Oldham and Manchester City are only eight miles apart, but Kevin Keegan always knew the journey would be a difficult one, and the City manager's sense of foreboding was proved to be well founded.
"Oldham are just the type of side who could turn us over," Keegan had warned. How right he was.
On a day ravaged by storms enough to have raised doubts about the game being played, a single goal, scored after 14 minutes by the 21-year-old striker Scott Vernon, was enough to end Keegan's interest in this season's FA Cup. Oldham defended heroically, their victory bringing back memories of the cup deeds the club used to relish during the Joe Royle era. And memories, too, for their current manager, Brian Talbot, having twice been a Cup winner himself with Ipswich and Arsenal.
Vernon, just back from a loan spell at Blackpool and still trying to establish himself in Talbot's plans, might not have started had the top scorer, Chris Killen, not been ruled out by injury. But start he did, and when he swept the ball past David James just as driving sleet began to sting the faces of City's Premiership stars, Keegan's worst fears loomed large.
The City manager, already without Nicolas Anelka, had been deprived also of Robbie Fowler because of a family bereavement, but offered no excuses. "To play a side from two divisions below in weather conditions like these we needed to set our stall out in the right way from the start but we never did," he said. "We finished well but could not get a goal, and all credit to Oldham for the way they defended. I'm bitterly disappointed but I hope they go on to have a great Cup run."
It was City's first Cup defeat by a lower- division side since they were beaten at Cardiff 11 seasons ago, and Oldham's first over a top-flight opponent since they saw off Everton and Aston Villa on the way to the semi-finals in 1990. When they reached the same stage four years later, they were a Premiership outfit themselves, which shows the extent of their decline since.
Now bumping along in League One, having been in administration 12 months ago, they play in a stadium that is literally falling apart. Only the valiant efforts of groundstaff, assisted by local builders, had enabled the match to take place after local authority safety officers insisted that advertising boards displaced by overnight winds were secured.
Aside from the ravages of the weather, fate had not been kind to Oldham in their preparations. Already without Killen, a former City player himself, they lost Dean Holden, their inspirational captain, to an ankle injury last Monday.
Having performed to such a high level in holding Arsenal at Highbury last week, City ought to have had few problems. But Boundary Park, with its bleak, moorland backdrop, can be an uncomfortable spot even in midsummer, let alone a week into January.
By contrast, Oldham, beaten only twice in 12 games before this one, had a spring in their step and a surprise up their sleeve. Having had one score ruled out, without obvious explanation, when a David Eyres corner curled straight in on the wind after five minutes, they were ahead less than 10 minutes later.
Again Eyres, at nearly 41 the oldest outfield player in League football, was involved, setting up Vernon from Neil Kilkenny's free-kick to sweep the ball past James from 12 yards. "Scott has just started to show what he can do in the last few games," Talbot said. "He started the season badly and was not in the side, but it was his idea to go out on loan. We never planned to let him go, and when Blackpool asked if they could sign him we said no." The goal clearly rocked the Premiership side, although only a goal-line clearance by the ubiquitous Eyres, denying Shaun Wright-Phillips with the goalkeeper, Les Pogliacomi, stranded, prevented a first-half equaliser.
In the second half, Oldham defended under siege. Pogliacomi made a brilliant save to keep out Antoine Sibierski at close range, but it tended to be poor finishing that kept the home side in front, Jon Macken, Paul Bosvelt and Joey Barton all wasting chances.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, starting for the first time, could not make the impact he would have wanted but did bring another save from Pogliacomi after some clever footwork, and his replacement by Steve McManaman with 20 minutes left was not well received by the City fans.
However, Keegan clearly felt fresh legs were needed as the prospect of an embarrassing exit grew. Although Shaun Wright-Phillips almost pulled off another wonder strike, Pogliacomi conceding a corner at full stretch, Oldham by then were daring to believe they might have seen the best City would throw at them.Reuse content