Oldham Athletic: From The Boundary To The Exit?

by | Feb 1, 2020

At the end of August, English football was fulsome in its tributes to Bury Football Club as that club slid from the Football League. There was so much hand-wringing that the sound of it drowned out everything else. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to write their emotional thousand words on what a tragedy all of this was, and how something had to change in order to prevent a repeat of it happening. Five months on, though, where are we at with all of that? Bury Football Club lingers on in a zombified form, the owner continuing to make promises that he has already broken, still prevented from the merciful release of liquidation by people who, for reasons that they are broadly keeping to themselves, are not letting it go.

Elsewhere on the outskirts of Manchester, another club is slowly slipping away, and no-one in a position to do so is doing very much about that, either. It’s difficult to believe that it’s only been just over a quarter of a century since Oldham Athletic were a Premier League football club with a reputation for upsetting the applecart in the cup competitions. On the 10th of April 1994, they were two minutes from knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup at Wembley. Having reached the semi-finals, they pushed the game into extra-time and took the lead two minutes into the second period, thanks to a goal from Neil Pointon. Two minutes from time, Mark Hughes rescued Manchester United, who won the replay at Maine Road comfortably. Less than a month later, having failed to win a single match since that defeat, Oldham Athletic were relegated from the Premier League on the last day of the season. The two clubs have not met in a competitive fixture since, which in itself speaks volumes about how football’s “whole new ball game” has treated both clubs.

In the 25 seasons since relegation from the Premier League in 1994, Oldham Athletic have finished above the halfway point in whichever division they’re playing in just six times, the last of which was a decade ago. The club has drifted down through the divisions with barely anyone noticing, and at the start of last season arrived in League Two, a level to which the club had not descended since 1970. The cup competitions haven’t offered a great deal of release from this seemingly perpetual grind, either. Oldham Athletic have won precisely two matches in the League Cup since getting to its Fourth Round in 2003, and even the FA Cup adventures of 2013, when they beat Nottingham Forest and Liverpool on the way to a Fifth Round defeat at Everton feels like a long time ago, now. Clubs on a downward curve are usually considered to be trying to “find their level”, and it’s not altogether clear that Oldham Athletic have found theirs, yet.

Nothing about the recent chapters in the club’s ongoing tale of woe have been “natural”, though. Last season, the club briefly employed Paul Scholes as manager. There had been question marks over the Football League’s deicision to allow Scholes to maintain a 10% shareholding in Salford City whilst remaining the manager of Oldham, but all of this became something of an irrelevance in the end, as he only lasted 31 days in the managerial job there before resigning with just one win in his seven matches in charge of the club.

After he left, Scholes blamed interference from club owner Abdallah Lemsagam in first team affairs for his unsuccessful spell in charge of the club, and also made reference to the terrible condition that it was in, including there being no hot water available at times. Hardly, we might surmise, a conducive atmosphere to building anything like a successful team, and such was the state of Oldham Athletic by this time that Scholes reputation as a manager can hardly even be said to have been damaged by this disastrous month at Boundary Park.

Lemsagam remains in control at Boundary Park, and unsurprisingly nothing has changed in terms of the fortunes of Oldham Athletic since Scholes’ departure. The club finished last season in fourteenth place in League Two, and at the time of writing is in seventeenth place in the same division. It’s pretty unlikely that the club will be relegated from the Football League on the basis of anything that happens on the pitch this season alone. The collapse of Bury means that there is only one relegation place at the bottom of the table this season, and Oldham are currently eleven points above bottom-placed Stevenage with just a third of the league season left to play.

This, however, is about as optimistic an assessment of the club’s position as it’s possible to make at the moment, with recent news from within the club seeming to indicate that administration is as likely as not, if something doesn’t drastically change at the club in the very near future. Last week, it was reported that the club overdue rent of £170,000 and around £330,000 in unpaid loans, all of which is owed to former director Simon Blitz, who is freeholder of the ground as part of his financial company Brassbank. Blitz, it has been reported, is considering the possibility of having the club placed into administration in order to try and salvage money that he is owed, and it has also been suggested that Oldham might yet find themselves being evicted from Boundary Park, which has been the club’s home since 1904.

Putting the club into adminstration would certainly imperil the club’s Football League status, even if it would be unlikely to end in its closure. A twelve point deduction would sink them to the very foot of the League Two table, even with only one relegation spot available this season. The club’s current accounts aren’t available through Companies House, with the last available set (for the period to the end of June 2018) showing substantial financial losses which are unlikely to have improved, with relegation from League One having come just a month prior. The current disagreement between Blitz and Lemsagam sits outside of the club’s overall financial position though.

Just over three weeks ago, the club made an official complaint over the ‘financial conduct’ of former owners, without going into many specifics beyond a statement which said that, “The allegations are mainly against those who had dealings with Oldham council when grant money was allocated to the club towards the building of the North Stand.” Greater Manchester Police subsequently said that officers were working to ‘ascertain the nature of the allegations’ and determine whether an investigation was necessary.’ We’ll be digging a bit more into the details behind this story next week because, as with so many other matters related to the recent history of Oldham Athletic, it’s complicated.

But here we are, five months on from the expulsion of Bury FC, and what have we all learned? Not a great deal, by the looks of it. Bury’s liquidation is still chuntering through the courts, with obstacles being thrown in the way by various individuals for unknown reasons. Macclesfield Town may have escaped relegation from the Football League at the end of last season and it’s likely that they will not finish at the bottom of the table come the end of this season, but they only escaped a winding up order because they claimed to have new buyers for the club and, surprise surprise, nothing has come of that yet.

And the EFL, that most modern mutation of the Football League, has been as silent about Oldham Athletic as it has about any other subject of importance over the last few years or so. No lessons seem to have been learned, two other clubs sit on the brink, and a stench hangs in the air that smells very much the possibility of recent history repeating itself. There were plenty of crocodile tears throughout the autumn at the plight of Bury, but nothing seems to have come of it, so here we find ourselves again, a football club on the brink, in a football culture which has enough money to support everyone with comfort, yet doesn’t believe that the poorest deserve support. Same as it ever was, and the results will likely be the same as well.