Oldham Athletic unlocking a problem

WE were expecting the mood to be rather sombre at Oldham Athletic less than 12 months after the club suffered relegation from the Football League. But it wasn’t the case, even though their first National League campaign has, to a large degree, been a case of acclimatisation. The second half of the 2021-22 season has been better than the first and Boundary Park, at 155 metres above sea level, the second highest ground in England, is now back in the hands of the club. There are lights at the end of that tunnel.

To some extent, it’s a journey back to the roots of football in Britain when you visit the Manchester area. You travel through United’s original heartland, Newton Heath, and head for the Oldham Road past abandoned pubs like the Weavers Arms, Cloggers and the Copenhagen Tavern that once had an important role to play in their community, to find the town that was once identified by its plethora of mill chimneys. 

It’s all a little Lowryesque, perhaps, but Oldham, in 1911, had 246 cotton mills in operation and in total, there have been 400, many of which were built by the specialists architects Potts, Pickup and Dixon or the Stott family. Over 10,000 people were employed in the red brick mills at any one time, of which very few still exist, although not for their original purpose.  Some are listed, some are destined to become residential, but they are a reminder of the rich industrial heritage of the region.

Oldham is not especially accessible given there has never been a major railway station serving the town with a population of around 100,000 people, largely because of geographical reasons. One social commentator said that if Oldham had not gone through its major development before the railway arrived, the town would surely have been overlooked. Cotton made sure that nobody could ignore Oldham, but like most industries that flourished during the days of Empire, it all came to an end. Today, Oldham is a multi-cultural place and almost 40% of the town is of Asian origin.

Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park, which has been called the coldest ground in England, has a red brick neighbourhood and the ground’s floodlights, delightfully old fashioned, tower above the streets. This creates the sort of image that nostalgists identify with – football ground, terraced houses and an industrial backdrop, precisely how many people see the historic imagery of the game. Although it may have seen better days, Oldham’s home has a pretty unique atmosphere.

The club has had something of a troubled recent history, suffering financial crises, threats of liquidation and administration, ownership issues and decline on the pitch. They were relegated from League One in 2018 and then out of the Football League in 2022 after failing to win any of their last six games. People feared for the very future of the club as in 2021 and 2020, they had flirted with relegation. 

It’s all a far cry from the early 1990s when Oldham were members of the inaugural Premier League and reached the Football League Cup final and semi-finals of the FA Cup. Since then, Oldham have lost around two thirds of their support. In 2022-23, however, their crowds have increased to an average of over 6,000.

In July 2022, Oldham were taken over by Frank Rothwell, the owner of Manchester Cabins, a leading manufacturer of portable buildings, who agreed a deal with the previous owner, Moroccan football agent, Abdallah Lemsagam. In the past couple of months, the ground has been acquired from former owners Simon Blitz and Danny Gazal. Rothwell, who appears to be a little eccentric at times, announced the deal to the fans brandishing a giant silver key to imply Oldham Athletic had unlocked a nagging problem. Perhaps they have – the club and ground are now under common ownership for the first time in years.

The 2022-23 season started poorly and in September, they replaced manager John Sheridan with David Unsworth and they are now in safer territory. The game against Maidenhead United on April 15, 2023, was a clash of two lower mid-table teams and the crowd was just under 6,000. Maidenhead’s small band of travelling fans (around 50), haven’t had a lot to cheer about recently and they could still get dragged into the relegation battle. They fell behind after just three minutes when Oldham’s Alex Reid sent a superb shot into the net from close range. That goal was enough to win three points and although it was rarely dull, there was a distinct end-of-season feel to the game.

What next then, for Oldham Athletic? Can they mount a promotion challenge in 2023-24 and return to the Football League? It’s a tough competition, the National League, and there are a lot of former Football League clubs (14 with some form of EFL connection) who want to get back before they lose the taste. Oldham may feel they belong in the EFL, but then many clubs probably feel the same way. At least the clouds over Boundary Park have started to disperse after what has been a grim period for the Latics, and if enough people care, the blue and tangerines can weave their way back.

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