Football: Chelsea's club captain talks to Glenn Moore about a decade of change at the Bridge

'If you play with so many good players, you either become intimidated or you try to be as good. I'm 33 and still improving'
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Football lore has it that this weekend, FA Cup semi-final time, is the game's heartbreak ridge. Get over it and at least you get to play at Wembley; lose and nobody cheers, nobody remembers your name.

An expert disagrees.

When it comes to losing semi-finals, few footballers speak with greater authority than Steve Clarke, the Chelsea defender. Against Wimbledon at Highbury tomorrow Clarke will be playing in his 10th semi-final. So far he has won one. He has lost in the FA Cup, the Scottish Cup, the League Cup both sides of the border, and in Europe.

But all those bitter memories - and some of St Mirren's defeats against the Old Firm were controversial - pale beside the recollection of the one final he got to. It was 1994 and Chelsea lost 4-0 to Manchester United, the biggest FA Cup final defeat, discounting replays, since 1903.

"That was the worst," Clarke said over lunch after training earlier this week. "We felt that it was not a fair reflection of the game. We had done as well as them for an hour, it just ran away from us in the last half- hour. It even rained, on Cup final day. That summed up our mood."

The game was marked by two penalties against Chelsea in seven minutes, the second, which put United two up, was not one of David Elleray's better decisions. "That was the turning point of the game," Clarke added. "At half-time we had a chance of winning. That was a penalty which went against us."

This contrasts with Chelsea's last-minute penalty in this year's fifth- round replay against Leicester. "I was right in line and when it happened I thought it was a penalty - as you do. The first time I saw it on the television I thought perhaps not. Sometimes they go for you, sometimes against."

Chelsea have also beaten West Bromwich, Liverpool and Portsmouth. Clarke's words in the programme before the third-round tie with Albion have looked increasingly prophetic: "It seems if we get through the third round we normally have a good Cup run," he wrote.

Now Wimbledon await. "They have had a great season and turned us over big time at Stamford Bridge [4-2]. We know what to expect. We have to fight to the best of our ability and if we can do, we are good enough to go through.

"Efan Ekoku and Marcus Gayle have been outstanding. I don't think there has been a better partnership in the Premiership. They are both big, strong and quick. They are a handful to play against and get their share of goals. You can't ask any more of your front men."

Both sides have lost form recently, with Chelsea's slump prompting Clarke to tell his team-mates a few home truths after the midweek defeat at Coventry. Clarke, the club captain, was frustrated at the recent under-achievement of a potentially fine side.

"The team is now better equipped than in 1994. We had good players then but we have improved the quality of the team, we have good international experience. It is the best team I have played in at Chelsea."

There have been a few to choose from since Clarke signed from St Mirren in 1986-1987 (typically the Paisley club won the Scottish Cup later that season). Not only is he the club's longest-serving player - none of the squad he began with are even in the Premiership.

"There have been six managers and about 600 players. There is always a high turnover at a football club though not normally so many managers," Clarke said.

"There was a time when I thought about moving on. It was under Bobby Campbell and I was not in the side. The club didn't let me go and I'm still here. I never really wanted to leave. I always enjoyed it here and now I'm in a team which makes the struggles of the early years worthwhile. It is a reward for perseverance.

"The turnaround in the last four years has been incredible. When Glenn Hoddle came the club seemed to move on to a different level. Although I have not actually moved it feels as though I have joined another club.

"The ground will be great when it is finished. I remember when the chairman first spoke about the plans and put the stadium model in reception. I thought, 'I won't see that in my time here', but I'm getting there. I've another two years on my contract so there's every chance I'll play at the Bridge when it's completed."

Changes off the pitch have been matched on it. Clarke has survived and prospered through Chelsea's adoption of a Continental style of play and he has had an excellent season on the left of Chelsea's back three.

"I'm enjoying it. The change started under Glenn, he wanted us to start to get the ball down and knock it about. It progressed under Ruud Gullit. The Continental players won't tolerate it if you give the ball away. It makes you concentrate. If you play with good players you either become intimidated or say 'I want to be as good, I want to learn'. I chose the latter. I am 33 and still improving."

Clarke was a conventional right-back when Hoddle came. "He changed it to the wing-back system with me on the right and I was not as comfortable. I felt I had more to offer as a defender than an attacker. Plus I'm getting on - once you get the wrong side of 30 you don't want to be doing 80-yard runs all the time and there is a lot of physical effort involved.

"Then Glenn signed Dan Petrescu and a lot of people thought 'that's Clarky out'. Glenn pulled me aside and said, 'this is not the end of your career, I want you to play on the right-hand side of a back three'. But I was injured at the time and Michael Duberry came in and did great. Suddenly I was thinking, 'I'm not going to get in there either'.

"Then Andy Myers got injured on the left, I got the chance and took it. Being right-footed makes it easier to cover the centre but I did go out against the kicking board and ping away with the left foot for a while just to get it swinging right."

"I thought his strength was his defending," Hoddle recalled this week. "I also wanted to have full-backs in those positions so they would be comfortable if they were pulled wide. He has done very well. He was receptive to new ideas."

If Clarke's development is a good argument for the introduction of foreign players, so was the scene at Chelsea's Heathrow training ground. After Gullit ended the official session, Gianluca Vialli went off to do some sprint training with Ade Mafe (the former British athlete who is now Chelsea's fitness coach), Dan Petrescu did some dribbling and Gianfranco Zola practised volleying with Frode Grodas. Clarke led a few players on a jog round the perimeter.

"You see these players come over here and they earn a lot of money and are top quality players, but they don't just train and go home. They are prepared to stay, do a little bit extra and work on something in their game. The Italians believe if you are not training you lose your conditioning. We tend to play so many matches we just have a rest then get ready for the next one. They are still prepared to do the conditioning work. That was an eye-opener.

"When I started playing, the manager just said 'that's it, get changed and go home'. It wasn't open for debate. This morning Ruud said you're finished and it was 30 to 40 minutes before a lot of the players came in. Of course, it was a nice day, but if it's raining you'll still find 12 to 15 people doing their exercises in the gym."

Clarke's form might prompt thoughts of a Scotland recall but, though he has been watched this season by Craig Brown, he has given up hopes of adding to his six caps. The last, against the Netherlands, in 1993, also marked the end of Gullit's international career. "He chose to retire, I was retired," Clarke said. "I don't think there is any chance of a recall. You never say never but there is no reason for him to change it. They have lost two goals in 15 internationals. I'm not bitter about it. It just happens. The problem is scoring goals not conceding them and he won't be calling me up for my goalscoring."

Indeed not. Clarke, having been narrowly robbed of a goal against Portsmouth by Dennis Wise, last scored against Queen's Park Rangers in April 1992. "For a long time I didn't go up for corners so I was not likely to score. This year I have, and I've had four or five good attempts. With a little bit of luck they could have been a goal. I haven't given up. I might not get another international cap but I'm pretty sure I'll get another goal."