Aldridge in search of extra time

Simon O'Hagan meets the born scorer chasing a record and an extended career
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The Independent Online
JOHN ALDRIDGE has only one goal to go to match Frank Stapleton's record of 20 for the Republic of Ireland. And there would be no better time for him to score than on Wednesday in Lisbon when Jack Charlton's side meet Portugal in their final European Championship qualifier, a match which could mark the end of an era for both men.

Their histories have been bound up ever since March 1986 when, for his first match in charge, against Wales, Charlton picked a 27-year-old Oxford United forward untried at international level. "I don't remember too much about it to be honest," Aldridge said last week. "It was a horrible murky day at Lansdowne Road. We lost 1-0."

From such unpromising beginnings, Charlton passed into Irish legend. And if Aldridge has never quite acquired a comparable status as a player - in the way, for example, that his fellow-veteran Paul McGrath has - his is still a remarkable achievement. Not many players start their international careers as late in life as Aldridge; even fewer, if they are strikers, do what he did and go for their first 19 internationals without scoring. Yet he can now look back on 65 caps and 19 goals and a central role in the seemingly never-ending drama that has been Irish football for almost a decade. And if Aldridge has his way, there will be more to come.

At 37, he says, it doesn't get any easier. On Thursday, he hadn't got out of bed until quarter to 12 - such was the effect of the match the night before when, after Aldridge had struck a 91st-minute equaliser, Tranmere Rovers went down to Birmingham in extra time in a Coca-Cola Cup third-round replay. Yet in spite of being almost twice the age of some of those on the pitch, Aldridge gave yet another peerless demonstration of the striker's art.

His goal was typical: a cross to the far-post, the little knock-down, and there was Aldridge, two yards off the line, to prod the ball in. Long- range for Aldridge would be somewhere around the penalty spot. "I don't know if it's natural or if he thinks about it, but he seems to go where the ball isn't," said Aldridge's Tranmere team-mate Pat Nevin. "It's all about movement in the box, getting away from your marker," Aldridge said. "It's just a matter of instinct. And it seems to have got better as time has gone on."

That would explain how the years have done nothing to check the rate at which Aldridge has continued scoring. In fact, it has picked up as he has got older. His total number of career goals in all senior matches going back to when he first played in 1979-80 stands at well over 400. In 16 years of League football, at Newport County, Oxford, Liverpool, Real Sociedad and Tranmere, he has scored 322 goals - 98 of them coming in the last four and a bit seasons. So how does he do it?

"It's just a love of the game," Aldridge said. "A hunger for goals. A desire to do well. A mixture of those things. I wouldn't know what I'd do without the game. I mean the thought of having to stop really horrifies me. I'd have to get into one of these old boys' leagues." Nevin compares Aldridge's enthusiasm for goalscoring to a child's. "It's like when you're nine or ten. You just love to bash the ball into the net. The sheer joy of it. I'm absolutely convinced he's still got it."

So too is the man whose record Aldridge stands to equal. But, says Frank Stapleton, Aldridge's chances of doing so this week depend on the tactics Charlton adopts. For the European Championship qualifier in Austria at the beginning of the season, the Irish played with only one man up front - Niall Quinn - and lost 3-1. For the next match, at home to Latvia, 4- 4-2 was restored and so was Aldridge - and he scored both goals in a 2- 1 win. Now the Irish travel to the group leaders knowing that a win would bring them to England in 1996, and that even if they drew or lost they could still qualify depending on the outcome of Northern Ireland's match against the only other contenders for a place in the finals, Austria.

Matters are complicated by the likely disruption of the Irish midfield. Roy Keane is out injured and so too might be Andy Townsend and Steve Staunton. "In that situation Jack might go for five across the middle," Stapleton said. "Though to my mind it hasn't really worked because then the midfield tends to be more defence-minded. You're conceding the game before you start. You're better playing two up front with one of them dropping back. When someone's in form like John is you've got to play him and hope he'll nick one for you.You've got to go for bust."

Aldridge agrees that it needs 4-4-2 for him even to get on the field. Whatever happens, it's a daunting match. "We're a bit apprehensive," Aldridge said. "We know what's at stake. It could mean the end of a lot of things - the end of Jack, the end of myself as an international, the end of a lovely nine and a half years. But with all that in mind perhaps it'll help us to fight another day." And in Aldridge's case, the days just go on and on.