John Aldridge: the man responsible for Liverpool’s thirty-year title drought?
A bit of a stretch maybe, and more than a tad unfair, but as we shall cover later, perhaps there is just the slightest grain of truth hidden deep in the underbelly of that, admittedly, click-bait statement.
Before we get into all that, let us have a look at the remarkable goalscoring career and record of the Liverpool-born John William Aldridge, in an odyssey that journeyed from the south of Wales to the Wirral via Oxford, Liverpool and Spain.
A born-and-bred Liverpool fan and Koppite, Aldridge’s dream was to play for his beloved reds, but despite being invited for trials at Anfield, he was to begin his career in football at Liverpool’s part-time near-neighbours, South Liverpool, who plied their trade in the Northern Premier League at the time.
Not gaining a regular place in the first team until the age of 20, Aldridge was a relatively late starter in the game, but after showing a knack for goalscoring, his name began to be well-known in local circles.
Taking particular note was the legendary Newport County manager, Len Ashurst. Figuring a £3,500 transfer fee was well worth a punt on, Ashurst signed Aldridge, put him in the first team, and watched his career begin to take off.
This was in May 1979, and over the next five seasons, Aldridge was to make almost 200 appearances and score a more than respectable 87 times. This was a period widely acknowledged to be Newport County’s greatest-ever, as it coincided with promotion from the Fourth Division, success in the Welsh Cup and an unforgettable run to the brink of the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1981.
Although banging in the goals regularly, the clock was continuing to tick for Aldridge who by now was 25 and had never played above the third tier. A seemingly sideways move to Oxford United in March 1984 offered not a great deal of promise for a drastically brighter future, but as things would turn out, the move to the Manor Ground and a regular place in the team being built by the manager Jim Smith would be the making of Aldridge.
When he joined Oxford, they were in the midst of a promotion battle to escape the third flight, and Aldridge’s four goals in eight appearances before the season’s end helped push them over the finishing line and into the Second Division.
This was now Aldridge’s big chance, and to say he took the bull by the horns would be an understatement, as he made up for lost time. A second successive promotion was gained in 1984-85, with Aldridge banging in no less than 23 league goals in 39 appearances, and 31 from 54 in all competitions, as the Second Division title was secured.
Smith moved on at the end of that season after falling out with the owner Robert Maxwell but the Oxford United success story continued to roll on with the League Cup Final being reached under Smith’s successor, Maurice Evans. Although Aldridge was unable to find the scoresheet that day, it was of little consequence as Oxford ran out 3-0 victors over Jim Smith’s new club, Queens Park Rangers.
With the goals regularly flying in, Aldridge’s name was continuing to be linked with other – bigger – clubs. In the summer of 1986, Liverpool announced that the coming season would be Ian Rush’s last at the club before leaving for pastures new in the shape of Italian football and Juventus. Aldridge’s name started being linked with a possible move to Anfield, but as the new season kicked off, he remained very much an Oxford United player.
By January 1987, Aldridge had netted 15 times in 25 times league appearances for Oxford and Kenny Dalglish’s mind was made up. Paying £750,000, he took Aldridge to Anfield and in doing so brought the Liverpool-daft supporter home full circle. It had been a long journey, but finally, at the age of 28, Aldridge was where he had always dreamed of being.
For the remainder of that 1986-87 season, Alrdidge was mainly deployed as a substitute and did not actually get off to the best of starts – only netting twice in ten appearances before the season’s end.
The 1987-88 season was different, however. Without the looming spectre of Ian Rush hanging over him, Aldridge was able to find his feet and come out of his shell. Dovetailing with the twin summer signings of Peter Beardsley and John Barnes, Aldridge hit a scoring streak of nine successive games at the start of the season as Liverpool hit the top of the table in early autumn and stayed there the remainder of the season.
The Liverpool side of this era is seen by many a wise owl in the game as the greatest in the club’s illustrious history, and Aldridge was an integral part of the team that thrilled audiences up and down the country. The football played was expansive and free-flowing, and unlike previous Liverpool sides that had been ruthlessly efficient but not perhaps known for blowing sides away, this particular vintage seemed to turn it on week after week in a style that won the neutrals over like never before.
A defence that held a high line encouraged the ball to be played quickly, sharply and concisely through the midfield where Barnes on the left and later Ray Houghton, Aldridge’s former Oxford United teammate, on the right would play into Beardsley up front. Aldridge’s job was more or less simply to be available to put the ball in the back of the net and this he did with aplomb all season.
With 26 strikes in 36 league games, Aldridge was comfortably Liverpool’s top goalscorer as the title was secured with four games still to play and by an eventual nine-point gap over runners-up, Manchester United.
In the FA Cup, Aldridge scored another two goals in the semi-final against Nottingham Forest and so Liverpool had the chance to complete the double when they met Wimbledon in the Wembley final. For practically the first and only time all season, Liverpool’s display was lethargic and turgid and Wimbledon deservedly led with 65 minutes gone. With Liverpool seemingly running out of ideas, they were thrown an unexpected and unwarranted lifeline when Aldridge was adjudged to have been fouled in the area and a penalty was given.
As Liverpool’s designated penalty taker, Aldridge stepped up to take what would be his thirtieth goal of the season (he had also netted once in the League Cup), but unlike his previous successful eleven spot kicks that season, this one went spectacularly wrong and Wimbledon ‘keeper, Dave Beasant, saved. Aldridge was substituted shortly afterward and Liverpool lost the game and the cup, 1-0.
If that was a disappointment for Aldridge, what happened in the summer could have sent him into a permanent flux. Having thought he had firmly established himself as the main man in terms of goal scorers at Liverpool, Aldridge now had to contend with the news that Liverpool were re-signing Ian Rush.
Rush had not really settled in Italy and as early as the previous December there had been mutterings that he would be on his way back to England after just one year. With Liverpool doing so well and having spent the Rush transfer fee on Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge himself, there was a feeling within the game that Dalglish would not necessarily be at the front of the queue to buy Rush back. This seemingly opened the door for other clubs to express an interest in signing Rush, with Everton and Manchester United said to be amongst the sides fancying their chances.
Either scenario was unpalatable for both Dalglish and Koppites alike and so the decision was made to take Rush back at a slightly reduced fee. This was supposedly good news for Liverpool, but potentially bleak for Aldridge who would now find his place back under scrutiny and threat.
As it happened, the 1988-89 season was not a strong one for Rush, as injuries and a lack of sharpness meant that he was not firing on all cylinders and so Aldridge pretty much kept his place in the team most of the season as Liverpool once again made a challenge for league and cup honours.
Once again, the club was foiled in its efforts to win the coveted double in the last game of the season, but this time it was the league in which they fell just short – being defeated 2-0 by Arsenal in the title decider. The FA Cup Final, played six days previously, had ended in a 3-2 victory for Liverpool over city rivals, Everton, with Aldridge banishing the misery of his penalty miss the year before by netting with his first touch of the ball after four minutes.
If Aldridge felt he was now on firmer ground in the stakes for a place in the side, he was to be bitterly disappointed in the 1989-90 season when Dalglish made it clear that he was reverting to a 4-4-2 formation with Beardsley and Rush acting as twin strikers. This meant there was no room for Aldridge, and to the Scouser’s great disappointment, he was suddenly surplus to requirements.
Desperate to recoup some of the money he had laid out to bring Rush ‘home’ a year earlier, Dalglish told Aldridge he was up for sale, like or not, and when a £1million offer came in from Spanish side, Real Sociedad, there really was no choice to make.
Liverpool would go on to win the 1989-90 title and the decision to sell Aldridge seemed to have been vindicated. However, things were never quite the same again once Aldridge left. The re-signing of Rush ultimately unsettled and unbalanced the Liverpool side just a little, and the partnership with Beardsley in a 4-4-2 formation was not a total success. Liverpool took that 1990 title by falling over the line somewhat in what was rather a weak season and from then started to fall away.
That particular Liverpool team under Dalglish continued to deteriorate the next season despite finishing runners-up to Arsenal, and it was to be many years before the Anfield men would once again challenge at the top of the table, and a whole three decades before the title was secured again. The selling of Aldridge to accommodate Rush could therefore be argued to have been one of the catalysts for the beginning of Liverpool’s malaise.
Aldridge himself was heartbroken to leave Anfield, but he made the most of his Spanish sojourn and he promptly rattled in 45 goals in 70 games for the Basque side.
In the summer of 1991, Aldridge returned to Merseyside when he signed for Tranmere Rovers, newly promoted to the Second Division for the first time in almost 50 years. Despite turning 33 a few months into the season, Aldridge rattled in a club-record 40 goals in his first season on the Wirral and would play for another four seasons before taking over as player-manager for another two.
John Aldridge played his last games for Tranmere in the 1997-98 season when he was pushing forty years of age. He ended his club career with a record of 422 goals in 792 games.
Qualifying through his Athlone-born maternal grandmother, Aldridge was eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland and he represented the country 69 times in ten years from 1986 onwards, scoring 19 times. These included appearances at the World Cup Finals of 1990 and 1994 and the 1988 European Championships.