With big matches looming for the two teams closest to his heart, there are a big nine days coming up for John Aldridge, striker turned pundit and still, after all these years, a fan to the core.
Tomorrow, there’s that potential title six-pointer at Anfield for Liverpool against Manchester City and then, on Monday week, it’s the turn of Ireland to take pride of place in his heart as Mick McCarthy’s team bid to claim Euro 2020 glory against Denmark.
That night at the Aviva will also see the man they call ‘Aldo’ honoured as a ‘Lansdowne Legend’, the game against the Danes coming just three days after what will be the 30th anniversary of the Irish victory in Malta in 1989 which secured an historic first-ever qualification for the World Cup Finals.
It was also the game in which, having for so long sacrificed his goal-scoring instincts to lead Jack Charlton’s version of the high press, Aldridge finally broke his competitive duck for his country, scoring not once but twice to send Ireland off to Italy.
For Aldridge, it was a moment of sweet release near the end of a tumultuous year in which the one-time Koppite had been so traumatised by the Hillsborough disaster that he had to be excused, on compassionate grounds, from Ireland’s crucial 1-0 home win against Spain which took place just 11 days later.
“At that time it was hard,” the now-61-year-old rememberesaid yesterday. “People don’t know what we (the players) actually went through. Looking back, for me to turn down a game against Spain, I must have been in a bad place. My head was all over the place.
“The one thing I would never do is not play for my country — but for that reason.
“You look back and it was horrendous, the things we saw. You saw what happened to Son the other week, people saying he needs counselling, and in this day and age, counselling is a big thing. That’s one thing we never got. All of the players. To this day, it still affects me.
”Certain things happened on the day and what happened at the 11 funerals I went to, I couldn’t talk about it for a long time. And the best thing is to talk about it. I learned that afterwards — to get it out.”
One thing that did lift him, he says, was Ireland beating Spain —especially since there was part of him which, as he watched the game unfold on television at home, felt he’d let the team down by not making himself available.
“But I knew I wouldn’t have been at my best,” he clarifies. “And when we won, I was absolutely delighted.”
All the more reason then for Aldo to celebrate the brace which finally got Jack Charlton’s boys over the line in Malta. Of his 19-game goal drought before breaking his duck in a friendly against Tunisia the previous year, he says: “Probably with any other country I would have been sacked. So scoring those goals against Malta was massive for me. Once I got the monkey off my back with the Tunisia tap-in — because Ray (Houghton) could have scored himself — the mental block went and then I scored more or less one in every two games from my 20th cap to my 69th.”
Looking ahead to Monday week, and the chance for another Irish team to take the final step towards another major tournament, Aldridge suggests that desire and application can go a long way to making up for the current squad’s shortage of the kind of top quality, big club players with whom he soldiered back in the 80s and 90s.
“It’s all about this game,” he says.
“And concentration — which we didn’t have against these last time. And theycapitalised on that, mostlybecause of Eriksen.”
On that painful score, Aldo doesn’t hesitate to use the term ‘payback time’.
“As a player, if a team turned us over, it really hurt me, deep down,” he says. “And you’d think: we’ve got to get them back when it came around next time. WithDenmark, now is the time to think that.”
Before that game, of course, he is hoping that his beloved Reds can take a big step towards ending their 30-year title drought against the champions at Anfield tomorrow.
Would he have fancied playing in Jurgen Klopp’s team?
Indeed, would he even have gotten into it!?!
“I wouldn’t comment on the last question,” he grinned, “but I’d certainly have fancied it, yeah. The front three, on their day, are ridiculously good. Having said that, this season they’ve been under-par. They’ve never played well together in one given game.
“So, I’m hoping that will come on Sunday. But as far as the team goes — wow.
“We broke records when I was there. I played in that fantastic side with Barnsey, Beardsley, Ray, Ronnie, McMahon, and Molby. It was just ridiculously good to play in it. These lads have taken that on board and they have made themselves, for want of a better word, legends — winning the European Cup, only losing one game in so many in the Premier League. It takes some doing. So, Jurgen has built something special.”
And yet the Holy Grail has continued to prove elusive.
“The league, yeah. If somebody had said to you 30 years ago that Liverpool wouldn’t win the league until now, you’d have laughed in their face. But it’s happened. Is it a mental thing? I don’t know. But they’ve got a great opportunity now.
“But it’s going to be tough because City won’t let up. They are brilliant in themselves.”