Quashing recent rumours of assuming managerial responsibilities at Lancashire’s, or more appropriately Greater Manchester’s, subordinate Latics, Clarence Seedorf and Paul Scholes – the latter certainly with greater provincial credentials – reintroduced Oldham Athletic to mainstream media in perhaps the first tangible incidence since an aborted attempt to sign convicted rapist and former Welsh international striker Ched Evans on a free transfer in January 2015.
Usurping a perennially tumult-stricken, yet juxtapositionally inconspicuous former Premier League constituent institution in classification of significance, the duo of retired midfielders – globally lauded, multiple Champions League-winning professionals, at that – defined the now-League One club’s diminished modern role in a callous English footballing hierarchy. Circumstantial adaptation has long since pervaded the Latics’ ranks, however, rendering this observation irrelevant. Alluding, more pertinently, to the pre-emptively ill-fated ownership ambitions of Moroccan businessman Abdallah Lemsagam in a side currently mired in financial disparities, and only able to sustain survival courtesy of the uncompromising tenacity of caretaker manager Richie Wellens, at the forefront of a loyal backroom staff – alongside players – going temporarily unpaid for the third time since 2011, these headlines underline to the consciously unfeasible vision of Lemsagam. First Seedorf – a close friend of the Dubai-based entrepreneur and agent, accepting an invitation to survey the club’s facilities –, then Salford-based recent adviser Scholes, as an inflammatory consequence, and now the ilk of Brian Kidd, Walter Zenga and Pablo Correa have drawn insatiable focus as potential Lemsagam targets in forging a prestigious Lancastrian identity amidst a seemingly inevitable majority 70% purchase from generally commendable current chairman Simon Corney.
Such a farcical situation bears a striking resemblance to Corney’s January 2005 arrival; alongside fellow New York-based telecommunications capitalists and British expatriates Danny Gazal and Simon Blitz, he salvaged the club from impending administration and fostered an immediate relationship with both Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, while lavishing ambitions of re-establishing the Latics at a Championship level. Pretences incomparable, you may argue, with the universally overzealous vision such a considerable demographic fall victim to today, yet for the club consecrated as members of the Premier League’s inaugural two seasons, little has changed; reaching the play-offs only once (sixth in the 2006-07 season) and having consolidated a recurrent relegation-teetering position in each of the previous consecutive eight seasons, with unerring accuracy between 15th and 19th. Stagnation quite to that extent remains a largely unbeknownst quality to the see-sawing circus surrounding the Latics – having witnessed no fewer than 66 sides, amongst which six current Premier League clubs including former champions Leicester City register, grace the Boundary Park surface over Corney’s nigh-13-year reign – and proved an intolerable exertion for the permanently Long Island-fixated Gazal and Blitz by July 2010, effectively citing unreciprocated investments and unfulfilled ambition as their unresolvable grievances.
Institutionally, Oldham – both as an economically deprived division, with a reported 2016 average household income at £23,920, between Manchester’s gilded metropolis and the rugged Pennines, and a sporting body in the lower quartile of Football League attendance attractors, with apt consolidation this decade at crowds in the mid-4,000s – facilitates such investments in a regrettable encapsulation of naturally attractive, if definably vulnerable, proposition of their kin across the nation. Of League One counterparts alone, they can identify Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon, MK Dons, Wigan, Charlton, Bradford and Blackpool as fellow victims of the Premier League’s dazzling lights; gradually resurgent past addicts, persistent offenders yet to heed from systemic malaise and, well, the complicated entanglement of the rightful heirs to the Crazy Gang throne and the cowardly Buckinghamshire pretenders, amongst their ranks. Kindred spirits, however, can be found most prominently in this Saturday’s particularly fitting fixture, as taking – or having taken, by the time you read this – to the Boundary Park pitch will be former Premier League champions and fellow spiritual Lancastrians Blackburn Rovers. An organisation that sacrificed its very identity and social essence to the detrimental, yet apparently economically profitable, influence of India’s Rao family – of Venky’s fortune – Rovers’ demise under ownership unprecedented in its incompetence has resonated as one of the most tragic of 21st century English football, in a period when, for the elite, an apparently impermeable financial blanket should exist to prevent FA humiliation.
These are not the words of a cynic, but a realist. One only has to admire the miscued rationale of ruinously negligent self-proclaimed chieftains in the culpability of almost every calamitous Premier League relegation – the Allam family at Hull, Vincent Tan at Cardiff, Karl Oyston at Blackpool, the transition between Mohamed Al-Fayed and Shahid Khan at Fulham, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, QPR’s Tony Fernandes and Mike Ashley of Newcastle, of whom his SportsDirect company is, coincidentally, a leading sponsor of the Latics, the most prominent of these examples – whilst quantifying the impact of economic mismanagement and obsessive sporting intrusion to conclude that the political, self-centered campaigns of such men are detrimental to the stability of a historic communal entity. Thus, no applicable rule should defer in Oldham’s instance; especially considering the primary objective of Lemsagam, providing he does fulfil his obligation, following a lengthy observation process, will be solely to survive in both financial and sporting respects – the hard-fought Corney operation to stave off as dramatic a stagnation as League Two demotion may beckon vital not to be rendered worthless within the first few months of non-British ownership in Latics heritage. Commercially, the variance between Leagues One and Two is, admittedly, negligible, yet the attendance figures – already paltry, lagging behind certain opposition inferior in the pyramid – for arguably Greater Manchester’s fifth favoured outfit would dissipate even to greater extents amidst immediate disillusion, rendering investments subsequently compromised. It is challenging, conversely, to also perceive elevation – nigh social mobility, admiring the inexorable plight of Corney’s spurned vision – beyond mid-table League One obscurity and especially into the now-gilded Championship ranks, almost entirely habituated by ex-elite constituents and interspersed with global talent.
Dare they embark, as it certainly appears, on what preceding fatalities would condemn a financially jeopardising, if not self-destructive, establishment-rivalling exploit, the Oldham institution would require acute introspective analysis. Trust has already been invested in an as-yet unanointed – at least in official capacity – financier to such an extent that of the Latics’ increasingly irregular summer signings, all of those employed after July were, allegedly, of his prerogative; Belgian Eintracht Braunschweig reserve winger Gyamfi Kyeremeh, Dutch former Ajax youth product and Nantes loanee Queensy Menig, Haitian former Ligue 1 goalkeeper Johny Placide, former Saint-Étienne academy graduate midfielder Mohamed Maouche, Curaçao international and European journeyman winger Gevaro Nepomuceno and French Ligue 2 midfielder Abdelhakim Omrani, perhaps never candidates to pursue Mancunian careers, and even less so for Oldham, but the result of Lemsagam’s evidently extensive agency ties. Such is Lemsagam’s overriding influence that, identifying his future employees and consequently implementing the League One rarity of an international break on the Latics aside, it was reputedly his decree to former manager John Sheridan that caused only 14 senior players to be considered of appropriate integrity for even the matchday squad when visiting Blackpool in late August – ensuring that Sheridan was decidedly isolated in the dugout at Bloomfield Road amidst a 2-1 defeat. Evidently, then, permeating the club is a vacuum of inevitability and culture, perhaps, even of fear at the fundamental solitary role of the Moroccan in salvaging the 122-year institution; appreciating the two-weeks belated September imbursements undoubtedly as prolonged gratitude-stirring Dubai investments, asserting the puppeteer’s presence over an out-of-depth Corney and dutiful Wellens.
To use such disdainful rhetoric, however, alleviates the context of the plight. Naturally, Oldham – as 1990 and 1994 FA Cup semi-finalists, ’90 League Cup runners-up and, as aforementioned, thrice registered as amongst the post-war elite 22 establishments of English football in the same early 90s era – desire progression, and a pride unheralded in Pennine parts for over two decades. It is not unrealistic, surely, to revere the communal fervour and ensuing attendances that punctuated prolonged national relevance; perhaps not to the extent of concerted 1910s and ‘20s First Division occupation, in which they achieved the zenith of their existence, albeit tainted by depleted attendances amidst the outbreak of war in bronze-medal and runners-up positions in 1913-14 and 1914-15 seasons respectively, nor the near-18,000-strong crowds defying of Third Division status in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, but, while respecting the role of the demise of once world-leading cotton spinning and broader textile industries in the town, a respectable stage comparable with the 9,153 average the 99 seasons of recorded Latics history has yielded.
Undefined, yet perceivably lofty Lemsagam ambitions – certainly rendered such in consideration of the ever-expanding commercial market and systemic present channelling of young minds solely into elitist forms – could be realised sooner, as opposed to later. Reignite the idiosyncratically British form of perpetually cautious, consciously masochistic optimism – as witnessed in the regular mid-6,000 attendances of Premier League-espousing early 2000s chairman Chris Moore’s reign – and he could dispel the stagnation that has distinguished Corney’s lone rule, and has featured an unerring eight consecutive seasons of sub-5,000 crowds defying a record that has witnessed such paltry figures only registered in six prior seasons; 1960, 1969, 1970, 1985, 1986 and 2001. An obsession with such calculations must register in Lemsagam’s ideology once, rather than if, FA paperwork is fulfilled, as it will underline his ability to revise the outlook of the Latics in an ever-adapting EFL structure and commercial context and sustain any pretences of immediate upscaling. An attractive proposition for investors both aiming to intertwine personal vision with a long-established institution and utilise the thriving Mancunian housing industry for a means of ethical retort – citing the communal benefits of their investment in high-rise facilities, only to economically alienate the average Lancastrian from access – Oldham, not least with the squad currently at Wellens’ disposal, but potentially in the armoury of a truly high-calibre individual, require a constitution able to harness their socio-economic position. No longer can they afford to stagnate in the unprofitable dredges of self-obfuscating and subordinate League One status.
Nor, conversely, can they survive at the tyrannical dictation of a self-righteous despot perforating into the soul of the establishment. Thus, a perennial balancing act is required amidst astute management – surely stipulating of the presence of the Supporters’ Trust, of whom 3% of all shares belong, and will morally forever remain. Can they, despite gathering in depleted contemporary numbers, prevent aforementioned apparitions of detriment, degradation and potential demise?
Though unsubstantiated by statistics, there is the obvious counterargument that, harking back to the usurping commercial figures and youth-centric fervour for Manchester’s glitterati, the force wielded by supporters’ establishments and representatives dissipates as the pyramid divides. The dictatorial preservation of Karl Oyston, Roland Duchatelet, the Dao family, Vincent Tan and Assem Allam, amidst arguably the most vitriolic and unrepentant protests of 21st century British football, only validates the prior statement, uncorrelated though it is with the progression of AFC Wimbledon, Wycombe Wanderers, Exeter City and Newport County – all fan-owned entities profiting in an institutionally perverse, professionalised Football League environment. Herein lies a perilous precedent; overseas magnates degraded as universal harbingers of unsustainable aspiration tainted cynically as in the pursuit of personal profitability, while democratic, communal bureaus subsist conversely detracted as espousing nigh-communist footballing revolt and professing financial stability above upwards mobility. Fundamentally, such callous generalisations cannot exist as the extents of introspective analysis within sporting chambers, nor journalistic investigation, in an age posing greater trepidation and potential rewards to both ownership forms, and for Oldham – encapsulating a far broader subordinate, or at least less immediate, spectrum – their future will not be dictated by the unwavering regimen of either of these apparent rules. Providing Abdallah Lemsagam incorporates the socio-economic circumstance of what is now a sporting community at his mercy or deliverance, as opposed to that of the wider Mancunian sprawl, and realises the limitations of the club’s infrastructure in what, without pragmatics, threatens to be a concerted pursuit of ultimately unobtainable fortune, his investment could be potentially prove successful.
Staffordshire’s Burton Albion, West London’s Brentford and Lancastrian rivals Preston North End, however, defy these socially implanted limitations in a resolve of arguably undervalued modern magnitude, especially amidst a Championship environment with increasing reliance on tycoon-derived finances, imposing facilities with heritage in elite service – 19 of the current 24 constituent clubs having heritage in the Premier League, while 16 of those were during the 21st century – and globally-sourced playing squads for whom the nationally subsidiary proposition is becoming progressively lucrative. Not all aspirational, locally-owned and largely conventionalist entities can achieve the uncompromised, if unembellished honour of the Brewers, Bees and Lilywhites, and certainly not those with a fundamentally defective infrastructure and naïve executive management.
As inspiration can be sourced from the establishment-defying exploits of Burton, Fylde coast side Fleetwood Town – themselves a fellow League One and Lancastrian outfit – and phoenix formation AFC Wimbledon as institutions elevated from the depths of English non-league structure, however, contrasting correlations connoting the cautionary encounters of clubs as geographically diverse, and thus nationally liable, as Portsmouth, Blackpool, Blackburn, Bolton, Bradford, Wigan, Charlton, Leeds and Coventry arise in precaution. Each of these former Premier League states found financial mismanagement at least partially culpable, if not pivotal, in their respective relegation freefalls, and yet very few have heeded such harshly-delivered competitive deferrals; German-owned, community-focused Bradford and Portsmouth, having graced Fratton Park with a fleeting fan ownership programme abruptly halted by the cowardly, yet democratically conferred, sale of assets valued at £5.67 million to Walt Disney magnate Michael Eisner in August this year, perhaps the closest, yet opting, particularly in the latter’s example, for a path well marked by ethically dissenting, perceivably falsely ambitious compatriots. Chief amongst their indefatigable stranglehold of financial distortion are the Rao’s – overseers of the crowning nadir of Rovers’ 142-year history, a whimpering demise from eleven consecutive seasons of Premier League competition into the Championship and League One within seven debilitating years of government – who entered into the 2017-18 season with medially embarrassed resolutions to reinstate second-tier status within 12 months. Despite the significant economic burdens of a payroll including former Celtic and Scotland defender Charlie Mulgrew, Northern Irish international midfielder Corry Evans and former Premier League representatives Craig Conway, Danny Graham, Dominic Samuel, Elliott Bennett and Peter Whittingham, not to mention prestigious helmsman Tony Mowbray, the family’s aspirations may not have incorporated the contingency and circumstantial familiarity of startlingly unbeaten Shrewsbury Town, nor seasoned Wigan and Bradford campaigners, currently out of reach of the 19-point Riversiders, albeit lacking two games in pretext.
Rovers’ status as one of only eight post-war former English league champions to descend to the third tier of domestic competition – Portsmouth, Derby, Leeds, Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Burnley and the anomaly of Manchester City their company in such an exclusive bracket of ineptitude – may hold resonance for devoted footballing historians and 1990s aficionados in years to come, but for upcoming generations, those engaging in the formative stages of lifelong fandom, the Lancastrians will simply be derided as another unfortunate victim of the revolving elitist cycle. Another pin on the map, former preeminent seraphs for whom financial, and ethical, agony has befallen their skewed psyche. While Oldham can never lay claim to even that stage of significance, rather valued only marginally above regional adversaries Rochdale and Bury in lower-league pedigree, such a drastic state of effective irrelevance will surely permeate their existence unless the apparent agendas of Lemsagam are commenced with haste. Yet such remiss vigour that it would plunge the club into peril supersedes any ephemeral enthusiasm, and remains a perpetual threat to survival when teetering repeatedly on the edge of League Two beckoning – depths the Latics have only fallen to for seven seasons in both the early 1960s and ‘70s. To depict fallacies of an exalted inspiration in the ilk of Mancunian idol Kidd, Milanese eccentric Zenga or largely unheralded Montevidean quality Correa – recently deposed from his nigh-22-year Nancy employment, as both former player and manager – establishing a concerted, sustainable ascent primarily beyond present manacles, and successively into the realisation of aspirations akin to overachieving Championship contemporaries, would be a gross embellishment of infrastructural capabilities, regardless of Dubai-derived injections.
Virtues of humility and rationality, however, rarely define Lemsagam’s predecessors, whether on the South Coast, atop Yorkshire peaks, immersed in Birmingham industry, situated upon Tyneside or shelved in juxtaposing Lancastrian corridors. Culpable for the misdemeanours of such institutions, perhaps these moguls were, but an aspect they each shared was a degree of transient hope; both for the projected vision of first-team fortunes and local implications. Protect this aspiration and accept the responsibility of his role in social East Lancastrian proceedings, and Lemsagam – regardless of prior character faults – can restore pride in the Latics, a quality largely unheralded but eternally fundamental to any community. Study the scene – here, after all, lie the husks of former glories, unfortunate enough as to have not prolonged their top-flight occupations prior to the implementation of financially salvaging compensation, and the causation for the Premier League’s parachute funds – and navigate the perils of impulsive slogs of seasonal competition, and perhaps Oldham Athletic could be salvaged. Not just financially, but in long-unfounded respects of national reputation. A considerable if, certainly, but one that holds the pride of a community at its mercy. No longer can they be martyrs to perpetual adversity, lacking a realisation of their communally unifying potential. Consigning Blackburn to a last-gasp 1-0 defeat registers as a conspicuous forbearer of this reinvigoration – long may it endure the tribulations of Oldham occupation. Long may it permeate those whose intentions honour their club, their community and their sport.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!