Oldham's classic Cup production makes sombre fare for Keegan

Oldham Athletic 1 Manchester City 0
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Seeing Kevin Keegan, the manager in a corner, is always made more poignant when you think of Keegan the player, an ultimate practitioner and believer in the glory game. On occasions like this he looks not so much beaten as deeply betrayed.

On the field he would have railed against the ambush launched by Oldham Athletic, who languish two divisions below his hit-and-miss plutocrats. He would have burrowed into the rain-slicked turf and cut through the wind. Instead, the years obliged him to watch his expensive, erratic team - point-sharing heroes at Highbury the other night - descend into chaos and anonymity.

Even Shaun-Wright Phillips, almost everyone's choice now to succeed the time-expired David Beckham in the England team, was reduced to a flickering bit part. Joey Barton, who at Christmas party-time was exerting his authority by jabbing a cigar into the face of a young club-mate, could scarcely muster a coherent pass, let alone an aggressive gesture.

Keegan was left edgy and admittedly confused. He chastised a reporter who asked for a little detail on the family bereavement which had forced Robbie Fowler to call in to announce his absence on the morning of the game, and said: "the inability to kick this club on has been my problem for a year, but I will keep on trying."

Doubtless this is true. Keegan has always ridden the emotion of the game, and even now - as he operates in the lame-duck role he handed himself when he recently announced he would we walking away from the City of Manchester Stadium come what may at the end of next season - he will seek to bring a little order and consistently to his maverick team.

However, this was a bad day indeed for him beside the glowering old mills. There is nothing quite as corrosive to the underpinnings of a big-time club as a result like this. Quite irrelevant, also, is the fact that some of the plot-line, and the cast of characters on display, might have been snipped away and left in a pile on the cutting room floor if this had been a fictional account of an FA Cup classic.

Yes, the director would surely have said, we can have the veteran manager as a winner with two top-flight clubs (someone like Brian Talbot, a driving midfielder with Ipswich Town and Arsenal), and gale-scourged Boundary Park looking more like a section of the Somme front line than a modern football stadium. We can even have a thin blue line of Latics defence manned by a back four with an average age of barely 21. But a midfield maestro hard on his 41st birthday and a heroic Australian goalie who got his job by posting off a video? No, gentleman, this would be to go a little too far.

Yet, if these were indeed the authentic, feverishly documented factors that helped to bring down City, Keegan stood at the back of the old wooden stand - Oldham, who quaintly used to have Ken Bates as their chairman, no longer boast anything as grand as a press room - and was candid enough about where the credibility problem mostly truly rested.

Perhaps most revealingly of all, Keegan said he would need to look at the video before attempting to unravel the "mystery" of Oldham's winning goal after 14 minutes.

Keegan said he was bewildered that David Eyres - the 40-year-old journeyman who scarcely put a venerable foot wrong all afternoon - so easily got behind the City cover when Neil Kilkenny, a high-spirited teenager on loan from Birmingham City, took a quick free-kick. Eyres, who would have lurched us all into melodrama had he converted a chance he fashioned with splendid creativity in the last minutes, slipped the ball across the face of City's unprotected goal for Scott Vernon to drive home.

To add to the fable, Vernon, in the best tradition of FA Cup stories, was recently farmed out to Blackpool on loan because he was playing so wretchedly.

City never regained composure - or anything more than the occasional touch of class - after the Vernon strike, but they did dominate most of the second half and produced two moments of serious danger, one from one Wright-Phillips, Shaun, and the other from his half-brother, Bradley. On both occasions goalkeeper Les Pogliacomi, who mailed film of the best moments of himself to the former Oldham manager Iain Dowie, proved that he had been right to compose such an elaborate advert for himself.

Pogliacomi's resilience was most brilliantly augmented by that youthful back line, which included Alex Bruce, son of the Birmingham City manager and former Manchester United defender, Steve. Pick of this tough-minded bunch of old-headed kids however was the Scotsman and captain, Will Haining. His timing in smothering tackles and sharp-eyed ability to read every point of danger in the end was the ultimate rebuke to a City defence which had so guilelessly surrendered to Oldham's most inventive moment.

Said the proud mentor Talbot: "My back line gave me everything they had and, like the rest of the team, they deserve all the credit. The chances are these lads will not make it to a Cup final at Wembley, and if this is so this might be their day in the Cup. If it was, it was a great one.

"For someone like me - and the rest of the staff - the great thing is to see lads go out and give the best of themselves. It is what you work for. This was a proud day for a proud club."

For City it was, you would like to think, another day of painful self-examination. Maybe, maybe not. One thing is certain. Pushing Danny Mills into attack was a move that spoke only of outright desperation. Nicolas Anelka is apparently on his way and for all his skill he will be lightly mourned. In football, talent comes and goes; so, we were sadly reminded, does basic honesty.

Goal: Vernon (14) 1-0.

Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Pogliacomi; Bruce, Haining, D Hall, Griffin; Eyre, Hughes, Kilkenny, Eyres; Vernon, Betsy. Substitutes not used: Mildenhall (gk), Appleby, Bonner, Beharall, Hall.

Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Mills, Dunne, Distin, Thatcher; S Wright-Phillips, Bosvelt, Barton, Sibierski (Flood, 68); Macken, B Wright-Phillips (McManaman, 68). Substitutes not used: Waterreus (gk), Onuoha, Negouai.

Referee: M. Dean (Wirral)

Man of the match: Haining.

Attendance: 13,171.

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