A career which began in 1983 and would last over 1,000 games seemed to be in an autumnal moment when new City manager Martin O’Neill persuaded the board to spend the bulk of the Club's budget on the forward from Birmingham City.
“Steve Claridge is a top-class player who can prove vital for what we are trying to achieve – promotion.” That’s what O’Neill told the assembled media at Belvoir Drive upon confirmation of the deal, which could climb to £1.3M if an array of clauses were met at Filbert Street.
Those prescient words would ultimately be justified three moments later. Fast forward 13 months, though, and Claridge played a decisive role in securing the Club’s first piece of silverware in 33 years. ‘Socks-down’ Steve tells the story in his own words…
Steve Claridge and Leicester City found goals hard to come by in the early months of 1996.
“You couldn't have got much lower than the first six or seven games we were at the Club. I couldn't understand what was happening.”
Steve Claridge joined a Leicester City side in disarray on 1 March, 1996. The Foxes had won just once in 12 games since Martin O’Neill’s appointment. There was still resentment in the air following the acrimonious departure of Mark McGhee to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Julian Joachim’s departure, to Brian Little’s Aston Villa, also grated among the Club’s fans. The Foxes had plummeted from second to ninth in the First Division table as well.
Steve Corica, too, would swap Filbert Street for Molineux, freeing up further funds for the acquisition of Neil Lennon, from Crewe Alexandra, and the loan signing of Chelsea’s Muzzy Izzet. Few had heard of those two, but at least Claridge arrived with Football League pedigree.
There was a problem, though. Medication prescribed for a heart defect in his childhood was severely damaging his thyroid gland’s ability to distribute energy through his body.
“I was very, very ill when I went to the Football Club,” he remembers. “I’ve always averaged a goal every two and a half games in the 1,000 games I've played. I went nearly 20 games without a goal from Birmingham to Leicester. I was very ill.
“My thyroid gland had packed in and I had no energy. It couldn't have gone any worse in all honesty. After the move to Leicester, over those six or seven games, we were poor.
“I couldn't understand what was happening. I remember running out against Millwall and I actually nearly keeled over. This was running out before the game. I remember playing in the game and my feet and the bottom of my legs were so full of pins and needles.
“The manager went: "Your touch is absolutely dreadful!' I said: 'Gaffer, I can't even feel the ball!' They were that bad, I had no energy at all.”
Few would have guessed what Martin O'Neill would go on to achieve at the Club.
“We couldn't get out at the front of the ground, we had to leave out the back entrance, because there were demonstrations about getting him (Martin O’Neill) out.”
After wearing his shorts the wrong way round on his debut, in a damaging 4-2 reverse at Ipswich Town, Claridge would go another five games without a goal as the Foxes continued to slide out of contention for a play-off berth – the very minimum they hoped to achieve.
A 2-0 loss to Sheffield United at Filbert Street in late March was a tipping point for the Club’s supporters. Mitch Ward’s penalty, the Blades’ second goal of the afternoon, sparked fury in the Double Decker Stand in particular and a crowd gathered outside the gates at full-time.
Leicester’s season was spiralling out of control and the man some fans blamed was O’Neill. The signing of Claridge, meanwhile, was used as an exhibit in the listing of his failures too.
“Well, obviously, Martin had got rid of three or four of the bigger names at the Club and brought in myself, Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon,” Steve recalls.
“It was difficult at the start, as I'm sure everybody knows. There were demonstrations after one of the games, I think it was against Sheffield United.
“We couldn't get out at the front of the ground, we had to leave out the back entrance, because there were demonstrations about getting him (O’Neill) out.”
The 24th full-time manager in the Club’s history decided to speak to the fans directly outside Filbert Street and then on local radio. Claridge, meanwhile, would often apologise for his lack of form, but O’Neill kept the faith. His message to the fans was simple: “Trust me.”
O’Neill had planned to drop Claridge for City’s next game, a trip to Charlton Athletic, but Claridge pleaded for another chance. With medical help, his thyroid was beginning to slowly settle down, and he was desperate to justify his manager’s decision to bring him to Leicester.
Claridge’s recovery would kick-start his team’s renaissance too. A curling effort from the man wearing no.9 after just seven minutes at The Valley sealed a precious three points.
Three days later, on Easter Saturday, Iwan Roberts converted Emile Heskey’s cross to make it a London double for the Foxes at Crystal Palace. Things were looking up and while O’Neill’s men would lose out to West Bromwich Albion next up, it would ultimately be their last defeat of the season.
Their fate hinged on a final day visit to Watford. Leicester started the day in seventh place, after losing their play-off space to Ipswich Town. On the final Sunday of the season, the Foxes had to win and hope that either Stoke, Charlton or Ipswich would fail to win at home.
Graham Taylor’s Hornets, though, also needed the three points to avoid relegation. Red, yellow and black balloons and streams of ticker tape cascaded down from the terraces as the two sides emerged from the Vicarage Road tunnel. An enormous 90 minutes awaited.
A first goal for Izzet, whose header sparked pandemonium in the Rookery Stand, was the difference. Ipswich, on the other hand, had been held to a goalless stalemate by Millwall at Portman Road. At the expense of Watford’s second-tier status, City were in the play-offs.
“Things just suddenly started to click, and we got on a little bit of a run and we nicked a play-off spot right at the end,” Claridge remembered. “We beat Watford to get into the play-offs. We thought we could win it because we were on such a roll.
“We had such a good side. We knew we could win it. There was no arrogance, there was no over-confidence. There was just a realisation that we were the best team going into that.
“We'd won seven out of nine I think, we were on a really good run and I don't think there was anybody that we feared. I think we knew we were the best side and it was up to us to perform at the level that we knew we could and that we'd been doing previously.”
The moment Steve Claridge sent Leicester City back to the Premier League.
“Just talking about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. That flush goes through your body. It's just incredible.”
A campaign which began with Mark McGhee’s Leicester City looking to secure automatic promotion had concluded with Martin O’Neill overseeing a last-gasp dash into the play-offs.
Which was the real Leicester? The side who won one in 13 between December and March, or the one who accrued 19 points from a possible 24 over the final eight weeks of the season?
A fraught play-off semi-final first leg tie followed at Filbert Street against Stoke – a side who did the double over the Foxes in the regular season. It was goalless after 90 minutes.
Claridge himself survived a scare when his back pass played in Simon Sturridge. Mercifully, Kevin Poole was there to make an essential stop to prevent the Potters from going ahead.
At the other end, a point-blank save from Mark Prudhoe denied City’s No.9 too, but the tie would be settled, one way or another, under the lights at Stoke’s Victoria Ground in its penultimate season of existence. Garry Parker, stripped of the captain’s armband earlier that season, would be City’s hero, rattling home a fearsome half-volley. Wembley beckoned.
Leicester’s fourth visit to Wembley in five years would see them tackle Crystal Palace beneath the national stadium’s iconic twin towers on 27 May, 1996.
“I've lost at that stage of a play-off and I've won at that stage,” Steve says. “There are huge ramifications, both from a personal perspective and a broader perspective for any club.
“You have to win the play-offs, that is it. That's the bottom line.
“There was no over-confidence. We were just in a position where we knew if we kept doing what we were doing, we would win. That was a simple fact. The game against Palace, it was the most important game I played. There's no doubt about that.
“People can say we went on and we won the cup a couple of times afterwards, but that didn't, for me, have the importance of being promoted to the Premier League. That just changes the whole perspective. That changed the landscape.
“Certainly, it changes things financially, but people know who you are, and ultimately, you're going into the Premier League knowing that you're good enough to stay in it.
“Undoubtedly, for a player's career, there is no bigger game than that.”
After a rendition of the national anthem and the opening 14 minutes, disaster struck for the Foxes as Andrew Roberts’ low effort squirmed past Poole and into the bottom corner.
Claridge scuffed wide and Poole tipped George Ndah's drive over the bar as time agonisingly ticked away for the Foxes. Then, with just 14 minutes remaining, Izzet was tripped by Marc Edworthy in the penalty area. Parker, Mr. Reliable from 12 yards, stepped up to the spot.
Nigel Martyn’s goal was breached. Leicester were level and they still would be at full-time. There was precious little between the two sides when Heskey was fouled by Kenny Brown in the middle of the pitch with mere seconds of a draining 120-minute contest remaining.
O’Neill turned to his bench and pointed to Zeljko Kalac, City’s 6ft 7in reserve goalkeeper. As the quiffed Australian replaced a confused Poole, he looked back to his manager.
“Don’t worry, I’ll win it for you,” he told the Northern Irishman. As a penalty shootout loomed in the baking May Bank Holiday sunshine in the capital, there was an eerie lull in the stadium.
Parker’s free-kick was punted, hopefully, into the area. One last chance. Julian Watts nodded it back across goal on the edge of the area, hoping someone would be there to receive it.
Claridge stuck out a leg, but the ball made contact with his shin. Time cranked to a halt. It then moved in slow motion as the ball flew through the Wembley air and into the top corner.
As the crowd caught up with events, Claridge was already headed to the corner flag to toast one of the most celebrated goals in Leicester City’s history – and his own, already lengthy, career.
“Just talking about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end,” he says now. “That flush goes through your body. It's just incredible.
“I mean to score a goal at that stage, if you look at the goal and if you look into the crowd, the crowd don't react instantly. Most times, crowds react before something happens. This time, I don't think anyone could believe it.
“Maybe they couldn't believe it because it's me hitting a shot outside the area, that's probably what it was! But there was a delay in the crowd's reaction. It's amazing.
“I'm actually wheeling away before anybody reacts in the crowd. It's just a culmination of a long, hard season and to win it like that and being lucky enough to score the goal that does that, I'm just very, very lucky and very, very honoured.
“I maybe should have done it earlier (reached the Premier League), but you need that bit of luck, you need that break. It was just fantastic to finally achieve that.”
Martin O'Neill proved his detractors wrong and was writing an exciting chapter in the Club's history.
“Martin [O'Neill] was always there when you needed him. He wasn't constant. Some managers are just constant. It's claustrophobic. He wasn't like that at all.”
As planning for the 1996/97 Premier League campaign got underway, Martin O’Neill looked to bolster his squad and equip it with the tools it would need at a higher level. While Jesper Blomqvist turned down the Northern Irishman’s advances, some new faces would arrive.
Muzzy Izzet’s loan deal was made permanent, before American goalkeeper Kasey Keller and defender Spencer Prior signed terms at Filbert Street over the summer months.
Ian Marshall, Matt Elliott, Rob Ullathorne and Steve Guppy later joined them in the East Midlands, but Steve Claridge would remain an integral figure for the unfancied Foxes.
Leicester began the season as hot favourites for relegation. The bookmakers were forced into recalculating their odds as early as September.
The season would end with a ninth-place finish, but that lofty standing on the Club’s top-flight return doesn’t quite tell the whole story. While the threat of relegation was only subdued on the penultimate weekend of the season, City basked in League Cup glory in April 1997.
A cup campaign which started by the seaside in Scarborough and culminated at Hillsborough included the season's Goal of the Season – Claridge’s volley against Manchester United in the fourth round – and a tense away-goals success over Wimbledon in the two-legged semi-finals.
O’Neill, on the other hand, had gone from hissable Filbert Street villain to one of the most respected managers in the country. Not only had the Northern Irishman built a team capable of beating the likes of Tottenham Hotspur or Leeds United, he’d also forged a formidable team spirit.
Intense and dedicated, O’Neill was an enigmatic figure who both provoked fear among his players and allowed them to express themselves entirely. Players of that era often recall run-ins with the man who won two European Cups as a player, but every account is usually a glowing endorsement.
Claridge is no different.
“Martin was always there when you needed him,” the 54-year-old explains. “He wasn't constant. Some managers are just constant. It's claustrophobic. He wasn't like that at all. Sometimes he'd just let (assistant manager) Steve Walford get on with it.
“He'd always come out on the Thursday, make sure the pattern of play was good, that the team set-up was good, and then he'd always play on a Friday and his team would always win the five-a-side. They wouldn't go home if they didn't!
“That was it. Martin knew when he was needed and knew when he wasn't needed and that was often the case. I always remember going to Aston Villa, Tottenham, sides like that, and we'd always beat them. We would always be eight out of 10.
“Eight out of 10 was good enough. When you say 'unfancied', there were players who had fallen through the system a little bit, players who had come from lower down, rather than higher up the scale. He brought such good characters, Martin, that was his strength.
“He brought people to the Club and identified what that player could bring to the team and then what that player could bring to the Football Club. He didn’t try to change them.
“He saw a gap in the side, or a gap in the market, and he could bring a player in and that player would fit perfectly into what he wanted.
“That's what he did brilliantly, and he brought good characters in as well.
“Tactically, he was very good. The players he bought in, he didn't want to change them. He just asked them to do what they'd been doing previously, and it worked beautifully.”
The decisive moment, in the 100th minute, as Steve Claridge wins the Foxes the League Cup.
“I remember it was a cauldron. I remember the atmosphere. We had a lot more supporters than Middlesbrough on the night.”
Martin O’Neill’s new saint-like status among the Club’s fans would reach new heights in the spring of 1997 as the Foxes discovered they would face Middlesbrough in the League Cup showpiece.
Middlesbrough had failed to win a trophy in 121 years. While Leicester’s barren spell was only 33 years, that previous success, also in the League Cup back in 1964, was the one trophy the Club had ever lifted outside of a solitary Charity Shield, in 1971, and the 1941 Wartime Cup.
For clubs outside the established giants of the game, cup finals often feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add an aberration onto the rollcall of teams to lift the trophy.
City would meet Boro at Wembley on 6 April, 1997. Juninho, Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli all started for the North East outfit, who had systematically pulled Leicester apart in a 3-1 win at Filbert Street just a month earlier. The margin on the scoresheet was flattering to City.
Much of the Foxes’ game plan centred on nullifying Boro’s threats, with Pontus Kåmark famously dedicating himself, almost exclusively, to frustrating Juninho in particular.
After a goalless 90 minutes, Ravanelli rocketed Bryan Robson’s men in front early on in extra-time and, for the second time in as many years, Foxes fans were watching the clock.
With two minutes of the extra 30 remaining, City knew all they could salvage was a replay, as shootouts were yet to be introduced to League Cup finals. A long ball was lofted upfield, Steve Walsh nodded it down to Mark Robins and the former Norwich City man sent it into the area.
Walsh, now in the area, headed the ball back to where it had came from, locating Heskey, whose header cannoned back off the bar. Desperate to scramble the ball over the line in whatever way possible, Claridge and Heskey tussled with Gianluca Festa in the six-yard box…
“We played them previously in the league and they beat us, and they beat us comfortably,” Claridge recalls, looking back to that 3-1 reverse back in Leicester.
“The lads knew it was going to be serious game. I wouldn’t say it was a sense of trepidation, but it was going to be a tough game. They were better than us in the game too.
“I think we were probably a little bit more focused on them than we should have been. Emile scored the equaliser, or should I say he nicked it off me... shocking! Dreadful! We didn’t play well in that game at all, but we thought we could win the next one.”
Hillsborough was selected as the venue for the replay, six days before Boro were scheduled to appear there again against Chesterfield in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
City deployed the same man-marking system which had worked so effectively the first time around, but Robson attempted to outsmart O’Neill by elevating Juninho higher up the pitch, alongside Craig Hignett in attack; in theory allowing him to bypass Kåmark in midfield.
Generous ticket allocations and the close proximity of Hillsborough’s stands to the pitch resulted in a cacophonous atmosphere. A wall of noise greeted the two sides as captains Nigel Pearson and Steve Walsh led their teams out. Once again, Middlesbrough were favourites.
Whatever happened, everybody in attendance knew it would all be settled on the night.
A tight, tactical battle unfolded. The Boro fans roared ‘boring, boring Leicester’ in protest at the Foxes’ defensive rear-guard. Heskey hit the post. Keller saved from Juninho. Ravanelli was unlucky not to defy the American stopper again. It was goalless, however, at full-time.
As the scoreboard switched from two digits to three, in the 100th minute, Mike Whitlow's deep free-kick was won by Walsh, who headed it to Claridge. He had the intelligence to be in the right place at the right time, too, and his finish was absolutely perfect, into the corner.
Young Boro 'keeper Ben Roberts couldn't get there. Pearson and Festa had lost Claridge in the area. And, for the first time in three-and-a half-hours of the tie, Leicester were in front.
“I remember it was a cauldron,” Claridge says. “I remember the atmosphere. We had a lot more supporters than Middlesbrough on the night. Obviously, Sheffield is not far from Leicester and it was just a fantastic atmosphere. It was just buzzing.
“It's just one of those nights where you walk out and just get a tingle. That is what you live for. You can pay someone millions and millions of pounds, but you cannot give them that.
“You can't give them that memory, you cannot give them that experience.
“That's what you live for. That's the whole point of playing football, for nights like that and, for the goal, it's set up for me and I managed to get a decent connection. It's very similar to the one previously at Wembley. It's obviously not as far out and maybe not as good as a strike, but very, very similar. It's a ball played in, we work off the second phase, and I hit it first time.
“I couldn't have timed it, again, any better, could I? I honestly can’t remember anything from the celebrations the night after. It must have been a great night!”
Another crucial goal for Steve Claridge secures a historic achievement for Leicester City in Sheffield.
“Just to know that you've made some sort of mark at a fantastic football club like that is a great honour.”
Steve Claridge’s name will be forever etched into Leicester City folklore.
But that’s not just because of his goals at Wembley and Hillsborough. When Claridge started scoring, the Foxes finally clicked into gear in 1995/96 en route to promotion. He was the Club’s top goalscorer in the Premier League and he represented the Club in the UEFA Cup.
While that European adventure was short lived, the fact that City ran out at Atlético Madrid’s Vicente Calderón just 563 days after his debut at Ipswich’s Portman Road is a testament to the progress Martin O’Neill’s side made – and Claridge’s right boot had helped get them there.
“Just to know that you've made some sort of mark at a fantastic football club like that is a great honour,” Steve adds at the end of our conversation.
“I feel very, very grateful to everyone who, even at this stage of my life, still remembers the odd moment or two that we provided because it's what it's all about. You've got to earn money and you've got to make a living and you've got to try and look after your family, but it is all about moments and it is all about memories.”
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