Everton Must Match Foxes' Fight And Character, Say Claridge

Steve Claridge knows all about fight and character. As for effort, that particular quality came as a given during the former Leicester City forward’s peripatetic, enchanting 23-year professional career.

Do not underestimate Claridge’s ability, either.

His stooped gait and rough and ready appearance combined to give the impression of a footballer trudging across the turf, huffing and puffing simply to hold his own.

The reality was rather different. Claridge was fit as a flea – he still is as it goes – persistent and spirited.

Those attributes, however, take you only so far as a striker. Playing in that unforgiving position is a cut-throat business. You live or die on your goals record.

And the fact that Claridge’s career remained alive and kicking for more than two decades was down to the fact he was rather efficient at putting the ball in the net.

He was a penalty-box poacher, with a predilection for the spectacular.

Claridge had been a Leicester player only two months when he scored one of the most famous goals in the club’s history.

The Foxes’ First Division (today’s Championship) Wembley play-off final clash with Crystal Palace in 1996 was locked at 1-1 and entering the final seconds of extra-time when Claridge intervened.

He strode onto a bouncing ball at the edge of Palace’s box and, with his body contorted to exert the necessary control over his shot, dispatched it into the top-right corner of goal.

His sense of occasion neatly honed, Claridge was at it again 12 months later, hitting the decisive strike in a League Cup final victory over Middlesbrough.

Those were heady days at Leicester under Martin O’Neill, arguably their best until they were recently surpassed, improbably and quite brilliantly, by Claudio Ranieri’s Premier League winners.

“I had a wonderful time there… I was absolutely gutted they won the league because everyone has forgotten about me now,” says Claridge, laughing thunderously.

“But after the high they had, everything was going to be difficult. They achieved what nobody thought was possible.

“Then they lost two or three of their best players, and nobody is quite sure where the club should now be in the grand scheme of things.

“They have to take stock and identify where they feel they should be – then build from there, rather than saying, ‘this is where we will go’ but not really believing it.”

Claridge is talking to evertonfc.com about what the Toffees can expect from their trip to take on Leicester this weekend.

Everton, in common with 11 other top-flight sides, were beaten at the King Power Stadium during the 2015/16 campaign.

Last season’s trip to the East Midlands yielded a 2-0 success.

Nine months after claiming the English title, Leicester replaced Ranieri with Craig Shakespeare, who himself left the club eight games into this season and was succeeded by former Southampton boss Claude Puel.

The Foxes have lost their exceptional midfield axis of N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater to Chelsea. But when they won at Swansea last weekend – under the caretaker charge of Michael Appleton – Leicester's line-up featured eight of the regular 11 who romped home at odds of 5,000/1 last year.

The central defensive berth vacated by the injured Robert Huth has been filled by £17million purchase and England international Harry Maguire.

Nigerian powerhouse Wilfred Ndidi and Vicente Iborra, three times a Europa League winner with former club Sevilla, have combined to fill the void left by gun pair Kante and Drinkwater.

“They have kept a lot of their players – but they are missing two very important ones,” says Claridge.

“If Arsenal had those two (Kante and Drinkwater) in their side, they would be capable of challenging for the Premier League.

“One or two positions at this level can make an enormous difference. But I am sure Leicester will be okay. They have some extremely good players at the club.

“Craig Shakespeare probably went because he did not have a background in management. If he had gone into the job having managed for three or four years, he would most likely have been given a bit longer to improve things.”

While Kante and Drinkwater were lured away by greener grass and the promise of further medals to add to the bullion they scooped 18 months ago, another of Leicester’s most precious assets from that Ranieri-inspired team remains instrumental to today’s edition – whether by accident or design.

After a dip in form last season, 2015/16 PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez is ominously easing into his stride this time around. The Algerian was the Foxes’ standout performer in last week’s comprehensive success over Paul Clement’s Swansea.

And Claridge, who left Leicester for Portsmouth in 1998 after two years playing for “brilliant” Irish manager O’Neill at the club’s atmospheric old Filbert Street ground, believes throwing a blanket over the extraordinarily gifted but unpredictable Mahrez is the quickest route to smothering the current Leicester altogether.

Moreover, he insists the sight of a buoyant Mahrez transmits a wider message about the health of his side.

“He is a player like Mesut Ozil, who did so well for Arsenal at Goodison Park last week,” says Claridge.

“He will not do a huge amount when he does not have the ball, so Leicester have to be good enough to carry him.

“The team has to function perfectly in order to allow him not to have to do too much defensively, and then get him on the ball in the right areas.

“The most important thing with Riyad Mahrez is understanding what you have and how you can work around that.”

Claridge was bought by O’Neill from Birmingham in March 1996. The player’s mood was low, his confidence through the floor.

“Everything was going well for me at Birmingham and then suddenly I was not wanted,” he once said.

“It was a complete mystery and no one would tell me what had gone wrong. By the end, I was just desperate to leave. The two and a half weeks before my move to Leicester was the worst period of my life.”

Claridge hardly set the world alight on joining the Foxes, either. He did not score in his first six games but, as he points out, O’Neill had a clear vision of where his rough-round-the-edges signing would slip into the manager's carefully assembled jigsaw.

O'Neill's faith and foresight were rewarded when Claridge struck five times during the season’s run-in and then landed that knockout blow on Palace to secure Leicester’s return to the top-flight after a 12-month exile.

He was the team’s top scorer as they finished ninth in the following season’s Premier League.

Now, says Claridge, new Leicester manager Puel and whoever is appointed to the Everton post long term will share the good fortune of inheriting groups of players in whom they can invest similar trust. Then, when the time comes to dip into the transfer market, he is certain the respective bosses will identify individuals who meet a fixed set of criteria.

“I learned so much from Martin O’Neill,” says Claridge – who was speaking before David Unsworth took charge at Goodison Park. “He was brilliant at buying a player and understanding what his role would be before he came to the club.

“He bought a player to perform a specific task and asked him to do exactly that.

“Any player who came in knew instantly what they had to do. It was no different to what they had been doing in previous years, but it was with better players and in a system they could play in.

“The managers at Leicester and Everton need to design systems which they steadily work towards implementing – and identify the players best suited to getting them there.

“I think at Everton, the players are still learning their roles in the team, which is to be expected after they brought in so many during the summer. But those players are working hard, they are prepared to fill gaps and get men behind the ball when they are under pressure.

“There is a lot of effort but now they need to channel it the correct way."

Claridge, who now manages aspirational non-league outfit Salisbury FC and also scored goals for, among others, Cambridge United, Millwall and Bradford City, before quitting full-time football 10 years ago, remains immersed in the machinations of the game at its highest level.

He works as a pundit for BBC Radio 5 Live and pays particular attention to events at Leicester, where he twice hit heights his and the club’s detractors did not consider possible.

As such, he knows the qualities Everton need to take with them into battle on Sunday afternoon.

“We had some fantastic times at Leciester – a really, really good side and finished ninth and 10th in the Premier League,” says Claridge.

“But the club had a massive dip and dropped all the way down to League One (in 2008). I could never have imagined them subsequently going and doing what they did – I do not think anybody could.

“Try to follow that… impossible!

“But there is a lot of fight, effort, ability and character within that club – and they will be fine.”

We finish where we started, then. With all those ingredients which helped Claridge forge a football career of some pedigree. Which sustained Leicester as they won the most staggering off all English championships. Which Claridge recognises in the Foxes team Everton will encounter this weekend.

And which, make no mistake, Everton – an Everton whose players Unsworth insists have an obligation to fight tooth and nail for the Club – will carry with them across the white line at the King Power Stadium this weekend.

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