A proven player who only proved that the manager had lost the plot
#2: STEVE CLARIDGE
Signed: March 1998 from Leicester, £350,000
Left: August 1998 to Portsmouth, £250,000
He was: That amazing food blender you saw at your mate’s house, but you can’t get it to work at all for love nor money
The 1997/8 season was a curious one for Wolves. Having finished in 3rd place in Division One (as was) the previous season and running with a squad of approximately the same quality for the next campaign, expectations were once again focused on promotion. In typical Mark McGhee at Wolves fashion, we rarely looked convincing at any stage – we only managed a run of more than two consecutive league wins once in the entire season – but through having a selection of well-paid players with vastly more natural ability than most other clubs in the division, we managed to pick up enough points as we went through the first half of the season to remain very much in the picture for a top six finish. The league form went through a slump in February and March with a run of two wins in nine games leaving us with ground to make up on the teams now occupying the playoff places, but at the same time we managed to dispatch Premier League opposition in the form of Wimbledon and the then formidable Leeds United – as well as superior second tier opposition in Charlton – to take us to an FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal at Villa Park. So as the season entered its dénouement, McGhee had the chance to earn favour with an increasingly dissatisfied board by pushing us to a strong finish that would give us the chance of a double Wembley trip in May. He decided that late in the day – these being the times before the transfer window, a modern footballing invention that seems about as intuitive as a laptop on wheels – the squad needed additional strengthening and the purse strings were loosened for him in late March to bring in reinforcements; one of the areas that he decided needed fortifying being up front.
In McGhee’s very, very slight defence – and I don’t like defending his time at Wolves any more than I enjoy listening to Starsailor albums – you could at least vaguely understand why he might have decided that another striker was required, given there were short and long term concerns to differing degrees about all of the forwards we owned at the time. Steve Bull was turning 33 by this point, had missed over three months with a knee injury through the winter and was still working his way back to full sharpness. Robbie Keane was still only 17, a mere waif of a lad who wasn’t really playing as an out and out striker on that regular a basis by this stage (although I still maintain he’s the best player of that age that I’ve ever seen at this level, for us or any club). McGhee’s famously charming management skills had led him to fall out with Don Goodman once already and try to sell him to Ipswich in the autumn only for the player to turn the move down, and though an uneasy truce had been made, he was out of contract in the summer and definitely leaving the club. Having vaguely made up with one striker, McGhee then proceeded to fall out with Dougie Freedman and largely confined him to bench duties at best in the final months of the season. Mixu Paatelainen and his mighty tally of 0 league goals in 22 appearances was simply not a proper option if we were to make up the necessary ground, although it begs the question why McGhee paid actual money for him in the first place. McGhee’s initial target was to bring in David Connolly from Feyenoord, but despite it looking likely at one stage that we would be able to get the deal down, it fell through mere days before the transfer deadline in late March. Steve Claridge was his second choice and at very least you could say that he was proven at this level with fine spells at Cambridge and Birmingham, and had helped Leicester to promotion through the playoffs after joining them at a similar stage of the 1995/6 season. He also had a good recent record in big games, scoring the winning goal in both the 1996 Playoff final and the 1997 League Cup final. But that’s enough of being kind to Mark McGhee, it makes me feel more uneasy than the thought of being trapped in Donald Trump and Nigel Farage’s Great Gold Elevator of Rampant Bigotry.
However McGhee might have sought to justify signing Claridge (or indeed any other forward), the fact remains that we had five senior strikers all fit and available at the time, as well as an untried Jason Roberts who we had signed earlier in the season from Hayes and Irish youngsters Dominic Foley and Glen Crowe who had both already played and scored for the first team in previous seasons. Quite simply we had far more pressing needs elsewhere in the squad, such as finding a couple of central midfielders who could pick a pass and offer us more than a yawning void of mundanity in the middle of the park (sound familiar? Quite a lot of the time watching Wolves for a serious length of time is like a low quality soap opera, the same storylines crop up frequently even if the actors are different). Claridge was about to hit 32 when we signed him so added to fellow over 30s Bull, Goodman and Paatelainen, our strikeforce was now heavily and bizarrely skewed toward the wrong end of the age scale, with all of them on the balance of probability likely to decline sharply in the relatively near future. It should also have been clear from discussions with Claridge himself – he certainly made no secret of it in the public domain at the time – that his preference on leaving Leicester would be to join Portsmouth. Pompey were his hometown club and a fortnight before joining us, he had completed a two month loan spell with them where his immense popularity with their fans and his affinity towards them was obvious. Right from the outset he appeared to be a superfluous signing who didn’t even really want to be here.
In one of those strange footballing coincidences which Alanis Morissette wannabes often confuse for irony (a big hello here to Alan Parry), Claridge made his Wolves debut at home to Portsmouth in a televised fixture. Once again, the response from the travelling fans left no-one in any doubt how highly they regarded him, while on the pitch he had a reasonably quiet if competent enough game in what was a fairly routine 2-0 Wolves victory. Beyond that, his performances were the epitome of going through the motions. Claridge had always been a player characterised by his extreme levels of workrate and extracting the absolute maximum from his ability, but he simply didn’t look interested in a gold shirt. Unforgivably, despite him showing little to justify it in his first two games for the club, McGhee kept Claridge in the starting line-up for that semi-final against Arsenal. This when he’d done nothing at all to contribute to the cup run himself, having not been at the club for any of the previous games. This despite Steve Bull and Robbie Keane being available and parked on the bench. Dougie Freedman didn’t even get that far as he was left to contemplate the quality of Villa Park’s complimentary seating. It was, for many, a betrayal of our record scorer and our hottest prospect in decades, our biggest cup game in nearly 20 years and neither were selected, losing out to a bloke who’d only just come through the door. If as a manager you want to make that kind of call, you’d better hope for your own sake that it comes off. It didn’t. We lost 1-0 and barely laid a glove on the Gunners. Claridge, for his own part, wasted easily our best chance of getting back into the game as he allowed his touch to run away from him when presented with a rare loose ball inside the Arsenal penalty box. He made three further appearances in the league as that element of our season also unravelled towards the end, with us eventually finishing 9th and nine points shy of the playoff spots, having only picked up one win in our final eight fixtures. If he had more than one shot across those three games then I’d be very surprised.
Come the summer, with our negotiations for Connolly finally coming to fruition, he arriving on a season-long loan and Portsmouth’s long standing interest in Claridge continuing, his future was clearly destined to be away from Molineux where it’s fair to say by this stage, fan sentiment towards both him and McGhee was not favourable. After some wrangling over monies owed – provoking a bit of sporadic public back and forth between player and manager, which is always a fantastic look – Claridge left for Fratton Park on 10 August 1998 for a fee of around £250,000. While the trope of former players coming back to haunt a club is one that’s perpetually overplayed in fan circles, inherent overt fatalism being a key part of many supporters’ make up, in Claridge’s case it turned out to be true. Just a couple of months after leaving us, he dived to win a controversial (well actually there is no controversy, he dived) penalty from which Pompey scored the only goal in their 1-0 win over us at Fratton Park. He scored a hat trick in 31 minutes against us on the south coast in August 2000, although in a way this actually did us a small favour as it mercifully ended the brief Wolves career of Manuel Thétis in the process. Most damagingly of all, in April 2002 and by now playing for Millwall, he won and converted a penalty (less dubious this time) in our game at The Den, a 1-0 defeat coming as we stuttered in the final stages of the season having long since looked destined for promotion, and actually surrendered second place to West Brom that weekend, never recovering it. It’s almost as if he had a point to prove or something. As an aside, that Mark McGhee was also Millwall’s manager at the time of that 2002 encounter proves that grudges in football are more often than not forgotten as soon as another contract is pushed across the table.
Claridge’s career finally started to wind down during the 2002/3 season as 12 goals by the end of January were followed by no further strikes in his final 16 games for Millwall and he left them at the end of the season to join Weymouth as player/manager for the following season (this not being Claridge’s first managerial job – he had also had an unsuccessful 25 game spell as player/manager of Portsmouth during the 2000/1 season before being demoted back to playing only duties). Boardroom upheaval at Weymouth led him to leave the club after one season and he spent 2004/5 with short, uneventful spells at Brighton, Brentford and Wycombe. He returned to Millwall in the summer of 2005 as manager but was bizarrely sacked before taking charge of a competitive game as the board felt they “had a strong chance of being relegated under Steve”. You’d think they might have considered that before appointing him, and they went down in any event anyway. He played one game for Gillingham in August 2005 before swiftly joining Bradford on a contract to the end of the season, during which he was subsequently loaned to Walsall for the final two months of the 2005/6 season. He rounded off his professional career with one game for Bournemouth on 9 December 2006 then drifted into sporadic short spells in non-league before finally calling it a day at the end of the 2011/12 season after helping Gosport Borough to promotion to the Southern League Premier Division. In addition, Claridge spent time working as an idiosyncratic pundit on the BBC’s Football League Show, presented in a vaguely sinister bunker environment where it seemed he and Leroy Rosenior had been walled up against their will to dispense their wisdom on Brian Howard’s midfield goalscoring and Rickie Lambert’s free kicks. No wonder he always seemed slightly on edge. Since 2015 he has been manager of Southern League Division One (Tier 8) outfit Salisbury and presumably gets tempted to pick himself now and then in an Owen Coyle style.
There were various points in the 1990s where Steve Claridge would have been an excellent signing for Wolves. 1998 was not it; he wanted something else from his career and we should have been focusing our resources elsewhere. He never looked a comfortable fit and he will always be primarily remembered for that inclusion in the team against Arsenal. His signing was endemic of the chaos at that point of the Mark McGhee era; the squad being horribly unbalanced, he, Robbie Slater, Stephen Wright and Neil Emblen all bolted on to an already over large pool of players in the same week right at the back end of a season, and tactics and selections changed on a whim from week to week. That we were the only club at which he failed between 1994 and 2003 speaks volumes about what an ill-starred move on every level it was.