Talbot, the Wembley winner, leads Oldham into battle with Big Sam

Former Gunner tells Tim Rich about the pitfalls of management as old partner Allardyce brings Bolton to town
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The Independent Football

The foyer of Boundary Park, Oldham, with its old heavy wallpaper reminiscent of an Indian restaurant circa 1972 and elderly pieces of furniture is no place find yourself reading The Players' Club, the official magazine of the Professional Footballers' Association.

The foyer of Boundary Park, Oldham, with its old heavy wallpaper reminiscent of an Indian restaurant circa 1972 and elderly pieces of furniture is no place find yourself reading The Players' Club, the official magazine of the Professional Footballers' Association.

You might think a PFA magazine might offer its members some practical articles on the game. Alan Shearer's Guide to the Perfect Penalty. Wing Play with Arjen Robben. Roy Keane's Top 10 Captaincy Tips. Football is hardly mentioned; instead The Players' Club depicts its readers indulging in the kind of lifestyle and conspicuous consumption not seen since Caligula ruled Rome.

Its ideas for Christmas gifts include: Asprey diamond cuff-links, £2,800; a Bentley Continental GT, £112,750; a Zarzycki's carved bathtub, "In Arabascato marble when you've had a hard day on the pitch and need a good long soak", £16,000. A cheaper option might be the Garrard Foreplay dice "in raspberry perspex and sterling silver" with options including "massage, nipple, lips" and something that appears to end in ***k (the photo is not too clear). No pair of socks for these young men, then.

It is as relevant to the needs of Oldham's footballers as My Little Pony. Until the club was taken over 11 months ago by three young New York-based entrepreneurs, Oldham was all but pleading to be put out of its misery. Iain Dowie had kept it heroically afloat, they had endured administration and sometimes boasted a playing staff of 12. "Terrible. It's just flash, isn't it?" said Brian Talbot when I passed him the magazine in a very sparse manager's office.

Talbot, however, has some luxuries previous Oldham managers have been denied. The takeover may not have produced wads of cash but he has the stability of a three-and-a-half-year contract and the ability to plan. Next season should see them kick on towards the Championship, but this campaign was all about stopping the slide and consolidation; all very unsexy as Talbot admits, until the cups came calling.

Should they overcome Wrexham, another club where Bentleys are not given as presents, in the LDV Trophy northern section final they will be going to the Millennium Stadium. They drew Tottenham in the Carling Cup and although this ended in a 7-1 thrashing in the only show of aggression Spurs displayed under Jacques Santini, Oldham were paid a fee for it being televised. And then there was the FA Cup victory over Manchester City and now Sunday's fourth-round tie at home to Bolton. All in all, the club will have earned at least £700,000.

Even given Liverpool's abject surrender at Burnley and Sheffield United's disembowelling of Aston Villa, Oldham's victory in this other Manchester derby was the shock of the third round because Oldham were two divisions below and because, unlike Liverpool at Turf Moor, Manchester City strained every sinew and employed every available player to win the tie.

Talbot, who played in three successive FA Cup finals for Ipswich and Arsenal, knows what the competition means and knows what it meant to Kevin Keegan. The Manchester City manager, he said, looked shattered on the final whistle. "I feel sorry for managers who lose like that because I know what it's like. I didn't have a lot of sympathy for losers as a player but as you get older you realise how hard football can be. Of course you're pleased, you're celebrating but somewhere in the other dressing-room someone is going through a terrible low.

"Manchester City were gutted because it was their only chance of silverware this season and they didn't want to lose a derby. But the people who love this club will be talking about that game in the pubs for the next six months. Some of them might actually remember it in 20 years' time, chatting about Boundary Park 2005."

Talbot does not spend too much time dwelling on The Hawthorns 1991; the day when he learned the real pain management brings. He had always wanted to become a manager, taking charge of a local team with some mates at the age of 18, and continued in that role even when part of Ipswich's stunning revival as a force in domestic and European football under Bobby Robson.

In October 1988, Ron Atkinson resigned as manager of West Bromwich Albion to embark on a bizarre 96-day spell with Atletico Madrid. Talbot was then club captain and was asked to step into Atkinson's patent leather shoes. He chose as his assistant Sam Allardyce, who on Sunday will be in the opposing dug-out at Boundary Park.

They were not friends as players but had met on a management course, which left Talbot highly impressed. West Brom, however, were slowly disintegrating and in January 1991 they drew Woking of the Isthmian League at home in the FA Cup and lost, astonishingly, 4-2. Both men were fired immediately afterwards.

"That was not the game that got us the sack; it was just the final nail in our coffin. I didn't enjoy my time as a manager there and I don't really think much about it now, although Sam does. You have to expect the sack, it's the nature of the job. I don't talk to anyone at West Brom but there always seems to be turmoil there behind the scenes. Even when they got promotion under Gary Megson there were political problems and it never seemed 100 per cent happy. Big club, lovely stadium, great fans; but, behind the scenes, you always wonder."

Talbot's great chance to prove the management techniques he had first developed as a teenager in East Anglia came when he was asked to take over at Rushden & Diamonds, a newly formed club that was then bottom of the Conference but which would benefit from substantial investment provided by Max Griggs, the owner of the Doc Martens brand. As he plans to do at Oldham, Talbot began with consolidation, taking them to 12th in 1997 and within six years they had been promoted three times to reach what would now be League One.

"There was pressure. We were the Manchester United of non-League football because everyone wanted to beat us and everyone resented us because of the money. But at Rushden you knew if you played well you'd win because you had the best footballers in the league.

"They spent a lot of money on the ground, lovely stadium, great training area with fantastic corporate facilities and an indoor sports hall. It was a shame that Dr Martens boots stopped selling because it affected the progress of the club. Had there been no downturn we might not have been able to do a Wimbledon but we would have gone one division higher into the Championship, definitely."

At Oldham, most of Talbot's squad are young men either brought through the club or loaned from Premiership sides - Lee Croft (Manchester City), Neil Kilkenny (Birmingham), Mark Hughes (Tottenham) and Alex Bruce (Blackburn), the last is the son of the Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce. "He is a credit to his mum and dad, comes into work smiling every day. It's hard for the boy because people can't see past the surname. My son, Daniel, is at Rushden and I feel for him because people are not fair to him. He's told he has to be better than his dad. They can't be judged in their own right."

It remains to be seen whether Daniel will share his father's desire for management. "It doesn't match what you feel as a player, running on. It's a lonely job. It's all very well being with the players, or your back-room staff or feeling the emotions of the crowd, but when you are driving home and thinking about making a decision you feel that in your small little world the spotlight is on you."