Still crazy after all these years

Coca-Cola Cup: A journeyman striker forever on the fringe is hoping to take his Blues brothers all the way to Wembley; Ian Ridley meets the player who has gone from one extreme to the next
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THE snow had driven City indoors to train, into the gym at Birmingham University. Do you know, I ask Steve Claridge, that with 14,000 people this is the largest campus in Britain? "Only a few more than us, then," he replies, his crop-topped face creasing with a smile.

Claridge says he has played with 27 different striking partners for Birmingham City since signing two years ago. He himself has been dropped "once or twice" when Barry Fry thought he looked tired - more tired than usual that is - but has generally been a rare constant in the manager's regime of ship 'em in and see if they shape up: 42 professionals at the last count with the loan signings last week of Vinny Samways and John Sheridan.

"Do you know," Claridge asks me, "Barry took us for pre- season training on Dunstable Downs and it was like a scene out of Zulu. There were thousands of us running over this hill. Some of them have never been seen again. I think they kept running and never came back."

Claridge has come back time and again with his sleeves-rolled-up, socks- rolled-down approach, which has endeared him to a succession of managers and latterly the City support. Last season, when he became the first Blues striker since Trevor Francis in 1977-78 to score 20 league goals in a season, they voted him player of the year.

Today, two months short of his 30th birthday, he faces the biggest game of his career so far, against Leeds United in the first leg of the Coca- Cola Cup semi-final at St Andrews. The journeyman professional always on the fringe of the highest level is two steps away from a fittingly colourful Wembley final that would be the fruition of what he describes as a "career of extremes". You suggest to him that Birmingham might be the New Crazy Gang. "I suppose it is. I'm in the right place then, aren't I?"

It is worth starting at the beginning, and here an interest should be declared. A South Coast boy from Portsmouth, Claridge was in Bournemouth's reserves as a 21-year-old when he went on loan to Weymouth, then in what is now called the GM Vauxhall Conference. Having been born there, I was supporter and sufferer of the club, chairman of the London Supporters' Club. In the bar at Wycombe Wanderers' old Loakes Park ground one day, I advised him to sign for the pounds 10,000 being offered,told him that he would score 25 goals a season and get noticed more. He did and he did.

A contractual oversight by Weymouth allowed him to go to Crystal Palace for free. He bought a house in Wimbledon but never moved in. After six weeks, his way barred by Ian Wright and Mark Bright, he went to Aldershot, a club soon to go out of business.

"What a place," he recalls. "We had one midfield player who was registered disabled after a car crash, a professional footballer with a handicapped sticker on his car. We refused to train on our training pitch because it was covered in dog shit. We had to train on the club car park, which was always half-flooded. I remember getting a turkey and a bottle of Mateus Rose for Christmas. I took them home to my mum and when we opened it the turkey was rotten. Then we didn't get paid for nine weeks."

Claridge's transfer to Cambridge United for pounds 75,000 kept Aldershot going for two more months but he had found another turkey. "Awful. Absolutely awful. The worst two and a half years of my career." His problem was John Beck, a manager whose boot camp methods became legendary in the late Eighties.

"Just after I signed, I was picked for the team and everyone had to go through this pre-game cold shower routine, with buckets of ice-cold water thrown at you. I refused and he took me out of the team an hour before kick-off. I told him I had a dodgy heart. He told me to prove it, so I went down the doctor's on the Monday and got a sick note. I didn't have to do it after that. Mind you, I was the one throwing the buckets."

Claridge hated the long-ball methods and was made to pay. "I had to train seven days a week, just me and a youth team kiddie on Sunday mornings. I think one year I was sub 36 times. I was thinking of bringing out a fitness video of me exercising at all these grounds. I have warmed up at every ground in the country.

"In training, we would have 90-minute matches of one-touch. Can you imagine that? If you were a striker, you couldn't pass the ball back. You had to hit it for the corners out of play. It was so sad because we had such a good team, good shape, good balance, really good players like Liam Daish, Lee Philpott and Richard Wilkins. The best team I ever played for, but we were winning and getting booed off the pitch because we were crap.

"I wanted to pack up and I nearly did. We played at Arsenal in an FA Cup quarter-final and I wasn't even sub. I just walked to Seven Sisters tube and went home to Portsmouth."

Two weeks later, he was back at Cambridge but David Pleat soon rescued him for Luton. A relief? "Not really. They played passing football, too much really, but I went from a club where people would run through a brick wall to win for pounds 200 a week to one that was too used to losing. I didn't play well there. I let myself and everyone else down."

After two months, he was tempted back to Cambridge by Gary Johnson, who had succeeded Beck: "It was better this time and got me the move to Birmingham." Fry's pounds 350,000 offer was accepted and Claridge learned another lesson. "I bought another house locally when I joined Luton. Two houses and a total of three and a half months with the clubs. So I decided not to tempt fate and buy one in Birmingham."

How has it been there? "Good. We play a mix of passing and long ball now we've got Kevin Francis up front and it suits me. A long ball has still got to be quality, though. Basically, Barry likes anything as long as we score goals.

"He's as straight as a manager can be with players and usually they're not. He takes two or three months to get used to because he's such a big character. You can come in after a game and Baz won't say a word to you, then the next day you read the papers and he's slaughtered you. He said to me once at half-time, 'Are you drunk, Claggy? Look, he's drunk'. Then again, a few weeks ago he told me that I was worth pounds 4m as the best holder-up of a ball in the country. It can undermine you when there's all this talk of players coming in all the time, but only the strong survive at Birmingham City."

And against them. There was the fracas in Ancona in the Anglo-Italian Cup, still the subject of legal proceedings. "I had flu and wasn't playing but I saw it going off up in the stand and heard some trouble in the tunnel. It was nearly all over when I got there. Their coach was having a go all day, coming on the pitch and everything. They were elbowing and spitting. Just a different culture." We are now at his Luton house and as if to emphasise the difference, he spurns his girlfriend's pasta dish and asks if I mind taking him out for fish and chips.

"It's been a good career, great memories, lots of laughs," he says in the car. There is the serious side, though. "I like to think there's more to my game than just being a trier. I think I hold the ball up well, link well. I may not be a great box player but I think I'm a creator who gets his fair share of goals.

"The only regret is that I haven't played in the Premiership, though I might still get there with Birmingham. And they will get there. The fans deserve it, they have waited so long. You have to give David Sullivan, Karren Brady and the Gold brothers credit. They've turned it round, rebuilt a club that was going nowhere."

Apart from the Wembley appearance, he hopes for one more good contract from them. And then? "I wouldn't mind going back to Weymouth to manage them," he says, perhaps recalling that it has some good fish and chip shops. I tell him that when I win the lottery and buy the club, he's got the job. One last crease 'neath the crop tells you that there's still plenty of smiles on the clock.