Away Days #3: Oldham Athletic
Oldham stands loftily amidst the Pennines, the range of bleakly beautiful hills and mountains which have always been seen as the barrier between the historic rivals of Lancashire and Yorkshire. For a long time, Oldham had good reason to look down on its surroundings. A boomtown of the Industrial Revolution, for a time this was one of the most influential and innovative towns in Europe. Today, the old mills stand empty, amidst a town with a lot of history, but little of its old grandeur. Thankfully, this afternoon’s main attraction is evocative, historic and still full of life. It is, of course, Boundary Park.
The present-day Oldham is very much an area of contrasts, and that’s reflected in what it offers the matchday visitor. There’s plenty of exotic eateries as well as unfussy places for a quick pre-match bite, in its rugged but lively and multicultural centre. In the hilly, rural outskirts, there is – predictably – a range of cosy, traditional pubs. I go for one of those today – The Dog and Partridge, located in the Saddleworth area, about a 10 minute drive from the home of Oldham Athletic.
They say a picture tells a thousand words, so that picture of my lunch should definitely suffice. The food (and beer) at The Dog and Partridge is really good, there’s sport on several TV screens, and some good views of the impressive landscape which surrounds this post-industrial Lancashire town. Oldham has a good range of pre-match venues, and my next stop is one of the (fairly) popular matchday haunts, close to the ground.
The Old Grey Mare Inn is a friendly, comfy and unpretentious pub just half a mile from Boundary Park. It also seems to be welcoming for away fans, and to have no issue with club colours. It’s dotted with blokes in Oldham Athletic jackets and a table of fans in Scunthorpe United kits, discussing the upcoming fixture. It isn’t especially busy, but for a welcoming and spacious pub to get a drink as an away fan, it’s ideal. There’s even one or two pieces of Oldham Athletic memorabilia in the pub’s back room, for the football history buff to enjoy.
Boundary Park looms proudly in the distance for the scores of fans who head down the steep streets to Furtherwood Road, with its old but evocative turnstiles. Boundary Park (okay, SportsDirect.com Park, in case the sponsors are reading), is an interesting mix of heritage and modernity. The brick exterior with its faded lettering evokes an age of heaving terraces and alarmingly short shorts, whilst the stands represent a curious transition from old to new.
The ground is all-seater, but away supporters – today those of Scunthorpe United – are housed behind the goal, in the old ZenOffice Stand, which looks a bit like a barn, but offers (from its lower tier at least) pretty good views of the pitch. The Main Stand is perhaps the busiest home area, and whilst charming and distinctive, is also showing its age. The North Stand is so new that it isn’t even open to supporters yet. I opt for the Verlin Stand – affectionately known as the Rochdale Road End – behind the other goal. The atmosphere here, largely provided by Oldham’s self-styled ‘Athleticos’ ultras, is excellent. This faction of the Latics fanbase are loud, passionate and supportive of the team – without causing any aggro. In short, they’re what an Ultras group should be.
It’s veteran midfielder David Dunn’s first game as player-manager without the dreaded ‘interim’ tag hanging over his head. Pints are supped and flags are lifted outside and inside the stands, and the mood is good before kick-off. The team line-ups are read out by young children, which is either adorable or a case of child-labour, depending on how grumpy you’re feeling.
The support of the Athleticos seems to be unwavering, but David Dunn will need to get the team winning if the board are to stick behind him. So, how will they fare against Scunthorpe – both sides on 11 points with a -2 goal difference before kick-off, the pair of them hanging perilously above the relegation zone.
Travel & Ground Location: Oldham can be reached on the Manchester Metrolink tram service, which can be boarded from two of the city’s largest stations, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria. By car, the ground lies close to the confluence of the major A663 and A627 roads. The ground offers limited parking, and is about 1.6 miles walk from Oldham Central Metrolink station.
Tickets: Rochdale Road End, North Stand & George Hill Stand Upper (Adult £22/Junior £10), George Hill Stand Upper (£20/£10). U-12s also £5 in Rochdale Road End. Away fan prices not listed. Paying on the gate (for home fans, at least) is available.
The very early stages of today’s contest look positive for Oldham – though without a home win so far this season, any satisfaction in this fact is tentative. Still, Lee Croft looks lively, and the Latics string together a few good passing moves. Scunny, though, start to exert themselves within the opening ten minutes, with a few half chances, and then a breakthrough. Slack defending allows a Scunny move to reach Gary McSheffrey, and the experienced striker finishes calmly, to leave home ‘keeper Luke Daniels helpless. The Scunny faithful – quiet for much of the game – awake from their slumber for a few rousing chants.
The next action of note is a ruckus between players on both sides, after a fiercely contested tackle, but eventually descends into an excuse for all 20 outfield players to have a water break. Referee Geoff Eltringham shows no cards here, nor for several bruising challenges later on. Even Danny Lafferty’s shocking* push on the linesman doesn’t lead to a yellow card (*hilarious). It seems that nothing short of Saw-level violence could see either side have a man dismissed in this contest.
Then, out of nowhere, Oldham turn the game on its head, with two scruffy but calmly finished goals in the space of three minutes. First, veteran Lee Croft slots home with immense composure after a deflected shot lands at his feet. Then, a scramble from a free-kick ends with Dominic Poleon tapping in from close range, to give the Latics a 27th-minute lead. The Scunny players, certain of an offside, remonstrate with the linesman, but it does no good. Oldham – against the run of play– are ahead.
Undeterred, The Iron go back on the attack, and McSheffrey quickly forces Daniels into a good, low stop. Then, in the 35th minute, Rowe finds himself in space, and hits a speculative shot, which cruelly bounces off Lafferty and creeps into the net. Whilst it’s a goal of outrageous fortune, there’s no doubting that the away side deserve to be level, having been the better side for vast swathes of an open and entertaining first period.
The second half is not so exciting or frenetic, though whilst Oldham command much of the possession and ponderously play it sideways, their opponents produce a moment or two of magic to take control and return home to North Lincolnshire with all three points. In the 69th minute, Scunthorpe yet again break Oldham’s flimsy offside trap, and after Hopper’s effort is spectacularly saved by Cornell, the ball falls invitingly to Paddy Madden, who lashes home and wheels away in celebration.
The away side save the best ‘till last, though. Kevin van Veen, a summer arrival from Dutch side FC Oss shows bewitching footwork to weave his way through Oldham’s defence, nutmegging one defender, before lofting the ball insouciantly over Cornell. It is a goal of sheer brilliance, to cap off a game which has entertained – if not throughout – for vast swathes of the 90 minutes.
Reduced to long-range efforts and fruitless set-pieces, Oldham struggle to make any further impact as the game drifts away from them, and the full-time whistle blows. This has not been a game short on excitement, but for David Dunn, his side’s defensive frailties will be a major concern. Boundary Park remains an inspiring venue for football, but whether it inspires a first home win for this historic club remains to be seen.
Oldham Athletic- 2 (Kelly ’25, Poleon ’27)
Scunthorpe United – 4 (McSheffrey ’10, Rowe ’35, Madden ’69, van Veen ’84)
3pm, 11th October 2015
SportsDirect.com Park, Oldham (Att: 4,002)