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Billy Stickland/INPHO Jack Charlton with John Aldridge (file pic).
# gone but not forgotten
'I still dream of him' - John Aldridge's abiding love for Jack Charlton
The former Liverpool star has called for a statue of the Englishman to be erected at the Aviva Stadium.

LAST WEEKEND, a statue of Jack Charlton was unveiled to great acclaim in his hometown of Ashington, Northumberland in the north of England.

One of the few people who could simultaneously be described as an English and Irish legend, it is a little over two years now since the World Cup winner passed away at the age of 85 as “a nation shed a tear”.

Few footballers knew Charlton better than former Liverpool and Real Sociedad star John Aldridge.

The coach famously guided Ireland to two World Cups and one European Championships, and Aldridge played in every one of those tournaments, starting all five of their matches at Italia ’90, while he memorably made waves both on and off the pitch in ’94 against Mexico, becoming one of just two Irish players to score at the latter tournament.

Yet it is the Euros that first springs to mind when asked about his standout moment in an Irish jersey.

“The ’88 Championships when we beat England — beating England, for me, was mega. Being born in Liverpool… What a team. It was like a derby with a lot of my mates playing with them and the way it was. I’ll never forget that day and obviously getting to the quarter-finals against Italy — that was remarkable for a small country like ourselves. And going to America was a great experience as well. So many. 69 caps and 10 years. It was probably the best part of my life — those 10 years representing Ireland.

“I’m a Liverpool fan. I always wanted to play for Liverpool and live the dream, that was absolutely amazing along with the 10 years I had for Ireland — words fail me.”

Aldridge was still a relatively under-the-radar player at Oxford when he made his Ireland debut at the age of 27 in Charlton’s first game in charge, with the Liverpudlian qualifying through his Athlone-born grandmother.

A spectacular era began in underwhelming fashion amid a 1-0 friendly 1986 defeat to Wales, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that the striker made his Liverpool debut.

Aldridge finished that 1986-87 campaign as the seventh-top scorer in the First Division with 17 goals, but he took his time finding the net for Ireland, as it was not until his 20th match at international level that he eventually broke his duck.

Nonetheless, Charlton’s faith was rewarded as Aldridge went on to score 19 times in total — leaving him just one short of then-record goalscorer Frank Stapleton at the time of his retirement.

Now 64, the former player still has great affection for the man who gave him his chance at international level.

“Jack was great, wasn’t he? He was my favourite manager [to play under] by a mile. I still miss him now. I still dream of him. He had that much of a bearing on all of us. I just loved him. I get emotional when I think about him and talk about him — that’s the stamp he put on me and a lot of our players.”

Aldridge says he tried to keep in touch with Charlton in the coach’s later post-Ireland years, even though he was sometimes a hard man to track down.

“To be fair, you never got Jack. He was always out fishing. He never answered his phone. He was a great man and a great wife — she is still a lovely lady. So Jack had a massive effect on me.”

Moreover, few people had a greater impact on Irish sport and society at large than Charlton. 

‘Go Home Union Jack’ read one infamous banner during that initial 1986 Wales game, and those sentiments perhaps reflected a wider suspicion of the Englishman that was exacerbated by an era in which Anglo-Irish relations were extremely fraught owing largely to The Troubles.

Yet by the end of his reign, Charlton had unquestionably won over the Irish public after a decade of unprecedented success. He was widely regarded as a heroic figure thanks to a mixture of his considerable footballing acumen and often genial, loquacious manner off the field.

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Aldridge believes more should be done to honour his legacy and after last week’s unveiling across the water, the retired star believes Ireland should follow suit with a statue in the vicinity of the Aviva Stadium.

“It’d be lovely, wouldn’t it? I think it should have been done a long time ago. I was in Cork Airport and a statue has been there for years of him fishing. Cork’s done it out of respect, which is brilliant for the Cork people. But why’s it not been done in Dublin? Especially the Aviva, wow. He’s done more for Ireland politically than anyone else. Football-wise he took us to where we had never been near. It should have been done years ago when he was alive. I’m sure someone is out there with the money, whatever it costs if the FAI can’t do it. Someone should do it and do it quickly.

“If not by the Liffey fishing, why not the Aviva?”

So the Charlton era unquestionably remains the golden age for Irish football, but does Aldridge believe we will ever see its like again?

“I certainly hope so in my lifetime. But at this moment in time, it’s hard to see, isn’t it? Especially with the [World Cup qualifying] group, we’ve just been drawn in. It’s horrendous, to be quite honest. But you never know if you’re going to qualify. You’ve got to give it your best and learn from it for the next one that comes around. 

“It’s hard to replicate [the Charlton days] but football changes. It’s different now from when Jack was manager and I played. You’ve got to adapt. And the FAI has got to adapt. The manager has got to adapt. The players have got to adapt. But you’ve got to compete. If Wales can do it, why can’t we? They are brilliant Wales, absolutely magnificent. Scotland now have turned it around a bit, they’re doing some great stuff. We’re no different from those countries. We’ve proved it in the past. It’s just getting the players through and getting there [to major tournaments].”

Originally published at 21.21

Pictured above is Liverpool FC Legend John Aldridge, who this week visited Belfast and Dublin in celebration of Carlsberg’s 30th year in partnership with the club, alongside former Liverpool FC frontman Robbie Fowler. Passionate supporters of the Reds since 1992, Carlsberg teamed up with Aldo and Fowler to surprise a group of unsuspecting fans at a Liverpool FC supporters’ five-a-side match. To find out how they got on, follow Carlsberg Ireland on Instagram.

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