World Cup All Stars #7: John Aldridge

Let me try and paint a picture of football in the 1980s. Great emphasis was placed on your first team; so much emphasis that players wore shirts numbered 1-11 and there was just one substitute. Squads didn’t exist, if you weren’t in the first eleven, you were in the second eleven or the reserves.

Football wasn’t strategic, it was tactical. I don’t know if that made it better, but it meant that the action happened on the pitch not in the boardroom. It meant that things were more unpredictable, which probably made it more exciting.

Within your first eleven was a big fat goalkeeper, defenders with wonky noses, nippy little wingers and a star striker. Nowadays you have three or four strikers who are rotated; in the 1980s it was just one. The narrative was pure Roy of the Rovers and it had been like that for decades from Tom Finney and Johnny Haynes through Jack Charlton and into the 1980s.

Oxford always had a star striker; Joe Cook, Keith Cassells, Peter Foley, Mick Vinter, Neil Whatmore, Steve Biggins. Each had their moment, Cassells scored against Brighton in the FA Cup, Biggins scored against Manchester United in the League Cup win in 1984. To me, however, it was all building up to the ultimate star striker; John Aldridge.

Aldridge was signed from Newport in 1984 by Jim Smith. History plays tricks on your mind, but it seemed that there was inevitability surrounding his arrival. He started scoring instantly providing additional impetus to the third division title charge, he followed it up a year later with another bucketful to take us through the to the 2nd division title. It was as if a pre-written destiny was being fulfilled.

In the top flight Aldridge set about keeping us up almost single handedly. For all of the legend surrounding Shotton and Briggs, our defence was porous. Aldridge scored 23 league goals, which kept us up.

If the 1980s was the last embers of the football in its traditional image, modern football was being brewed elsewhere. Jack Charlton had become manager of the Republic of Ireland. He set about putting in place a master plan to make his obscure little island into something resembling a force. In short he put winning at the core of everything he wanted to do.

The first thing he did was employ a philosophy of ‘route one’ football; it was a template that was being adopted in domestic football and was working. Passing, possession and style was effete, balls forward and goals were the new thing; both Watford and Wimbledon had reached stratospheric heights with the philosophy.

Secondly, he used the Irish diaspora to widen his talent pool. Suddenly anyone with a vaguely Irish connection became eligible. Dave Langan – from more traditional Irish stock – was a notable victim, despite, according to his autobiography, introducing both Liverpool born Aldridge and Glaswegian Ray Houghton to the new regime.

In some senses, the new set up was prescient of modern football with teams full of foreign players. It almost didn’t matter where you came from, or where spiritually your heart was, so long as you were winning. The Republic of Ireland was almost a franchise.

The impact was immediate, although Aldridge struggled to some extent. Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 1988, beating England and scaring the living daylights out of the Netherlands and the USSR. Aldridge, however, was being used as a target man rather than a goal poacher and goals were hard to find. Charlton would use battering rams such as Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino (who it eventually turned out wasn’t even vaguely Irish).

The experience was intoxicating and Ireland went on to qualify for Italia 90 where they made the quarter-finals, even though they only scored two goals. In each game Aldridge ran around for an hour before being substituted. Against Romania he lasted 20 minutes.

According to all the autobiographies, the Irish experience was a blast for all concerned. By 1994, however, the empire was beginning to crumble as Charlton struggled to replacing his ageing first generation of imports. They qualified for USA ’94, becoming almost a replacement England side, who had bowed out in qualifying.

Ireland started well, beating Italy in New York, but facing Mexico in stifling heat (something Charlton obsessed; over earning him a touchline ban) the Irish were found wanting. Aldridge, on the bench, was prepared to join the fray with 20 minutes to go and Mexico 2-0 up. With Norway waiting, the defeat could well have meant curtains for their campaign. Aldridge stood on the sidelines while a particularly fastidious official fussed over administrative technicalities. It took 6 minutes to make the substitution with Charlton and Aldridge screaming at the fourth official to let him on. The tirade, amidst plenty of rum language and finger pointing, was clearly audible on TV. It turned Aldridge into a worldwide legend.

He continued to remonstrate even while trotting onto the field. The fire in his belly helped him score his only World Cup goal, reducing the arrears to 2-1 (Ireland’s 4th goal in their World Cup finals history). The goal was essential in reducing their goal difference and allowing them to progress into the second round where they were smited by the Netherlands.

That was the end of Aldridge’s World Cup Finals career; more famous for his effin’ and jeffin’ than for his goals. He played for Ireland for a decade, scoring just 19 goals, although that still makes him the 4th joint top scorer for his country.

Well, I say his country…

World Cup All-Stars #6 – Mark Wright

Mark Wright holds a special place in my family folklore. During his league debut as a gangly teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.

Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.

Wright was certainly different to what we’d seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player, which was unusual in Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they’d been rejected from the Vietnam War.

However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells. My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he’d be no good at that level.

He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under 21 Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captain’s Peter Shilton and Mick Mills to a squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.

For Oxford, the move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.

Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season. Fulfilling my dad’s prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson’s preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back.

He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but he failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.

Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy.

Off the field, however, things were different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright’s arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being a elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it – if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it. I don’t know how true that is, but there were echos of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.

In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England’s Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England’s campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound, change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper.

The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management – not least in the schooling of Jose Mourinho. What Robson did was introduced a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.

Perhaps the change was made to simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman and Rikjard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product.

The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight game.

In the final group game, Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gasgoine cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.

With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gasgoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time.

England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows?

Into the 119th minute and Gasgoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, hooked it across the face of ‘keeper Michel Preud’Homme’s goal and into the net.

With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I’d just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties – football followed by raving into the early hours. A golden time.

The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.

Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then… catastrophe. We sat in an empty pub in utter silence, like we’d been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. 

The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright’s performances, alongside Des Walker’s provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright’s playing as a sweeper provided Gasgoigne with the freedom to release his genius. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again. With Gasgoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultiamtely the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back.

Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting ‘You fucking beauty’ in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.
Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96 when he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.
After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, race awareness day. 
Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.
Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he’ll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is really quite sad.

World Cup Wonder #5 – Ed McIlvenny

If you think that the run up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been shambolic, that’s got nothing on the first time they hosted the tournament in 1950.

Granted, the everyone was still recovering from World War II and football was probably a secondary consideration. None-the-less the teams who ended up in the tournament were almost there by default of being the only teams who were willing or able to participate.

Even the tournament format was cackhanded; it contrived to avoid a showpiece final with the winners being decided in a final round robin mini-league. Thankfully, the last game of the tournament; in which Uruguay beat Brazil turned out to be a winner-takes-all affair and therefore a de facto final, but still, it was a mess.

West Germany and Japan remained under nationwide house arrest following the war and were banned from competing while East Germany were too busy unpacking the boxes following their annexation. The Soviet Union led Hungary and Czechoslovakia out of qualification while Argentina, Ecuador and Peru refused to take part in South America for reasons largely unknown. Scotland were given the opportunity to participate, but refused because they’d come second in the Home Nations. Miserable sods.

Even after the draw was made teams pulled out, the French, citing logistics of travelling around a vast country and India blaming cost – although it was more likely due to a ban on barefoot players.

England, presumably buoyed by being crowned World War Champions in 1945, were making their debut in the World Cup having previously exiled themselves from FIFA over a dispute around the payment of amateurs. At the time, England generally made their assessments on situations based on things which were, and weren’t cricket. The World Cup wasn’t cricket.

It was a shame, because it seems very likely that England would have won one of the earlier World Cups as the dominant force in world football. The squad was a who’s who of 1950s football; Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Jackie Milburn, Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright all featured while Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey would become better known as great managers. England had only lost 3 internationals at that point, and hopes were high.

Things started well enough with a 2-0 win over Chile; four days later they faced USA, a group of amateurs cobbled together for the tournament with only seven international matches under their belt and an aggregate score of 2-45.

Matthews, at 35, was rested in preparation for tougher tests later in the tournament but the team, including Finney, Mortensen and Wright, were still 3-1 on favourites with the USA 500-1 no-hopes. The American team was captained by Ed McIlvenny, who had been drafted in just before the tournament, making his debut in their 3-1 defeat to Spain. McIlvenny wasn’t even American, he was a Scot who lived with his sister. He was only eligible to play because he said he intended to take American citizenship, although he never did. McIlvenny was made captain simply because he was British, Walter Bahr skippered the other two games in the group.

The game started as expected, England bombarded the Americans, hitting the post twice in the opening 25 minutes. In the 38th minute, Bahr got a shot away, with reports suggesting the move started with a Mcilvenny throw-in. Bert Williams, the England keeper came to collect, but Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian also on a promise to become a US citizen, dived in to wrong foot the keeper and put the ball in the net.

As England withered in the heat and despite a couple of close calls, the Americans became increasingly comfortable and even had a goal bound shot cleared from the line five minutes from the end. The Americans had pulled off the greatest shock of the age, in fact amongst the greatest shocks of all time.

In England, papers reported the result initially as a 10-1 victory, assuming that the 0-1 defeat was a simple typo. But some general snootiness around the tournament meant that much of the coverage was overshadowed by a test match defeat by the West Indies. In the US it was barely reported at all with the Americans having little context with which to judge the result – presumably those who were aware just assumed it happened all the time. It only came onto the US radar nearly forty years later when the US hosted the tournament, which inspired an academic Geoffrey Douglas to write The Game of Their Lives, the story of the win.

Which is all very nice, but what about the Oxford United connection?

Well, McIlvenny aborted his plans for US citizenship when Matt Busby of all people offered him a contract at Manchester United. He lasted just two games before heading for the Waterford in the League of Ireland; four years later he headed back to England and to Headington United, where he spent just over a year and 39 games in Harry Thompson’s Southern League side. It was a moderate season in which Headington finished 9th.

It seems odd that the captain of the team who created the greatest upset in the history of the biggest sport in the world seems so unsung. Film coverage of the game is understandably scratchy with the ‘goal’ evidently contrived from bits of generic reportage footage. The Game of The Lives was turned into a film in 2005 with McIlvenny being played by former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, and American, John Harkes. History is re-written with Baur (played by Wes Bentley) being made captain. McIlvenny seems destined to be put into the margins of football history. We should claim him as our own.

Oxford’s World Cup All Stars #4 – Billy Hamilton

So far, Oxford United World Cup All Stars have, in six appearances, mustered not a single win from their tournament exploits.

Fitting though that seems, that’s all about to change.

Billy Hamilton was a bit of a hero for me long before he arrived at The Manor for his fleeting, yet legendary, stint partnering John Aldridge. This, in part, was because he played a significant part in me developing a favourite score line: the 1-0 win.

The casual or indifferent follower typically judges a game by the number of goals scored. 1-0’s are exclusively for the proper football fan, illustrating the fine line between success and failure.

It illustrates that it is not the number goals, but the context in which they’re scored that makes the game what it is. And understanding the context requires dedication and time. The more you dedicate, the more you appreciate the context, and by that token you are rewarded by the result whilst all those more casual trudge off in disappointment.

In 1982, I assumed that the home nations were practically guaranteed a World Cup spot. I certainly didn’t appreciate, for example, that Northern Ireland were the smallest country ever to qualify for the tournament, beaten only in 2006 by Trinidad and Tobago. Or that they remain the smallest country to have qualified more than once. Add to this the context that Europe is the toughest qualifying region, and you’re really starting to get some perspective on their achievements.

Having drawn their opening games, against Yugoslavia and Honduras, Northern Ireland’s World Cup adventure looked set for a swift and predictable end. Hosts Spain were their final opponents and only a victory would see them progress.

In ’82 Spain was very far away; the pictures were grainy, the sound crackled like it broadcast came from the moon. I’ve always thought that HD sharp pictures and Dolby Surround Sound has made international games less exciting, not more. 1982, those were the days.

Holding Spain 0-0 at half time was admirable enough, but two minutes into the second half striker Gerry Armstrong fed Billy Hamilton down the right-wing. Not a man known for his wing play, Hamilton jinked his way to the by-line before firing in a low cross to the edge of the Spanish 6 yard box. Luis Arconada, one of the greatest keepers in the world, spilled the cross into the path of Armstrong, who blasted home.

From there, Ireland dug in, Mal Donaghy was sent off on the hour, each substitution made them more defensive. They retreated and retreated, but ultimately Spain couldn’t break through. It was a majestic result, a classic 1-0.

Having qualified as group winners, the tournament then entered a second group phase; Hamilton scored a brace in a 2-2 draw with Austria, his second a ‘falling oak’ diving header. Finally, the French put them to the sword 1-4.

Four years later, in Mexico, Hamilton became the first (and only) Oxford United player to play in a World Cup whilst at the club. It wasn’t as stirring a campaign. A draw with Algeria immediately made the prospect of qualification a remote one. Hamilton started that game, but had to be satisfied with substitute appearances in the revenge defeat to Spain and a 3-0 destruction by Brazil.

It marked the end of Hamilton’s international career and he played just twice more for Oxford as he battled with injury. He eventually headed back to Ireland where he wound his career down. He finished with 41 Irish caps and 41 Oxford games scoring near-on a goal every other game. They gave him a testimonial a few years later at the Manor, not bad for a bloke who barely registered a whole season of appearances for the club.

Oxford’s World Cup All Stars #3 – Ramon Diaz

June 1982 was one of the greatest months of my life. One day I got home from school, turned on the TV and in front of me was not Grange Hill, it was Live. International. World Cup. Football.

I must have known it was happening, I remember England qualifying in a nervy 1-0 win over Hungary. But I still had a euphoric feeling of finding the tournament on my TV. This was a novelty. Live football was restricted to the FA and European Cup Finals. Suddenly there was an orgy of it, afternoon after afternoon, night after night.

What’s more, it was exotic and exciting; from another planet. Brazil’s opening game against the USSR still lives with me today. I went to school the next day and everyone was blasting the ball from miles out and wearing their socks rolled down to their ankles trying to be Socrates and Eder.

It was a fine year for shorts too. Tiny shiny shorts. Perhaps the tiniest shorts of them all belonged to Diego Maradona. Maradona’s World Cup career seemed to be one 12-year cocaine binge. In 1986 there was the euphoria of being the greatest player on the planet, 1990 he was a paranoid little shit and 1994 a cheating grovelling loser.

In 1982 he was a wild man, like Animal from The Muppets. In the second group stage he exacted a mugging on Brazil’s Batista and got sent off. They, the world champions, were abject in comparison to the graceful Brazilians. In five games, they won two and lost three. Argentina’s goalscorer in the Brazil game was Ramon Diaz, a striker who conspired only to appear in the Argentinean defeats.

Diaz was a decent player; by 1982 the 22 year-old had played 24 games and scored 10 goals. A record Emile Heskey would kill for. At this point his international career was unceremoniously snubbed out. He spent nine more years playing top-flight football in Italy and France, but couldn’t get a game for his nation. Rumour goes that Mr Maradona was behind this mysterious omission.

It was quite some time before Diaz found similar levels of madness to indulge in. In the intervening years he carved out a reputation as one of the most successful managers of his generation. And, in by natural ascent, in 2004 he became manager of Oxford United.

At this point Firoz Kassam had lost all sense of perspective. He just didn’t get football; he couldn’t buy success, he couldn’t buy popularity. So he did what every Championship Manager aficionado does when he’s bored of his project – he abandoned all sense of logic and made nonsensical signings. Diaz was one.

It was murky and ludicrous. The deal seems to have been done in a restaurant in Monaco and appeared to involve buying the club and stadium. Or maybe not.

Diaz brought along a horde of backroom chums, and a bunch of little South American wingers who sulked there way from Lincoln to Rochdale.

Initially we politely talked of what an impact on the team he’d had. In reality he was no more than average. Inevitably it all fell apart as Kassam banished Diaz and his extended crew from the ground. What followed was the farcical storming of the stadium during the final game of the season against Chester, another glorious episode in the club’s history.

Oxford’s World Cup All Stars #2 – Alan Hodgkinson

When the camera panned up to the Royal Box at Wembley, three men were seen hugging. The Sky commentator spotted Jim Smith, didn’t recognise Kelvin Thomas and was contractually forbidden to mention ITV’s Jim Rosenthal.

The sense of relief and triumph was palpable; with the players celebrating on the pitch there was a visceral sense of the bond within the club, the sheer bloody hard work both on and off the pitch that got us to this point.

One man who was missing from the scene was goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson. He’s a funny chap Hodgkinson, you suspect the club gets a grant to allow him to come to training, or that Jim Smith is doing it as a favour for his wife who just wants him out of the house.

He’s part of the wallpaper at home games, at half time he trots out to gently kick the ball into the hands of the substitute keeper like a lads and dads trip down the park. After a couple of minutes, they’ve usually stopped and are looking at the half-times. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t miss them, but you’d get the sense that something wasn’t right.

Hodgkinson was sprung from the Old Boy Network, a mafia-like operation headed up by Sir Alex Ferguson. The membership of which was secured because he was a former England international.

What’s more, he was in the 1958 World Cup squad in Sweden. It wasn’t a great tournament for England; three draws and a defeat saw them heading home before those other footballing behemoths Wales and Northern Ireland.

The tournament was significant in that it heralded the end of the era of Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and the emergence of the likes of Bobby Charlton (a non-playing substitute) and Pele. This was the generation that would herald George Best and all the rubbish that came with it.1958 was saw the end of the gentleman generation.

So, how was Alan Hodgkinson’s World Cup? Well, not spectacular. The official FIFA record says he was in the squad, but other sources say that he and Maurice Setters didn’t even travel. It seems that nobody has ever thought to ask Mr Hodgkinson, although perhaps he can’t remember himself.