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Sunday 21 September K.O. 16:00

Head-to-Head: Howard v Ruddy

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When Tim Howard spoke to evertontv about John Ruddy this week, he admitted he looks upon his Norwich counterpart 'like a brother'.

It's understandable. But on Saturday, any sibling-like respect will need to be cast aside.

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Howard arrived at Goodison Park in the summer of 2006, a year after Ruddy had rocked up, an 18-year-old starlet with a full season at Cambridge United already under his belt.

Despite having somewhat differing immediate objectives, the long-term ambitions of the two were in parallel - to establish themselves as Everton's undisputed man between the sticks.

For Howard, that goal was realised sooner than he imagined and an initial loan deal was quickly made permanent. Yet, in many ways, it was that capture which made the challenge confronting Ruddy all the more severe.

A succession of loan spells followed, but while that experience - plus daily access to a role model like Howard - hastened his development, a route past the unflappable American and into the Everton first-team proved frustratingly unattainable.

Howard wasn't budging and Ruddy needed games, so when the opportunity to join Paul Lambert's Norwich revolution arrived in the summer of 2010, the keeper put his Everton dream aside and made Carrow Road his new home.

Two seasons later, Ruddy is being tipped as a contender for Norwich's Player of the Year after helping push the Canaries to almost certain safety on their return to the top flight, having last season played an instrumental role in their promotion.

Meanwhile, back at Everton, Howard's form has seen him rewarded with a revised contract which could see him maintain his grip on the Everton gloves for another four-and-a-half years, a deal he has subsequently celebrated by keeping four clean sheets in his last seven games.

Ruddy's only blank of the campaign came in a goalless draw with Chelsea, but his agility and notable shot-stopping prowess have helped Norwich to the 10 wins and nine draws which leave them just a point short of the magic '40' mark with seven games to spare.

The stats back up the 25-year-old's importance, showing he has repelled a whopping 175 chances, some 33 more than Howard, having played six fewer games. It should be noted, however, that Everton remain the most stringent teams in the league in terms of allowing shots on target; Ruddy simply has had more work to do.

Howard has managed 12 clean sheets and made several key stops despite being redundant more often than any of his rivals - an attribute defender Phil Jagielka believes sets the Premier League’s top stoppers apart.

"If you speak to managers, they’ll say the best keepers aren’t those that make 10 great saves in a game, it’s the ones who make one or two," says the England centre-half. “Manchester United have been through quite a lot of goalkeepers over the years because they’ve bought guys who are good shot stoppers, but haven’t maybe saved the key ones in games."

Jagielka has also been impressed with his former teammate, however, praising the way Ruddy has imitated his own career path by taking a step back before returning to English football's top table.

"When John was here there was never an issue over whether he was a good goalkeeper,” he continues. “He stopped shots and did the rest really well.

“But he had very good goalkeepers in front of him and he had to go out and play a lot of first-team football to realise his potential. Now his concentration has got a lot better. In goalkeeping terms he was a baby here, and he’s still a young man, but he’s grown into it. His kicking is great, he’s a big boy and he has always been a good shot stopper.”

Much of what Ruddy learned during his time at Goodison Park came courtesy of England glovesman-turned-Toffees keeper coach Chris Woods.

Woods was a 1985 League Cup and Second Division title winner with Norwich and is delighted to see his former protégé proving his worth by the Norfolk riverside.

“I’m not surprised with John’s success at all – he was with us for a number of years and he’s always had great potential,” said Woods. “He needed the games, which he left Everton to get, and it has helped him enormously. He’s a great reader of the game, a great presence and he’s just proved to everyone how good a keeper he has become.

“It’s hard when you are not playing games because you need to do that in order to make decisions. You can’t make decisions on a training ground, day in and day out. That’s the important thing and John has been really good with the fact he goes out and generally the decisions he makes are correct.

“Obviously consistency is a major part of a goalkeeping repertoire and you need to make sure if you do make a mistake, it’s going to be three or four games until you make another.

“That’s what you have to learn and I’m sure that is what John is learning all the time. He is a very level-headed lad that works hard, so I’m just really pleased he is where he is.”

Ruddy would no doubt love nothing more than to impress once more against his former employers on Saturday; Howard will be aiming for that fourth successive shut out.  

Neither will wish the other to succeed. No matter how deep the respect.

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