Martin Hardy: They get knocked down but Oldham always get up again

Life beyond the Premier League

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Just a quick chat in the boss's office. That's how it starts, or rather ends. All those dreams, all those hopes, all the expectations of a young man's family and friends. All cut short with these words: "We're not keeping you on, son."

Dan Taylor was 13 when he joined Newcastle United. At 14 he made his debut for their academy, away at Sheffield United. His mam, his dad and brother drove down the A1 to watch. Newcastle lost 8-0 but that is not the prevailing memory.

"I got the No 9 shirt," he says. "It felt so weird putting it on. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was amazing. I absolutely loved it. It was unreal at first, like a dream for a young kid. Any young kid in Newcastle wants to grow up and play for Newcastle. With me being a striker and Alan Shearer being there, everyone wanted to be him."

By 2010 he had joined the club's academy as a scholar. The following year he signed his first professional contract; and he was finding the net regularly for the reserves. Then came the bombshell.

"Willie Donachie [head of Newcastle development] and Joe Joyce [head of Newcastle academy], told me I wasn't going to be offered a new contract, that they would be letting me go," he adds.

"It was awful at first. I had a really good season. It was heartbreaking, I was devastated. I wanted to play in the first team but it wasn't going to happen. Willie, Joe and Peter Beardsley were very helpful. They said they would do everything to get me a new club and they put my name about, sending clubs DVDs and letters, and obviously my agent helped me out a lot."

When the Premier League (not football) started, in 1992, Dan Taylor was not born. His mum was pregnant with him, and his dad recalls Oldham Athletic as a Premier League team.

A generation, including Taylor himself, have no comprehension of the phenomenal escape that Joe Royle masterminded that season. They were eight points adrift going into the final month but on the campaign's final day, in front of a packed Boundary Park crowd of 14,597, they beat Southampton 4-3 to stay up. A year later, there was heartache to match that joy, in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, when, in the 119th minute and with Oldham set to defeat Manchester United to reach the final, Mark Hughes scored a breathtaking volley, a goal that seemed to shoot the wind from the sails of a football club. They were hammered in the replay at Maine Road but the seven games that followed were more defining. None were won. On the final day of the season, this time Oldham slipped out of the Premier League. They have never been back.

It is a cruel league to leave.

Simon Corney, the current chairman, would just go for cruel. Boundary Park has changed since those heady days. It now has only three main stands. It was a stadium that once squeezed in 47,000 but the Lookers Stand was demolished because it was costing Oldham Athletic £300,000 every season, £300,000 they simply did not have.

It is almost 10 years since Corney and two of his business partners got their wish of owning a football club, "any football club," as he says, "but one with history and tradition". As he alludes to towards the end of our conversation, wishes can be dangerous things.

When he arrived, the club was losing £3m a year after a period of overspending. There was mistrust at a non-Oldham takeover. He was expected to sell the ground where Oldham have played since 1896. Ten years later, weary, worldly, Corney is still there (his business partners have left), talking of the importance of building a stand to replace the one that had to be demolished.

"We have a council consultation process for a new stand that will have a gym, restaurants, conference and banqueting facilities," he said. "It is hard to raise the finance to do it, but it is important we do and that will be our new main stand.

"It will cost around £5m and the council have given us some money but a lot will come from private funding and then the new stand has to become self-funding.

"I lived in New York with my partners, we were football crazy. We dreamt of having a football club. We had no attachment. It was purely football and people were very suspicious of us. We've proved people wrong but it's getting harder. We had an average of 6,000 and we're down to 4,500. That's £40,000 a game difference, times that by 25 and it's a million per year. We need to average 7,000 to break even.

"We were already on the doorstep of one of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United and from nowhere Manchester City have come along.

"Kids don't follow the local team any more. They wear Man City, Man United, Spurs or Arsenal strips. They wear Aguero on the back, they're not interested in Matt Smith. The money from Sky has killed the game at our level. It is a completely different landscape. The Premier League has the pick of our players with no compensation. There are not rewards for us for bringing through our own players."

Still, he fights on. The club has no debt, he would sell to a realistic buyer but no one has emerged. "We have fantastic people, who have been here longer than I have. They do it for more than just the money. They do it because they have an attachment to the club but it is hard to keep going,"

So Oldham get a manager like Paul Dickov, renowned for his enthusiasm, formerly as a relentless centre-forward, now from within the dugout. He stays loyal. He signs wisely. He signs Dan Taylor in the hope he will turn Oldham into something more than a mid-table League One team. To create a few new dreams.

"It's been amazing," says Taylor. "I'm really glad I signed and I think I'm getting better. What Oldham have is what you need. We get changed at the stadium. We train round the corner. The pitches are perfect, really good. You don't have what you had at Newcastle but you have everything you need to be a footballer."

A footballer. A career.