Oldham, Oldham Gallery, chips

What to see
You’ll find accounts of Oldham’s tourist attractions and information on shopping, eating out etc at Visit Oldham. Links to Oldham attractions include:

Alexandra Park
Daisy Nook Country Park
Gallery Oldham
Saddleworth Museum & Gallery
The Weavers Factory

Towns of Two Halves
What isn’t widely known about Jack Sprat is that he was an Oldham Athletic fan.
This detail of the famously fastidious Sprat’s private life came to light in the 1989/90 season. Oldham, then a Second Division team of such long standing that they might have served as a definition of second-class, suddenly emerged on to the national stage.
They began to win cup ties. In the case of the League Cup, the games took place in midweek; FA Cup ties were played on Saturdays in that era, but replays also featured in the midweek highlights programmes. Oldham became regular stars of Wednesday night television in the winter of 1989 and early spring of 1990.
The club had no recent cup-fighting tradition. Exempt by status from the first round of the League Cup, they usually went out to Port Vale in the second. Their FA Cup Third Round defeats were often at the hands of more distinguished opponents and were geographically more varied but no less regular. In the 1989/90 season, by abrupt contrast, they overcame some very big names.

William Walton, stained glass, Spindle's, Oldham
William Walton: celebrated in the stained-glass roof of Spindle’s shopping centre

Arsenal were the first to go, demoralised and defeated on the artificial surface of the Boundary Park ground in the League Cup. Southampton, at that time in sparkling form in the old First Division, followed after a replay. Aston Villa and Everton succumbed in the FA Cup.
The team’s exploits brought its manager to prominence. Joe Royle, already a figure of some physical stature, acquired matching figurative eminence. Week after week, it seemed, Joe would fill the screen with a beaming smile and a huge duffle coat. After paying a handsome tribute to his players he would add how overdue a reward the cup runs were for the Oldham faithful, who had stuck by the team through thick and thin.
‘Thick and thin’ was the expression he used and under the circumstances it might have seemed unexceptionable. It did not, however, bear close scrutiny. The win over Arsenal gave the clue. Before that remarkable 3-1 win Oldham had not beaten a team from the top division in any competitive match for 60 years. The truth was that there had been barely any thick in living memory. It had all been thin.
True, Oldham Athletic had successfully applied for re-election, a triumph of sorts, in the early Sixties. Having finally made good their escape from the Fourth Division they had won the Third Division title in 1973, which had to count as a good year. But those highlights apart, and an occasional isolated result notwithstanding, Oldham supporters of more than six months’ standing had experienced nothing but lean times. They all shared Jack Sprat’s diet.
It is possible that Sprat would have noticed in 1990 that the fare from Oldham Athletic was putting on weight; he might even have changed his allegiance, moving down the road to Rochdale. Lean and fat, though, are relative terms. Even among football’s elite, Oldham continued to present a lean outlook. Sprat would have had no difficulty remaining true to his convictions at Boundary Park.
Besides, it is the preference of his wife that suggests a fickle nature. Mrs Sprat, if she took any interest in football at all, would have moved between Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal in the years to 1990. Her subsequent leanings, it must be suspected, would be to the Manchester clubs. The uneasy coexistence in the Sprat household thus represents a truth about football in general. The fat get fatter and the lean get relegated.

Annie Kenney, statue, suffragette, Oldham, centenary
Oldham suffragette Annie Kenney: the statue was unveiled 100 years – to the day – after women first got the vote

When Athletic won the Second Division title in 1991, they did so as noted on an artificial surface.
In the preceding couple of years during their meteoric rise, the unnaturally flat and verdant pitch was the best-known fact about the club. Complaints of unfairness inevitably ensued. Not only was it suggested that Oldham could not play on grass but also that visiting teams could not play on anything else.
People associated with Oldham became very defensive, the centre-backs occasionally excepted. Statistics were adduced to prove that Oldham lost just as often at home as they did on real pitches elsewhere, but no-one was fooled. The surface at Boundary Park produced something more akin to pinball than football. It occasionally had a comical element. Brentford fans may recall a very windy day there when their team was awarded a penalty: the ball had to be kept in place by a holder – a man lying flat with the tip of his finger at the end of an outstretched arm, stopping the ball from blowing away, as from time to time in rugby union.
After the defensive statistics came the more positive assertion that the surface favoured skilful passing football. That was like saying that beach cricket favours a hearty slog in the direction of the incoming tide. Anyone with any grasp of tactics could see from the first two minutes of a match that the ball was out of control if allowed to bounce. Some sides like it that way – it isn’t far removed from the guiding principle of the celebrated Route One long-ball style. A ball that might land anywhere is a random element from which a team of ferocious tacklers and tireless runners will expect to profit.
The Oldham team that won the Second Division title in 1991 was, indeed, a side of passing accomplishments. It added to Athletic’s appeal that players would attempt to pass their way out of the deepest defensive trouble, gratuitously bringing to vibrant life many a flat fixture. Late on in games when goals were needed urgently, however, Oldham could hoof the ball upfield with the best of them.
Some teams were visibly demoralised by the plastic pitch. Others were not. Why Hull City, for example, should succeed where Arsenal had so miserably failed is a mystery. The fact is, though, that Oldham were a strong home team long before the magic carpet was unrolled. Here the other well-known fact about Boundary Park may have come into play – its altitude. On a cold day, such as are not infrequent in the football season, Boundary Park is Siberian.

Boundary Park, Oldham, Oldham Athletic, demo, protest, flares
Last league match at Boundary Park: peaceful protest

On the morning of Cup Final day, 14 May 1994, I was driving down the M6 from Manchester to Birmingham. Perhaps every third car that passed was showing Manchester United colours. Most had red scarves fluttering from the rear windows; some were yellow and green, some black, and one was blue. There were not many colours that United had not turned out in during the past season. One car had a red devil stencilled on the rear window. There were fat-cat executive cars with tinted windows, 10-year-old Escorts with four burly occupants, nippy hatchbacks driven by girlfriends who would remain sober, mini-buses, coaches and even one or two motorcyclists. There was something of the impression of a people on the move, a migration, though with no overtones of Steinbeck’s Okies heading west in The Grapes of Wrath.
It was a poignant morning. If football matches ended two minutes earlier, most of the town of Oldham would have been flying south down the M6 that sunny day. Instead Athletic fans would watch the match on television, with the prospect in the following season of journeys down the M6 to second-tier destinations in the Midlands, and on to Bristol, Reading and Swindon. Well, they had had their place in the sun however briefly. Few of them could ever genuinely have expected it. Manchester United would take the Cup back to Old Trafford, to match their Championship trophy. Players, interviewed on television, would remark that winning trophies for the fans was what playing for Manchester United was all about.
It must be an empty kind of relationship that demands trophies to satisfy the fans. A kind of panic must attend a season without trophies. Eventually, clubs who do not win trophies must be left as the keepers of the spirit of the game. For them, whether they like it or not, football is just a game.

Oldham Athletic 5 Accrington Stanley 2
Boundary Park, 11 February 1961

This is the Oldham chapter of Towns of Two Halves, published in 2018. To buy a copy, email info@townsof2halves.co.uk.