This week’s profile is dedicated to a man that has had the most varied career of them all.
Last Sunday, Steve Claridge raised his bat to the crowd, as he completed a half-century of life. In that time, the much-travelled striker has played for no less than 25 clubs, at all levels of the game, and made just over a century of appearances in a Lions shirt.
However, one period that he remembers most fondly – as detailed in his book, Beyond The Boot Camps – is his time at The Den.
Initially brought in on loan by Mark McGhee in March 2000 (along with Tony Cottee) due to suspensions to Neil Harris and Paul Moody, Claridge enjoyed a number of years in SE16, eventually departing in 2005 after a tumultuous period of time as the club’s manager.
Claridge joined the club after Harris and Moody had both seen red as the Lions drew 2-2 with Bristol City, a game many fans believe cost promotion. McGhee quickly moved to bring the experienced duo of Claridge and Cottee in and whilst the ex-West Ham front-man failed to impress, Claridge hit the ground running and became an instant hero.
His debut, against Stoke City on April 3, saw him introduced to the Den faithful, but the following game against promotion rivals Rotherham United brought out the classy side of the former Portsmouth striker.
A brace of goals helped the Lions on their way to a remarkably simple 4-0 win, but the manner of Claridge's performance got the Millwall fans off of their feet. A constant thorn in the side of the Millers, his delicious chip over the head of goalkeeper Ian Gray summed up the afternoon – the Lions had found a gem at a crucial time.
Claridge added another strike to his tally in a 5-1 win at Cambridge United that all but sealed promotion to Division One, but his part in the celebrations ended prematurely in the next game at Wrexham, as he was forced off through injury in the 14th minute.
Because of that, he played no part in the season finale against Oldham Athletic at The Den, but he returned for the 2001-02 Division One campaign, as McGhee secured his services on a permanent deal that summer.
The striker rolled back the years in a season that saw the Lions reach the play-offs, making 40 appearances in the league and scoring 17 goals. Many of them proved crucial – whether it was his double against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, in front of 6,000 Millwall fans, or his penalty versus Wolverhampton Wanderers and strike against Coventry City the following week that put the Lions on the brink of the play-offs, Claridge always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
His style was unconventional, to say the least: shirt untucked, one sock down and no shin pads, any naïve defender probably thought they could eat him for breakfast. But hard work was a pre-requisite for Claridge – he wouldn't give any opposition player a moment’s rest and would more often than not always get the better of them, too.
The striker notched another nine goals in 2002-03, with a further three coming in the FA Cup. The season started in controversial circumstances as the Lions lost 6-0 to Rotherham on the opening day, but they rallied to finish in ninth place come the end of the season. Claridge played his last game on the final day, coming off the bench in a 2-0 win over this weekend's opponents, Coventry City.
His final goal in a Lions shirt was perhaps his sweetest, in an FA Cup tie at Southampton. For a Portsmouth boy, his 17th-minute strike against the Saints (which was cruelly cancelled out in injury time by former Millwall loanee, Kevin Davies) must have pleased Claridge, to say the least.
He quickly understood what it meant to be a part of Millwall Football Club. One story in his book, where he details a conversation with a fan after Keith Stevens' testimonial game against Tottenham Hotspur, raises a smile. Along with that, his industrious nature and goal-scoring exploits did all the talking necessary.
In a career that included visits to (deep breath) AFC Bournemouth, Weymouth, Crystal Palace, Aldershot, Cambridge United, Luton Town, Leicester City, Birmingham City, Portsmouth, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton and Hove Albion, Brentford, Wycombe Wanderers, Gillingham, Bradford City, Walsall, Worthing, Harrow Borough and Gosport Borough and included over 1,000 professional games, Steve Claridge cites Millwall as one of the greatest times of his career.
That's quite the accolade, isn't it?
(P.S. – I thought it was best to leave the bit about his managerial career out!)