Steve Claridge: 'This is the best thing that could have happened to Rooney'

Still playing at 40, but no longer betting, the veteran says gambling furore could save the England striker. Nick Townsend talks to him
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The Independent Online

What was the title of that Paul Young song? Ah, yes: "Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home." It comes to mind when you meet Steve Claridge. Except in the itinerant striker's case, wherever he lays out his boots in a new dressing room, that's his home.

He has had more clubs than, well, even Tommy Docherty. So far, his career has passed through 18 staging posts. Recently he was introduced as an expert analyst for a particular match on Radio Five Live as "Steve Claridge, currently of Bradford City". He promptly corrected the anchor-man. "I'm with Walsall," he said. "Bradford was last week."

Claridge has just turned 40, an anniversary he shares, within a few days, with West Ham's Teddy Sheringham. Neither player would claim to be fleet-footed, but each brings a cerebral approach to their forward role. Perhaps that explains their enduring careers as they enter the roaring forties. Both have much to bellow about. In Claridge's case, a total of 996 games played, he says, after yesterday's fixture against Port Vale; an average of one goal every three games; and just one dismissal.

The pride in that longevity, that goalscoring record and the self-discipline is evident in a man who, it is easy to forget, was signed by Leicester City from Birmingham 10 years ago for a then considerable £1.2 million. His goal in the Foxes' 1996 play-off final win which secured them a Premiership place remains his most treasured moment.

Long service, he maintains, "is the way that you judge people, and not too many forwards achieve what I have, because generally we are first in and first out. Everyone loves you or hates you. If a team are not doing well, invariably they will change the forwards. It is the forwards that make the difference. So, it's been and up-and-down sort of career." He can say that again, particularly during his three ascents into player-management.

For the moment, he is a player, without the weighty appendage of managerial responsibility. Seniority grants him no favours under Walsall's manager, Kevan Broadhurst, for whom he had played three games when we spoke before training on Friday.

"I'm at a lower level than Teddy, and I'm expected to play a lot more of each game," Claridge says with just a hint of mischief. "Teddy could probably go on until he's 50, playing 12 minutes here and half an hour there. By tomorrow night, I'll have played Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Monday." He will have done so while also committing himself to work as a pundit, blessed with rare candour, for BSkyB and Radio Five Live.

A man of many opinions, Claridge believes that Sheringham could still perform a valuable role for Sven Goran Eriksson and England in Germany, as the understudy to Wayne Rooney. "Wayne's almost playing in the Sheringham role, though he does play higher up the field," he says. "There's an alternative in Peter Crouch, of course. Instead of intricate play, you just bang the ball up to him. I have no problems with that. But an alternative may be for Teddy to be that link man."

But would Sheringham retain the ability to withstand the rigours of international football? Doubtful, although certainly Claridge provides convincing evidence that age should not necessarily weary a fully-fit professional. "It's been such a stop-start period for me," he says "When you don't play for a time, you do lose your fitness; you lose your sharpness.

"The first two games I played for Walsall I could barely walk afterwards. But your body gradually becomes used to it. My third game, I felt fantastic. The best I've played, and no aches, pains, nothing.

No goals yet, either, as some cynics have pointed out, considering that Broadhurst had brought Claridge in as a potential saviour from relegation to League Two.

"It's only one reason why I'm here," he says. "It's not always about scoring goals; the important thing is winning games. Chris Sutton hasn't scored a goal yet at Birmingham, has he? He's been there 10 games, but Steve Bruce is happy with him."

Claridge believes that he has to prove himself to only one man. Himself. "That's the most important person to satisfy, especially if you set high standards, which I do. There aren't too many places I've been where I feel that I haven't earned my money."

Speaking of which, the Portsmouth-born player has been widely consulted this week about Wayne Rooney's reported propensity for gambling away £700,000, a fair wedge of even the England man's earnings. Claridge first admitted in a best-selling book, Tales from the Boot Camps, that he had a serious gambling addiction. He revealed that it had cost him £300,000 over 10 years. At one point, he confesses, he was so desperate that he considered robbing a supermarket.

"Rooney's got an awful lot of money and he can do it [have a bet] as a bit of fun," says Claridge. "This is the best thing that could happen to him, all this furore. It puts it to bed. He's stopped. He's had a lucky escape. An addict is someone who knows what they're doing is wrong, who's spending more than he earns, and doesn't even like what he's doing, but he still does it.

"I'm not even really sure what kind of gambler Rooney is. From what you hear, he doesn't come across as one. He didn't even know what he owed, did he? He's just a young lad who's been thrust into a situation. I'm not sure how any of us would handle it."

However, he adds: "Certainly from what I've seen, gambling is not as prevalent in football as people are trying to make out. I've been in the game 22 years, and I can count on one hand how many people have had a real problem with betting. A lot of the boys are quite frugal with their money. They tend to be careful, because this is a business where you don't quite know what's going to happen."

In his own case, Claridge took stock before it destroyed him, professionally if not literally. "I reached a stage of just getting fed up with it," he recalls. "I got sick of doing it, sick of losing. I think it just dawns on you in the end that the actual lows are more prevalent than the highs; the lows are lower than the highs take you high; when it gets to the point where other things come secondary, and you know they shouldn't.

"I thought, 'Hold on a minute. I don't even like what I'm doing. I don't like myself for doing it'. It's not about going here or there for help; you've got to want to stop first."

These days, he has his priorities right: continuing his playing career, before endeavouring to return to football management. When he does, Claridge will be not just older but considerably wiser.

First off, there was Portsmouth. That lasted four months. "I had no problems with [the owner] Milan Mandaric. For me, it was a bit early, because I still wanted to play. If the situation had been different, and he had just said, 'You are going to be caretaker manager for a couple of months until we get somebody else in, just stabilise the ship', that would have been fine."

Then Weymouth (that lasted over a year, in 2004-05). "The scenario didn't do me any favours football-wise, because I dropped out of the old First Division to go there. I had a lot of time for Ian [Ridley, then the club chairman and formerly the football correspondent of this newspaper]. We really thought we could get into the League. But a man with a couple of bob came in and took over from Ian. As soon as Ian went, that was me finished."

And then what he describes as "the disgrace" at Millwall (32 days, at the start of this season). The former Millwall player was appointed by Jeff Burnige, who had replaced Theo Paphitis as chairman, although the latter still had financial control of the club.

Burnige soon resigned, and out went Claridge, to be replaced by Colin Lee, the man who had been brought in as his assistant. "It was a farce from start to finish," says Claridge. "I was caught in the middle of boardroom politics. It was all so ridiculous. To have been 22 years in the business, and to get treated like that... people talk about loyalty, but there's no such thing."

However, he believes such experiences have strengthened his character. "I think that every situation you come out of, you can take positives from," he says. "I would like to continue playing as long as I can. I still enjoy the fitness and the exercise, and I work hard. If it was 90 minutes on a Saturday, I don't think any of us would give up. But it's the loneliness and the boredom that gets to you. It's all the peripheral stuff: the driving, and hotels. The novelty of that's worn off."

He adds: "By the time I finish playing, I should have my coaching badges, and then hopefully I will get the possibility to return to management. But I would like to do it under the right circumstances at the right club."

That may take a while. Something tells you that those boots are made to do a fair deal of goalscoring yet.

LIFE & TIMES

BORN: 10 April 1966, Portsmouth.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 11in, 11st 8lb.

POSITION: Forward.

CAREER: Fareham Town 1983-84, Bournemouth '84-85, Weymouth '85-88, Crystal Palace '88, Aldershot '88-90, Cambridge '90-92, Luton '92, Cambridge '92-94, Birmingham '94-96, Leicester '96-98, Wolves '98, Portsmouth '98-2001, Millwall '01-03, Weymouth '03-04, Brighton '04, Brentford '04-05, Wycombe, Millwall, Gillingham, Bradford '05, on loan at Walsall.

HIGHLIGHTS: Scored winner for Leicester in the 1996 First Division play-off final and '97 League Cup final; starred in Football Stories as Weymouth's player-manager.

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