Football: Ritchie looking back to the future

FA Cup countdown: Oldham's fall from grace has been swift and sad, but they take on Chelsea with much to prove

OLDHAM ATHLETIC supporters do not estimate the moment things began to go wrong, they can pinpoint it to the minute and the second. Ask any of them and a low groan comes out which closer examination reveals it to be two words: "Mark" and "Hughes".

Less than five years ago Oldham could almost touch their ticket to the FA Cup final. They were leading Manchester United with a minute to go when the ball looped with dreadful certainty to the best volleyer in the country. With one mighty heave of his right boot he crashed a shot that might as well have been a bullet to the Latics' heart.

"If it had fallen to anyone else it wouldn't have gone in," Andy Ritchie, an Oldham player that day and manager now, lamented. "That's the measure of Mark Hughes."

The measure of Athletic's decline since is almost too painful to take a tape to. They lost the semi-final replay 4-1 - United going on to take their first Double - did not win another Premiership game that season and were relegated just three points adrift of safety. They now reside, broken hearted and close to broke, deep in the the drop-zone in the Second Division.

"Everybody refers to that goal as the turning point for both clubs," Ritchie, who does not agree, said. "Manchester United went off on their merry way while we declined, but I can't see how one goal can cause such a cataclysmic catalogue of events.

"Okay, we were 60 seconds away from the FA Cup final, and who knows what that would have brought, but an awful lot of things went on before and afterwards so can't really point to that moment as the catalyst."

He cannot, but most other people can and even Ritchie has replayed the goal over and over in his mind. "Mark Brennan and myself were about to go on as substitutes when we scored and instead we put our tracksuit tops on again and sat down. In retrospect I think we should have gone on anyway just to spoil the game, break things up and stop their head of steam.

"It's ironic because if you look at the goal and analyse it, Bryan Robson was in an offside position when the ball was played in. He was jogging out but it was a question of whether he was interfering with play."

There is no question the goal interfered with the mental equilibrium locally, where "what if" has become a vigorous and often over-indulged past-time. Oldham needed something to project minds forward, and they got it with the draw for the third round of the FA Cup.

Beating local rivals United would be one mighty panacea but the chance to put one over those London foreign Fancy Dans, Chelsea, also has its appeal, bringing a full-house 14,000 crowd on Saturday to temper the real reason why Oldham are languishing: a shortage of money.

"It's not a big secret that finances are tight," Ritchie said. "You see it happen so many times in football. A club goes up to the heady heights and can't maintain it because of the financial pressures. The wages and overheads go up, you hit a bad spell and get relegated and suddenly you're not getting the revenue in. It doesn't take long before you hit problems.

"But I knew that before I came into the job anyway and in some respects it makes things a little bit easier. You know what you've got to work with and we have to get the best out of it."

Ritchie, whose career began at Old Trafford and took in Brighton and Leeds before he began an 11-year relationship with Boundary Park that was only interrupted by a short spell at Scarborough, was not so much admired in Oldham as loved.

"As far as I'm concerned Andy walks on water," one otherwise rational dentist told me recently, so it was at the risk of damaging an exalted reputation (84 goals in 242 League appearances) when he became manager in May.

"I wouldn't say it was a gamble," Ritchie said, "it was something I'd wanted to do for a few years. I had such an affinity with the place and had such a good time here it was always my dream to manage Oldham if at all possible. We're trying as hard as we can to get the club back where it belongs and for the moment a realistic ambition is the First Division."

He would prefer to get there without visiting the Third, but his side's home form has been so desperate that they have won only three times in the League at Boundary Park and are third from bottom. Nothing to worry Chelsea, then, except that Oldham's best results have been when teams have come at them, as the Premiership side are sure to do.

"It's not the most inviting of places," John McGinlay, the Oldham and former Bolton striker, said. "Let's hope it's freezing cold, they'll be wearing gloves and when they walk into that little dressing room they'll not fancy it because they are used to plush surroundings. If they come with the wrong attitude they'll get a shock, there's no doubt that.

"The boss went to watch them on Tuesday to spot some weaknesses in them. I told him he might as well stay at home and watch them on television. There aren't any."

In the Cup you have to believe that anything is possible and Oldham fervently hope so. "To say that we are underdogs is to understate it," Ritchie continued. "They're near the top of the Premiership, they have names to die for. But it's a bit of a respite from the bread and butter which is the League and it might just give the lads a little bit of a lift to play against such great players.

"You've seen upsets so many times and I don't see why we should be different. If the players do well against them, what will that do for their confidence?"

Plenty, and there is at least one reason for them to be optimistic. It was possible the embodiment of that desperate disappointment four-and- a-half years ago could have been at Boundary Park, but Hughes was sold by Chelsea in the summer.

For his eardrums and for the nerves of the Oldham crowd it is a blessing he will be missing. Wembley, the semi-final and 10 April, 1994, have been revisited too often.

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