WHEN OLDHAM ATHLETIC regulars rocked up at Boundary Park on Tuesday night, they were confronted by an unfamiliar sight.
With John Sheridan back in charge after leading Latics to League One survival last season, the club are keen to boost attendances as Sheridan aims to mastermind another rescue mission. So they took the magnificent decision of making Tuesday’s rearranged game with Peterborough free entry for all and, lo and behold, there were queues outside the Rochdale Road End an hour before kick-off.
“This is weird,” said a season-ticket holder as she joined the queue behind me. “I can’t remember the last time we had to queue to get in!” One of her much older mates replied: “I remember when there were queues for away tickets…at 8 in the morning!”
Those long-suffering fans have endured some lean years since Oldham, founder members of the Premier League, were relegated from the top flight in 1994. They went down again 3 years later and have been stuck in the third tier ever since. That’s 20 seasons in the same division, most of it spent fighting relegation. No wonder the regulars have resorted to some gallows humour. You’ve got to laugh, or else you’ll cry. They may have witnessed another grim season so far but, with a rare bumper crowd guaranteed, tonight was time to have some fun.
And they did actually have reasons to be cheerful. Oldham had beaten Gillingham 1-0 in Sheridan’s first game back in charge. That was followed by a 1-0 defeat at Shrewsbury on Saturday, leaving Latics second-bottom in League One while Peterborough came into the game in 8th. But 10 days earlier Posh were thumped 5-1 by a Bury side that hadn’t won in 20 games.
Sheridan had to make one change, with Cameron Dummigan being stretchered off at Shrewsbury, but he made another three too. Aaron Amadi-Holloway made an impact as a sub on Saturday so started up front, while Ollie Banks and Paul Green came back into midfield, and Jamie Reckord returned at left-back.
However, the most surprising selection was Ryan McLaughlin to play alongside Amadi-Holloway. The former Liverpool trainee made his pro debut in January 2014 but was still waiting for his first senior goal. In his pre-match interview, Sheridan said he was one of his options to replace Dummigan at right-back, his usual position, but he must have seen something in the 22-year-old summer signing to play him in such an advanced role.
It didn’t look as if ‘the Athleticos’, a group of enthusiastic youngsters, were too bothered about debating Oldham’s team selection. They had taken up their position in the RRE as soon as the gates opened, chanting and waving flags long before the seats had filled up around them. A few of them even had their shirts off! A huge flag passed above our heads just before kick-off, for a moment it felt like the San Siro.
Unfortunately, some fans were missing out. I learned later that some were turned away because there were no more tickets to give out. The Chaddy End is currently the away end so naturally that was far from full. And although there were some empty seats in the three home stands, the club claimed all tickets had been distributed so, despite having a free ticket, some fans decided not to come.
One who did take advantage was a middle-aged bloke sat next to me. He hadn’t been to a game in years but knew all the songs and sang them with almost as much gusto as the youngsters that were bouncing about in front of us. He was a lapsed fan, just the sort Oldham are trying to lure back this season as they aim to stave off relegation to the fourth tier.
Another bunch of season-ticket holders were sat behind us – or rather stood. Such was the atmosphere that no-one in the last two blocks of the RRE sat down during the entire game. One of those regulars noted the return of Reckord – he hadn’t featured at all since the FA Cup exit at Lincoln on December 5, but he continually referred to him as ‘Reckford’. He was signed by previous boss Stephen Robinson in the summer but it must be one of those where this fella got his name wrong in the first game and his mates let it slide. Six months on and it’d just be too awkward to say anything now!
There was also talk about the statement released by Notts County earlier in the day, saying they sacked Sheridan on January 2 for gross misconduct after verbally abusing match officials in December, for which he was also handed a 5-match touchline ban. It seemed a parting shot at Sheridan, for as one Latics fan noted, it begged the question: would they have still sacked him had they won the previous 9 games, not lost them?
Yet Sheridan was back in work just 10 days later, returning for a third spell as Oldham boss, and he’s already said they need more left-footers in the team, which is why he gave Reckord a go. He’s also spoken of the need to hold the ball up better in attack. You’d expect it from Amadi-Holloway, he’s a well-built lad, and he was doing his job well against Peterborough. But despite his slight frame, McLaughlin was managing to do it too.
Banks had lashed one effort off-target and saw a free-kick deflected just wide before releasing McLaughlin down the right channel, and the Northern Ireland international did well to turn back inside and get a shot away, only to see that deflected wide too.
Another Banks free-kick, this time dinked into the box, resulted in a goalmouth scramble that ended with captain Peter Clarke volleying over on the turn. Clarke has been joined at centre-half by Anthony Gerrard, who like Amadi-Holloway has rejoined Latics after serving Sheridan well at the end of last season. Gerrard and Clarke were in total control when Posh did go long and they look set to provide a valuable defensive platform during the run-in.
The rest of the first half was pretty dull and one fan decided to make his own entertainment. When the ball went into the newly-built North Stand, he leapt off the front row and grabbed it, but instead of chucking it back he kept hold of it and got his phone out. ‘Oh, he’s taking a selfie’, we thought. Oh no, he filmed himself holding the ball while doing a pirouette, so that you could see the pitch and the four stands in the background. The poor Peterborough player had to just stand and wait till he was done. ‘Very good mate, now give me the ball back!’
There was a good mix of supporters – regulars, fairweather fans, newbies – and he was clearly one of the newbies. The regulars had been fairly vocal so far but, after the break, they sensed the game was there for the taking so really upped the volume.
Peterborough boss Grant McCann has told his side to play out from the back, with the full-backs pushing up, but that played into Latics’ hands. They played with a midfield diamond, with Ryan Flynn at the tip, and although Green and Banks were the wide players, they were still quite narrow, so Oldham kept picking off Posh as they tried to play it out. That allowed Latics to build some pressure and kept the fans in full voice. Green and McLaughlin fired too close to the visiting keeper before Clarke had a header cleared off the line from a 51st-minute corner.
Latics then had two penalty shouts turned down, from set-piece deliveries into the box, yet referee Robert Lewis then pointed to the spot in the 69th minute when there was no apparent foul. He possibly felt one of the earlier ones should have been given, not that Green cared. He swiftly got hold of the ball, put it on the spot and sidefooted into the bottom corner for his first Oldham goal. He and his team-mates relished the rare opportunity to celebrate in front of a packed RRE.
Amadi-Holloway then had time to control a Banks corner on his chest, only to volley over, before Banks’ tame effort was saved from Flynn’s cut-back. But Latics put the game to bed after Gerrard played in Amadi-Holloway down the left channel on 82 minutes. The striker did superbly to hold off his man and wait for support to arrive before chipping the ball to the far post, where McLaughlin sidefooted home from 5 yards.
He looked a bit awkward as he ran towards the Main Stand in celebration, you could tell he’d not done it before, but that made the moment all the more special. The youngster had been asked to play a makeshift role and carried it out perfectly – plus there a few better ways to get your first-ever goal than to seal a crucial victory in front of a packed home crowd. And McLaughlin up front? Maybe Sheridan is a managerial genius after all!
He picked a side to do a job and they did it. They sent the fans home happy and, most importantly, made them want to come back. At 7,224, it was Oldham’s biggest home crowd in the league since May 2014. Their average so far this season had been 3,564 – that’s 18.5% down on last term’s average of 4,361.
Latics need to get bums on seats, not just for the money having only just come out of a transfer embargo, but for the support. Both Sheridan and Green spoke of the difference the fans made on Tuesday night. The boss even said it “felt like the old days”.
And if Sheridan is to lead Oldham to safety again then they will need the fans to keep coming during the run-in and to keep getting behind them, beginning with Saturday’s visit of Bradford.