When John Aldridge arrived in San Sebastian in September 1989, he was met by graffiti telling him he was not welcome; when he arrived in San Sebastian last weekend, returning to the city for the first time more than a quarter of a century later, he was met by 30,000 football fans standing to applaud. It was half-time in Real Sociedad's league game with Espanyol and soon they were chanting his name: the man who changed their history and identity, a legend at the club. As he stood in the centre circle at Anoeta, not the old Atotxa stadium he once knew, tears appeared in his eyes.
He had only played there for two years but Aldridge's impact at Real Sociedad was huge -- for what he achieved and for what he represented. He arrived for £1.5m from Liverpool and was the first foreigner that the club had signed in almost 30 years, representing the end of a proud Basque-only policy that had become increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly with Athletic Club de Bilbao's own Basque policy, incorporating an extensive youth system, scouting and greater financial muscle.
Players had departed, weakening Real Sociedad further. Some that mistakes had been made. Loren Juarros, now the sporting director, had just gone to Athletic and three others were at Barcelona: Luis Lopez Rekarte, Jose Maria Bakero and Txiki Begiristain. A year earlier there had been suggestions of a consultation with supporters as the club doubted whether to break with their own rules, an identity. Then, in 1989, it happened.
Aldridge arrived and so began a new policy that did not end until they bought Boris from Real Oviedo in 2001: la Real would sign Basque players and foreigners, but no Spaniards. The Republic of Ireland international was later joined by two Englishman, Kevin Richardson and Dalian Atkinson. "I am glad to have broken down barriers," Aldridge said recently. At the time, it was not clear that it would be seen like that. Some saw it as a break from tradition, a club losing its idealism.
From a distance, Lopez Rekarte, Bakero and Begiristain were not impressed with the decision to sign Aldridge. In an interview the trio gave together to express their disappointment, Begiristain described it as "sad" and "a pity," something that should have been avoidable with better planning and still should have been avoided, even with the club's difficulties. "There had been rumours, but no one thought they would actually dare to do it," Lopez Rekarte said.
The day Aldridge first visited the club's Zubieta training ground, he saw the graffiti. Asking what it meant, he was told: "It says: 'No outsiders welcome here.'" He also remembered the president of one pena, or supporters' club, being quoted as saying: "I'd rather see la Real in the third division than see a foreigner wear our shirt." There was even a man who spat at the floor in disgust when he crossed his path in the street.
The expectation was huge and so was the pressure: at 210 million pesetas, Aldridge was not only a pioneer but also la Real's most expensive player, signed from Liverpool, a huge club. El Mundo Deportivo noted: "We're in the middle of the San Sebastian film festival, but Aldridge was the star."
"It is not his fault, but all that [debate about the policy] will be on his shoulders; there will be pressure," Lopez Rekarte pointed out.
Having joined but before his presentation, Aldridge was briefed as to what questions he might field and how to field them. He learnt his lines. "I'm not a politician, I am a footballer," he said. "If anyone holds anything against me politically there is nothing I can do about it. I'm here to score goals."
In truth, he did not particularly want to be there at first. He was unhappy at being forced out of Liverpool, his club. Real Sociedad had been the only club who wanted him, which seems bizarre now and seemed bizarre then (they had also tried to sign Paul Walsh, only to find that Tottenham would not sell). It felt a long way away too: his first journey there took him from Liverpool to Manchester to London to Bilbao to San Sebastian, where he was put up in the Hotel Londres.
His first game was against Osasuna and the night before Aldridge had an upset stomach. The second game was at Oviedo and they were beaten 5-0. He admitted: "I thought, 'What the f--- is this?'"
But things did get better. The training was good and there are few cities as beautiful; it is impossible not to fall for the Concha beach, while the food is spectacular and the people, ultimately, were brilliant. A teammate called Inaki Alaba spoke perfect English and took Aldridge to training every day. He had Spanish classes three times a week and threw himself into his new environment and its culture. Last weekend upon his return, he smiled: "It was food, drink and football, which was perfect because that's my life: food, drink and football."
"We were not used to foreigners but he was magnificent: he was an extrovert, very open," recalled teammate Mikel Lasa. "He came here to score goals and he did." He can say that again. Ultimately, football conquers all and Aldridge conquered them with goals. In his fifth game, la Real drew 2-2 with Barcelona and he scored twice, his first goals for the club but not his last.
A local butcher offered him a chuleton, a massive T-bone steak, for every goal he scored, handed over at the supporters club that came to carry his name. A similar promise was later made to two foreign strikers who followed him, Atkinson and Kenan Kodro. For every goal Kodro scored he got a hake, whereas each time Atkinson scored he got a Idiazabal cheese although, as the Basque journalist Oier Fano tells the story, he wasn't overly impressed, chucking one of them out of the window of his Ferrari. Aldridge was more grateful and he earned a lot of steak.
It didn't matter anymore that Aldridge was a foreigner; his openness, personality and 40 goals in 75 games made sure of that. He helped Real Sociedad to a first win at the Camp Nou where they have not won since. In total, he scored six there against Barca. And if he was not a politician, he ended up playing a "political" role that was appreciated. Real Madrid were among his victims too, as he scored in a 2-1 win that earned the players a £3000 bonus and the satisfaction of beating the club that, one teammate told him, represented Spanish centralism. "Aldo, we don't like Madrid," he was told.
Aldridge took home 40 T-bones in two years. "He is a goal-scoring machine," one report ran. They called him Mr Gol. But then, in 1991, he announced that he was leaving because while he was enjoying his time there, his daughters were struggling with the language, missing Liverpool and couldn't settle in San Sebastian. The president tried to block his departure and the conversation between the two men grew tense: he did not want to see Aldridge go, the striker who had changed their history and their future, who had overcome everything. But there was no other way.
"I would have liked to see out my [three-year] contract, but I can't," Aldridge said. "I'll try to win the Pichichi award [as top scorer] to be able to dedicate it to these wonderful fans."
In the end, he was unable to, finishing runner-up behind Emilio Butragueno. But for Real Sociedad supporters, he was always first. Their first foreigner and maybe even the first in the long list of forwards who had played for the club, the best of them all. A striker like few others. "Goodbye, Aldridge," ran one headline, sadly. "I have to go, I'm sorry," he said.
Antes del encuentro, John Aldridge ha recibido varios recuerdos en el palco donde ha presenciado el partido pic.twitter.com/qWwd9gkyt8
- Real Sociedad Fútbol (@RealSociedad) March 8, 2015
That was May 29, 1991. Aldridge had not been back since. Not until last weekend, when he returned to make a TV documentary about his time in Spain as part of a series called "Football Pioneers" -- those rare English-based players who became a success story abroad. It underlined just how significant his two years in the Basque country had been and, when he finally managed to go "home," Aldridge was handed a No. 8 shirt by the club president Jokin Aperribay and a black-and-white photograph of him at Atotxa. This was a big moment for the club and the affection was obvious.
The media waited for him as well, bombarding him with questions, which he answered, some in English, some in the halting Spanish he has kept. The best thing about San Sebastian? "The beer and the Rioja," he giggled. A message for the fans? "Thank you. I can't express what this means to me." What does he think of the city? "It hasn't changed much; it's as beautiful as ever," he replied.
At his hotel, Aldridge took a photograph of the Concha bay, with a glass of beer standing before it. "My view at the moment," he tweeted, "not bad, you have to agree folks." When he came out at half-time the following day, walking onto the pitch to greet the fans, the stadium stood to applaud. After the game, there was a surprise meal: his former teammates waiting for him, fondly. Embraces and stories, reminiscing about big games and big nights. Current players met him too and talked about the significance of the moment, his impact at the club. "If he'd come on, I'm sure he'd have scored," manager David Moyes smiled. Even the president of the Aldridge supporters' club, where those 40 steaks were handed over, turned up at Concha beach to welcome him home.
My view in San Sebastián at the moment!!!not bad,you have to agree folks. pic.twitter.com/53taKh1MIH
- John Aldridge (@Realaldo474) March 9, 2015
They had waited 24 years for Aldridge to return. "I hope it doesn't take so long next time," he said.