When John Aldridge Fired Oxford from the Third Division to Cup Glory

In the 1985/86 season, Oxford United rounded off an incredible three years of growth with League Cup final success. After back to back promotions to the top flight, winning both the Football League Second and Third Division, Oxford managed to avoid relegation and reach the final of England’s second cup competition.

Much of their success and survival that season was down to one man who would go on to score a total of 422 career goals over the course of 19 years – John Aldridge. Signed from Newport County for £78,000 midway through the 1983/84 season, the 5’11 striker finished the season with four goals in eight games for Oxford, and 23 in 36 in total. Newport finished comfortably midtable in 12th with 62 points, but Aldridge was on the up, after his new club stormed to the Third Division title, losing just seven games all season, finishing on 95 points.

It was to be Aldridge’s first taste of the Second Division, yet nobody would’ve known as the 27-year old striker netted 30 league goals in 42 appearances to win the Golden Boot, firing his club to their second consecutive title. Losing just one more than they had the season before at eight, they narrowly pipped Birmingham City to the title by two points, finishing on 84. Another 84 was the amount of goals Oxford scored in the league that season, outscoring the next highest, Grimsby Town in 10th, by 12. Aldridge’s 30 made him responsible for 37.5% of the goals scored.

Tasting top flight football for the first time since joining the Football League 23 years before, Oxford flirted with relegation right up until the final day of the season, where a 3-0 win at home to Arsenal kept them up by a point, having won just two of their final nine games of the season. Aldridge scored 23 goals that year, finishing as the third highest scorer in the division. Cup football, however, provided the club with much more enjoyment, gifting them their first – and to date, only – major silverware.

Key to their League Cup run that season was Aldridge. The man who Liverpool would a year later sign to replace an outgoing Ian Rush – even bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Welsh striker – had a career long love affair with the competition, scoring 22 times in 25 outings. From those numbers, 14 came in 17 games for Oxford, with six of them aiding his side to reach the final in 1986. The team as a whole scored 19 on their way to lifting the Milk Cup, meaning that again Aldridge’s contribution hovered around the third mark.

In the final, however, Aldridge was not able to top off the run with another. Instead, the #8, in front of a 90,396 crowd, was only able to assist his teammates, by setting up the third and final goal in a 3-0 win, when QPR goalkeeper Paul Barron could only parry his shot. Jeremy Charles put it in the net on the rebound, joining Man of the Match Trevor Hebberd and Ray Houghton on the scoresheet.

The 3-0 victory was compelling and the path to the final was well navigated. Oxford never looked like anything other than worthy finalists, overcoming Northampton Town 4-1 over two legs, winning both, beating Newcastle, Norwich, and Portsmouth 3-1, and then dispatching Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate to book their ultimately triumphant place at Wembley.

The Cup win should have qualified Oxford for European football, with the League Cup winners reserved a spot in the UEFA Cup, however due to the Heysel disaster of the previous year, all English clubs were banned from European football after a UEFA vote on the matter. It was Liverpool’s part in the tragedy that prevented Oxford’s participation in the competition, and it was as close as Aldridge got too, with all English clubs banned from European competition for five years, and Liverpool for ten commuted to six. By the time English clubs were back on the continental stage, Aldridge had only just returned to England, and then only to the Second Division, after a two year spell in Spain with Real Sociedad.  

Midway through the 1986/87 season, Liverpool paid £750,000 for the record-breaking goalscorer – ten times the amount Oxford had paid for him three years prior. Already on fifteen goals for the season, Aldirdge arrived at Anfield as a man in form, yet he scored just twice in the ten games he played in the remaining part of the season. It was normal service resumed come the following campaign. Aldridge finished top scorer at the club, after he scored 29 in 45 and helped Liverpool to another title, before winning the FA Cup and Charity Shield with them in 1989.

Thanks to 90 goals in 132 games for The Us, Aldridge is the club’s fourth highest goalscorer of all time. Only Tony Jones (100), James Constable (106), and Graham Atkinson (107) have scored more. None, however, have a better goal to game ratio than his of 0.64 goals per game. He holds the club record for most goals in a Football League season – 34 – and the most goals league goals in a season – 30 – both in the 1984/85 season.

By Jordan Florit - @TheFalseLibero