‘It’s like death by a thousand cuts’: How Oldham Athletic became a Football League crisis club

Having seen their side drop into the League Two relegation zone following years of turmoil on and off the pitch, Oldham fans are locked in a struggle with owner Abdallah Lemsagam

Will Magee
Friday 17 December 2021 13:56
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<p>Oldham fans protest against owner Abdallah Lemsagem </p>

Oldham fans protest against owner Abdallah Lemsagem

Ahead of Oldham Athletic’s game against Forest Green Rovers last Saturday, supporters’ group Push The Boundary tweeted testimony from fans backing their “Empty the Park” protest. “Season ticket holder for 13 years and absolutely no chance I’m going to [Boundary Park] today,” said one. “They have drained the life out of our club and it has got to change.” The same sentiment was echoed many times over. “I’ve been a Latics supporter for 50 years and an @OfficialOAFC season ticket holder for the last 30,” said another. “However, I won’t be attending today as a protest against the disastrous ownership of Abdallah Lemsagam.”

At kick-off, with swathes of blue seats in every direction, those feelings of disillusionment were manifested in a conspicuously sparse crowd. The contrast to Push The Boundary’s “Pack the Park” protest, where fans boycotting the club were encouraged to attend November’s game against Port Vale in a one-off show of strength, was stark.

According to the club’s official attendance figures, which include season ticket holders as a matter of course, there were 3,464 home fans at the Forest Green game compared to the 4,107 who came to cheer on the team – and vent their anger at the club’s ownership – against Port Vale. While the icy rain, bitter cold and biting wind off the Pennines may have contributed to the diminished turnout last weekend, absentee fans had made their point.

Oldham supporters have a long list of grievances with Lemsagam, a former football agent who was announced as majority shareholder in January 2018. “It’s been like death by a thousand cuts,” says Steve Shipman, one of the founders of Push The Boundary. “It’s too easy to say: ‘We’re near the bottom of the league, that’s why people are kicking off.’ That’s clearly not the case. We’ve ended up in that situation because of the way he’s run the club. It was inevitable, really.”

Oldham fans carry a coffin outside the stadium in protest against Lemsagem

Since Lemsagam became owner, Oldham have changed their manager nine times. Having appointed boyhood Latics fan Paul Scholes to great fanfare in February 2019, it only took 31 days for the Manchester United great to quit citing interference (a claim which Lemsagam denied, with an arbitration hearing later going in the club’s favour). Having appointed his brother Mohamed as sporting director, Lemsagam has kept him in place despite the club’s utterly scattergun strategy. That is another cause of resentment among supporters, many of whom feel his record speaks for itself.

While Scholes’ exit was a high-profile embarrassment for the club hierarchy, the incessant hiring and firing of managers has clearly had a destabilising effect in the long run. When Lemsagam took over, Oldham were 22nd in League One. They are now 23rd in League Two and in grave danger of dropping out of the Football League altogether, with Keith Curle becoming the latest managerial casualty when he was sacked last month after nine wins in 40 games. The last few years have also seen an absurdly high turnover of players. Over 70 have been signed since 2018 including 14 this summer alone, several of whom have already departed.

Curle’s summer recruitment was limited by a transfer embargo that restricted him to free transfers and loanees, a condition of a monitored loan agreement with the Football League. Oldham were put under an even stricter embargo in October after being found in breach of EFL rules relating to missed transfer or compensation payments, though that has since been lifted. At this stage, fans are used to alarming updates on the situation off the field. Oldham have faced multiple winding-up petitions during Lemsagam’s tenure, mercifully avoiding administration on each occasion, while last year the club admitted that it had been warned by the EFL over late payment of wages in January, February and March.

The list of indignities doesn’t end there. There have been bitter disputes with players, most notably former Bolton defender David Wheater, who by his own account was frozen out last season after a disagreement over pay cuts during the early stages of the pandemic, which left him feeling bullied and miserable. There has also been a high attrition rate for staff behind the scenes, which many fans see as a further sign of the malaise at the club. Throw in a convoluted wrangle with former owner Simon Blitz, whose company Brass Bank owns the stadium, and the club starts to emanate an air of all-pervading chaos. It’s that sense of dysfunction that has led fans to protest as much as their precarious league position.

Paul Scholes’ short-lived tenure epitomised the chaos at Oldham

“Most things have got worse during the time that [Lemsagam] has been in charge,” says Matt Dean, a board director of the Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Foundation. “Had it not been for Covid and fans not being allowed in the ground, I think the protests that you’ve seen this season would have happened last season.”

The last few months have been marked by pitch invasions, sit-ins on the centre circle, fly-overs, tennis balls thrown from the stands and fans turning up to the ground dressed as clowns, while a coffin emblazoned with the words “RIP OAFC” was placed outside the entrance to the main stand ahead of Oldham’s game against Hartlepool in September. That same month, ticket sales were temporarily suspended as the club struggled to get a grip on the situation.

While few fans are sympathetic to Lemsagam, not everyone agrees on the best strategy going forwards. Ahead of the ‘Empty The Park’ protest, Push The Boundary, the Supporters’ Foundation and The Athleticos, a fellow fans’ group, released a joint statement calling on people to come together to secure “a sustainable future under new ownership”. Inevitably, though, for all those who stayed away, there were others for whom missing match day and denying the club revenue was a step too far. “We have to try to unify our fanbase if we’re going to challenge the owners and really build something better for the future,” says Dean.

Even Lemsagam’s fiercest critics admit that Oldham’s decline began before his arrival. A founding member of the Premier League in 1992 following a heroic ascent under manager Joe Royle, the club was relegated two years later and hasn’t experienced a promotion in the time since. The Latics haven’t finished in the top half of the table for over a decade, whether in League One or League Two. When Lemsagam first took over, there was a brief burst of optimism that new ownership might help to breathe new life into the club.

There are other economic pressures on Oldham, not least the gravitational pull of Manchester United and Manchester City on the local area. With Bury, Bolton, Macclesfield and Wigan affected by crises of their own in recent years, lower-league clubs in the northwest have been particularly vulnerable to financial precarity and the problematic owners that tend to come with it. Nonetheless, the dysfunction under Lemsagam has poured fuel on a previously slow-burning fire. “We’ve been suffering with a period of apathy for 20 years but, since Abdallah has taken over, it’s accelerated it,” says Dean.

‘Most things have got worse during the time that [Lemsagam] has been in charge’

Whatever the long-term challenges facing the club, Oldham fans know things can be much better than they are at the moment. In an open letter to fans in September which, in partly blaming them for the current situation, came across as a misjudged non-apology, Lemsagam made five promises including a commitment to meet monthly with the Supporters’ Foundation and attend fan forums twice yearly, the appointment of a new Fan Director, greater financial transparency and the production of a new three-year plan for the club.

The Supporters’ Foundation have since accused him of breaking all five promises in one way or another. It’s little wonder there is an absence of trust in his ownership. (The club hierarchy were approached for comment on their inadequate communication with supporters but, at the time of publication, have not responded.)

Lemsagam’s failure to deliver on those pledges has made fans “more determined than ever” to force a change of ownership, according to Dean. Protests look set to continue for the foreseeable, with Push The Boundary promising further action and canvassing opinion on future demonstrations. The Supporters’ Foundation, which already holds a 3 per cent shareholding in the club, has contingency plans in place in case of administration. That remains a lurking fear for fans, though Lemsagam has insisted it won’t happen and that the club is on a stable footing.

The Supporters’ Trust have also laid the groundwork for The 1895 Fund – a nod to the year the club was founded – with a view to purchasing either the club or Boundary Park. While fan ownership is seen as a last resort by some, others feel that it could revitalise Oldham as a community institution. “This is a really critical time for the club,” says Dean. “A club like ours, which has fallen to the level that it’s fallen to, needs rebuilding. It can only be rebuilt by the fans, we have to take responsibility… it’s not enough to say, ‘This is my football club, this is our football club,’ and not do anything to save it.”

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