9 February ~ Oldham's attempts to get a new ground look as if they might be sunk with the news that the Charity Commission is blocking an important part of the process. Chairman Simon Corney has been quoted as saying that league football will not be played at Boundary Park next season, asking: "What is there left for us in Oldham?" The club's plight isn't unique. They currently play in a dilapidated stadium, with poor facilities and little atmosphere.
As if the natural decay of 100 years wasn't sufficient, the board took the inexplicable decision to demolish one side of the ground, adding a sense of the ridiculous to each home match. Declining support means that the only route to financial security is a new and improved stadium, with other facilities that will generate non-football related income.
The need to act has been clear for years, and the club announced their first plans for a new ground in 1999. In the period following administration new owners put together an ambitious scheme to redevelop Boundary Park, but well-organised local opposition and the fall in property prices saw that plan off. The current plan involves a move to a new site around three miles away – still within Oldham but only just.
The plan has not proved popular and it's easy to find causes for objection. Oldham is one of the poorest areas in Greater Manchester and the additional travel costs to the new ground are not trivial. The new site provides a good view of the City of Manchester Stadium nearby, and the planned home of FC United of Manchester is just a goal-kick away. Unless the club can take a significant proportion of its current fans with them, the chances of drawing support from run-down areas of north-east Manchester seem unlikely. Despite those doubts, the club remain convinced that the move is viable and represents the only realistic option.
Access to the site of the new stadium depends upon the club making use of land which is currently Failsworth Lower Memorial Park and the arguments about this land are reminiscent of the plot for a comic novel. Opportunistic local politicians and jobsworth local activists compete for attention. Studious visits to the dusty archives of council minutes from the 1920s by an improbably named group of opponents of the plan, FRAG, eventually drew in the Charity Commissioners to pronounce on arcane aspects of the law of charitable land and trusts. The outcome is that the club now own a site for the new stadium –an investment of £3 million – but have been refused the chance to acquire the land essential for access to that site.
The next few weeks promise speculation over legal appeals and recriminations between the club and the local council. But for Corney, there is little incentive to engage. He will, he says, explore every option, and the possibility of a ground share outside the town, including with local neighbours Rochdale, is back in the press. The club are adamant that redevelopment of their current home makes no financial sense.
It is a situation rich in irony. For those who have been critical of the decision to focus attention on the Failsworth site, within Oldham, may now find the club compelled to look elsewhere – beyond the town's boundaries. Perhaps the greatest irony is that all of this takes place as the club have put together the best side for many years. The irony is compounded by the fact that the side is, in the main, made up of young players, full of optimism, all with points to prove and playing for the future. The only real option for the fans is to enjoy the season and let tomorrow take care of itself. Brian Simpson