Oldham search for positive signs

Guy Hodgson considers a club's swift decline from glory days to a struggle against dropping into the Second Division
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The Independent Online
The words that Oldham Athletic's assistant manager, Colin Harvey, used this week might have been more tactful. "We have nine cup finals to play," he said underlining the importance of the matches the club has to play to avoid relegation from the First Division. Meanwhile, a small corner of Lancashire shed a quiet tear.

Cup finals were on the local mind anyway. How could they not be when Manchester United, the monster of merchandise down the road, had just reached Wembley for a third year in succession. But in Oldham there was a poignancy about the attention on Chelsea's Mark Hughes last weekend beyond the possibility he might score against his old club.

Two years ago, the Latics appeared to be heading for the FA Cup final. Indeed, under the twin towers, they were a matter of seconds away from a repeat trip to Wembley and a famous win over United when Hughes struck a volley that pierced Oldham hearts. The replay was a massacre; the decline at Boundary Park virtually irresistible since.

Talk to Oldham supporters and they can barely believe they have strayed so far from greatness when, so recently, they were on nodding terms. "When I think we might be playing Wycombe and Gillingham next season I could weep," a man buying a shirt for his grandson's birthday said outside the ground this week. "It's all gone wrong since Joe Royle left."

Which is not strictly true. Royle might have given the club their greatest years - a League Cup final and two FA Cup semi-finals - but they were also relegated from the Premiership under his guidance and were not exactly frightening anyone in the First when he jumped ship to Everton.

If Royle sensed the arc had gone beyond its high point, the downside has been sharp. Injuries and lack of money have bitten deep and Tuesday's win in their first "final", against Grimsby, was only their third in 16 matches. They are in the relegation positions and the fixtures ahead are less than promising. Tomorrow they play second-placed Derby County, one of six matches against teams from the division's top 12 in their remaining eight games.

Even the win over Grimsby was hardly stirring. The local paper, the Evening Chronicle, described the performance as "dour", adding it "would make purists squirm". But it provided hope which has been in short supply.

"It was a major relief to win," Harvey said, standing in for the manager, Graeme Sharp, whose attention was on his daughter had hospital. "In effect we finish the season with five cup finals at home and four away. We won the first, so it's a start.

"We had an awful performance against our fellow strugglers Reading last Saturday and a number of players owed us a game. They gave it to us and set standards they have to maintain against Derby and for the rest of the season."

Harvey, who says that four wins will be enough to ensure Oldham's safety, points to injuries - particularly the back problem that has sidelined Nick Henry for five months - as the major reason for their predicament, although fans point to the sale of Richard Jobson and Paul Bernard this season and countless others in previous years.

For various reasons players have had to be used before their time and it is symptomatic that Gerry Creaney, on loan from Manchester City, became the 30th player to pull on the blue shirt when he made his debut at Reading.

"We've had problems getting a settled side," Harvey agreed before locating the positive. "The kids who have come in have had to grow up quickly in a difficult situation and they've not done badly. They are young lads doing men's jobs.

"They make mistakes but you expect that with kids and hope they are not too costly. If we avoid relegation I think we'll be in a much better shape next season."

The magnitude of "if" is only too apparent to everyone connected with the club even if their plight has not eradicated everyone's sense of humour. The records played before Tuesday's game were Mike and the Mechanics' "All I Need Is a Miracle" and Yazz's "The Only Way Is Up" and there was barely anyone in the 5,037 crowd who did not appreciate the significance. The smiles, you suspect, were hiding a hurt.