Football: Brave Oldham out of luck: On the Premiership's day of reckoning, Simon O'Hagan traces the crucial moments in a vain fight for survival

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The Independent Online
A THREE-YEAR stay in the top flight is over for Oldham Athletic. But it was a brave performance they gave on a day when, for a period, the possibility that they might again survive against all the odds was a very real one. In the end it did not matter that they failed to win; the results at Everton and Blackburn would have done for them anyway.

On the corresponding day last season Oldham's 4-3 win over Southampton, coupled with Crystal Palace's defeat at Arsenal, memorably kept Joe Royle's valiant team up. Yesterday they held the lead for an hour - a rising shot from Sean McCarthy after Norwich had failed to clear their lines - and were well worth it. But 17 minutes from time Norwich equalised when Robert Ullathorne volleyed home a cross from the former Oldham player Neil Adams.

The spirit, as ever with Oldham, shone through their ranks, but the flesh has been weakening for some time. And while it is impossible not to feel sympathy for any relegated team, there is something particularly poignant about Oldham's demise, and the way it can be traced to one fateful moment at Wembley four weeks ago.

This is what Richard Jobson remembers: 'We had two or three chances to clear it. We half-cleared it and the ball kept coming back in. When the ball was played into McClair I was behind him, and most players would have brought it down on their chest, controlled it, and played it from there. But he flicked it first time.

'As soon as he flicked it, I knew that . . . I thought, 'That's a good little flick, that is', because there wasn't enough pace on it to take it out for a goal kick or to the goalkeeper, and there was enough pace on it just to dink it over the back of the back four. And I thought, 'We're going to be in trouble here because it's a great flick.'

'I turned round and it happened in a split second. When I saw it drop to Mark Hughes I thought, 'Oh no, that's the one man we don't want it to drop to.' For a brief second after it hit the back of the net, you know, everything stood still. It was a weird feeling . . .'

If ever a season were shaped by a single goal, it is the one which Jobson, Oldham's central defender, is describing here as he sits in an empty executive box late on Tuesday night after his side's 1-1 draw at home to Sheffield United. Mark Hughes's equaliser in the FA Cup semi-final was not just the turning-point in Manchester United's season. Its effect on Oldham Athletic can be seen now as equally dramatic. Leading up to the semi-final, Oldham had a run of five wins, three draws and two defeats in 10 Premiership games. Since United swept them aside 4-1 in the replay, their record until yesterday read: played seven, lost four, drawn three. Oldham are used to crossing dangerous waters on a rickety bridge. When Hughes struck, the bridge broke.

But what turned out to be a catalyst for one side, and a catastrophe for the other, did not seem like that at the time. It was understandable that when Oldham played West Ham in their first match after the Cup replay, they lost 2-1 in a haze of post-Cup depression. But the depression persisted: defeat at Newcastle United, then defeat at Wimbledon.

The last week of the season loomed. A point - at last - from a goalless draw with Sheffield Wednesday a week ago, and then, on Tuesday, it was into the last three matches of the season. At the same stage last year Oldham embarked upon a run of three successive wins to remain in the Premiership on goal difference. In recent weeks the memory of this extraordinary feat seems to have acted as a comfort blanket for them. But the trouble with doing the impossible is that afterwards it seems so easy. As Jobson said, 'Last season it happened so quickly that it didn't sink in until after the last game. When we were actually doing it we didn't realise what was happening.' A sense of having nothing to lose carried Oldham along. In the closing weeks this time round it has been rather different - a sense of what might have been mingling with the apparent belief that if you can win three matches on the trot to stay up once, you can do it again. Not a healthy combination.

Even so, Oldham's cause was far from lost as they set out to take on Sheffield United. And it still wasn't lost when they came back again, meagre though was the one point they had secured, thanks to a goal from Darren Beckford. 'Initially we were diasppointed,' Jobson said of the outcome. 'But you soon forget about that, and we're still in there. We've got two games to go, and if we win them we've got a very good chance of being safe. I mean, at least it's still in our own hands, isn't it?'

Thursday came, and with it the visit of Tottenham. The schedule of four games in eight days, Oldham's 'penalty' for having a lengthy Cup run, was beginning to take its toll, and on a night when the mist and drizzle were perfectly in tune with the mood of gloom enveloping Boundary Park, there was something ominous about the head injury that forced Mike Milligan, the Oldham captain, to leave the field in the first minute. From then on it was always going to be a struggle. Oldham duly succumbed, 2-0.

'We need snookers now,' said a dispirited Jobson afterwards, his player of the season award of 500 gallons of free petrol meaning little to a man with only one journey on his mind - down to the First Division.

Ever since Wembley, Joe Royle's biggest task has been to shake the disappointment out of his players. But the disappointment would not go away. 'Morale-wise, who can say what effect that Mark Hughes's goal had on so many people?' he said after the Tottenham game. 'Our punters have been magnificent. They've stuck by us. But since that Mark Hughes goal we don't seem to have had a break anywhere.'

A minute left in the Cup semi-final. Just get that ball up the field . . .

(Photograph omitted)