Football: This man does cruel things to defenders: Guy Hodgson reports on the goalscoring exploits of John Aldridge, the cutting edge of Tranmere Rovers' promotion campaign

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The Independent Online
IT IS an old football joke. So-and-so striker hardly got a kick of the ball, a sheepish defender will say, the crunch line in self-deprecation being 'and he got a hat-trick'. John Aldridge has been that so-and-so for more years than centre-backs would care to remember.

On Saturday it was a familiar story. Tranmere Rovers 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0, and all three goals were claimed by the lean, dark-haired 34-year-old with a passing resemblance to Ian Rush. Almost anonymous outside the penalty area, all three strikes had the Aldridge signature scribbled over them: lightning reactions and an almost super-human awareness of the whereabouts of opponents. Defences know all about Aldridge and still they seek him here, there and everywhere.

The hat-trick against Wolves made it 20 for the season following on from 40 goals from 56 Cup and League games last season. That has pushed his total in senior football beyond 300 and into an esteem reserved for the likes of Jimmy Greaves and Gary Lineker. 'He is the greatest striker in the world,' his Tranmere manager, John King, says. 'He's a perfect pro and a good lad. The sort you'd choose to go to war with.'

Arthur Cox, manager of First Division promotion rivals Derby and at the receiving end of four Aldridge goals last season, concurs. 'People say he's only scoring in quantity because of the division he's in. But they are quality goals, John Aldridge goals. The sort he'd score at any level. Players like him are normally only found abroad or with the very top clubs in this country. The First Division and the people who go along to watch it ought to feel privileged that he's playing at this level.'

Aldridge has been making spectators feel privileged at a rate of a goal every other game since Newport County paid pounds 3,500 to acquire his services from South Liverpool 15 years ago. From there he went to Oxford, Liverpool, where he replaced the Juventus-bound Rush, and Real Sociedad before arriving at Prenton Park at the start of last season for pounds 250,000.

In the age of million-pound reserves it has proved to be an inspired signing. Tranmere, who many had feared would struggle, finished in their highest position ever last season, and now are in second place in the First Division. The Premier Division, Aldridge's professed aim, is a realistic prospect.

'I wanted to sign John when he was 19,' King said, 'but the club couldn't afford it and Newport's Len Ashurst, whose brother lives in Merseyside and read we were interested, stepped in. It was gratifying to see your judgement proved right when he kept scoring but not as satisfying as finally getting him here.

'People talk about how old he is but as far as I'm concerned ages are only for birth certificates. Some footballers are too old at 21, others reach their prime when they turn 30 and John is like a well-oiled machine. He's the fastest gunslinger in town.'

King moved quickly 18 months ago when he heard the Republic of Ireland striker was keen to move back to Britain because his wife Joan and two children were homesick. Tranmere, newly promoted to the then Second Division, was probably not what Aldridge had in mind but King took the gamble, flew to Spain, and returned with his man. 'The Sociedad directors tried to up the price to nearly pounds 500,000 but we beat them down to what we could afford,' he said. Even so it was twice what the club had paid for a player before.

'It was Merseyside that was the attraction,' Aldridge admits. 'I'm from the area and the family had settled there when I'd been at Liverpool. I also knew that Tranmere played the kind of football I like: two wingers, plenty of crosses. You're not going to get to score no matter who you are if the ball's hardly ever in the area.'

Aldridge has always been a striker. Even as a boy he had no inclination to dribble down the wing or make defence-splitting passes from midfield. He had seen Roger Hunt while watching Liverpool from the terraces and he was his role model. Even now, when he chooses Marco van Basten as probably the best striker he has seen, you get the impression his soul is screaming out the World Cup winner's name in his ear.

'He was fantastic, so cool in the box,' he said, unintentionally giving a fair description of himself. 'Scoring goals is something you're born with,' he continued. 'You just want to keep putting the ball in the net. Even now I don't think about the process of scoring, I don't analyse why I got into this or that position, it just happens. Ask a goalscorer and he won't know why he went to the near post, he just goes there. Gary Lineker says the same. It's instinct.

'You hate not scoring. If a match goes by and I've not got a goal there's an empty feeling. Obviously you'd rather win than lose, but you're not satisfied with a 3-0 victory if you've not got a goal. You think about the chances you had, they don't go away. Every striker has a run of matches when he doesn't score but the worst I've had so far is five.'

Never was he more deadly than when he provided the finishing touches to the art work of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley at Liverpool, a period he describes as the high point of his career. A championship was won in 1988 before Rush's return to Anfield heralded the end of his spell there, a decision by Kenny Dalglish that is still regretted in Liverpool. The more so now that the goals are still flooding in on the other side of the Mersey.

Aldridge and Rush, conventional wisdom had it at the time, were too similar. They went for the same spaces, made the same runs. One of them had to go and the older man was the logical choice. It was a decision Aldridge accepted then and now, but he strongly counters any suggestion of a clash of styles. 'People said Ian and I couldn't play with each other but I couldn't disagree more,' he said. 'We played 13 or 14 times together and on each occasion either he or I scored. I could have played with Ian, no problem.'

Aldridge has said he would like to become a manager when he retires, a prospect he cannot foresee for the moment. 'I've not lost too much pace and I'm still scoring goals,' he said. 'Experience is making up for anything that has gone in the legs. I'm a late developer. I joined Liverpool late in my career and I honestly believe I'm a better player now than 10 years ago. Even better than five years ago at Anfield.'

Millwall, Tranmere's opponents on Boxing Day, have been warned. But then every team makes special provisions for John Aldridge. As defenders will tell you, in his case being forewarned does not necessarily mean being forearmed.

----------------------------------------------------------------- LEAGUE OF HIS OWN ----------------------------------------------------------------- Team Games Goals Newport County 170 69 Oxford United 114 72 Liverpool 83 50 Real Sociedad 57 33 Tranmere Rovers 63 38 League total 487 262 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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