Monday 24 July 2017

Aldridge craves Rovers return

John Aldridge, right, when he was Tranmere manager in 2000, with assistant Kevin Sheedy. Photo: Sportsfile
John Aldridge, right, when he was Tranmere manager in 2000, with assistant Kevin Sheedy. Photo: Sportsfile

Chris Bascombe

At the turn of the Millennium, Tranmere Rovers headed to Wembley Stadium seeking a major trophy and European qualification.

The stakes are somewhat different in the National League play-off final today - not just a sign of the troubles that befell the Wirral club in the intervening years, but a reminder of the extraordinary success during their golden era, leading to that 2000 League Cup final.

Merseyside legend John Aldridge led the side against Martin O'Neill's Leicester City, but they were beaten 2-1. Now such halcyon days at Prenton Park are also laced with regret. Before then, three successive Premier League play-off attempts ended in disappointment, against Swindon, Leicester and Reading.

Two decades and three relegations later, Tranmere seek to reverse their play-off fortunes and restore their League status at the expense of Forest Green Rovers.

"We had a really good side in those days but could not see it through," recalls Aldridge, who scored 170 goals for the Birkenhead club. "We were the best side in all those play-offs, but things did not go our way. The loss to Swindon [in 1993] hurt most. I had a goal disallowed ridiculously.

"We deserved Premier League football. They were great times. We had backing through Peter Johnson. Johnny King, the manager, knew good players and wanted attacking football. We signed well. We were an attractive club."

Aldridge's presence at Prenton Park was itself a sign of intent. He spent two years at Real Sociedad after leaving Liverpool and was tracked by numerous top-flight clubs, but chose to be closer to home when heading to Tranmere in 1991, for a fee of £250,000.

"We [Sociedad] had a game at the Nou Camp. We won 3-1, I scored two and Dalian Atkinson destroyed Barcelona that day," says Aldridge. "Howard Wilkinson, then the Leeds manager, was there watching and I was thinking 'I'd quite fancy going there. It's just an hour down the road. That will do for me.' But they never came in.

"Johnny King then heard I was looking to come home, so came to see me. He and Peter Johnson really sold the club to me. If Leeds had come in it could have been different, but then I had 10 great years at Tranmere as player, player-manager and manager."

Tranmere pushed for promotion into the Premier League throughout the '90s, but by the end of the decade their reputation was established as cup slayers.

"We reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup two years on the run. We beat many top-division teams - Leeds, Everton, Southampton, Middlesbrough," adds Aldridge.

"Then there was the run in the League Cup. To take a small club to a major final, it is one of the proudest things I achieved in the game. We took 30,000 to Wembley. It was also the manner we got there. I'd dreamt of things like that as a kid. I was emotional. My dad had died just before and I was thinking about him. He'd seen every game I'd played at Wembley and I know what it would have meant to him to see me do it as a manager.

"The problem I had during that period and after another FA Cup quarter-final in 2001 was motivating players for league games, and our form dipped badly. It drove me mad and made me ill with worry, really. The older you get you realise that's just what can happen in football if you have those kinds of successes in the cup. But I was so proud I left 10 games before the end of the 2001 season to give someone else a chance of reversing the league form."

Numerous high-profile successors, including Kevin Sheedy, Dave Watson, Brian Little and John Barnes, were unable to replicate the winning formula of Aldridge and King. The gradual slide through the divisions ended in non-League status two years ago.

"It was a massive shock how far they fell down, but the Mark Palios [owner] and Micky Mellon [manager] combination they have now is great for the club," says Aldridge.

"They are back on track. It is a massive game this weekend, but whatever the result it is only a matter of time before they get back. They have massive crowds for that division.

"One of their problems at that level is, for every other side in that division, going to Tranmere is like their Wembley. Prenton Park has so much history. They are a big scalp because they are too big to be a non-League club. Hopefully today they can get back towards where they should be."

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