When it comes to football league ex-professionals Steve Claridge may well be the most well-travelled. His was a playing career that spanned 34 years, saw him play over 1,000 matches and took him briefly to a number of the league’s member clubs including the Albion where he was part of a famous and unlikely victory.
By that point he was an old hand at the job and had accumulated much of the experience he later used to his advantage as a pundit on football league matters at the BBC for many years.
Given his start in life it’s possibly no surprise Claridge demonstrated a great worth ethic during his career. His life started unstably when was adopted at six weeks old and then was diagnosed as having a heart problem at 12, but made sure nothing held him back.
His heart was something that he struggled with as a child. He once said “If I did any exercise my heart used to go mad. After just five minutes it felt like I had done a five-mile run.” But he was eventually prescribed medication that enable him to manage the problem and slow his heart rate.
In 1988 at the age of 22 he had a brief spell with Crystal Palace when he was still a novice having spent the three years previous with non-league Weymouth. But with Palace on the verge of the First Division and some iconic years for the club he failed to make an appearance due to their wealth of striking talent including a certain Ian Wright. But years later took his chance to show them what they had missed, something he made a habit of throughout his career.
It was after a move to Fourth Division Aldershot where Claridge first caught the eye scoring 22 goals in 76 appearances and winning supporters’ player of the season in the 1988/89 season, before making a move to John Beck’s famously no nonsense Cambridge side.
Claridge was a unique breed throughout his career and the story of him running out of petrol on the M11, abandoning his car on the hard-shoulder and hitchhiking to the Abbey Stadium on his first day of training as well as another of him punching manager Beck in the face in an altercation between the pair are just a couple of example of this.
That is a Cambridge United team fondly remembered mostly for his fellow strikers Dion Dublin and John Taylor. And whilst Claridge is not necessarily held in the same regard as either from that time at the club, his energy and work rate meant he became a fondly remembered figure.
After ending his second spell at Cambridge in 1994 Claridge made a £350k move to Birmingham during Barry Fry’s ignominious period as manager of the club. But despite the club’s difficulties he top scored with 25 and won the club’s supporters player of the year award as they won the Second Division and the Football League Trophy.
As Claridge’s career was on the rise, Brighton were going in an opposite direction. As whilst Birmingham won that season’s Second Division Brighton finished a lowly 16th and would be relegated to the football league’s basement the following season.
But as Albion’s demise continued Claridge’s rise did so too and in early 1996 after losing favour with Barry Fry at Birmingham he made a £1.2m move to Martin O’Neill’s Premiership promotion chasers Leicester City. Whilst they had a wealth of attacking talent and despite making a largely unimpressive start to his time there including a debut in a 4-2 defeat to Ipswich where City were 3-0 down inside 12 minutes and he accidentally wore his shorts the wrong way around, he quickly had a crucial impact.
But it was a noticeably difficult start that had carried on from his old team Birmingham and lead to a 19-game goalless run. He and his new manager wanted to get to the bottom of what was wrong. “I explained what was happening to me and we decided I should go and see a specialist.”
Blood tests revealed that he was suffering from an under-active thyroid gland and which could have been a side-effect of the pills which Steve was using to regulate his heart. The doctors prescribed different drug for his heart, and his thyroid and as such Steve has said he’s now on three pills a day for the rest of my life. “Two for my thyroid and one for my ticker.”
That Leicester team had a reputation as an unruly bunch and just as at Cambridge, Claridge had a reputation as one of the key figures. Aside from his outspoken personality that helped him later forge a role as a successful pundit, Claridge also later admitted in his autobiography, “Tales from the Boot Camps”, that he had a 10-year gambling addiction, which had cost him £300,000.
Nonetheless once he got going at Leicester, he enjoyed probably the best spell in his career scoring some important goals including one in a 3-0 win against his old club Birmingham in the penultimate game of the season that helped secure Leicester a playoff place. A goal he celebrated by running in front of his old manager Barry Fry and one which was not welcomed by his old club’s supporters who waved pound notes in the air in disgust at Claridge’s move. And then he scored probably the most famous goal of his career, the extra time winner against another of his old teams Palace in the playoff final to earn the Foxes a place in the Premier League.
In the topflight Leicester and Claridge initially excelled finishing 9th in their first season and winning the League Cup, with Claridge leading the line top scoring with 15 goals including the winner in the replay of the League Cup final.
Unfortunately for Claridge his time at Leicester quickly took a turn for the worse and after failing to score the next season, he lost his place in the team and was soon loaned out to Portsmouth before being sold to Wolves.
But after five months at Wolves with Mark McGhee he was given little playing time and regularly criticised by fans so was sold to Portsmouth the following summer. There he spent three years and scored 34 goals including a hat-trick against his old club Wolves two years later, yet more revenge against an old club for Claridge. But his time with Portsmouth was ended after a short 25 game spell as player/manager, his first of a few experiences in such a role.
Claridge was then reunited with Mark McGhee at Millwall and was part of a team that got to the semi-finals of the Division one playoffs. But left the club at the end of the 2002/03 season to become player/manager of his old club Weymouth in the Conference South who he almost led to promotion but was sacked in his second season in charge after a poor start and a FA cup exit.
So after two short spells in management it was a surprise for some to see him rock up at Withdean stadium in 2004. Mark McGhee once again signed the veteran striker this time on a one-month deal, which would see him make 5 appearances for the Seagulls including a debut in a famous 1-0 away win at West Ham.
It was an unlikely victory by Albion, the ultimate smash and grab as they were dominated by their hosts or as scorer of the match winner Guy Butters put it: “the absolute Alamo”.
Manager McGhee praise Claridge saying “We kept the ball up front more which is important. Steve Claridge was key to that. He is one of the fittest players I’ve worked with and I have no doubt that after 18 months away from this level he would be able to perform.”
But that game was the high point of his spell with the club with his 3 other league appearances yielded three defeats and no goals for the Seagulls. Whilst the other saw a narrow one goal victory over Rotherham in the FA Cup. But despite the disappointing run, Claridge had impressed for the seagulls and looked like he could be the tonic to the club’s striker problem.
Non-league to the second tier is no regular move for a player, especially as a veteran, but Claridge’s is no regular career and this was no regular Brighton team either. They were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably defined by a striker problem solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a striker, who top scored that season with 8 goals. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight, who had fired the seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, severely tailed off scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.
Unfortunately despite this opportunity for the club to fill this gaping hole in its squad after he impressing in his short spell, finances were incredibly tight at the club with the stadiums planning permission battle taking hold of activities and it seems they couldn’t stretch as far as was required financially.
As such Claridge couldn’t agree a deal with the Albion and continued his nomadic career in the Football League by moving to Brentford. He later had spells with Wycombe, Millwall (again), Gillingham, Bradford, Walsall and then Bournemouth, where he played his landmark 1,000 career appearance.
Whilst later working as the BBC’s football league pundit for its TV highlights show he upset then Albion manager Gus Poyet by describing his teams football as “flicky, flicky” and that “as you go up leagues, there is no way that Brighton will be able to play that way against better players as better players are stronger”. Maybe not his finest punditry prediction, but we all get it wrong from time to time, even someone of Steve’s experience.
Steve Claridge may be a player who struggled to hold down a place at a club for a long period of time, had his own personal demons and also had conflicts with many managers. But at most club’s where he played at he left positive memories. Even at ones like Albion where his time was incredibly short, his part in that night at Upton Park is still fondly remembered.