Back from the Brink: The Rise of Steve Claridge and Salisbury FCby Chris Knight / 27 July 2016, 10:50Tweet
The Sack Race contributor Chris Knight (@Chris_Knight84) talks exclusively with Salisbury FC manager Steve Claridge (@SteveClaridge) who is currently preparing for life in the Southern League Division One South & West after leading his troops to the Wessex League Premier Division title last season...
...Football management can be a harsh mistress. Long hours, prima donna players, the looming axe and yet still managers keep coming back for more. Steve Claridge is one man who could have been forgiven for ending his love affair with football following a difficult start to his managerial career but, older and wiser, he has returned to develop a successful relationship with Salisbury FC.
Poorly treated, unfortunate and in the wrong place at the wrong time. The parallels between the recent histories of Salisbury FC and Claridge are uncanny but their similarities ensure they would make a good match on any dating site.
"Salisbury saved me. I can tell you that now. I had become bitter. I was going for jobs and not getting in the first fifty of a shortlist," explains Claridge. "People were getting jobs and I was thinking 'firstly, I don't even know who this fella is, secondly, his background is such that he doesn't know a jot about football, and lastly I played against him and I know for a fact that he's a complete shyster who couldn't wait to give the game up'.
"I've got so much experience and never short-changed anyone, and yet I couldn't get a sniff of a job. It was embarrassing."
The Death Of Salisbury City
Claridge has finally found a place to hone his managerial skills at Salisbury but he has had to be patient as his hopes of taking over in 2014 were dashed when it became clear that the owner at the time, Outail Touzar, wasn't all he had appeared. "Mr Touzar was a complete fraud and a fantasist of the highest order", reveals Claridge. "People weren't aware of that at first but they became aware of it very quickly".
Despite finishing the 2014 Conference season in 12th place, Salisbury City FC were in massive debt and soon demoted to the Conference South for failing to pay their staff before they were expelled from the Conference completely a few weeks later. Salisbury City FC was no more.
Rising Like A Phoenix From The Flames
From the ashen corpse of Salisbury City rose the Salisbury FC phoenix in 2015, thanks to the financial input of Claridge and a consortium of four others (Jeremy Harwood, Graeme Mundy, David Phillips and Ian Ridley).
"It was significant funds but it didn't cost a huge amount and there was no debt so we took on all of the problems that a football club that hasn't played football for 18 months incurs," explains Claridge.
"There is nobody here to make money out of the football club. What we are trying to do is accumulate funds and plough it back in. We are not going to spend money we haven't got - we are not going back down that route again."
The club was saved but the real work started as Claridge was a manager without any players.
"We didn't get anybody who had previously been at Salisbury in the 'hey-day' as the money they were paid was hugely substantial and that's why they got into the trouble they did. We had to look in other areas so basically we looked around at trial games and three friendlies, and just invited people down to try and put a team together through that."
Exhibiting a keen eye for talent while honing his man-management skills, Claridge guided Salisbury FC to the Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division title last season as they eventually finished 20 points clear. The feel good factor in the sleepy Wiltshire city was back.
The club has come a long way in twelve months and a job that 'saved' Claridge is offering him a chance to show what he can do as a manager after having his fingers burned by his experiences at Millwall, Portsmouth and Weymouth.
"Is this redemption? No, it's not, not until I get back into the Football League. Salisbury is run as well as any other football club I have been at professionally. If I was manager of Liverpool I'd run it the same way as I am now. If you do that then you don't give players the excuse not to do it right.
Ahead of the 2016/17 Evo Stick South League Division South and West campaign, everything is in place for Salisbury FC to restore the "natural order" by returning to the Conference. But what would be the 'natural order' for Claridge as a manager?
As a player, Claridge is remembered as a 'journeyman' despite scoring play-off final and League Cup final winning goals while at Leicester City ("I find the 'journeyman' tag a load of bollocks to be quite honest with you," interjects Claridge).
As a manager, the 50-year-old was in danger of becoming a 'forgotten man' after being woefully treated by three different owners with 'agendas'.
"Don't get me wrong, I didn't always play well but I never short-changed anyone. And for me then to be put through what I've been put through in management, I didn't deserve that.
"It seems as though I'm the type of person who if I make a mistake then it is remembered for twenty years but someone else makes a mistake and it's forgotten in two weeks. It's very, very odd."
The job at Salisbury has at least allowed Claridge to find his feet in management with an element of control after having the rug pulled out from under him at previous clubs. There are no signs of complacency though...
"I knew I would be able to manage and get the opportunity to do it. However, if I didn't think I deserved to be manager then I'd walk away."
Following a hugely successful first season at the Ray Mac, there is no reason for Claridge and Salisbury to end their successful relationship.
"We've got a football club that people want to be part of, that has a great affinity with the local community and the fans. We've got a club that I think people trust."
An average attendance of 801 during the 2015/16 season attests to that, while a club record 3,450 were at the Ray McEnhill Stadium for their heart-breaking defeat to Hereford in the semi-finals of the FA Vase.
Football can be a labour of love for some but the relationship between Claridge and Salisbury FC is blooming. They have saved each other.