Thirty years after being a founder member of the Premier League, Oldham Athletic are set to be the first of them to be relegated from the EFL.
It is a striking reminder of football’s inequalities that as the Premier League prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary, for the first time a former members is set to be relegated into non-league. It’s a desperate situation at the bottom of League Two for Oldham Athletic. With Scunthorpe United already relegated, they have three games left to play and are four points adrift of third-bottom Stevenage.
Even if Oldham do survive this one weekend, they’ll still need to win their remaining two games and hope that Stevenage fail to win all of theirs. Stevenage still have a game in hand on Oldham, too, as well as a superior goal difference. Coming as this does at the end of a season of boycott and rancour, the situation could barely be bleaker for a club that has slipped through the divisions over the last three decades with barely anyone noticing.
Yet go far enough back into the past, and things could all have been very different. Going into their last two matches of the 1914/15 season, Oldham Athletic stood on the point of making history. One win from their last two matches of the season against Burnley and Liverpool would have made them the champions of England for the first time. But Oldham were beaten twice, 2-1 and 2-0, and Everton sneaked up to snatch the title by a point.
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That season had been contentious enough just by existing. The reputation of the game had been dragged through the mud by the decision to play on after the First World War had started, with questions being asked in parliament and angry letters to The Times from the likes of WG Grace. The game was finally suspended at the end of the 1914/15 campaign, and the world was a very different place by the time the Football League resumed four years later. Oldham struggled near the bottom of the First Division until they were relegated in 1923, and a further drop into Division Three North followed in 1935. When the Third Division was de-regionalised in 1958 and a new Fourth Division was created, Oldham were placed there.
By the early 1980s, when Joe Royle was appointed manager, Oldham were back in the Second Division. They spent much of that decade pushing for promotion, coming closest when beaten by Leeds in the first year of the play-offs in 1987. That season had been the first played on an artificial surface at Boundary Park, but despite the widely-held belief that this first generation of ‘plastic pitches’ gave an unfair advantage to those who played on them regularly, Royle’s team was plenty capable of playing on grass, too.
Their ascent began with two thrilling cup runs. During the 1989/90 season, Oldham beat Leeds, Scarborough, Arsenal, Southampton and West Ham (the latter by virtue of an astonishing 6-0 win in the first leg of a two-legged semi-final) in the League Cup, before losing 1-0 to Nottingham Forest in the final; it was a first trip to Wembley their 95-year history. In the FA Cup, they beat Birmingham, Brighton, Everton and Aston Villa, before losing after a replay to Manchester United in the semi-finals.
Unfortunately for Royle, his team seemed to become completely distracted by these cup runs in the end, a theme that would come back to haunt them again four years later. A run of eight defeats from 11 league matches between the middle of March and the end of April 1990 torpedoed their automatic promotion chances. They finished the season three points below even the play-off places. On the last day of the following season, in dramatic scenes at Boundary Park, they came from two down to beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 and earn promotion, with the winning penalty from Neil Redfearn prompting one of the more spectacular pitch invasions of the era. It was one of the last games to be played on the plastic pitch at Boundary Park.
Oldham stayed in the top flight for three seasons but it was touch and go. They finished 17th in the 1991/92 season, but at the end of the following campaign they had to carry out one of the great acts of escapology to stay up. They needed to win their last three games to stay up, and after beating Premier League title challengers Aston Villa, they overcame Liverpool 3-2 and Southampton 4-3, both at home.
The following season they reached the FA Cup semi-finals again, but this brought the moment that, it has been said, set the club on the trajectory towards where they find themselves today. At Wembley, again playing Manchester United, Oldham took the champions to extra-time and even took the lead a minute into the second period. But in the dying seconds of extra-time Mark Hughes equalised for Manchester United, who won the replay 4-1.
Oldham’s league form collapsed. They failed to win any of their remaining Premier League matches and were relegated. Royle left for Everton in October 1994, another drop followed in 1997, and they fell back into the EFL’s basement division again in 2018, after 21 consecutive seasons in League One. Somewhat astonishingly, Oldham haven’t finished above 16th place in whatever division they’ve been playing in since 2009.
As this season’s attendances figures demonstrate, relegation into the National League is far from a death sentence for a club in and of itself. Revenues do drop substantially and as recently as 2020 Macclesfield Town folded in the summer following relegation. But the overwhelming evidence is that falling into the non-league game isn’t the disaster that EFL clubs often perceive it to be. There should be no mistake about it: if Oldham Athletic do find themselves in financial difficulties after relegation, the seeds will have been planted long ago.
Manchester United and Manchester City have thrived at varying points over the last three decades, but the same hasn’t been true for some of the city’s other clubs. Stockport County fell from the Championship to the National League North, and are only just set to reclaim their EFL status. Bolton Wanderers fell from the Premier League to League Two and came close to closing altogether. Bury were expelled from the EFL in August 2019. Macclesfield Town, who may be considered one of the city’s satellite towns, folded the following summer. Droylsden, once of the National League, resigned from the Northern Premier League in August 2020 and haven’t yet re-emerged. The ‘whole new ball game’ promised in 1992 benefitted some clubs considerably more than others.
Takeover talks had been going on, but nothing has been confirmed yet. In the meantime, there are hundreds who will not be returning to Boundary Park until current owner has gone, and it remains the case that first steps towards some sort of recovery are vanishingly unlikely until current owner Abdallah Lemsagam has gone. Oldham is plenty capable of supporting Premier League football, but the top flight seems like an extremely distant memory for the club’s supporters. If or when it comes, Oldham Athletic’s relegation from the EFL should be a reminder that while the path to that Premier League can be paved with gold, the journey back can be extremely bumpy indeed.
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