OLDHAM, England — Oldham Athletic were once a Premier League team good enough to claim victories against Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham in the same season. In 2021, they’re a club in crisis whose hopes of avoiding the ignominy of being the first to slide from Premier League to non-league — putting them outside the 92-team English pro football pyramid — lie in the hands of a Dubai-based owner, a landlord in New York and the sentiment of Britain’s richest man.
It was an Oldham victory at Aston Villa in May 1993 that ended the home team’s hopes of winning the league and confirmed Sir Alex Ferguson’s first title as United manager, but those heady days are long gone. These days, the team plays in front of fewer than 4,000 fans at Boundary Park and the club have become a byword for chaos, with nine different managers in three years and supporters barred from buying tickets to games earlier this season due to their protests — disrupting matches by throwing tennis balls onto the pitch and blowing whistles to confuse the players and officials — against the club’s ownership of former football agent Abdallah Lemsagam.
A fan rally before last month’s home game against Hartlepool resulted in a coffin, trailed by a supporter dressed as the Grim Reaper, being placed at the main entrance of Boundary Park with a plaque bearing the words “RIP OAFC.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Steve Shipman, spokesman of fans’ group Push The Boundary told ESPN. “A procession of bad decisions have led us to where we are now and the situation has become pretty dire.”
Oldham face Mansfield on Saturday occupying one of the two relegation positions at the foot of EFL League Two, the lowest division of the professional game in England. If they fail to escape the bottom two, one of the founder members of the Premier League back in 1992 will drop out of the EFL and into the National League after 116 years at the senior level.
“Is it the ideal scenario? No, it’s not,” Oldham manager Keith Curle told ESPN. “But I don’t mind that, and I’ll turn it around. Every club I have been at, I’ve faced adversity, but wherever I’ve been, I’ve left each club in a better position and this one won’t be any different. It’s going to be an interesting journey.”
Curle was speaking in a small room at Boundary Park, furnished only with a camera tripod, sponsors’ board and a fire extinguisher. The fire extinguisher seemed wholly appropriate.
Oldham’s decline has been long and painful, and many connected to the club trace it back to a precise moment on April 10, 1994. Joe Royle’s team were facing Manchester United in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley and with the game entering the final minute of extra-time, were 1-0 up, on the verge of reaching the final for the first time in the club’s history. But just as the game appeared to be won, Mark Hughes scored a stunning volley to equalise for United. The game ended 1-1; United won 4-1 in the replay three days later.
Crushed by going so close to glory, Oldham failed to win any of their remaining seven games and suffered relegation on the final day of the season.
“If ever there was a moment that defined a team’s destiny, it came for Oldham when Hughes equalised in the last minute of the semifinal,” Royle later recalled in his autobiography. “It was a hammer blow. There was a distinct hangover, and I still meet people who claim the club hasn’t recovered from the shattering effect of Hughes’s strike. In my heart of hearts, I am hard pressed to disagree.”
Andy Ritchie, former Oldham player and manager, told ESPN: “It’s no secret that everything went downhill from that moment and the club has never really recovered.”
Until 1994, Oldham had been a model of stability, employing two managers (Royle and Jimmy Frizzell) in 24 years, reaching the top division in 1991 — a year after losing the EFL final and reaching another FA Cup semifinal. But since their relegation from the Premier League, Oldham have never finished higher than 14th in the Championship (England’s second tier) and have spent the past 24 years in the bottom two divisions. They have had four different owners over that span and Curle, who captained Manchester City for three years during the 1990s, is the 32nd manager since Royle left for Everton in 1994.
Oldham’s location has contributed to the club’s difficulties. The town has a population of 237,000 — more than three times bigger than Premier League side Burnley — but a government survey in July 2020 found that 33% of children in Oldham live in poverty. Within the town are four areas named among the top 1% of the United Kingdom’s most deprived areas.
Money is tight in Oldham, but with both Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium less than 10 miles away, those who can afford to watch football have more glamorous options on their doorstep than a failing team sitting 91st in the 92-club senior tier of English football. Relegation to the non-league — the National League is the fifth tier — would see Oldham have to pre-qualify in order to play in the FA Cup. They also wouldn’t be able to play in the Carabao Cup as a non-league team.
Television money drops from £1.2m-a-year in League Two to just £80,000-a-year in the National League, and crowds at some games are in the hundreds rather than the thousands. There’s also no guarantee of a return to the Football League. Since 1999, 39 clubs have been relegated from the EFL, and only 20 have made it back. Wrexham, owned by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, have been out since 2008 and continue to struggle to return. Nine relegated clubs have gone out of business altogether.
Lemsagam, a Dubai-based Moroccan former football agent, became Oldham Athletic owner in Jan. 2018. Four months later, the club were relegated to League Two for the first time since 1971. Since acquiring Oldham, Lemsagam has appointed his brother, Mohamed, as sporting director, employed nine different managers — former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes resigned after just 31 days in charge in March 2019 — and sanctioned a carousel of transfer activity that’s seen 94 players arrive at the club (not counting players who’ve come through their academy) and 111 leave since the summer of 2018.
With Lemsagam’s connections across Europe and the Middle East due to his previous career as an agent — EFL rules stipulated that he had to cease agent activities as a club owner — he has brought players into Oldham from France, Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Romania, but the standard of new signings has been questionable.
“Recruitment has been a big problem,” Shipman said. “We signed a defender called Sonhy Sefil from a team in the fourth tier of French football and he was loaned out to Ashton United, a local non-league team, when he arrived.
“Ashton play in the seventh tier of English football, so the standard is way below Oldham’s level, but they sent Sefil back to us after three games because he was so bad. But on the flip-side, really good professionals like Peter Clarke and David Wheater were let go by Abdallah, despite their experience being absolutely crucial for a team in League Two.”
One former Oldham manager has told ESPN that he was asked by Lemsagam not to select the team captain and also told not to allow players he no longer wanted to attend training. ESPN contacted Lemsagam to offer a right of reply to those claims and ask questions about his ownership, but he declined.
Sources close to Lemsagam, who attended his first home game since March 2020 last week, admit that there was some interference in player selection in the early days of his ownership, but that is no longer an issue. They also point to his investment of approximately £5.5m in the club since his arrival in 2018.
ESPN has been told that Lemsagam has been advised to sell Oldham by associates who regard the club as a significant drain on his £40m fortune. But while he owns the club, he does not own the ground, which is a further complication. Indeed, the ground — four stands and a car park — is owned by Simon Blitz, a New York banker, and sources close to Blitz have told ESPN that rent in excess of £200,000 is owed, though this figure is denied by sources close to Lemsagam.
When asked about the business strategy of buying the club, but not the stadium, sources close to Lemsagam tell ESPN that he bought Oldham in the expectation that he could “Moneyball his way out of League One,” before using his connections as an agent to recruit players capable of succeeding in the Championship, while growing the value of the club at the same time. But by only owning the club badge and playing squad, Lemsagam has little of value to sell.
Fans’ groups have urged Blitz not to sell the land to Lemsagam, and risk it being sold again to property developers. That would be the nightmare scenario, closely followed by the equally unpalatable option of Blitz calling in any debts owed by Lemsagam, the club falling into financial administration and Oldham being deducted 12 points as per EFL rules.
A 12-point deduction would put Oldham, who took out a loan of £490,000 from the EFL in February, into negative points (they have seven points from their first 10 games) and make relegation seem inevitable.
Despite his determination to remain in charge, Oldham fans have grown increasingly frustrated by Lemsagam’s ownership and want him out of the club. The disorder at games this season involving tennis balls, whistles and pitch invasions — organised by a group called “the Athleticos” — prompted the club to take the extraordinary step last month of refusing to sell tickets to home fans in order to prevent further disruption.
“We want Abdallah to sell the club, but we also want peaceful protest and to work with the ownership to help secure a buyer,” Matt Dean, a director of the Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Federation, told ESPN. “But the pitch invasion and disruption to games did result in greater exposure and national attention, so it did serve a purpose.
“Right now, though, our intention is to help Abdallah sell the club. If that doesn’t happen, then we will look to put as much pressure on as we can in order to do that.”
One route taken by fans is an attempt to persuade Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, to rescue the club. Ratcliffe, the CEO of chemical company INEOS, was born in Failsworth — four miles from Boundary Park — and has built a fortune of £10.6 billion ($14.4 billion) according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. A self-confessed Manchester United supporter, Ratcliffe attempted to buy Chelsea in 2019 before completing a £91m takeover of French club Nice.
So will prospect of saving his local team tug on Ratcliffe’s heart-strings?
“We have contacted Jim Ratcliffe,” Shipman said. “But we haven’t had a reply yet.”
In the meantime, the struggle goes on. Fans protested against Lemsagam during his visit to Boundary Park for last week’s home defeat against Harrogate, but he remains determined to ride out the storm.
“He has had three years of s—,” a source close to Lemsagam told ESPN. “He’s had some really tough stuff to deal with, but the whole club had settled down at the start of this season and the situation just got out of hand because the team lost its first four games. But it’s early days. The team are still only eight points off the playoff positions, so there is time for things to change.”
Curle, who replaced Harry Kewell as manager in March, is also confident that he can turn the situation around and guide Oldham away from danger.
“I came here because I know where the club can go,” he said. “It might not go where I need it to go as quickly as I would like, but I have 100% belief that we will get the upward curve that we need and then be able to bring in the right players to help us get out of this division.”
The big concern right now, though, is the manner in which Oldham will exit the division. If they go down, being a former Premier League team in the non-league will count for absolutely nothing.