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Leicester striker Steve Claridge is out to make up for lost time in the Coca-Cola Cup final. And lost money, too.

The incredible Claridge openly admits to gambling away more than pounds 400,000 during his crazy career.

And that's just one of the amazing episodes from the back catalogue of a player adopted at six-weeks-old, diagnosed as having a heart problem at 12 and involved in more scrapes than a second-hand stock car.

Claridge, one week short of his 31st birthday, is finally reaping the rewards as a soccer pro. And Wembley will certainly be a far cry from his humble beginnings, when he was booted out of Portsmouth at 17.

"Alan Ball said I wasn't good enough to make the grade and gave me a pounds 500 cheque for the rest of my contract," Claridge recalls.

"I went to the office, cashed the cheque and blew the lot at the bookies that afternoon. Four-and-a-half years work gone like that. Easy come, easy go."

Addicted to gambling since he bet pounds 1 on Virginia Wade to win Wimbledon in 1977, he admits: "I'm in the last chance saloon. I think I've got it under control now but if it ever gets that bad again I'll have to seek counselling."

Despite winning pounds 35,000 with a single bet on Master Oats to win the Gold Cup two years ago, it's the heavy losses which stick in Claridge's mind.

Like the time he lost pounds 3,000 to Birmingham boss Barry Fry and coach Mark Ward on the way to a game. Or the occasions he'd train with pounds 5,000 tucked inside his tracksuit so he could get straight to the bookies when his gambling was at its worst at Cambridge. "One month at Cambridge I was left with pounds 3.19 in my pay packet after all my bills had been deducted," he recalls.

It was at Cambridge that Claridge had a fight with manager John Beck after being substituted for ignoring the club's rigidly-applied long- ball tactics. "He came looking for me at half time and I told him to stick it up his a***," Claridge recalls.

"Beck flew at me, I think he was trying to butt me. But I got my punch in first and knocked him over. I got him in a headlock and started punching him until we were pulled apart.

"After the game he pointed at me and told the rest of the team: 'It's a shame you bastards didn't show the same passion as he did at half-time'."

Claridge hated it at Cambridge, a complete contrast to life at his previous club, Aldershot. "I loved it there, even though we didn't get paid for 15 weeks and were on the verge of going out of business all the time," he says.

"Our midfield playmaker, Giorgio Mazzon, actually had a disabled sticker on his car after breaking his back in a car crash. But he didn't look out of place at Aldershot. There were worse players than him there.

"What a place! We refused to train in in the local park because the pitch was always covered in dog s***. So we trained on the car park, which was always flooded."

Before Aldershot was a spell at Bournemouth, where Harry Redknapp had snapped him up from Sunday League football. Claridge, now at his ninth club, was also part of the Barry Fry circus at Birmingham, where he reckons he played with 27 strike partners in two years.

"Someone said you could write Bazza's knowledge of tactics on a postage stamp. I say you'd need to fold the stamp in half," he laughs. "We went training on Dunstable Downs and there were hundreds of us - first-teamers, reserves, apprentices, school kids, the lot.

"When we came over the hill with the sun behind us it was like a scene from Zulu. Some of them kept running and have never been seen again."

Extracts from Tales from the Boot Camps by Chrysalis Sport, based on Claridge's biography of the same name (Gollancz, pounds 16.99).
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Irwin, Mark
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 3, 1997
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