You have written the book ‘This is How it Feels: An English football miracle’ all about Oldham Athletic and their remarkable rise to the top flight of English Football in the 1990’s under Joe Royle. Before we get to the success, what was the history of Oldham like pre-Joe Royle?
“How long have you got?! The club’s best years came in the 1910s. They were one of the major forces in English football and blew the First Division title to Everton in 1915 by a point. Then War broke out and ruined everything… When Jimmy Frizzell arrived in 1970 they had been forced to apply for re-election on a number of occasions having finished near the bottom of the Fourth Division.
There had been flashes of potential, with one-off crowds in the 20,000s, but the club was on its backside. Frizzell led them to promotion and then the Third Division title in 1974. Since then, they’d been relatively stable in Division Two, bar a couple of flirts with relegation, but apathy had set in and there was a view in the town that the club lacked ambition.”
Joe Royle took charge of Oldham for the first time in 1982. What was the initial reaction to the appointment?
“At best, mixed. At worst, hostile. Lots of supporters felt the club had betrayed Frizzell and that sacking him was unjust after everything he had done. My dad was one of those and immediately stopped attending matches. He was not on his own. There’s a story in the book about how Joe had to comfort his young boys after they’d been to a match at Boundary Park and heard the crowd firing abuse at their dad.”
In the book, fans can read in-depth accounts of the unbelievable highs under Royle including life in the Premier League and reaching a League Cup final. Without giving too much away, how does Joe Royle view that era with the hindsight of today?
“I can’t speak for him, but from conversations we’ve had, I’d say with a lot of sadness. The book dives into how he managed to transform Oldham and he will often say that recruitment is key above everything else – even coaching. Back then, he was able to go to the reserves sides of City, Everton and Leeds and offer young players who had played for the first team equal – and in some cases more – money to come and play for Oldham.
You just could not do that now given the wages that these types of players are on. Earl Barrett was one, for example. He had played a number of times for City’s first team and had been out on loan to the lower leagues. I’d guess and the equivalent player now wouldn’t be on far short of £20,000-a-week.
Sheer mismanagement elsewhere, of the kind you don’t really see now, also played a role. Leeds, for example, let Denis Irwin go on a free transfer. He had played dozens of times for the club and it just did not make any sense. You would struggle to see that type of thing happening in the modern era with all the scouting and data available to clubs.”
The Premier League has grown exponentially since its formation in 1992 and the two seasons that Oldham spent in the division. In your opinion, can clubs like Oldham and Swindon who were in the early Premier League ever realistically return there in future given that cash is king in the modern game like never before?
“I would not rule it out but it is unlikely. As you say, cash is king and while the playing field has never been level it is now tilted like never before. At Oldham, we have bigger fish to fry and at the moment, under the car-crash ownership we have been burdened with, staying in existence is the priority. I think with proper backing, wise recruitment and an investment in youth, a realistic aim would be the Championship.
But getting out of the Championship to the Premier League is now a near-impossibility given the money being thrown at it and the impact of parachute payments. There are signs that the second tier is heading for a reset, given the financial crisis we are seeing unfold at clubs like Derby but until that happens, and until parachute payments are altered, the Premier League is almost a closed shop.
I went to Plymouth recently and really admire their model. Their owner is wealthy, which is obviously key, but they are doing things the right way and want to be sustainable. Their emphasis is on ensuring they provide a pathway for the region’s best talent, along with a data-analysis-backed approach to recruitment.
They have brought in smart thinkers across departments and everyone at the place seems to feel invested in and has a smile on their face. I’m looking forward to seeing how far they can go with that model. Their aim is the Championship and I hope they can go further than that.”
Last but not least, where can readers purchase the book and what can they expect from the book as a whole?
“It’s available at both Amazon and the publishers Reach, among other outlets. I think anyone who buys it should laugh (hopefully a lot) and enjoy it. I’ve read so many football books that basically are just ‘we played x and we won, then we played y and we drew’ and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
There are some amazing, funny stories in there from some great personalities and I wanted it to be something that would appeal way beyond the boundaries of Oldham because sadly that’s a pretty niche market! I wanted to give an insight into how a genuine miracle was achieved and I think, from the reviews I’ve had so far, I’ve done that. There can’t be many football books that feature a fight in a Spanish prison, a naked check-in at a Brighton hotel and a manager trying to wrap a bar stool around the head of one of his players after a cup final.”
By: Callum McFadden / @Callum7McFadden