The ex-factor- Simon Sturridge

Simon Sturridge in action for Blues.
Simon Sturridge in action for Blues.

I went between Michael Johnson and Steve Bruce and one of them caught my leg. I buckled and did my other cruciate, so I spent another year out. I’d only been on the pitch for three minutes after coming on as a sub.

Simon Sturridge.

Next-up in our in our ex-factor series of interviews that appeared in last season's matchday programme is Simon Sturridge.

Sean Cole caught up with the former Blues and Stoke City striker...

Simon Sturridge is best remembered by Birmingham City supporters as an exciting striker who helped to light up a dark period in the Club’s history. Against the backdrop of financial problems, falling attendances and disappointing results, he was one of a clutch of young players who came through to offer the promise of a brighter future.

A Blues career that began as a teenager with relegation to the third tier in difficult circumstances featured some notable high points that helped to lift spirits and get the Club heading in the right direction again. There was the joyous Leyland DAF Cup win at Wembley in 1991 and promotion under Terry Cooper the following year, while David Sullivan’s subsequent takeover ultimately set the Club on course for the Premier League.

Picked up by Birmingham’s youth system as a 15-year-old, Sturridge recalls that it was only in the second year of his apprenticeship that he was converted to the position he would go on to establish himself in. He owes the change to one of John Bond’s coaches, who spotted his potential to play further up the pitch.

“As a young player I always used to play in midfield,” recalls Sturridge. “I was a wide player, but every now and then, for my district or county, I’d play as a central midfielder. I was never a centre-forward to be honest. It wasn’t until I got into the youth team that Kevin Reeves, who used to be a forward, obviously saw something in me and tried me up front. I was quite good technically, I had good touch and a bit of pace as well.

“From there my career blossomed. Maybe as a midfielder I wouldn’t have made it. Who’s to know? From 17, 18, that was when I had my first taste of being a forward. I had to make changes really quickly because at that level players have already spent several years playing in the same position. To suddenly be thrown into a different one required a different mindset, but I had a great tutor in Kevin Reeves.”

Sturridge impressed in his new position and, aided by a couple of injuries to First Team regulars, made his full debut in a 0-0 draw with Portsmouth in November 1988, when he was still only 18. Blues were at a low ebb, with many supporters staying away as the Club struggled desperately under the ownership of Ken Wheldon, and later the Kumar brothers. Several youngsters benefited from the situation but found it a tough environment to come into.

“Because there was no money, and the fans were voicing their frustrations at the board, it was a difficult time to go in as a young player. But the reality is, how many people get a chance when things are going well? You might get one who does, but you wouldn’t get four or five like we had at that particular time. We got our chance because of the situation the club was in.”

Garry Pendrey was unable to stave off Blues’ decline, and a relegation at the end of the 1988/89 season that felt somewhat inevitable from the start. Dave Mackay was able to steady the ship in Division Three but his resignation in January 1991 saw Lou Macari arrive for a short but eventful spell in charge during which the Club won the Leyland DAF Cup.

Sturridge overcame injury problems to ensure he started in the final, and scored the first goal in a 3-2 win over Tranmere Rovers in front of a crowd of almost 60,000. “It was a great pick-me-up. It was a boost for the area as well as for the Club. To think where we were when we started the competition, to get so many fans turn up, and to get the result that we did, you couldn’t have dreamt that that would have happened,” he says.

“That was the lift the Club needed and it probably helped to convince other buyers to come in. It showed the potential of the Club and the number of fans that would turn up if things were going well. That was the springboard we needed to move forward.”

Although Macari left at the end of the season, Terry Cooper arrived to build on his good work and keep Blues on track. Sturridge scored 11 goals on the way to promotion, helping to cement his status as a fans’ favourite, but it became increasingly clear that his future lay elsewhere. With money to spend following Sullivan’s takeover, the squad was overhauled.

“When they really gave the manager money to spend, he bought centre-forwards and changed things up,” says Sturridge. “It was really disappointing to find yourself out of the team but I believed in my ability and thought that if I could stay fit and keep myself going then I’d get a move. Terry made it obvious that I wasn’t going to be in the team so I knew from an early stage that it was in my interests to go elsewhere.”

As Blues held on to Sturridge until their own business was completed, they were happy to let him join Stoke City for a cut-price £50,000. Despite being reunited with Macari, he had to be patient, waiting for his chance behind the prolific Mark Stein. It was only once Macari returned to Stoke, after a disastrous stint at Celtic, that Sturridge was able to play regularly and show his best form.

“I had nothing to prove with Lou. It was a case of getting myself back fit, and showing what I could do. I got back into the team and we had an unbelievable run. Me and Mike Sheron scored 30 goals between us which really pushed us onwards and upwards. It got us into the play-offs where we were really unlucky to lose to Leicester.”

From being on the cusp of the Premier League, injuries then sent Sturridge’s career on an unfortunate downward spiral. He snapped his anterior cruciate ligament in the third game of the following season, and then, after a year on the sidelines, he suffered another devastating blow in his return match.

“It was against Birmingham at St. Andrew’s,” says Sturridge. “I went between Michael Johnson and Steve Bruce and one of them caught my leg. I buckled and did my other cruciate, so I spent another year out. I’d only been on the pitch for three minutes after coming on as a sub.

“Those two years out killed me. The one thing you want to do is play football and it’s hard to watch everyone else going out and doing it instead. When you have a major injury and you’re out for a long, long time you start thinking about whether you’ll be able to carry on and how you can pick yourself up and go again. It was really difficult.”

Having finally recovered, Sturridge had a brief loan at Blackpool and then joined Northampton Town permanently in the hope of reviving his career. He saw it as a final roll of the dice to test whether he was capable of continuing, and performing at the same levels as he had previously. It wasn’t to be and he announced his retirement at the age of 31.

Sturridge then spent a couple of years working with former Blues team-mate Colin Gordon at his agency before deciding he needed a clean break from the world of professional football. He moved into education and has been there ever since, spending the last 15 years as a sports coach and mentor at St. Mary’s Primary School in Handsworth.

It’s been impossible to leave football completely behind, however, as the Sturridge family dynasty continues with a new generation. Simon and his brother Dean both did well, but have watched their nephew Daniel, the son of former Birmingham City youth team player Mike, take things to another level with Liverpool and England.

“It’s been amazing. He’s done a lot in his career, more than me and Dean, who did awfully well in the Premiership himself. For Daniel to come and surpass that has been amazing for him and the family too.

"It’s been great to see him grow and come through. Dean’s son is actually in the Aston Villa academy now, so the Sturridge tradition might continue for a little bit longer. Fingers crossed and we’ll wait and see. He’s 16 so if he can establish himself over the next few years he’ll be the next one off the production line,” he laughs.