Walk into any one of San Sebastián’s famed pintxo bars (tx is ch in Basque) and it is more than likely that you will find framed photos hanging from the walls containing past and present stars of the city’s adored football team, Real Sociedad. Normally these photos include the figures of the usual suspects – Xabi Prieto, Xabi Alonso, Txiki Begiristain, Jesús Zamora, Jesús María Satrústegui – but occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a photo of San Sebastián’s favourite foreign son – John Aldridge.
Aldridge joined the Txurri-Urdin (Blue and White) on a £1 million deal from his beloved hometown club Liverpool in 1989, and it was a historic transfer that generated a substantial amount of controversy in the Basque city.
For many years, La Real – in a similar vein to neighbours Athletic Club – had adopted a policy of only signing Basque players. The policy, a source of great pride for the fans, had brought the club some success, especially in the early 1980s when the side won back-to-back Liga titles, in 1981 and 1982.
The rest of the 80s, however, with the exception of a Copa del Rey win under Welsh manager John Toshack in 1987, were not as kind to the Gupizkoa-based outfit. By the end of the decade, the club were struggling to compete with their financially stronger rivals Athletic in the small fishing pond that is the Basque transfer market. In addition to this, clubs like Athletic and Barcelona often poached Real Sociedad’s best players.
For example, after winning the Copa del Rey in 1987, important players like Begiristain, Luis López Rekarte and José Mari Bakero all left for the Catalonian side. The final straw for the club’s hierarchy came in 1989 when striker Loren Juarros signed for Athletic for £1.5 million, which at the time was the most expensive transfer deal in Spanish history.
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Without a suitable replacement available in the club’s youth system, the Basque side were forced to look towards foreign shores. Proud fans were hesitant to abandon the Basque-only policy but the board felt it was the only option left, so a compromise was made; the club would sign foreigners but not Spaniards. As a result, John Aldridge became the first non-Basque player to join the club in over 40 years, and in the eyes of many fans, he still remains the best of all of them.
The Liverpool-born Irish international forward began his professional career at Welsh club Newport County. His five-year stint at the club included a famous run to the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981 and a return of 70 goals in 170 league appearances. His performances earned him a move to the ambitious Oxford United, where he carried on his fine goalscoring form and played a vital role, scoring 72 times as the club went from the old third division to the first division.
In the 1986/87 season, his boyhood club Liverpool agreed a deal to sell their star striker Ian Rush to Juventus for £3.2 million. Rush remained with Liverpool on loan for the rest of the season before departing, but manager Kenny Dalglish still needed a replacement. Halfway through the season, he made Aldridge’s dreams come true when he signed him for the Anfield cluv from Oxford for £750,000. A month later Aldridge made his debut alongside Rush.
The following two and a half years were the most prolific in Aldridge’s career. Aldridge, along with fellow new signings in winger John Barnes and Dalglish’s playing replacement, Peter Beardsley, formed one of the most exciting frontlines in Liverpool’s history. His efforts helped to win the First Division title in 1988, but it was also in this season that he heartbreakingly missed a penalty in the final of the FA Cup against Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang.
In the 1988/89 season, Rush returned from Juventus after failing to settle at the Turin club. Many expected Aldridge to be sold but his performances and continued goalscoring, and Rush’s failure to regain his form, meant that Dalglish persisted with a 4-3-3 formation, accommodating both players along with Beardsley. The side lost the title to Arsenal but won the FA Cup, beating Everton in the final thanks to two goals from Rush.
As the 1989/90 campaign began, Dalglish reverted to his favoured 4-4-2 system, deploying Rush and Beardsley together in the front two. For Aldridge, the writing was on the wall. It became apparent that in order to continue playing regularly he would have to leave Anfield. The anguish of this realisation is more than visible during an emotional interview he gave at the time, where he states that his preference would be to remain at Liverpool for the rest of his career.
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Given his previous season’s exploits of 26 goals, Liverpool were reluctant to sell Aldridge to a league rival, so when Real Sociedad came in with a £1 million bid, they accepted. As the presenter of the programme said: “Football has no time for sentiment.”
Aldridge had no choice; he could either go down a division or go to Spain, where he’d earn much more on a three-year deal.
Not only did Aldridge have to deal with the pressure of being the first non-Basque player to sign for the club in over 40 years, he was also the most expensive signing in its history up until that point. His arrival was met with a significant degree of animosity among fans.
On the way to his first training session he encountered graffiti stating ‘No Foreigners Allowed’, while on a separate occasion, a man spat in his direction during a walk through the streets of Donostia. Later, the leader of a prominent Peña (supporters group) declared that he would rather see his club in the third division than see a foreigner pull on the blue and white strip.
Aldridge’s first weeks did not settle any fears; his debut was a draw with rivals Osasuna, and a heavy 5-0 loss against Real Oviedo had the normally confident Aldridge wondering whether he had made a mistake in moving to San Sebastián. Within a few weeks, however, the striker’s charisma and honest style of play had endeared him to the fans, and he helped himself further by bagging his first two goals in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona.
In an interview on Spanish television, Aldridge spoke of how the more tactical style of La Liga meant that strikers had fewer chances to score. However, neither the language barrier nor the different style of football made a significant difference to the natural born goalscorer as he ended his first season in La Liga with a tally of 16 goals, the fourth-best return in the league. Furthermore, Real Sociedad finished in fifth and qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup.
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In his second season at the Basque side, Aldridge was joined by new British acquisitions in the forms of Dalian Atkinson and Kevin Richardson. On a personal level, this season was another success for Aldridge; he bettered his first season’s tally by scoring 17 times. However, the club finished in a disappointing 13th and, at the end of the season, to the surprise of many, Aldridge handed in a transfer request to his manager John Toshack. Toshack reluctantly accepted.
While Aldridge himself had adapted to his new lifestyle in Basque Country well, his family had failed to settle. He stated that he would have loved to fulfil his contract by staying for the third year but that his children yearned to return to Britain. Honest as ever, Aldridge affirmed that his family came first and that he needed to leave the left the club. He was sold to Tranmere a short while afterwards in a £250,000 deal.
Aside from his exploits on the pitch, Aldridge’s popularity grew due to the fact that he threw himself head first into the culture. He reportedly took Spanish lessons three times a week, conducting interviews in Spanish, and there are many anecdotes concerning his interactions with the city’s locals. He often comments on his great love for Basque cuisine and Spanish wine.
Basque communities are notoriously close-knit and weary of outsiders. Because of this, many viewed Aldridge as a villain when he joined Real Sociedad, but without a doubt, he left as a hero. The charming Liverpudlian with his signature moustache left quite the impression on the city. His honest performances and heart-on-sleeve personality were greatly appreciated at the Atotxa, and when he returned to the city for the first time in 2015, he was given a rapturous standing ovation at the new Anoeta as he greeted the fans at half time during a league game.
Basque people share many similarities with those from Merseyside: they both value hard work, loyalty and honesty, all of which are qualities that Aldridge boasted in abundance. As well as breaking barriers and goalscoring records, Aldridge also began an enduring footballing relationship between San Sebastián and Liverpool, evidenced by the careers of Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta and David Moyes.
In a recent interview with Mundo Deportivo, the interviewer informed Aldridge that, to this day, his personality remains the model that Real Sociedad look for when scouting foreign players. Sadly, almost 20 years on, British players plying their trade abroad are still few and far between; fewer still can claim to have had the same impact that Aldridge had at Real Sociedad during his time in the Basque Country. He made himself a legend and created a lasting footballing legacy
By Dan Parry @thelinesmanblog