Football: Oldham's balloon still deflating

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The Independent Online
Oldham Athletic 0 Portsmouth 0

It seemed Oldham Athletic wanted to chart the extent of their decline. We have gone from the Premiership and being at Wembley to the First Division's relegation zone in little more than two years, we have sold our best players and have no money to replace them. So why don't we cap it all by making a complete shambles of the pre-match build up?

"Due to Civil Aviation regulations," a voice boomed out over the loud speakers, "we can release only 800 today." He was building towards the start of a Great Balloon Race and there in a huge net a mass of multi- coloured plastic bobbled in the wind, but for all the danger to low flying aircraft, they represented they might as well have released 800,000. A handful took off apologetically when they were released, but the great mass stayed stubbornly where they were.

A club with a popped reputation had to send on its ball boys to burst hundreds of ground-bound balloons in what was the biggest hot air failure since the last of the party political conferences. To complete the indignity, 700 plus tags had to be gathered from the pitch for a second attempt at lift off this week.

It was a sorry start to an afternoon which, with its sheeting rain and dank cold, was hardly encouraging anyway. What no-one could have legislated for, however, was that the balloons, for all their inability to take off, still represented the height of excitement compared to what followed. The match had the virtue of being a relegation six pointer and the vices so numerous that a limit of 800 again would not have been enough.

The first half was an entertainment desert, the second barely any better. Most balloons had struggled to make it to the goalmouths and the players took that as a cue, so we had to wait 36 minutes for a corner. The first shot on target, from Oldham's David Beresford, arrived 20 minutes later and as the only real chance followed a second afterwards, when Stuart Barlow headed straight at the Portsmouth keeper, Aaron Flahavan, the extent of the parched ground around this oasis is apparent.

Which brings us to the arid area between David Hillier's ears. The former England Under-21 midfield player was making his Portsmouth debut after a pounds 300,000 transfer from Arsenal, and if anyone looked like he had gone down a division for a premature retirement, it was him.

He may have tackled with powder-puff ferocity and marked like he feared close proximity would risk a painful disease, but beneath his languor there burned a man indignant at his sloppy display. How else could you explain the madness of stamping on Nicky Henry's knee that led to his sending-off?

At least one person had appeared to have taken the ultimate sanction. The winner of Oldham's "Strike It Lucky" competition could not be tempted from the Lookers Stand at half-time, even for a prize of pounds 517. "You've got 30 seconds now before the teams come out," the man with the microphone said with a desperation of someone whose day could barely get any worse. "If you sprint, you can still get it."

He could rest assured, anyone who could sprint had left the ground screaming many minutes before.

Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Kelly; Fleming, Graham, Redmond, Serrant; Rickers, Orlygsson (Banger, 77), Henry, Beresford; Barlow, Ormondroyd. Substitutes not used: Allott, Hughes.

Portsmouth (3-4-3): Flahavan; Thomson, Perrett, Whitbread; Hillier, Durnin, Awford, Igoe; Carter (Pethick, 65), Bradbury (Burton 62), Turner. Substitute not used: S Dobson.

Referee: G Frankland (Middlesbrough).

Bookings: Oldham: Henry, Orlygsson. Portsmouth: Bradbury. Sending off: Hillier.

Man of the match: Awford. Attendance: 7,639.