a youngster in goalkeeping years. The worry is where he plys his trade next year. As a member of the England squad, Ruddy is primed to establish himself as a Premier League regular for anywhere up to the next 10 years, even if Norwich aren't.
There are holes in his game - he has dropped more high balls (10) than any other goalkeeper, though he has claimed the fourth highest number of crosses (62) in the league. Broadly speaking, the fundamentals are there, he just needs polishing.
And it will be at Stamford Bridge where, not in blue but yellow, Ruddy will attempt to stave off the spectre of relegation for a club he holds dear. Norwich have an abysmal record against Chelsea; a 0-0 draw in 2012 their only league result since returning to the top flight and anything of a similar ilk will take the battle for survival to the final day.
Despite being spurned in the summer, Ruddy should see more days in the Premier League. His display at Stamford Bridge on Sunday may well decide whether that is with Norwich or not.