Football: Importance of being under-rated

Ian Ridley speaks to the shirt-out, socks-down footballer with a point to prove
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IF Alan Shearer is the Mary Poppins of football, then Steve Claridge is Bert the chimney sweep, the down-to-earth, heart-of-gold figure, a smile never far away. It is a comparison that sums up the appeal of today's FA Cup semi-finals between the leading characters of the English game and the bit-part players seeking to steal the picture.

Except that Claridge has already had his final-reel moments, and at Wembley too; the goal for Leicester City against Crystal Palace that took them into the Premiership, then another at Hillsborough to win them the Coca- Cola Cup. And except that the shirt-out, socks-down scruff is not quite what he seems.

"I think he enjoys that sort of image," said Mark McGhee, the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager who acquired Claridge for pounds 400,000 10 days ago and is ready to play him today against Arsenal. "But when he came to see me to sign, he had his suit on and was as smart as any player I've met. I think he looks the way he does on the pitch to lull defenders into a false sense of security."

There is no doubt that Claridge has been under-rated down the years, by the opposition if not a succession of managers - Wolves are his 10th club and his 13th transfer. "I like to think I have skill," he said. "But if you work hard people can overlook the skill side of your game. I don't think you do what I have in the game without something about you."

Not that the image of a chaotic character is without foundation. We met after Wolves' match at Queen's Park Rangers in midweek at an Indian restaurant in North Wembley - "I hope this isn't the closest I get this season," he said - where he remembered that he had left his sizeable severance cheque from Leicester City in the west London hotel where the team had spent the afternoon. It meant a midnight dash back.

"I don't think Wolves fans are exactly excited by my signing," he said. "Probably because I'm 32 next week, and I've got a reputation as more of a workmanlike player. But I've had to prove myself time and time again and I'll do it one more time."

He received what he described as a "strange reception" when he made his debut a week ago against Portsmouth, his home-town club whom he thought he would be joining. "They weren't on my back but possibly people were a bit peeved that I had taken Steve Bull's shirt, or maybe it was that I have played for Birmingham.

"I mean, after John Richards and Bully, that No 9 is the shirt of legends, isn't it?" he added, a little embarrassed that he may get a semi-final place ahead of Bull - "If I play, it'll be a bit like gatecrashing the party and getting the best girl." Claridge gets the chance because he was not Cup-tied by Leicester. He was warming up as a substitute in the third round against Northampton but was not used. "I was annoyed at the time because I lost out on the win bonus. It's worked out well, though."

Claridge is a different player from the swashbuckling Bull, who likes the ball over the top to run on to. "I think Mark McGhee has bought me for different things," said Claridge, who does a lot of his work with his back to goal. "He said they had become a little predictable and he wanted a player who could hold the ball up and bring people into play." As McGhee said: "We needed someone who could give us time to play. He's got a great touch."

Claridge also has an interesting logic to any barracking he might receive. "They have a real feel for the game in Wolverhampton. It's a proper football town," he said. "You don't mind if people have a go if you are not doing it because it means a lot to them. You've got to consider yourself fortunate to play in front of people like that."

Today he goes up against the Premiership's best defence; eight clean sheets in a row. "I never got any change out of them at Leicester," he admitted. "That back four is so well- organised and they have Vieira and Petit sitting in front of them. You look at all the best teams and they have that, a Batty, a Keane or an Ince."

He has reasons for wanting to play against Arsenal; a seven-year itch. In 1991, the year the Gunners went on to play the semi- final against Tottenham at Wembley, Claridge was omitted from the Cambridge United side who played them at Highbury in a quarter-final. On hearing that news from the man with whom he once had a punch-up in the dressing room, the then Cambridge manager John Beck, the self-confessed gambling addict promptly walked out of the dressing room and blew all the cash he had on him in an Islington bookmakers. "A bad day," he recalled. "I don't want another one like it."

Long odds today, you suggest, and he bristles. "If we were playing this over 10 games you'd say, yes, we probably haven't got a prayer but this is a one-off game. We've got a chance. We won't let anyone down."

And another last-minute winner? "Not even I'm that lucky," said Claridge, who concedes that the gambling problem still besets him. "In fact the way my luck is, if I bet against me I'll probably go and do it. I would settle for setting up the winning goal for someone else, let them have some of the limelight."

Once today is over, it will be back to what is looking an increasingly fanciful attempt to make the play-offs, and Claridge does grant you that the odds against reaching those are long. "I've had stick for saying that but I'm not writing off our chances. It's just that when we came from behind at Leicester we had rivals for the play-offs to play in what were six-pointers. Wolves don't have that.

"But even if we don't make it, it looks to me that Mark McGhee has assembled a squad which should challenge for automatic promotion next season. Everybody says that Wolves are under-achievers. As a player, it's a club you want to be at when they do achieve something."

Now how did that song go, the one Dick Van Dyke sang in contorted Cockney about chimney sweeps being lucky? Could "Chim-chiminey, chim-chiminey, chim-chim-cheroo" become the Wolves' Wembley anthem?