Football: Unlikely talisman looking for an unlikely finale

The self-deprecating Steve Claridge is Wolves' new folk hero.
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The Independent Online
STEVE CLARIDGE was seething. For 84 minutes on a freezing afternoon he had shuffled up and down the touchline, stretching and watching the clock, restless for a piece of the action. When a substitute for an injured attacker was finally required, a teenaged rookie was summoned instead.

In the aftermath of Leicester's 4-0 victory over Northampton, Claridge could not focus beyond his frustration. Tomorrow, as he emerges from the tunnel before Wolves' FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Villa Park, he will be seeing things in a different light.

Martin O'Neill's decision to ignore him in that third-round tie may have been prompted by the belief that that his transfer value would be greater if he was not cup-tied. Whatever the reason, any resentment Claridge may have felt has given way to relief and gratitude.

"I was cursing the manager at the time," he admitted. "Apart from anything else it cost me a win bonus! Now I'm starting to think it was something to do with fate. I hardly play for six months, then suddenly I'm one game from Wembley. It could probably only happen to me."

The feeling that destiny may be at work stems from the extraordinary transformation in his fortunes over the past two years. Not so long ago he seemed likely to play out his days in the lower divisions, as well known for his gambling habit or for the trademark shirt outside the shorts and rolled-down socks as for his talent.

Then he scored the last-gasp goal which settled the play-off final and swept Leicester into the Premiership. And for his next trick he buried the winner in the Coca-Cola Cup final to earn them a place in Europe.

In his autobiography, the entertaining Tales From the Boot Camps, Claridge expressed delight and disbelief at his metamorphosis from journeyman to talisman. "The way my career's going," he said, "I'll sign for Manchester United on my 40th birthday."

In fact he will be 32 next week, a landmark he expected to reach either in the lower First Division or in limbo at Leicester. But Portsmouth, where he was on loan last month (he even followed them to Sunderland as a fan a fortnight ago), could not raise the pounds 350,000 O'Neill wanted. Mark McGhee, unhappy with his team's scoring rate, bought him on deadline day.

Wolves, having used 35 players this season, bear an unexpected resemblance to Birmingham when Claridge served under Barry Fry. In those chaotic days, so many players poured over a hill at training camp that he likened the scene to something out of Zulu. At Molineux, there are a staggering 12 strikers alone with senior experience.

They include Steve Bull, the folk hero whose place in the pecking order appears to have been taken by the newcomer. Claridge confessed to feeling slightly guilty, as if he has jumped on someone else's bandwagon.

"I'm Johnny-come-lately," he said. "It's like gatecrashing a party and nicking the best girl, though perhaps it's just as well I've arrived so late in Wolves' Cup run. With my record in this competition, we'd probably have been out by now if I'd been here earlier."

Claridge, who has already impressed as Wolves' finest back-to-goal forward since Andy Mutch, is similarly self-mocking about his recent brushes with Arsenal. "At Leicester we were 2-0 down when I was taken off and we drew 3-3," he recalled. "Then at Highbury we were two down, I came off and we got one back. Not great omens.

"They're probably the most difficult opponents you could draw. Ask any striker which defence he'd rather not face and it would probably be Arsenal. I was talking to someone who knows Tony Adams very well and he said that Tony reckons he's playing better than ever... not what you want to hear!

"Their back four are all on each other's wavelength, but it's not just them. The two lads in midfield who sit just in front of the defence, (Patrick) Vieira and (Emannuel) Petit, do a very important job."

While Arsene Wenger's polyglot band have been busy eroding Manchester United's lead in the Premiership, Wolves' play-off hopes hang by a thread. It looks like a mismatch. Claridge, however, has been around too long to let professional respect spill over into inhibiting fear.

"They wouldn't have been very impressed at all by us in the two matches I've played. But nothing that's gone on before has any bearing whatsoever on an occasion like this. It's a cliche, I know, but anything can happen in the Cup. If Wolves played them 10 times, Arsenal would probably win nine. But we have to believe that Sunday could be the one they don't win."

It has been "a strange old year," said Claridge, not to mention a strange old month. Given the way things tend to happen when he is around, it could get far stranger yet.