Paul Scholes & The Impossible Oldham Athletic Job

Well, at least Oldham Athletic don’t have to worry about a conflict of interests any more. When Paul Scholes arrived at Boundary Park at the start of February, there was some degree over the fact that Scholes had been allowed to maintain his shareholding in National League club Salford City whilst managing a club playing just a division above them. Looking back in reflection, what’s the most surprising about that is that we considered what might happen should the two clubs come to meet each other in League Two next season, as though the shelf-life of any manager can be measured in years (or even months), these days.

For a while, though, there was a glimmer of optimism around Oldham Athletic upon the arrival of the town’s prodigal son as manager of the club that he supported as a boy. His first match in charge of the club ended in a four-one win against struggling Yeovil Town, a result which was predictably overstated in the press as a portent of Scholes’ talents as a manager but still demonstrated that there was a team here with a modicum of talent here, one which could be moulded into something which might at least be able to pull its way towards the League Two play-off places.

This debut, however, proved to be as good as things got for Paul Scholes and Oldham Athletic. The manager resigned his post after seven matches, with none of the six that followed the Yeovil match yielding a win for the club. There were few results which, taken on their own, could truly be described as disastrous – though a two-one home defeat at the hands of Morecambe hardly said anything complimentary about the Oldham team – but Scholes departs Boundary Park with a managerial record of having played seven, won one, drawn three, and lost three. At the time of his arrival at the club, they were in eleventh place in League One. He leaves with the club in fifteenth place in the table, any lingering hopes of making the play-offs having been thoroughly extinguished.

In the wake of his departure from the club, however, certain matters have come to light which raise considerable concerns about the way in which Oldham Athletic is being being run. Newspaper headlines centred on the allegation that Abdallah Lemsagam had been interfering in team selection, with the suggestion being that team selection information was being leaked back to the owner from within the playing squad. This, it has been alleged, led to Scholes having to call a meeting of the players at which the manager warned them that, ‘If I find out who it is, you will never play for me again.’

The levels of directorial influence in the playing affairs of the club seem to have been pretty high. It has also been suggested that Scholes received emails from Lemsagam and from his brother, who is the club’s ‘sporting director’, making suggestions as to who should be playing for the team, whilst it was even suggested that one player – unnamed – was told to keep away from training, whilst Scholes also apparently had the permanent transfer of a loan player that hasn’t played a game all season foisted upon him without any prior consultation. It has even been suggested that twelve players were promised new contracts for next season under similar circumstances. 

Scholes had a “no interference” clause written into his contract when he took the job in the first place, so quite what Lemsagam was thinking in apparently choosing to completely ignore this clause is anybody’s guess. What we can say with a degree of certainty, however, is that the stories that have been emanating from the club since his departure have demonstrated that there was no way in which this could ever work out. There was never going to be that hypothetical meeting between Oldham Athletic and Salford City, because Paul Scholes was never going to given the opportunity to manage the club on the terms that he expected (and was promised) for long enough for it to happen.

It is understandable that newspaper headlines should have been primarily preoccupied with matters of directorial interference in the running of the club. The owner who can’t keep his meddling hands out of team matters is a popular stereotype, the boss with an out of control ego who believes that he can do someone else’s job better than they can a familiar sight to anybody who’s spent much time in a workplace. As troubling as this sort of interference is, though, other details in the stories which emerged following Scholes’ departure from the club paint a far more troubling picture of instability behind the scenes at Oldham Athletic.

They might not be as exciting as stories of boardroom intrigue or the clashing of egos between an owner and a manager, but the devil in the story of Paul Scholes’ short stay with the club is truly in the detail. What are most alarming, if we are considering the long-term health of the club, are the stories of unpaid bills which could well come to threaten the very existence of the club. A bill for GPS training vests which hadn’t been paid for two years. The team bus failing to turn up for a recent match at Bury, and a panicked phone call to their opponents over car parking for players cars which led to a bus having to be found at the very last minute. The gas supply being cut off shortly before he arrived, leading to the players having to wash their own kit.

These aren’t set piece scenes from a television drama about a badly run football club. This has been happening this season at a club that is a member of the Football League. These tales of poverty which occasionally emerge from a lower division football club should feel more at home in a Charles Dickens novel, and they say considerably more about the ways in which the club is currently being mismanaged as easily digestible anecdotes about interference in team selection that could otherwise be talked down as harmless eccentricity on the part of the owner. But the persistent rumours of bills going unpaid strongly hint at problems within the club which make the story of Paul Scholes’ tribulations during his period as the club’s manager look like a relative sideshow. 

The inevitable question to ask here is, what goes unpaid next? If the club hasn’t been keeping up to date with its tax payments – and these commonly get deferred by football clubs who are struggling to pay their bills – then the likelihood would be a winding up petition being issued for non-payment. The other question to be asked is that of whether the players are currently being paid on time or not. There’s nothing to suggest that they’re not at the moment, but it’s hardly as though this scenario hasn’t played out before, either. At the start of October, it was reported that the players were threatening to go on strike after their wages weren’t paid on time, and it’s difficult to believe that the club’s financial position has improved very much since last autumn. These stories tend to follow quite a familiar arc, and it’s not difficult to imagine such stories emerging from Boundary Park again before the end of this season. 

A quarter of a century ago, Oldham Athletic were a Premier League football club. Indeed, whilst they were relegated at the end of the 1993/94 season, they also marked this season by taking Manchester United to a replay in a Wembley FA Cup semi-final. Such dreams probably couldn’t be much further from the minds of the club’s supporters today, though. The story of the fall of this club over the last twenty-five years has been one of slow decline, but there is every sense that this decline is only being hastened by the ownership of Abdallah Lemsagam, and at a time when it needs careful tending if it isn’t to lose the Football League membership that it has held since 1907. This is, after all, a club which hasn’t finished above tenth place in any league table in a full decade, and which looks unlikely to do so again this season. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that it would be foolish to attempt to gauge the managerial qualities of Paul Scholes based on his ultimately futile attempt to steady the club that he supported as a boy. Considering what we know about the way in which Oldham Athletic is being run at the moment, he didn’t stand a chance.