Monday, 3 September 2012

John Aldridge

1989 - 91 : Real Sociedad (Spain)

John William Aldridge was born in Liverpool, England in 1958. A natural striker, he began his career with local, minor side South Liverpool. In 1979, he moved to Welsh-based Conference side Newport County where he scored 70 goals in 170 games. In 1984, he moved to Oxford United, netting 72 goals in 114 games for the Us

While with Oxford, the English-born player was capped by the Republic of Ireland. Through the Grandparent rule, both he and Oxford team-mate Ray Houghton were eligible for the Republic. Aldridge made his debut in March 1986 against Wales at Lansdowne Road. Over the next ten years he made 69 appearances for Ireland, netting 19 goals. He also represented Ireland at Euro '88, World Cup '90 and World Cup '94.

Aldridge signing for Sociedad
In 1987, his boyhood dreams were realised as he signed for giants Liverpool. The Red's main striker, Ian Rush was being sold to Italian side Juventus the next summer, and Aldridge with his proud goalscoring record in the Football League was signed as a replacement. He was bought by Kenny Dalglish for 750,000 pounds and made his debut against Aston Villa in February. The following year, Aldridge proved he was more than a capabale replacement for Rush, as he bagged 25 goals, linking up with fellow newcomers Peter Beardsley and John Barnes. Over the next two years, the Irishman would win a League title, an FA Cup and two Charity Shields with the Anfield club, scoring 63 goals in the process.

Ian Rush's stint with Juventus, had famously been a failure, and he returned to Liverpool. Dalglish was determined to play a 4-4-2 formation, with Rush and Beardsley up front, and as a result Aldridge was told to move on. After two games in the 1989-90 season, Real Sociedad lodged a 1.5 million pound offer for the striker in September, which was accepted by Dalglish. 

For 40 years, Sociedad had followed the example of fellow Basque side Athletic Bilbao of signing only Basque players, but decided to drop this policy in the mid-1980s. When Aldridge signed for them on the 19th September, he thus became Sociedad's first non-Basque footballer since World War Two. This was met with some derision by a minority of fan's who held up a banner telling the Irishman he was not welcome at the club.

Real Sociedad de Futbol were founded in 1909. Hailing from the city of San Sebastien on the Bay of Biscay, they are based in the autonomous Basque country. Today they play their home matches at the 32,000 capacity Anoeta Stadium, but in 1989 they were playing at the Atotxa.

During the Spanish Civil War they changed their name to Donostia, but reverted back to Real Sociedad after the war. Between the 1930s and 1980s, the side fluctuated between Spain's top two divisions. However, they won back-to-back league titles in 1981 and 1982. A Copa del Rey was won in 1987 and a Super Cup in 1982. In 1988-89 under Welshman John Toshack, they had finished in 11th, a poor finish in relation to recent successes. Toshak went to Real Madrid and this is where Aldridge came in.

Also playing in Spain at the time was Irish international Ashley Grimes at Osasuna. Michael Robinson had just retired while Kevin Moran had returned to England.

Coaching Sociedad was local man, Marco Antonio Boronat, who had been given the task of improving on last season's disappointment. 

John Aldridge's first match was a 1-0 home win against Osasuna on September 24th. His first goals came on October 21st against non other than Barcelona. In a stellar performance he scored twice in a 2-2 home draw. Aldridge later stated that it was after this performance, that the club's fans grew to accept him.

In November, he found the net in a 2-1 home win over Toshack's Madrid. He developed a knack for scoring against the league's big hitters. He bagged two more goals against giants Barcelona in a 2-2 away draw in February and one another against Valencia in yet another 2-2 draw. Crucially he found the net away to Sevilla in a 0-1 win on the season's last day, to ensure Sociedad's 5th place finish to the season and UEFA Cup qualification. Aldridge was the league's fourth highest goalscorer with 16 goals. Real Madrid were champions.

In the summer of 1990, Sociedad furthered their British recruitment by signing English striker Dalian Atkinson from Sheffield Wednesday, who became the club's first black player. They also snapped up midfielder Kevin Richardson

Although he learned Spanish, Aldridge's family didn't settle

Aldridge kicked off his second season in Spain with a goal at home to Real Zaragoza in a 1-0 win. He kept up the habit of scoring against big sides including ValenciaSevillaReal Madrid and Barcelona. Sociedad even came away from the Santiago Bernabeau and Camp Nou with unlikely victories. Atkinson scored 12 goals, but Aldridge netted 17, finishing as La Liga's second top goalscorer that year.

In the UEFA Cup, he bagged a second-leg goal at home to Switzerland's Lausanne in the First Round to send Real through.

Aldridge nets against Lausanne

However, in the next round they went out on penalties to Yugoslavia's Partizan Belgrade on penalties. Aldridge himself missed his penalty and Real crashed out of Europe. Partizan would be knocked out by eventual champions Internazionale in the next round.

In January, Boronat was plucked by Deportivo la Coruna, and the wheels came off the side's progress. Assistant Javier Exposito was promoted on a caretaker basis, yet Sociedad finished in a disappointing 13th place. Barcelona were league champions. That summer, John Toshack (another former Liverpool striker) was brought back, after his stint at Real Madrid had ended in a disappointing 3rd place finish.

Aldridge's time with Sociedad was extremely succesful, and the Irishman became a cult hero at the Atotxa. Despite this success, his family were having trouble settling in Northern Spain and in the summer of 1991 Aldridge handed in his transfer request to Toshack.

An Aldridge trading card
Despite his goalscoring exploits with Sociedad, Aldridge could only earn a move to English Second Division club Tranmere Rovers, back in Liverpool. Meanwhile, lesser striker Dalian Atkinson managed to move to First Division club Aston Villa...the mysteries of football.

He looks back on his time in Spain with fondness still, "I thoroughly enjoyed it, the experience was phenomenal. I loved it". 

He became as much a legend at Tranmere as he had been in San Sebastien, and even managed the club in later years. Today he is a common feature of sports radio and television programs and podcasts. Although born in England, Aldridge is considered by most Irish people an Irishman, and has been thoroughly accepted into the frame of Irish public life as a recognisable and loved figure in Ireland today.

John Aldridge went to Spain, broke records, turned heads, scored goals and learned the lingo. What a pity his family couldn't settle, but that represents no shame on him. A great striker, and a decent fellow, remembered by Sociedad fans for his great scoring ability, his charm and his charismaJohn Aldridge is an Irish soccer hero. 

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