Oldham Athletic have spent the majority of their time since the turn of the millennium in a perpetual state of crisis. Administration, financial mismanagement and stagnation on the pitch have plagued the club for many years, but it’s finally reached breaking point.
To many, the 1990s may not seem far away, but for Latics fans it’s a distant memory of a past that seems unthinkable in the present day. Thirty years ago, the club were in their first season as members of the First Division and were on the precipice of becoming founding members of the Premier League. Now they’re fighting to save their lives at the bottom of the fourth tier.
For a club whose rich history includes a League Cup final, FA Cup semi-finals and top-flight football, the decline that has led them to the foot of League Two has been slow and painful.
There was administration after former owner Chris Moore left the club out of its depth financially in 2004 and there were years-long issues under the tenure of Simon Corney. Yet their downfall has only accelerated under Abdallah Lemsagam.
Dropping out of League One during his first year in charge, things rapidly went awry. From reports of unpaid wages to players being frozen out and forced to train with the youth team – all while a large crop of players from abroad came in to little effect – the future looked bleak.
With Lemsagam as chairman and his brother, Mohamed, as sporting director, Oldham have gone through 11 managers since the taking over in January 2018. Every season has been plagued by increasingly lower standards and fans were quickly in a state of almost permanent discontent.
This season has been the tipping point. Protests had been rather mooted in the past, but they’ve now become commonplace, with tennis balls being thrown on the pitch to stop a match, a mock coffin being placed in front of the ground and demonstrations held home and away. At one point, a plane even flew over Boundary Park with a banner flying in the wind of reading, “AL & Mo Time To Go #saveoafc”. The message was pretty clear.
Non-league now beckons for the Lancashire side unless they fail to haul themselves above fellow strugglers Barrow and Stevenage at the bottom of the League Two table. And the fans have been desperately trying to do their bit to give the team any hope of staying up by raising awareness of their predicament.
“It has been invaluable in making the football world sit up and take notice and in calling the owners – and prospective new owners – to task,” says Oldham Times reporter Suzanne Geldard.
“Considering where they are geographically, it would be easy for people – especially the younger demographic – to veer towards Manchester United or Manchester City, but there is a deep sense of loyalty to Oldham. The fans have conducted themselves admirably on the whole too, keeping protests peaceful but doing enough to get in the public eye.”
A club in turmoil for longer than fans care to remember, things could now be slowly improving due to the pressure they’ve been putting on Lemsagam. There are three main groups of supporters who have all been influential: The Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Federation, Push the Boundary and The Athleticos – the club’s ultras group who have been bringing the atmosphere to Boundary Park for nearly 10 years.
Each of these groups have worked in different ways, but their different methodologies have all been important for trying to save their club.
Push the Boundary were the first to call out the owners, organising protests before the pandemic and attempting to make supporters’ voices heard who didn’t like the way the club was being run. At that point, however, this wasn’t a view shared by all supporters and much of their work was about canvassing fans, attempting dialogue with the club and trying to bring attention through official channels to the team’s plight.
The OASF are very similar. For a while, many criticised their insider status (having a representative on the club’s board) as blinding them to issues, yet things eventually began to change. Their role has been about bringing fans together and creating a sense of community, as well as using their role as a Football Supporters’ Association member and official group to put pressure on the club.
“I’m really proud of [the fans],” says Matt Dean, who is an OASF director and fans’ podcast host. “Certainly as the host of the Boundary Park Alert System podcast, we’ve be putting the message out for the best part of two years now about the Lamsegams and trying to get people to see them for what they are and to realise the urgency of the situation.
“That’s reached a certain proportion of fans and I think it’s had a good effect. I think the essence of what we’ve done with OASF has been really good. I think that what Push the Boundary have done has been excellent.”
It is the third, the Athleticos, who were behind the more active protests. A group of younger fans who bring atmosphere to the ground, their efforts have echoed protests which would not seem out of place in European leagues, but it is those that have brought the eyes of much of the country to this little town in Lancashire.
Not only have they been responsible for protests, but the Athleticos have been key to bringing support back since things started to improve.
With club legend John Sheridan named as manager for his sixth stint in the Oldham dugout, the Latics have risen from eight points adrift at the bottom of the table to parity with fellow relegation contenders Barrow and Stevenage, numbers watching at home has risen and the atmosphere has greatly improved.
Much of this is down to a new, younger element of support who have joined the Athleticos block to bring tifos, noise, flags and a new energy to Saturdays in Oldham. Some may support Manchester’s big two, but they’ve decided to come and make a difference and be part of something on the terraces of Boundary Park.
“You have to have the exuberance of youth in order to make an atmosphere of a football club,” Dean says. “Younger people are more likely to jump up and down and sing, they’ve got the energy for it. They’ve got the enthusiasm, they haven’t got 40 years of misery and cynicism.
“I’d let them in for free, every single one of them. Because their value in being there far exceeds the monetary value that you know that they that they pay in because it’s incredibly important.”
In January, the fans finally saw success when the owner said in a statement on the club’s website that: “I think the best for the club is that it is now passed on to new owners. My team is speaking to certain credible bidders.”
But that hasn’t materialised into anything yet. For now though – even if fans are fighting to keep Oldham in the EFL and backing the team – many supporters are craving real change to materialise.
“The supporters’ groups have been working hard in the background putting pressure on, it’s been a real team effort,” Dean adds. “But at the end of the day, we’re not there yet. They still own the football club and they’re still ruining it.”
Whisper it, but if Oldham can avoid relegation and welcome new owners in the coming months, then fans can finally start looking forward again.