Photo: Michael Berkeley

Be it playing, managing or broadcasting, half measures are something Steve Claridge can never comfortably co-exist with. The erstwhile Premier League marksman has led Salisbury FC to a pair of promotions since the club’s reformation four years ago, and what surrounds him is very much in his image, with an environment of industry and a team filled with scoring prowess.

On the pitch, Steve Claridge admittedly set the bar stupendously high in terms of longevity, and few if any he ever manages will reach or surpass 1000 senior games. Nevertheless, what any player can realistically commit to is maximising themselves, though the task for a manager to elicit that, especially in non-league, is multi-faceted and sometimes arduous.

The Salisbury boss is also a director at the club, alongside Ian Hammond (chairman) and Jeremy Harwood (vice-chairman), presiding over a Wessex League title, promotion from the Southern Football League West Division, and an FA Vase semi-final appearance in the past four seasons. The former Leicester and Birmingham City striker wants entertainment, but also financial prudence, despite what he has heard suggested about their approach.

The latter could hardly be more pertinent at a club reformed after the 2014 demise of the old Salisbury City, who had finished 12th in the fifth tier of English football just six seasons ago. Devotion at the Wiltshire outfit is there in spades, though it comes now with a commitment to the longer-term picture, which for so many reasons in football, appears dangerously easy to betray.

That very strongly comes into play as Steve assesses the Whites’ prospects of claiming one of the top places in this season’s BetVictor Southern Premier South.

“Last year we exceeded expectations in our first year at this level, then unfortunately, we lost seven or eight players in the summer, due to more logistical reasons than anything else, which was very, very difficult. It’s been a little bit stop-start with regard to getting players in.

“Pre-season has been particularly difficult, with players being injured and players being away. We’ve still got those injuries even now, which is disappointing.

“It’s been a difficult pre-season, but I knew we would have to be patient and have to wait on players; we’re not a club that’s frightened to say no, financially. Just before the season started, we managed to get some players in, which gave us something to build from, and since the season started we’ve managed to get another two or three in.

“We’re a lot stronger, funnily enough, in some areas, but weaker in others this year, so it’s been a little bit of a dynamic change within the football club. We still score a lot of goals, still play good football.

“We’re probably not as creative as we were last year, but there’s more physicality to our game.”

Last season brought a 4th-place finish and a play-off semi-final appearance, while Salisbury were joint-top scorers (with Harrow Borough) in the division, with 97 goals from 42 league games. After the opening weeks of 2019/20, the side from the RayMac Stadium are a point off the play-off positions, with Margate in town on 5th October for an FA Cup third round qualifying tie that will net the winner £11,250.

Veteran defender Kevin Amankwaah is one of those who can help drive the standard, having played several seasons in the EFL with the likes of Bristol City, Swindon Town and Swansea City. While taking a chance on a player here and there can certainly pay dividends, identifying the right personnel is vitally important.

At Step 3 of non-league, circumstances and motivations vary significantly, and not everyone is out to push on and progress in football. With that in mind, Steve considers what the prerequisites are of a Salisbury player.

“They need to be totally committed. They need to understand that I work extremely hard and everyone around the football club works extremely hard.

“We provide an environment and a platform for those players to thrive. They are really well looked after; all they’ve got to do is be professional, buy into what we’re trying to do and be able to cope with the pressure and the expectation.

“We have strong characters, we have big characters, and that’s the type of players that I like. I don’t want shrinking violets, I want players who are brave, who will get on the ball.

“We scored 100 goals the last four seasons, we are creative, we’re fit, we work extremely hard when we train. It’s not for some; we had one boy, Luke Holmes, who decided it wasn’t for him after a week, whereas we have others who completely and utterly thrive in it.

“It’s as close to being a professional outfit as we can be under a part-time banner.”

While a couple of decades have passed, the images of Steve celebrating his League Cup and Division One play-off final winners for Leicester City have endured. A waistcoated Martin O’Neill hugging skipper Steve Walsh in the dugout at the old Wembley as the Foxes’ number 9 wheeled away ecstatically after his dramatic extra-time winner against Crystal Palace to send them into the Premier League. Walsh flicking on for the same man to volley home in front of the Kop in the 100th minute at Hillsborough to sink Middlesbrough in the Coca-Cola Cup final replay. Screenshots as clear in the mind today for Foxes fans as they were then.

Steve, who incidentally was also a (two-goal) play-off final hero for Gosport Borough against Poole Town in May 2012, played on for some time after his first foray into management. That came in 2000/2001, when after the departure of Tony Pulis, Steve was thrown in at the deep end with Portsmouth, the club where he scored 37 goals in a three-year spell. He would go unbeaten in his first ten games, though his tenure would end after 23.

“I think I was 34, and I was put into a situation which, in all honesty, I wasn’t 100 percent sure of what that situation was, and to be fair, I don’t think the chairman (Milan Mandaric) did. When you’re a player-manager, it’s very, very difficult; it’s an impossible job, especially when you’re probably the player that others look to.

“I’m not trying to be big-headed, but you’re probably trying to be the best player out there for your team, but also trying to be the manager as well, and it was very difficult. Of course as well you want to go out and watch games and have a look at players, but you’re constantly involved and constantly playing games.

“You’re trying to run the football club, which is 24/7, and then you’re trying to train and prepare for games. It’s certainly not a role that I would advocate to anybody.”

After Pompey, came Millwall, with 33 goals for the Lions over two years and a Player of the Year award. There was also the bizarrely brief stint at the helm in summer 2005, with boardroom changes leading to Steve’s departure after 36 days, with the club still in pre-season. Having been told by Theo Paphitis that he had left the club, Steve was appointed by Jeff Burnige, only for Paphitis to then return, and for Steve to find himself caught in the conflict.

He had previously been back at another of his former haunts, Weymouth, leading the Conference South side as player-boss from June 2003 to October 2004, and overseeing a climb from 17th to 2nd position after assembling a side in two months. His chairman was Ian Ridley, the renowned writer and journalist who collaborated with Steve on his autobiography Tales from the Boot Camps. Ridley would, however, leave a month prior to Steve, departing after new owner Martyn Harrison’s arrival.

There was, though, still more to run on Steve’s Football League playing career, and a return to another of his former clubs saw him notch the 1000th senior appearance landmark in December 2006. It came against Port Vale for Bournemouth, where he had played his first professional game some 22 seasons earlier, though with the standards he has always held himself to, the 4-0 loss rendered the milestone largely irrelevant to him at the time.

Far from a gimmick, he said he had linked up again with the Cherries to really make something of it, having worked hard for the opportunity for six months prior. He similarly did not want the focus to be on him when he played aged 51 against Portsmouth for Salisbury in July 2017, with depleted numbers due to players being on holiday leaving no other option.

A Wembley winner in front of 76,000+ with Birmingham against Carlisle in the 1995 Auto Windscreens Shield final, Steve has seen the game through an alternative lens, having been involved in the media side since his mid-20s, while at Cambridge United. His experience with the BBC included the years he spent on The Football League Show, as one of the faces of a programme that fans of 72 clubs tuned into each Saturday night wanting to feel that both presenter and pundit knew all about their team’s respective situation.

Steve is asked if the programme challenged him in a new way at all. He also goes on to explain that broadcasting has been put aside while he continues to immerse himself in Salisbury FC.

“I’ve been doing TV and radio for 26 years, so (The Football League Show) didn’t give me anything that I didn’t know. It was a lot of work, I would go out and I would watch every Football League team once in that season, so as with everything I do, I did it properly.

“I was able to give a firsthand view on teams and players. It’s like everything in life, you can get away with it for a certain amount of time, but if you don’t do it properly you won’t get away with it forever; people can see through that.

“Like everything I do, I try and do it to the best of my ability. Even at this level, I’m driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to watch the opposition; I can’t imagine there’d be too many others who’d do that.

“For me, broadcasting is on the back-burner now. I’ve given up quite a lot to be manager of Salisbury Football Club, to be fair, and broadcasting is one of those things.”

After Salisbury clinched promotion in 2018, Steve described it as ‘the hardest season I have ever had in football.’ Last year’s efforts took them to the play-offs, as they knocked on the door of the National League South before ultimately losing 3-2 in the semi-final at Met Police, a match the Whites boss had paid for a supporters’ coach to.

The tendency is to always be looking forward in football – the next game, the next season, the next chance to beat your rivals – and given the fickle nature of the game, it is impossible to sit back on yesterday’s achievements for long. That said, there has been a lot to take considerable satisfaction from in these opening years of Salisbury FC.

Photo: Roger Elliott

While reflecting on what he has been most proud of, Steve also reiterates the unwavering commitment to protecting the future of the club.

“I think the way that we have stuck to a style of play which I think is a signatory of previous years at Salisbury; as I say, we’ve scored over 100 goals for the four seasons I’ve been here. We’ve always tried to entertain and play the game the right way, and I don’t mean overplaying, I don’t mean 50 passes in your own half, but we’ve always tried to get the ball down and play at every opportunity.

“We’ve never tried to ruin games of football or berate referees, we’ve always tried to do it properly, and I’m proud of the reputation we hopefully have. Lads enjoy it here; from a football perspective, I don’t think there’s one player that’s left the club that’s wanted to leave in the four years, so we must be doing something okay.

“We’ve had a plethora of injuries, yet we’ve still gone through that, no one’s made any excuses. We have a budget that we stick to and I’m proud that the club does that; I’m proud that we are a football club that can say no.

“Under my management, this club will never be in financial problems, and if that means we have to lose out on a player or we don’t get promoted, then so be it. That’s the way that the club’s going to be run, because when I came in, and it hadn’t played football for 18 months, it was still very vivid in our memories.

“I had some people asking for outrageous money. I think shaking off Salisbury of old has been very difficult, from a fans’ and players’ perspective; I don’t mean the players who are here now.

“In all honesty, it’s not a Conference side; it’s probably not even a Conference South side, with the budget that we have. We have to run the club the way that it needs to be run, and we have done.

“There’s lots of things that we’ve been proud of doing. This thing I’m really disappointed by, someone said the other day I was earning £80,000 a year – I do not get paid to manage Salisbury Football Club.

“We get a few expenses, to cover my travel, and that is it. £80,000 a year, that’s probably what I’ve given up to manage Salisbury.

“The club has the budget, and the budget is the same this year as it was last year. It will be a competitive budget but it might possibly not even be in the top six of our league, so this ‘big spending’ thing, it’s a complete and utter myth and it angers me, because I work really hard to get players in for the right money, and the right type of player.

“I know that my budget is half of somebody else in our league, so we’ve no divine right to win the league, and we’ve no divine right to get promoted. What we do have is a really good football team with a fantastic support base, and a team that has a chance every time we play at this level.”

 

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…

When did you want to start coaching/managing?

Probably Portsmouth actually, because all I had in my mind was to play; I just wanted to play for as long as I possibly could because I love the game. I would imagine as soon as I got a taste of it at Portsmouth, albeit it was only fleeting, and it was a difficult, difficult job as well, under what you’d consider an unpredictable chairman.

Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?

I do all the coaching and I thoroughly enjoy it; it’s great to have that interaction with the lads. I’m an A Licence / Pro Licence coach, and I’ve coached academies, coached coaches, so in that respect, I’ve been doing it now about ten/12 years. I think first and foremost, you also need to understand what sort of session you need to put on. It may be a serious session where people understand that they didn’t do their jobs prior to it, and the atmosphere is one of making sure that previous mistakes don’t happen, or it might need to be a little bit light-hearted, if it’s been a heavy couple of weeks for the team. It’s judging what that session needs and how you approach that session as a coach, so being a manager and doing the coaching, I get to pick and choose. Sometimes we’ll have a really tough session and people understand that it’s got to be done properly, and others it’ll be light-hearted and just to loosen the legs and make sure everybody enjoys.

Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?

No, never; my body can’t take it now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fit, I’m strong and I do a lot of running, but I can’t play football by halves. I can’t go and have a fun 6-a-side; I’ve either got to do it properly or I can’t do it at all, and I can’t do it properly now. I had an op on my Achilles; I feel fine now but it had got to the stage where I couldn’t walk some mornings.

Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit

As a player, we did very well against Tottenham, and going to the new stadium would be great; it’s the one stadium I haven’t actually been to. I’ve been to Arsenal, West Ham, but I haven’t been to Tottenham, so that would be a stadium I’d like to tick off my bucket list. It’s always a team I used to like playing against. They’re a bit different now, to be fair; they were a little bit flaky when I used to play against them! A different club, different team now.

Favourite player to watch (past or present)

Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard; those types of players that never gave less than 100 percent, which is a massive part of being a good player. People think it’s all about ability; it’s not. The longevity of staying in the game for the amount of time they did, and what they did year after year, that’s what great players are. That is the type of player I look at and admire. Not just players who are great with the ball, but players who will affect the game when they haven’t got the ball.

And how would you sell the club to let’s say Keegan, if you were trying to sign him for Salisbury (in his prime)?!

(Laughs) Wow. My pitch would be that we’ve got a fantastic stadium, we’ve got a great surface you can play on, we play the game the right way. I want big characters, I want leaders, not just vocally but I want leaders in the way that they play the game, which is what you do. I want that enthusiasm, I want that ‘never say die’ attitude in my football club. I need characters who can deal with pressure, and obviously you can do that, because you’ve shown that.

Pre-season tour anywhere in the world

We did Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark; they tend to be the countries to go to, because the weather’s good at that stage and it’s not too hot. The opposition are usually already into their season, so they’re at a decent standard. I went to La Manga as well and the facilities were fantastic; a bit hot for me, to be fair! I think anywhere like that. Probably the Scandinavian countries are the best, because the weather’s good, the air’s good, and fitness-wise, you can really get stuck into it. I don’t think you need to be going to places that are either too far away or too hot. I understand why clubs go to China and Singapore, wherever, because they want to get the brand out there, but from a playing perspective, I don’t think the players get a huge amount out of it.

Most challenging/frustrating part of your job

When players don’t care as much as you do. When it doesn’t hurt people. I don’t get frustrated with the level, or players making mistakes, because they do that at every level, but I do get frustrated when you’ve just been beaten and people are laughing and joking.

Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest

We’ve got a few players from the West Country! There’s no doubt, that part of the country is different to probably any other part of the country, because it’s a different way of life, and it’s a really lovely place to live as well. The players that come out of there, they do an awful lot of travelling, they love their football…but maybe not the quickest to pick up on conversations!

Most embarrassing moment as a manager/player

At Leicester, Garry Parker pulled my shorts down on pre-season in front of 30,000 people as we were warming up. The crowd went bonkers, and not in a good way either, but Parks was the type of lad where you never quite knew what was going to happen. I wasn’t the only one to suffer; he actually pulled the trousers down of the chairman at the time in reception. He was a good lad, Parks, and there are those types of people. If you are solely a coach, I think it’s important that you’ve got that sort of upbeat attitude; if you’re gonna ask somebody to train when they’re not at their best, you’ve got to be up for it. It’s no good a coach coming in and being dour when he’s asking people to train for him.

Your routine on a match day

I make sure that I get a certain amount of sleep, and I get up and go for a run. In a way, I suppose I’m slightly addicted to running. Playing football is all about preparation, and a lot of players want to sleep too long, or eat too much, especially at our level when you don’t train every day. So it’s trying to get that across to them, that it’s massively important that you don’t eat too late, don’t sleep too long before a game, because you’re gonna be tired and listless. You don’t need to be drinking all these energy drinks; you don’t sweat Red Bull or Powerade, you sweat water, so it’s about replenishing your body with that. But yeah, I get up, go for a run, clear the mind and feel great from that. I always have beans on toast, Weetabix and a banana – that’s something at least that’s not changed from when I was playing!

Then I think you’ve got to be prepared to be flexible on a match day in non-league. I’ve realised that, because ultimately, lots of things happen that you don’t expect. I always like to get to the ground early to make sure that we’re all settled and I know what’s going on.

One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist, assuming that you don’t run it already…

‘Things Can Only Get Better’ (D:Ream)!

Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you

Someone said to me ‘never underestimate the power of effort over ability.’

If you could have some time with any manager, past or present

Bill Shankly. Not just in a football sense, but in every sense I think he’s just somebody that would be great to talk to. I think it’d be entertaining and you would gain a huge amount of knowledge from it. One man who changed an institution.

Any misconceptions about you, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?

I think there’s always things that you pick up and you read, but you’ll drive yourself silly if you read and listen to everything that everybody has an opinion on. So the way that I get around it is I have to look at myself in the mirror and say ‘I’m the person in this position, I know the reasons why these decisions are made. Am I doing this for the good of the football club? Secondly, am I doing and giving everything I possibly can in this situation to the football club?’ If I can look myself in the mirror and say yes, then I don’t have to worry about anything else or what anybody else says, I can live with myself.

And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?

Absolutely. It’s the drug and it’s quite sad actually, but it’s just that moment when someone scores a goal, when you win a game of football, you get a last-minute winner. It is a drug because as much as you can get the last-minute winner, you can get the last-minute defeat, so you can go from amazing highs to amazing lows. It just takes you out of the norm, doesn’t it? I’m not saying normal life is boring, because it’s not, and I love my children more than I love anything else, and I’d give everything up for them, but you have moments in football that you just can’t emulate anywhere else. Being in it all my life, that’s all I’ve ever known, so it’s difficult to let go.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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