A few years ago now the former Ireland and Portsmouth midfielder Alan McLoughlin rang some old friends in Dublin with a strange request.
Always remembered as the man who scored the Windsor Park goal that got Jack’s Army to America in 1994, McLoughlin now works as a media pundit on the south coast of England.
His affable manner is made for the job and he is a popular figure wherever football fans gather in that part of the world, so popular that he was the natural host when the local Irish supporters invited the great John Aldridge down for a night out and a bit of a dinner dance.
A well connected man, Alan was aware that a few months previously Aldo had won a singing contest on RTE television in aid of Temple Street Hospital, something which came as a bit of a shock to Aldo never mind the likes of Alan McLoughlin.
The Sex Pistols once claimed that the only notes that matter in the music industry are bank notes, and Aldo may have a few of them, but when it comes to singing he hasn’t got a note in his head.
He wouldn’t qualify as the 12th man with a top act never mind have a chance as the fifth Beatle on his native Merseyside, a fact not lost on young McLoughlin, who had witnessed Aldo’s attempts at singing on various Irish football trips over the years.
The Irish public didn’t care that Aldo couldn’t sing. They kept voting him back week after week, much to the amusement of the industry heads on the judging panel and much to the embarrassment of the man himself.
By the time he got to the final -- and won it -- Aldo had even butchered “The Fields of Athenry,” a song adopted by the Kop as the modern day anthem for Liverpool Football Club.
When McLoughlin made the call to contacts in Dublin his request was a simple one – he wanted a DVD of Aldo singing to spring on the former Irish player as he made his stage entrance at the dinner in England.
Alan got what Alan wanted and the crowd in Portsmouth, unaware of Aldo’s singing talents, had a right good laugh about it all. So did Aldo, to be fair to a man who has never been anything but humble.
John Aldridge is back in the singing business this week, back warbling away to the “Fields of Anfield Road,” the Kop’s take on the Pete St. John classic about emigration and the famine and the man who sold Trevellion’s corn all those years ago.
And once again the singing talents of our very own John Aldridge deserve as wide an audience as possible. Once again the cause deserves our attention.
Aldo is in good company on his latest recording, joined by a host of fellow Reds legends including Kenny Dalglish and some of the finest musicians to come out of Liverpool.
Their song, currently in the British charts, is a tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough 20 years ago on Wednesday in one of football’s worst ever tragedies.
The FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest was only six minutes old when the referee finally called the players off the pitch as Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the Leppings Lane End of the Sheffield ground.
Like Aldo, Ronnie Whelan was on the field in a red shirt that day as those who idolized him died in the name of football.
He spoke at length about the experience in Dublin this week, and one story in particular deserves to be retold on these pages and in his words.
“The worst for me was the funeral of a young fan who was christened Ian Whelan, but everyone knew him as Ronnie because I was his idol,” Whelan said.
“I stood at that funeral with his mam and dad and his sister and I watched them mourn the loss of their son, their brother, who went to Sheffield to watch me play for Liverpool and never came back to them.
“Here was an 18-year-old going to watch his football team, going to watch his favorite player in a Cup semifinal and he never made the journey home from Hillsborough.
“I looked at his family that day it hit me hard. It is still difficult at times for me to think about Hillsborough or talk about it, but whenever that happens I just ask myself what Ian Whelan’s family have been through in the 20 years since the disaster. How have they coped?
“It was only a game of football. It was only a football match but all those people died, all those families lost their loved ones.”
There’s an image for that that is still floating around inside Ronnie Whelan’s head.
“One lad got on the pitch and the referee took us off. We were told to go the dressingroom and to stay warm because the game would start again,” he remembered.
“When we were inside one supporter ran past the dressingroom screaming, ‘You can’t play the game, there’s people dying out there.’ That was really all we heard.
“Then the dressingroom doors were locked and Kenny Dalglish went out. When he came back in he didn’t look the best and before long we knew that a major disaster was unfolding.
“We started to get the full picture when we went upstairs after the game was abandoned. Our wives and families were in the players’ lounge and they were in bits. There were pictures on the TV of the bodies lying on the advertising hoardings on the pitch.
“Then going back to Liverpool on the coach the news just got worse and worse. First it was 20 dead then 30, then 40. The numbers of the dead kept growing, and all for a game of football.”
Ronnie Whelan still doesn’t understand what really happened that day at Hillsborough. The families of the bereaved are still fighting for justice 20 years on.
And John Aldridge is proud to be a part of their fight. Irish football should be proud of him and, for once, proud of his singing.