Oldham Athletic 4 Oxford City 0

National League

Saturday 23 September 2023

blue print

The context

Seeing Latics in non-League football still felt a novelty, albeit one their fans could happily have done without. This is a town that’s generally been kind to us – if not always for scintillating football, then certainly because of its decent ale and food. The club were visibly stagnating last time we visited; things had since got much worse, but Frank Rothwell’s takeover now promised more positive times ahead.

The history

Squire Knott’s “Oldham panorama”, 1876.

Oldham once had 360 mills working around the clock. Even in Lancashire – “where cotton is king” – their size and number awed Victorian commentators. Population grew tenfold while the town’s cotton production outstripped France and Germany combined, using more spindles than any country apart from America. Despite steady twentieth-century decline this remained the world’s greatest textile production centre until 1964.

Peterloo

A convenient location between Manchester and Yorkshire guaranteed ready labour that could support the town’s growth. Rapid expansion came bundled with militancy, however, as reliance on one industry created frequent economic hardship and political tensions. Luddism thrived here; there were bread riots, fifteen Oldham people died at Peterloo and in 1905 local millworker Annie Kenney would – together with Emmeline Pankhurst – be the first Suffragist sent to prison.     

cramped

Cotton production needed a cold, damp climate. Mill workers often suffered from pneumonia; working conditions were cramped, dusty and loud. Many developed byssinosis through inhaling cotton particles, or went deaf.

Some of their recollections have been collated by Janet Greenlees of Glasgow Caledonian University:

home

“The weavers were determined not to be frozen to death. They’d rather go home and sit in front of the fire and earn no money than be frozen to death in the factories.”

“It was very noisy. But all the family had gone weaving, so I thought, well, it’s in the blood. Everybody was lip reading, and you could have a conversation and nobody would know what you were saying, only you who were eye to eye.”

noise (Bolton Evening News)

“The noise levels were extremely high. You almost came out and banged your head against the wall to make the howling stop. It made me extremely sick and people said, ‘It’s normal, it’s weaving sickness’.”

“They just didn’t seem to bother about people going deaf. The people themselves knew they were going deaf but they just accepted it in the old days, didn’t they?”

dusty (Manchester Evening News)

“They didn’t have byssinosis pensions at that time. There were a lady there, she were very bad, very bad. She couldn’t breathe properly.”

“At the Monarch it were very dusty. It were all in your hair and all. You used to be full of it in your hair and on your clothes.”

Royton station, 1960s

Monarch Mill – the site of present-day Windmill Close – was once well-known to football fans because its tall chimney backdropped Boundary Park’s open Rochdale Road end. Other local mills included Vine, Grape and Delta on Crompton Street, while the enormous Royton Ring Mill could be found off Sheepfoot Lane south of St Phillip’s Drive. Royton goods yard served them all; this along with an adjacent passenger station, completely filled the area bounded by Edge Lane Street, High Barn Street and Oldham Road.  

beginnings (footballandthefirstworldwar.org)

Professional football had taken a while to arrive here. When it did, Oldham County – blink and you missed them – played only two full seasons before folding. The Pine Villa pub team took over their Athletic Ground on Sheepfoot Lane and restyled themselves Oldham Athletic in 1899. They gained promotion to the First Division just twelve years later, coming within one point of being League champions before World War 1 halted full-time sport.

Joe’s 90s

Things would never be as good again, although the early Nineties – when Joe Royle’s Latics side reached a League Cup final, two FA Cup semi-finals and once more played top flight football – certainly came close. These two successful eras (separated by long periods of Second, Third and Fourth Division mundanity) defined Boundary Park. Its sturdy main stand and extensive terraces were developed between the wars; they changed little until their hasty conversion to seating seventy-odd years later.  

legacy (OAFC)

With one exception. Another unexpected success transformed the northern touchline, whose original long, low shelter had remained undisturbed since 1907. This structure was replaced in 1971 after Latics won the promotion and Ford Fair Play League double. Their proud record of scoring copious goals without maiming too many opponents generated £70,000 prize money for ground improvements, and a slightly odd-looking stand would be its legacy.

carpet fitters

Boundary Park is notoriously chilly (the Ice Station Zebra supporters’ bar cashes in on this reputation). Its open Rochdale Road End used to be particularly exposed, and the first Chadderton End roof blew down just weeks after being finished. Latics decided to deal with the problem inventively; they began by installing undersoil heating in 1980, and six years later introduced one of Britain’s first artificial pitches.       

plastic pig (Groundtastic)

No-one liked first generation plastic surfaces unless their team had one. A strong home record invariably came hand in hand; Oldham, QPR and Luton all achieved significant success after installing them (nothing could save Preston from mediocrity). But despite widespread dislike they did encourage fast, one-touch football, were resiliently weatherproof and – ultimately – enabled the progressive development of superior community facilities that nowadays we take for granted.         

The journey 

far from busy

This ground is easy to find. Despite encroaching modern suburbs it remains isolated on Oldham’s western boundary; you can see tall floodlight pylons from the nearby A627(M), rising above an untidy jumble of retail park clutter. We drove separately and paid five quid each to use the far from busy club car park. This has been recently resurfaced, and now – in a distinct improvement over the 1980s – features no potholes, cinders or scattered half-enders.          

The ground

slope (Bob Lilliman)

Boundary Park’s pitch slanted six feet lengthwise until the plastic surface was laid. Ford and Main Stands – both built perpendicularly – compensated by having terracing that stepped down, in the latter case via a noticeable hump just beyond half way. Latics have never managed to correct that persistent slope; even now, the Main Stand paddock looks noticeably lower (or perhaps its rear wall is higher?) towards one end.

Royle flush

The Joe Royle Stand is operational once more after being closed by disliked former owner Abdallah Lemsagan due to shenanagans over ownership, management and safety certificates. That long touchline lay empty for five years following the Ford Stand’s 2008 demolition; 2,600 seats didn’t materially improve capacity, but at least everyone can now sit under cover. The new stand’s bigger frontage provides space for a supporters bar, offices, corporate hospitality, club shop and gym facilities.   

away terrace (Groundtastic)

If this prosaic structure symbolises dubious financial decisions then the Rochdale Road End recalls far happier days. Built over the exposed away terrace when Oldham were about to become Premier League founder members, it nestles snugly into Sheepfoot Lane’s natural slope. Home fans enter at roof level and find themselves occupying a steep seating tier split in two by redundant but permanently invasive segregation walls. The stand has now been named after respected Seventies and Eighties manager, Jimmy Frizzell.   

much-loved (Bob Lilliman)

Moving Latics fans here from the opposite end might have been done for good reasons. It nonetheless felt very wrong. Their much-loved Chaddy was reroofed and seated in 1991, replacing the previously excellent terrace with yet another clumsy conversion. A ghostly fan called Fred once haunted wooden steps at the very back; he may walk no more, but those grimy bricks and ancient girders still exude period atmosphere.      

You can see more Boundary Park pictures here.

Flesh and wine

dog leg

Last time out we were royally entertained at the Old Grey Mare on Rochdale Road, whose landlord got out his frying pan and fed us with sausages. Sadly this fine old pub had shut but the Greyhound in Royton, while undeniably more up-market, proved every bit as welcoming. It’s obligatory to drink John Willie Lees’ ale when you come here; the brewery originally owned Boundary Park’s site, and their giant barrel logo sponsored Latics shirts for many years.

decent

On that 2011 visit I followed up my fried sausage entree with cottage pie from the Chadderton End food hut. It had been just one of various delicious-looking things available to buy. Boundary Park food never disappoints, but today’s offering – a decent enough meat and potato, served by old-school Saturday boys from equally traditional premises – stood no chance against that sort of competition. 

The game

paddock

We sat in the Main Stand paddock among elderly curmudgeons so viciously grumpy I wanted to applaud. My first faux pas was to show muttered pleasure at spotting former Blackburn player Joe Nuttall starting for Latics. Although Joe might not be Roger Palmer he always seemed a pleasant, honest lad; for these hardliners, however, the Devil incarnate would have been more welcome up front. “Some people must watch a different game to me”, snorted their ringleader.

select

Just 22 fans travelled from Oxford. This select but enthusiastic following must have feared the worst as Devarn Green composedly controlled Dan Gardner’s long ball and placed his shot past Chris Haigh. Slick though Green’s finish might have been, the visiting defence gave him far too much room for manoeuvre; this mistake was repeated when Brennan Dickenson scored an opportunistic second from thirty yards just before half-time.

slumbered

Latics dithered, the crowd slumbered but City couldn’t take advantage. They might have had a penalty for handball; home ‘keeper Mathew Hudson then clawed away several close-range shots in the ensuing confusion. But two late goals – James Norwood off the bar following an almighty scramble, and Dickenson’s smart free kick – left today’s final score looking deceptively one-sided. Our remaining neighbours hurled bitter abuse before stomping away to their teas.

I’d hate to be here when Oldham lose.

Teams and goals

Oldham: Hudson, Kitching, Hogan, Hobson, Nuttall (Reid 82), Sheron, Green (Hope 85), Gardner (Shelton 76), Sutton, Dickenson, Norwood. Unused subs: Norman, Willoughby.

Oxford: Haigh, Burley, Miccio, Coyle, Fleet, Sanderson (Parker 70), McEachran (Potter 23), Williams-Bushell, Carroll, Humphrey-Ewers (Fonkeu 64), Moore. Unused subs: Harrison, Wilson.

Goals: Green 14, Dickenson 40, 96, Norwood 91.

Attendance 6400.