This review was written, as all of mine are, for publication in "Programme Monthly and Football Collectable" magazine. It's for a wider audience than just Latics supporters and if , as one of those, you think I have got the emphasis wrong then I do understand ! But they were great times whatever anyone's personal memories are.
This Is How It Feels
Hardback 320pp £16.99
Full disclosure from the start. I am an Oldham supporter and lived through the joyous years that Mike Keegan writes about. And that’s the word that sums up the feeling any Latics fan would have ad for those giddy years spanning the late 80s and early 90s joy. Hopefully some of that emotion was shared by those following other “less fashionable “clubs or that reading about it now can convey an element of how fantasy can still, hopefully, become reality.
The bare facts are that Oldham between 1989 and 1991, played 117 competitive matches, reached an FA Cup semi-final, a League Cup final, and finished eighth and then top of old Div. 2. In doing so the club played at Wembley for the first time (and were only extra-time in the FA Cup semi away from doing so twice in a season) and got back to the topflight for the first time since 1923. Yet it was so much more than that. Joe Royle’s pack of rejects and bargains became achievers, and with a style, swagger and self-belief that grabbed the nation’s attention. With relatively little live tv football, the highlights of Oldham matches were seemingly constantly broadcast. And, as said, there were lots of matches. Cup replays, and second replays, as well as two-leg ties, saw the League Champions, the League Leaders, plus a covey of other Div. 1 teams, humbled both on the pitch and on the screen. The pitch? Well, it was famous as being plastic and some teams were openly intimidated by that. However, it must be pointed out that whilst Latics only lost once at home in 1990/1, when becoming Div. 2 Champions, only one team lost fewer matches away from home. The chant of “We can play on grass as well” often resonated from Oldham support at away grounds.
The energy of the players plus Royle’s bold tactics made them a great watch for both Oldhamer and neutral. Bunn (six goals in a League Cup match) and Ritchie were probably one of the most potent strike forces in the country, Marshall, Milligan, Adams Henry, Holden, became household names, whilst local lad Andy Barlow left his favourite meal (meat pudding on a muffin) behind to get a call up into England B. Reputation or pedigree seemed to count for nothing and Royle baffled and outfoxed with formations that had five up front. Joe Royle? He arrived at Boundary Park on a lorry after his car broke down on the way to his manager’s interview, got the job, and wheeled and dealed his way to become the engineer of what the author calls “an English football miracle”. A master of spotting value (and always telling the Chairman, “We can make a profit on him”), knowing when to turn a blind eye, and there are quite a few tales of activities that wouldn’t escape the notice of social media today, and how to inspire, he became one of the totemic managers of the 90s.
Oldham weren’t a failing club when he arrived in 1982, but were still “little” Oldham, a friendly Lancashire outfit with one of the coldest grounds in the country. A warm welcome, hot pies, and a steady Div. 2 presence since 1974. No glimmer of anything better in his early days, and it’s a reasonable question as to whether he’d have survived nowadays, but in 1987 he got them to the very first play-offs. Tweaking the team, bringing in new blood, and, in 1989, the “pinch me “season began. A supporter had come up to Royle amid the new success and said “Pinch me, Joe” in his belief it was all a dream.
Promotion (and winning the championship of Div. 2 was as dramatic as everything else, a last-minute penalty ensuring a 3-2 victory after being 2-0 down), founder members of the Premier League, and another FA Cup semi-final. The good times eventually ended, and the club is in dire straits right now, but, as Mike Keegan so accurately describes, at that time the sense of joy and wonder were truly “ This is how it feels”.