Friday 17 April ~
Another Oldham Athletic season is heading for disappointment. Recently the team has slipped from play-off certainties to tenth place, 11 points off the pace, in the blink of an eye. It wasn't supposed to be like this in 2008-09. In August, Latics had, the local paper boasted, just snatched a new midfielder from under the noses of several clubs and he was joining a rebuilt squad. In the haze of summer’s self-delusion it was easy to over look that our new star’s former club had been relegated after a truly awful season and our squad had been assembled for less than the cost of a large pack of tea bags. And then there was the ground, a quarter of it demolished but with a promise of better to come. How could these omens be wrong?
Throughout the bitter Oldham winter we were snug in our top-six play-off place. Leicester v Oldham on Sky in January was billed as a” top of the table clash”. With keeper Greg Fleming sent off, Dean Windass stepped in to great, if slightly comic, effect. For the next two weeks, the life span of a national treasure in the digital age, he was a regular on the television screen. For the first time in 15 years people were talking about Oldham in other than sympathetic tones. But with February came the start of the slide.
We were back on the television against Leeds and with national exposure for a local breast cancer charity. This should have been a chance to reinforce our claim to be real promotion contenders and to be a club with social awareness. There can be little doubt that the club’s owners and administration had a genuine engagement with the charity’s purpose, and it’s most visible sign was that the players would wear a pink kit for the match.
In pre- and post-match interviews the manager, John Sheridan, using his downbeat delivery to great effect, conceded that the kit and surrounding activity was in a good cause, but left a distinct feeling that it was all more of a distraction. For the Sky presenting team the kit was just an opportunity for a series of questions and jokes tinged with homophobic overtones. The chance was there for both club and broadcaster to complement the football occasion with a mature engagement with the serious purpose of the charity. The missed opportunity would become an emblem for the season.
Enter the greyhounds. Throughout February the club's offical website trailed the bonding opportunity presented by a night at the dogs: a chance for players and fans to mingle. Anybody who knew Belle Vue dog track would have felt uneasy: it is more a cave system than a stadium, its deterioration a metaphor for the decline of two working-class staple sports, speedway and greyhound racing. Within days of the event, the national press had the story, with allegations of fights and drunken behaviour by some players given prominence. The club responded responsibly with an investigation and, although finding that a skinny mongrel of a story had morphed into a Crufts best-of-breed in the hands of an unsympathetic press, disciplinary action followed. Chaos off the pitch was matched by decline on it.
Tranmere at home is always a fixture to look forward to and this year it should have been extra special. It should have been a chance for John Sheridan’s team to triumph over former manager Ronnie Moore’s no hopers. To taunt him with cries of “hoof” every time the ball was launched forward. It should have been a chance to cement our position in the top six while condemning Tranmere to another season in League One. But by the time Rovers arrived Sheridan was gone, and replaced by the returning Joe Royle. It was a chance to restart a lost season: Tranmere won 2-0 and, worse still, they played well.
The season isn’t over yet, but all that remains is mid-table mediocrity and the platitudes of building for the future. The trip to Belle Vue didn’t cause the decline. It did, however, highlight the need for those privileged to play football for a living to take seriously the responsibilities they owe to others – team-mates, club owners, fans – and not to discard them carelessly like a used betting slip at the end of their night at the dogs. Brian Simpson