Out of time?

Could this be the end of the road for Oldham Athletic? Steve Ragg explains how a promising season suddenly went so wrong

From the brink of promotion to the edge of ex­tinction in what seems like no time at all. While hopes of Division One football died with the play-off defeat at QPR, Oldham Athletic may be killed off altogether if a solution to our latest crisis isn’t found very soon.

It was widely hoped that our money worries were behind us when latest saviour Chris Moore bought a 53 per cent stake in the club in May 2001. Having amassed his fortune in his shareholding in Torex plc, the IT com­pany of which he is chairman, Moore was­ted little time before ringing the changes at Boundary Park. With bold talk of promotion within three years and stadium redevelopment he soon had his own board in place and altered the share capital to increase his stake to 95 per cent.

Within 12 months he was on to his third manager, with Iain Dowie succeeding where Andy Ritchie and Mick Wadsworth had fallen by the wayside. Moore couldn’t be accused of not backing his men, spending around £1.2 million on transfer fees and signing num­erous players either permanently or on loan deals. Appointing Dowie to his first managerial post was an inspired move. Soon the Latics were challenging at the top of the table, scoring plenty of goals at home and proving unbeatable away.

Then, just as everything on the pitch was going to plan, off the field it started to fall apart. The upturn in Latics’ fortunes coincided with the collapse of the stock market, and Moore took a battering. With a spiralling wage bill he announced the club was losing £50,000 per week and he couldn’t carry on funding it to such an extent. Dowie was told to make drastic cuts to his squad, but he dealt with this admirably while maintaining the promotion push. He even lost two members of his coaching staff, yet kept the momentum going.

In the background, though, chaos was en­suing. In March this year Moore resigned as chairman, taking up the title of honorary president while adamant that he wasn’t about to walk away. Events became even more farcical when two more directors resigned and chief executive Alan Hardy was suspended following a disagreement, leaving the club with no chairman, no chief exec and just two board members. As the cash flow dwindled fans were encouraged to purchase next year’s sea­son tickets at a discount before the current one ended.

Dowie just carried on regardless, ignoring the boardroom shenanigans to guide his side into the play-offs, the club’s best season in years, but we fell just short of the finishing post. Immediately following the QPR defeat Moore insisted that despite rumours to the contrary he wasn’t about to quit, having paid out £4m already, albeit in the form of a loan. He was working to a five-year plan and exten-ded the deadline for reduced-price season tick­ets until the end of May.

Then, on June 10, with rumours of the demise of the club circling, it was announced that all payments to creditors, players and staff were to be suspended, new investment sought and an EGM called for mid-July, when a decision on the future of the club would be made.

At the time of writing any number of creditors can issue a winding-up order, the players can give 14 days’ notice to quit since they have­n’t been paid, while several others are free to go anyway as no new contracts have been ag­reed. If no new investors can be found then the only possible scenario is that Oldham Ath­letic will cease to exist. As Moore is by far the major creditor and shareholder, our future is whol­ly in his hands.

Still, where there’s life there’s hope. Talks are ongoing with potential investors, although they are some way off agreement. The unpaid staff are working furiously to keep the club going, and Dowie is doing his best to keep the squad together. Two dedicated fans have also set up the Oldham Athletic Foundation Trust (www.keep-the-faith.co.uk) which, it is hoped, will play a key part in any survival package and future plans.

Trudging away from Loftus Road after that heartbreaking play-off defeat, it wasn’t hard to resist uttering those dreadful words “there’s always next year”. Now, I just hope it’s true.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month