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How John Aldridge taught Tranmere Rovers to dream big

Trouble brewed in San Sebastian. John Aldridge, one of the greatest strikers in world football, was homesick. His move to Real Sociedad had been an unmitigated success, in terms of goals, but Aldridge hated being away from his family.

In the summer of 1991, a Liverpool Daily Post article illustrated the struggles of his wife and kids to assimilate in the Basque Country, and a copy of that newspaper wound up on the cluttered desk of Johnny King, manager of Tranmere Rovers. Pretty soon, the maverick gaffer had a plan. It would lead him to orchestrate the most shocking transfer in the history of English football.

How Tranmere Rovers signed John Aldridge from Real Sociedad

King got on a plane and went to visit Aldridge. The former Liverpool great wanted to be near his Merseyside roots and, well, Tranmere was most definitely close enough. Aldridge also thrived on a certain brand of football, with teammates supplying ample ammunition for his goalscoring crusades. Tranmere could offer that, too, in the shape of Johnny Morrissey and Chris Malkin. King had nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain.

After brief discussions, Aldridge, then 32, was open to the idea of joining Rovers in the second division. However, Sociedad weren’t about to let their talisman leave on the cheap. Aldridge had scored 33 goals in two La Liga seasons, and he was the first non-Basque signing in club history. Aldo had scored six times against Barcelona and also against Real Madrid, establishing Sociedad as a serious threat. Club directors demanded £500,000 from Tranmere for his release, but King managed to barter a half-price deal at £250,000. Football was duly rocked to its foundations as Rovers got their man.

Inserting John Aldridge into a second division team was akin to having Michelangelo paint your living room. This was a guy who had regularly outscored his peers in the top divisions of England and Spain, a full-blooded international superstar suddenly playing upfront for Tranmere Rovers. The mismatch of skill and context was absurd.

“He’s the greatest striker in the world,” said King when unveiling Aldridge at Prenton Park. “He’s a perfect pro and a good lad. The sort you’d choose to go to war with.”

A modern equivalent of the transfer is difficult to comprehend. The main protagonist would probably be Luis Suarez or Wayne Rooney, and the associated fee would be truly astronomical. In short, it would simply never happen. That Johnny King was able to pull it off, with support from his chairman Peter Johnson, is nothing short of miraculous. It totally transformed the arc of Tranmere Rovers history.

John Aldridge and Friday Night Football at Tranmere Rovers

Aldo’s first game in a white shirt was a pre-season friendly against Liverpool, with whom he won the First Division title and FA Cup just a few years earlier. Naturally, Aldridge scored and Rovers won 1-0 before 14,246. It was a harbinger of greatness to come.

In his competitive debut, Aldridge scored both goals in a 2-0 success over Brighton. He followed that with a further strike against Bristol Rovers and five goals across two legs against Halifax in the League Cup. Aldo scored nine goals in his first five games for Tranmere, who played before bumper crowds around the country. This was King’s travelling circus, Johnson’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters. Rovers were in the second division for the first time in 51 years and there was no holding back. Birkenhead was hungry for success.

In October 1991, Aldridge bagged another hat-trick against Newcastle in a famous 6-6 draw at Prenton Park. Mickey Quinn, a fellow scouser, grabbed three goals of his own for the visitors, only for Rovers to win the Zenith Data Systems Cup tie on penalties. It was boomtime for football on God’s peninsula. Anything seemed possible.

A distinct culture coalesced at Prenton Park. Attendances were up by more than 2,000 from the previous season as people flocked to watch Aldridge. Rovers have never had more appeal, with Liverpool and Everton fans even crossing the Mersey to watch Tranmere. Many fell in love with the club, seeing the light and changing their allegiance. Friday Night Football took on a life of its own, seasoning the identity of Tranmere Rovers as a club of powerful otherness.

Fans made an absolute fortune betting on Aldo to score first, or to score a hat-trick. They watched King’s swashbuckling style from the iconic Cowshed, swaying with delight. The average attendance at Prenton Park in the 1990s was 7,890, up from 2,903 in the 1980s, a startling increase. The turnstiles on Borough Road hadn’t been so busy since the 1950s, when a post-war boom led to a spike in mass consumption.

People who had never thought about going to watch Tranmere actually got off their arses and supported their local club. More importantly, they actually enjoyed it, appreciating the personal bonds that made lower league football great.

Without John Aldridge, the crowds would never have grown, the fanbase would never have expanded, and the notion of Tranmere Rovers in mainstream minds never would have changed. The stadium would never have been redeveloped, and it never would have seated so many people. The club never would have been so important, if not for the moustachioed messiah who taught it to dream big.

“Aldo is like a nice pair of shoes in a shop,” said King. “You stare at them in the window, and then you find you have enough to buy them. He’s like El Cid. Even when he’s dead, you could strap him to a trolley, wheel him to the far post and watch him knock one in.”

When Tranmere Rovers had the greatest striker on earth

With telepathic positional sense, Aldridge seemed pre-programmed to find space where nobody else could, usually in the six-yard box, typically to devastating effect. He scored 40 goals in his first Tranmere season, tying the club record held by Bunny Bell since 1933-34. Aldridge scored 18 goals in cup competitions alone, more than most mere mortals could muster across the board.

You could argue that, during the 1991-92 season, John Aldridge was the greatest striker on earth. His goal tally dwarfed that of Ian Wright (29) and Gary Lineker (28) in the English top flight; that of Fritz Walter (22) and Stéphane Chapuisat (20) in Germany; and of Manolo (27), Fernando Hierro (21) and Hristo Stoichkov (17) in Spain. Marco van Basten of AC Milan won the Ballon d’Or, but a case can be built for Aldridge usurping even the Dutchman in that historic campaign.

The fruits of Aldo’s genius became almost metronomic in delivery. His seasonal goal tally went from 26 to 28 to 26 to 29. Tranmere reached the second division playoffs in three consecutive seasons, losing each time to Swindon, Leicester and Reading, respectively. It’s a painful quirk of Rovers history that, when it mattered most, in six crucial games at the cusp of Premier League ascension, Aldridge didn’t manage to score. Tranmere smashed up against the glass ceiling of tier two. They just couldn’t break through.

Aldo played in the Anglo-Italian Cup for Rovers, carrying the Tranmere brand overseas. He also played a vital role in the famous League Cup run of 1993-94, scoring seven goals in seven appearances as Rovers beat Oxford, Grimsby, Oldham and Nottingham Forest to reach the semi-final against Aston Villa. John scored in both legs, but Tranmere were infamously robbed by poor refereeing and snide gamesmanship, eventually losing on penalties.

While at Prenton Park, Aldo continued to play for the Republic of Ireland, winning 30 caps during that period, the most by a serving Tranmere player. In 1994, he also became the first active Rovers player to score at the World Cup finals, slotting home against Mexico before 60,790 in Orlando.

Aldridge scored his 400th career goal at Tranmere, where he topped 20 league strikes in five straight seasons. He notched eight hat-tricks for the club and would eventually be remembered as the most prolific British goalscorer of the post-war epoch.

“Finding a replacement for Ian Muir was like mushrooming in Halewood,” King said. “Most of the time, you’d find nothing, but then, all of a sudden, you’d spot a big one and you had to pick it there and then before someone else got it. That’s the chance I had with Aldo, and I’m so excited for the club that I could take it.”

How John Aldridge became player-manager at Tranmere Rovers

King was forced upstairs into a director role in April 1996, somewhat controversially. Frank Corfe, a divisive director, offered Aldridge the chance to become player-manager. Aldo was caught in a dilemma, feeling loyalty to King for bringing him home but also eyeing the next stage of his career. At 38, Aldridge took the offer, beating Ronnie Moore to the managerial reins.

Aldo began to use himself less as 1997 merged into 1998. His final game as a player came at home to Wolves in May 1998, with 11,144 on hand at Prenton Park. Tranmere won 2-1 and John scored both, naturally. At 39 years and 228 days old, he pipped George Payne as the oldest player ever to appear in a Rovers league match to that point.

John finished second only to Muir in the club’s all-time goalscoring charts, falling just six goals short in 99 less appearances. A testimonial was held before Aldridge focused solely on his managerial duties.

How John Aldridge rebuilt Tranmere Rovers on a shoestring budget

His time as Tranmere boss was characterised by mounting financial difficulties. Peter Johnson left Rovers to take charge at Everton, appointing then-girlfriend Lorraine Rogers to look after his controlling interest. Corfe left the club in acrimonious circumstances in September 1998 with Johnson demanding a repayment of £500,000 for works carried out by Corfe’s construction company, which experienced financial turbulence. Tranmere was left without a main benefactor, forced to spend only what it earned. The results weren’t pretty.

Whereas King was given the resources to build a dynasty, buying galacticos such as Aldridge and Pat Nevin, Aldo had no such privilege in the hot seat. Amid austerity, he relied on ageing veterans plucked from the scrap heap - Wayne Allison and Stuart Barlow, Paul Rideout and Dave Kelly, Richard Jobson and Graham Allen – and youngsters who graduated from the academy – Jason Koumas and Alan Mahon, Clint Hill and Steve Simonsen.

Rovers declared an all-time record loss of £1.96 million in 1996, and promising defender Alan Rogers was sold for £2 million to balance the books. A cycle of doom began in earnest, with a recurring black hole in the Tranmere budget plugged with player sales that ate away at the club’s chances of genuine success.

A feisty competitor, Aldridge was always scraping the barrel for money, cajoling club officials to find more capital. But it simply wasn’t there, as league positions slipped and frustrations mounted. In his autobiography, Aldo claims to have loaned the club £50,000, which he eventually got back. However, a 5% bonus on each player sale was purportedly part of the original deal and Aldridge never saw that money as the tectonic plates of Prentonia shifted angrily.

Ian Moore was sold for £1 million. Tony Thomas, Paul Cook and Eric Nixon followed him out the door. Simonsen netted a £1 million down payment from Everton, while Kenny Irons, Micky Mellon and John McGreal were flogged for a quick buck. When Tranmere allowed young starlet Alan Mahon to join Sporting Lisbon on a free transfer, Aldridge was livid. He was convinced that the club would never be allowed to achieve its true potential.

The lost art of giant-killing - Tranmere Rovers under John Aldridge

Nevertheless, Aldo inspired some of the greatest performances and results in Tranmere Rovers history, patching up the creaking rocket for one more assault on the moon. In the league, Tranmere were moribund also-rans, but in the cup competitions, they were transformed into one of the most prolific giant-killing juggernauts in football history.

In 1997-98, Rovers reached the FA Cup fifth round, beating Sunderland en route to a narrow defeat by Newcastle. Two seasons later, Aldridge authored arguably the greatest season in Rovers’ history, a mid-table finish in Division Two complimented by a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals and an unlikely trip to the League Cup final. Haemorrhaging money and power by the second, little old Tranmere wreaked havoc in a grand revival. The true scope of their achievements is still difficult to comprehend.

In the FA Cup, Rovers beat West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham before losing once more to Newcastle, this time 3-2 as 15,776 crammed into Prenton Park. Tranmere would have played Chelsea in the semi-finals, but merely reaching that stage was a monumental success.

However, in the League Cup, Rovers trumped their own heroics, beating Blackpool, Barnsley and Middlesbrough to reach the semi-finals, where they thrashed old rivals Bolton in stunning fashion. Teetering on the brink of capitulation, Tranmere were going to Wembley. A second division team on the precipice of destruction, Rovers were one win away from competing in the UEFA Cup. Even Hollywood would have rejected the script.

Tranmere took almost 30,000 fans to Wembley. They even had the audacity to score a late equaliser before succumbing to Leicester City, who went on to play Red Star Belgrade in Europe. A 112% boost in season ticket sales nourished the Rovers fanbase, but Aldridge saw little of the additional revenue nor any of the competition prize money. He was left to inspire herculean efforts from his decidedly ordinary players, with scant reward for their extraordinary results.

Aldridge used every trick in the book, allowing Tranmere to compete with the giants of English football despite meagre resources. Dave Challinor honed a long throw-in that became a key tool in the weaponry, while Aldo did everything in his power to create a hostile environment for any opposition.

The 2000-01 campaign was by far the most bittersweet Rovers have ever experienced. In the league, they were just not good enough, as years of neglect finally culminated in relegation. Tranmere amassed just 38 points from 46 games, falling out of the second division after a decade in the sun. However, in the cups, they once again morphed into a dream team of predatory world-beaters, with all comers dreading a trip to Prenton Park.

Rovers came within a whisker of another League Cup quarter-final, losing on penalties to Crystal Palace after triumphing over Halifax, Swindon and Leeds United in another thrilling rollercoaster ride. Meanwhile, in the FA Cup, they unleashed the most spine-tingling crusade of all-time, beating Portsmouth to earn a date with Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park.

Aldridge orchestrated the single greatest result in Tranmere’s existence, a 3-0 victory over Everton in their own backyard with 39,207 in attendance. Steve Yates scored two and Koumas notched the other as a lifetime of supposed inferiority was banished in one afternoon. The poorer, uglier sibling finally fought back. Birkenhead emerged from the shadows.

In the fourth round, Tranmere met Southampton, another Premier League outfit managed by England darling Glenn Hoddle. A draw on the south coast necessitated a replay at Prenton Park, with the winner facing Liverpool. Excitement reached unbearable levels, only for Rovers to flop under the spotlight and concede three goals in the first half, all but ending the contest.

Some fans caught the early bus home, resigned to defeat. John Aldridge had other ideas, however, and nothing would stop him having a crack at his former team. He delivered a famously rambunctious team talk, perhaps with the use of teacups as motivational projectiles, and sent his weary troops back out to the trenches.

Rideout diverted an Andy Parkinson shot into the net shortly before the hour. He grabbed a second after 71 minutes, and completed a remarkable hat-trick with ten minutes remaining. On as a substitute, Barlow swooped home a fourth for Tranmere, sparking sheer pandemonium inside Prenton Park.

Down 3-0 against Premier League opposition, all but consigned to the third division, Tranmere scored four goals in twenty-four minutes to win the game, earning a match against their ultimate rivals. Grown men cried in the stands. There had never been a noise like it inside the ancient burial ground. The ramshackle Rovers had done it again.

Tranmere gave a good account of themselves against a full-strength Liverpool featuring Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Rovers twice fought to within striking distance, trailing 2-1 and then 3-2 before Fowler finally killed them off with a fourth for Liverpool with eight minutes remaining. Still, Tranmere had finally competed against their nemesis, trading blows with the monolith as 16,344 looked on. John Aldridge had worked wonders.

Perry Taylor and John Aldridge - a cautionary tale

At this stage, it would be remiss not to mention the claims made by Perry Taylor, a promising Tranmere youth player, as to the thin line between motivation and outright aggression that Aldridge walked as Rovers boss.

An England youth international tipped for stardom, Taylor made serious accusations of bullying and abuse against Aldridge during his time at Tranmere, and those claims should be handled with care.

There are two sides to every story, and as a mere writer retracing this period in retrospect, I cannot accurately corroborate nor deny those reports. The details are included here in the spirit of full disclosure, but any judgement on those purported to be involved, negatively or otherwise, should be left to other people using other platforms.

This is not the place to pass judgement on character, and I do not wish to discredit the reputation of anybody without full access to the facts. I suggest that each individual reader should investigate this situation further and draw their own conclusions. I do not endorse a position on either side of the debate.

Why does John Aldridge associate more with Liverpool than Tranmere Rovers?

John Aldridge resigned as Tranmere manager in March 2001 following a 3-2 loss to Barnsley. Kevin Sheedy and Ray Mathias saw the season out in temporary control before Dave Watson was selected to spearhead a revival from the third division. Needless to say, that revival never happened as Rovers collapsed into the non-league abyss over the next fourteen years.

Nowadays, Aldo has little association with Tranmere aside from very occasional tweets and media appearances. Some fans resent his sabre-rattling as a Liverpool ambassador, keenly highlighting the fact that Aldridge spent just two years of his career at Anfield as opposed to ten at Prenton Park. The guy recently got a six-star tattoo to celebrate Liverpool winning the Champions League, more than a little jarring for Rovers fans who detest their oppressor.

Yet regardless of latent disapproval and unsubstantiated gossip, John Aldridge will always remain the most productive representative that Tranmere Rovers have ever had.

As a player and manager, Aldo helped Rovers play in 61 rounds of different cup competitions in a 10-season span.

As a goalscorer and mastermind, he led Tranmere to a League Cup final, a League Cup semi-final, two FA Cup quarter-finals and three second tier playoff semi-finals.

As a talisman and figurehead, he helped Birkenhead punch above its weight, even if the ultimate happy ending never quite materialised.

We love John Aldridge, even if he rarely loves us back. Few people have made a greater impact at Prenton Park, and his excellence should never be forgotten.

From the sandy beaches of northern Spain, Aldo returned to Merseyside and wrote another chapter in the history books. He taught Tranmere Rovers to dream big and came closer than anybody else to delivering that ultimate fantasy. We must always celebrate the fact that such a transformative icon graced Prenton Park with his presence.

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