Football Commentary: Oldham give short shrift to romance: Bolton and Charlton are hounded out of the Cup within sniffing distance of Wembley as thoroughbreds bite back against underdogs

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The Independent Online
FINALLY, or rather semi-finally, the thoroughbreds bit back. It may have been the year of the underdog in the FA Cup, but Wembley could still be an all-Premiership affair.

Normal service was resumed when Manchester United and Oldham Athletic claimed places in the last four at the expense of Endsleigh League opposition, but the uncommitted will have greeted their safe passage with a sigh, and muted applause.

Much of the romance went out of this most romantic of competitions with the demise of Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic, who had cut a swashbuckling swathe through the giants of Everton, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers.

Oldham in the final for the first time would have a certain novelty value, but Bolton's exploits this season have been in the Cup's very best traditions, and Bolton versus Manchester United at Wembley would have had the lot. David and Goliath, the promise of lovely football from two passing teams and enough nostalgia to have it all sponsored by Kleenex.

Sadly for the sentimentalists, it was not to be. While Peter Schmeichel was losing his head just down the road, Oldham were keeping theirs in the emotional maelstrom of Burnden Park, grinding out a 1-0 win to reach the semi-finals for the second time in four years.

In 1990 they made new friends everywhere, getting to the last four, and also to the final of what was then the Littlewoods Cup, with barnstorming runs which saw them score seven against Scarborough, six against West Ham and three apiece against Villa and Manchester United.

In those days Oldham were a bold, attacking team, whose appealing, if high-risk, attitude was: 'If they get two, we'll get more.'

Time, and the perennial threat of relegation, have curbed Joe Royle's natural inclinations, and the League's longest-serving manager has come to view stopping goals, rather than scoring them, as his priority.

Rugged, give-'em-nowt defence was Oldham's no-frills game plan, but while diligence had its reward, it was hardly the magic of the Cup.

Bolton played the better, more constructive football, but were restricted to precious few chances, which all fell to the wrong people. John McGinlay, the 25-goal striker who was watched by Scotland's Craig Brown, had none.

The atmosphere was marvellous, but a run-of-the-mill tie failed to do it justice. The Wanderers' famous old ground has seen better days, in every sense, but it was packed to its wooden rafters with a real throwback crowd, fortified with Bovril and brandishing two-dimensional foil replicas of the Cup. All that was missing from the Movietone days was the clacking rattles and a few more of the coloured, Screaming Lord Sutch top hats.

If the setting has changed little since Lofthouse was putting everything into the net, goalkeepers included, Bolton's football is entirely modern. Their pleasing, progressive play is a credit to the First Division, where encouraging numbers seem to be eschewing the aerial route to promotion in favour of a thoughtful, composed approach.

Royle had done his homework. He had seen Tony Kelly and Jason McAteer embarrass better sides than Oldham with their clever passing from midfield, and was determined to deny them the time and space they needed to dictate. The tackles went in early and hard. Mike Milligan and Nick Henry made their mark, sometimes illegitimately, with the referee, Kelvin Morton, missing far too much.

Given that the rough stuff came from Oldham, it was not without irony that the one serious injury should be suffered by their Norwegian defender, Tore Pedersen, who had his knee ligaments wrecked, a la Gazza, by a challenge that was maladroit rather than malicious, and will miss the World Cup.

Norway are destined to miss him more than Oldham. His withdrawal, if anything, improved a combative back four, with the substitute, Neil Pointon, keeping a much tighter rein on David Lee.

Lines of supply cut, Bolton were able to provide only intermittent service to their wingers, with the result that the strikers had to survive on starvation rations.

Neither McAteer nor McGinlay were the force they had been in previous rounds, yet Bolton still had the most accomplished player on the pitch. McAteer's mobility will probably ensure that he gets an early move to the Premiership. Ability guarantees that Alan Stubbs will.

Outstanding at Highbury, where he left Ian Wright with nowhere to run, Stubbs reinforced that impression here, and at 22 has all the makings of an England centre-half of the not-too-distant future.

Genuinely two-footed, strong in the air and decisive in the tackle, he is further blessed with that rare gift that sets apart the very best defenders. His positional play is faultless because he reads the game well enough to anticipate danger. Terry Venables is monitoring his progress. So too, we can safely assume, are any clubs who can afford the pounds 2m it might take to buy him.

Stubbs is definitely one to remember, but the match will not linger long in the memory. Royle had it right. 'We held them quite easily, but they held us easily, too, and it seemed to be drifting towards 0-0.'

Henry was booked for a foul on McAteer, and Darren Beckford for similarly mistreating Kelly as Oldham fought to contain Bolton's up- and-at-'em start. They won the battle. Mark Seagraves rattled the bar, McAteer demanded a decent save and Owen Coyle shot tantalisingly wide, but a lot of huffing and puffing amounted to very little.

The Wanderers were far from happy when they were denied a penalty, for Richard Jobson's obvious foul on Coyle, and must have sensed then that it was not to be their day. For all that, though, a replay was the least they deserved.

They were denied one in nonsensical circumstances, Mark Patterson knocking an absurd back-pass into space in his own penalty area for Beckford to charge in and apply a crisp finish, right to left.

The reserve striker, playing only because Sean McCarthy was cup- tied, had spent the previous 83 minutes running into offside positions, to Royle's mounting irritation. It had taken a pass from the opposition to keep him onside.

Oldham's satisfaction was tempered by the loss of Pedersen, less than 24 hours after Gunnar Halle had undergone cartilage surgery. 'We're running out of Norwegians,' Royle said, ruefully, as he turned his attention to Wednesday's relegation scrap at home to Tottenham.

Bolton, meanwhile, can concentrate their full attention on winning a place in the promotion play-offs where, with nine of their remaining 13 games at home, they must have a fair chance.

Royle wished them well - sentiments that will be shared by football's square-eyed millions, for whom their Cup run has been compulsive viewing.

Goal: Beckford (83) 0-1.

Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Davison; Brown, Seagraves, Stubbs, Phillips; Lee, Kelly, McAteer, Patterson (Walker, 84); McGinlay, Coyle. Substitutes not used: Lydiate, Walton (gk).

Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Hallworth; Pedersen (Pointon, 31), Jobson, Redmond, Makin, Bernard, Milligan, Henry, Holden; Beckford, Sharp. Substitutes not used: Ritchie, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).