Liam Brady, Ian Harte, and Kevin Doyle share a bond of nationality and trade: they are all Irish and they were all professional footballers who played ‘abroad’, which is to say in continental Europe or North America; though in my estimation, and contrary to popular consensus, the Premier League is abroad too, a foreign league.
Then there is the case of John Aldridge. Yes, he shares the characteristics of the players above, but he went one better – he was the first foreign player to turn out for Basque side Real Sociedad in some decades.
The significance of this moment far outstrips that of Luis Figo swapping Barcelona’s colours for the white of Real Madrid or Sol Campbell high-footing it to Arsenal from Tottenham.
The only other transfer that feels as significant is that of Catholic Mo Johnston’s move to Rangers, where goals helped heal sectarian divisions. Such was the bile upon his arrival from Nantes, the kit man refused to put out Mo’s jersey, and the striker had to do it himself.
Aldo eventually won the crowd over, like Johnston and other footballers before and since, with goals and style. As an ambassador in an unknown land, he did the only thing he could do – play football.
He would go on to – in his words – ‘break down barriers’.
But when he first arrived to Real Sociedad’s training ground, he found graffiti scrawled all over one wall. Curious as to what it meant, he was told that it signified that foreigners were not welcome. In another infamous incident, one fan spat on the ground and crossed the street when he spied the new signing walking around the city.
80,000 people gathered to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo when he was unveiled in 2009 at the Bernabeu. Aldridge’s reception, by comparison, was positively arctic.
On-field problems and the reality of surviving in the top-flight were the factors that broke the resolve of Sociedad. It was simply too difficult in the real politic world where the big clubs buy your best players, as Barca had done in 1987. Local rivalry was also an issue, and Athletic Club’s resources and extensive scouting network meant that they hoovered up the best Basque players.
After consulting the fans, the club decided to break with tradition and they signed John Aldridge.
The three players that had left for Barcelona criticized this move from a distance, appalled that a non-Basque was wearing their jersey. To compound the matter, he struggled to settle in for the first few weeks, and he was upset over being forced out of the Liverpool team.
But then there were goals aplenty. So much of them, in fact, that the locals of Donostia dubbed him Señor Gol. Two strikes bring particular satisfaction to Aldridge – his double against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in 1991, the year in which the Catalans won the league. On his return to Real Sociedad in 2015, he told reporters how scoring twice on that hallowed turf made him feel very proud.
The Republic of Ireland striker was often a thorn in the side of Barcelona, and in the previous season, he helped secure a 2-2 draw at home to the Catalan giants. Ronald Koeman got the Blaugrana off to a 1-0 lead, which soon became 2-0. Aldridge hustled and harried, and he got his reward when he scored from a header just before half-time. In the second half, he drew a penalty and successfully converted it.
He cemented his status in Sociedad by also scoring against Real Madrid in a 2-1 victory; the win sealed a nice bonus and bragging rights against a team that represented Spain. One teammate told him: ‘Aldo, we don’t like Madrid’.
A local butcher donated a juicy T-bone steak for every goal, and it was given to the player through a supporter’s club that would eventually bear his name.
What is striking when viewing old clips from on YouTube and reading the comments beneath – aside from conspiracies from Barcelona fans about Real Madrid and vice versa – is that many fans remember Aldridge as a crak, which more or less translates as a good guy, a fine footballer.
His gentle penalty in that match against Barca betrayed a player playing with confidence; this sensation was also present in his off-field persona.
His interviews were a mixture of English and Spanish with a Liverpudlian accent, and the media referred to him often as a ‘star signing’. Which he was, and a surprising one at that. When he left Liverpool, nobody else came in for him apart from Sociedad, and history has yet to unravel how a key forward in a rampant Reds side was so unwanted by any other team.
He was also, presumably, exotic, as on TV interviewer referred to him as Irish ‘but curiously born in Liverpool’. There was also an air of wistfulness in the reporter’s tone; Aldridge was getting older and there was the realization that he wouldn’t stick around forever. People were genuinely grateful that the footballer was taking Spanish lessons and enjoying the local people and cuisine.
After two years, the sojourn came to an end. While Aldo was happy in this picturesque part of the world, his family struggled to adapt to the language and the culture. He left reluctantly and the newspaper headlines bid him a tearful goodbye; it was a love affair keenly felt by both parties.
Now 32 years-of-age, the prolific striker hitched his wagon home to Merseyside and the strip of Tranmere Rovers; he scored a club record of 40 goals in his first season at Prenton Park.
John Aldridge eventually drew the curtain down on a glorious, goal-filled career in the 1997/1998 season.
The author Raymond Payne opined that ‘mankind has legs so it could wander’, and one might add it had those limbs so we could play football, too. Currently, Ireland has representation in twelve foreign lands, with Sean McDermott in Norway, Jack Byrne in the Dutch Eredivisie, and Cillian Sheridan crossing that white line in Poland.
These players will raise the profile of Ireland abroad, and then fade and dissipate, their memories kept alive by some of the fans who saw them in stadia across the globe, across all manner of leagues.
Football is nothing more than a bid for glory, and for most Aldo’s time in the Basque Country will dim with time, but fortunately, there will always be some who are intrigued and captivated by it. He was an outlier and a first, a benchmark through which there was a visible before and after.
Aldridge belongs to an era where footballers drank, played pranks and were generally more accessible. The politics in the País Vasco have also changed. But there are two timeless aspects to this story: one being there has long been a connection between Ireland and the north of Spain – through myth and history – and the other eternal truth is that footballers, like normal people, like you and me, will go where the work is, to build a life, to seek out new opportunities, and to build strong connections between the old and the new.
When Aldridge returned to San Sebastian in 2015, 30,000 fans gave him a hero’s welcome. They chanted his name during half-time – at a match against Espanyol – and soon the tears welled up in the ex-striker’s eyes, with his 40 goals, T-bone steaks and 75 appearances coming back to life again.