January 9th 2016: Oldham Athletic 1-2 Millwall. Languishing in 22nd place in League One and five points from safety, all looked lost for Oldham.
Between them, Darren Kelly and David Dunn had mustered an embarrassing one home league win in 13 attempts and it’s safe to say that the quality of football on show at Boundary Park was as poor as it had been for many a year. And that’s saying something.
Three days later and Dunn was sacked. Oldham’s chairman Simon Corney had seen enough and knew he had to act. And so the search for a new manager began for the third time in seven months. It’s difficult to understand and indeed to remember quite how apathetic Latics fans had become at this stage. Years of mediocrity had been begrudgingly accepted but this season had taken the biscuit. Off-field calamities, PR disasters and now pitiful on-field displays had contrived to induce a feeling of downright bleakness.
Yet one snap in a Tesco cafe later and the world seemed right again. John Sheridan had been spotted chatting to Corney and within hours it was confirmed; (Lord) John Sheridan was heading back to Boundary Park to take up the manager’s hot seat. I wrote a piece there and then about the importance of Sheridan’s return in giving long-suffering Oldham fans a club to believe in once more. But no one really believed even Sheridan could rescue this train-wreck of a season. The club looked on its knees and it would need a truly remarkable turn around to even offer hope of survival.
Sheridan’s first game came away at Bradford and, not helped by a first-half sending off, Latics succumbed to a 1-0 defeat. That week it was announced former Mansfield manager Peter Shirtliff would be joining Oldham as Assistant Manager. However there was no immediate effect and an all too familiar 1-0 home defeat to Bury followed. By this stage Latics lay eight points off Shrewsbury in 20th place; relegation to League Two had been almost accepted by many.
We needn’t have feared. In came Anthony Gerrard to shore up the defence – one of a number of astute signings made by Sheridan this season – and a 1-0 win away at Shrewsbury gave renewed hope for survival.
What’s followed has been quite remarkable and, quite frankly, the stats speak for themselves.
In the 41 games preceding Sheridan’s arrival, Oldham had won just six. Latics have won six in Sheridan’s 15 games in charge.
Most pressing was the dreadful home form which had returned a paltry 10 points in 13 games. Sheridan’s been in the dug out for seven home games and has already accrued 13 points in that time.
All this has ensured that with seven games to go, Oldham lay one point from safety with two games in hand on nearest rivals Blackpool. Based on a solid back four, (seven clean sheets in 15 compared to seven in the 42 games before Sheridan’s arrival) Latics have hauled themselves to within touching distance of League One safety. It’s not been pretty and nails aplenty have been sacrificed, but remarkably Oldham look favourites to stay up.
It’s been an astounding run of form and one which Messrs Sheridan and Shirtliff deserve maximum credit for. They’ve turned a side low on confidence and void of any attacking threat or intent to one which is organised and, most importantly, working for each other. The season isn’t over yet; there’s still 21 points to play for. But the finish line is in sight and Latics know that if they can maintain this run of form, they’ll be playing third division football for the twentieth consecutive season next year.
It’s the dream, right?