Have brought back the Oldham's cup exploits this season trip from Pennine Way to 1989-90 campaign and an unlikely down memory lane with Wembley Way. ALEX DUNN walked The Latics' captain of the time,
IN an era when football clubs all too often spend like Viv Nicholson, with similar consequences, the story of Oldham Athletic's frugal ascent from perennial Greater Manchester footnotes to one of the early 90s' more iconic sides seems all the more remarkable.
The previous season Oldham had finished an unremarkable 16th in the then Second Division but alchemist Joe Royle was convinced that with some tinkering the squad he had assembled from other clubs' cast-offs and a handful of homegrown talent might just spark into something special. Just 65 games later the proof was in the pudding.
A congested fixture pile-up that included four games in seven days put paid to any promotion aspirations but a Littlewoods Cup Final appearance against Nottingham Forest and two FA Cup semi-final bouts with Manchester United still keep the fire burning for those supporters privy to the 'pinch me seasons' of Royle folklore.
If you joined the party post-94, God help you. The subsequent 'shoot me seasons', which have included 16 consecutive campaigns in the third tier, have been the mother of all comedowns.
Prior to this season's surprise FA Cup run, queues down Sheepfoot Lane for tickets had been rarer than four-sided grounds in Oldham, but when Mike Milligan held the armband it was a common occurrence to see lines snake around Boundary Park, which even in its dilapidated state retains an old school charm amid a sea of identikit stadia.
Milligan, a congenial Manc Irishman, is both candid and comic, generous with his time and endearing in that he speaks like a genuine fan. For much of our chat he speaks as he played, tearing into one topic from the next with the infectious enthusiasm that made him a natural fit as Royle's on-field lieutenant; the original yard dog.
Whenever Royle is mentioned the tone is warm but never reverential and it's clear the relationship the then rookie manager shared with his players was more that of an indulgent older brother than disciplinarian.
“What we did that season was just one of those freak of nature occurrences but the manager deserves a lot of credit," says Milligan.
“The thing with Joe is that he fostered a team spirit borne from the fact he treated his players as men. We were serious about our football but we never stopped laughing. It still gets me excited talking about it today.”
Known for his sharp wit and laid back manner, Royle always made good copy for the newspapers and Milligan says he was exactly the same in the dressing room. The way he tells it makes them sound like the world’s best pub team but Oldham were glorious to watch in full flow.
Two good goalkeepers in Jon Hallworth and Andy Rhodes swapped the No.1 shirt like Clemence and Shilton, while Andy Barlow and Denis Irwin at full-back were as good going forward as they were at the back.
Earl Barrett and Paul Warhurst was a rapid a centre-half partnership while Milligan and Nicky Henry in front of them were both as hard as nails but could play too. Either side the whippet-like Neil Adams and the velvet-like left foot of Rick Holden sent love letters of crosses to Andy Ritchie and Frankie Bunn in the centre.
The first professional yeti Ian Marshall and the cult mystery man (Ooh) Roger Palmer, who according to Milligan ghosted as unnoticed into training as he did opposition penalty areas, were back-ups from the bench when only two subs were permitted.
“We'd never give up, never die and that's something Joe knew (in the two cup runs Oldham scored ten equalisers). We'd never cheat him, whether we played good or bad, so he knew he'd never have to raise his voice.
“Only a couple of times did I see him lose it. I remember one time away from home we weren't at it in the first half. Joe slammed the dressing room door at half-time and launched into a tirade. We were all a bit ‘bloody hell, what's wrong with him?’
“Proper ranting, going around the team oneby-one. For some reason the goalkeeper Andy Rhodes, who'd had better games, wasn't back in the dressing room by this point. Joe’s saying ‘Where’s Rhodesy?’ when right on cue from the other side of the door Andy kicks it open and cracks the gaffer in the forehead.
“And if you know Joe's head it's a pretty hard target to miss! It started to bleed. We were all crying laughing; even Willie Donachie couldn't help himself. Joe, quick witted as ever, just said ‘as for you Rhodesy, that's the first f***ing thing you’ve kicked right all afternoon!’”
Royle’s Midas touch in the transfer market in those days took some beating. Barrett and Warhust for a combined fee of £45,000 anyone?