Ford rebuilds Oldham on budget

Dave Hadfield meets player-coach who saved side from the scrapheap
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The Independent Online

Mike Ford has had some big days in a playing career that stretches back over a decade and a half, but he has been in few games that he wants to win more than today's Northern Ford Premiership semi-final at Leigh.

Mike Ford has had some big days in a playing career that stretches back over a decade and a half, but he has been in few games that he wants to win more than today's Northern Ford Premiership semi-final at Leigh.

The Oldham player-coach has presided over a spectacular improvement in his home-town team's fortunes, with last year's next-to-bottom side emerging as the danger men of the play-offs. Last week's success at Doncaster, previously unbeaten at home this season, underlined the fact that Oldham, out of business and apparently out of the League two years ago, are the form team of the competition.

It is a transformation that even Ford himself cannot fully explain: "We've been reassessing our goals after every game," he says. "First it was top eight; then it was top four. Now the players believe they have a chance of winning it."

Without breaking the bank, Ford has built a highly capable unit from the wreckage of the Super League casualties the Old-ham Bears. "A lot of the players I've signed I know personally from my spell at Bramley. I knew what kind of players I had."

Part of Ford's success has sprung from looking for players in places where others generally do not - notably in the student game. Via Bramley, he brought in the outstanding full-back Mark Sibson, and Kevin Mannion and the goal-kicker Pat Rich followed from the burgeoning student scene.

"People tend to dismiss it when they see a good player at that level, but I'm a believer that a good player will make the step up," Ford says. That has been the case with his academic acquisitions, but he admits he has had some good fortune when he has gone through more mainstream channels. The Australian second-rower Shane McMenemy arrived after falling out with Rochdale, and the Great Britain international prop Steve Malloy came from Huddersfield-Sheffield on loan after an unhappy few months in Super League. His late arrival has compensated for injuries to the regular props, Leo Casey and Jason Clegg.

From Wigan, Ford brought in Neil Roden and Phil Farrell - younger brother of Andy - who were having trouble in making the reserve side there. "It was just a question of giving them an opportunity," he says. Ford knows what it is like to be written off. "When I was at Wakefield, people asked why Castleford had signed me and said I wouldn't adjust to the pace again, but I played some of my best rugby for them."

The scrum-half, who started his career with Wigan, also played some of his best rugby for today's opponents. "I was only at Leigh nine months, but my form got me on the 1988 tour," he recalls. "So I've got good memories of the place."

Playing at the top of his form is not merely a memory for Ford, however; Oldham went to extra-time against Doncaster and he played the entire 100 minutes, including scoring the decisive try. It was not the performance of a man who is ready to consign himself to the dug-out just yet.

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