Lee Johnson hasn't kept up early promise
18 March ~ Despite early promise Oldham Athletic's season has plunged back into a familiar battle with relegation. Two matches against Preston North End, just about six months apart tell the story perfectly. Early in September at Deepdale, in front of the television cameras, Latics turned on a performance of slick passing football, though they eventually lost 2-1. Centre stage was a young centre-back James Tarkowski, whose breaks from the back, and a headed goal, raised a clamour of expectation. Liverpool wanted him for £2 million, or so the story went.
The team was led by the youngest manager in the Football League, Lee Johnson, who had overseen a dramatic escape after being brought in during the closing weeks of the previous season. Johnson promised a team that would press high, break with pace and pass its way to success. And that's the way it seemed. But Johnson has had some difficult lessons to learn. Open and frank in press conferences he struck an early chord with fans as he talked with enthusiasm about his approach. The contrary view was that a more experienced manager might have been a little less open in his views on individual players.
Last Saturday saw the return match with Preston and the 3-1 defeat told a different story. Tarkowski has gone to Brentford for a fraction of the fee that drove press fantasies in the autumn and September's vibrant passing is a distant memory while Latics have used 37 different players this season. More importantly, footballing ambition has been replaced by hard graft. Preston, ably lead by Simon Grayson, demonstrated that well-organised muscularity seasoned with just enough skill is a recipe for success at this level.
None of this is a plea to change the manager or a moan at the chairman. Johnson has rightly been given a new long-term contract. Poor attendances and a constant battle to keep the club afloat provide the chilling but all too familiar background to the season. There are hints that some of the fans are restless – a comment on the Oldham Chronicle website cast the manager unflatteringly as "tiki –taka Johnson" – and would like to see a more robust approach on the pitch. I'd prefer to see him stick to his principles and see if his team can pass its way to success. But this summer Johnson will need to reflect on how to fashion, and retain, a squad that meets both his ambition and vision of the way the game should be played.
A familiar failing led to a last-minute equaliser from Crewe on Saturday and with nine matches still to go, Oldham fans can only hope that he gets another chance to put his ideas to the test in League One next season. Brian Simpson