“20 years, who gives a f*ck, we’re super Oldham and we’re going up!”
Yes, 20 years in League One. That’s pretty much as long as I’ve been alive. Will this year finally be the year I see my club in a higher division?
In short – no.
Saying that, I’ve always had the hope that each season could be the year that changes. What’s the point of supporting a football club if that’s not the aim?
Recently though, I’ve really questioned my support – the club have managed to eat away at my loyalty by stumbling from one disastrous decision to another. One of those decisions was allowing a mass exodus from Boundary Park this summer led by manager John Sheridan who left for League Two Notts County – it felt like the club were writing off the coming season before it had even started. But then Steve Robinson was appointed. I don’t know what he’ll be like, and I don’t know roughly 90% of the squad. But something tells me he’ll do alright at Boundary Park.
Robinson comes from the Northern Ireland set-up that impressed at Euro 2016, and is assisted by Ian Baraclough and Sean O’Driscoll – both of whom have playing and managing experience in League One. It seems like the club have learned that a rookie manager needs help – after failing to support Dean Holden, Darren Kelly and David Dunn in this respect. Saying that, I still think Robinson will need a season to learn what it’s really like to be a manager, so expectations are low in the Boundary Park stands.
The new-look squad already has the makings of a physical one with an experienced spine. Peter Clarke needs no introduction at centre-back, and will lead from the defence alongside young talent Cameron Burgess. Paul Green and Ryan Flynn are impressive acquisitions in midfield, both of whom reportedly entertained offers from bigger clubs. Upfront, Billy McKay has a decent goal-scoring record in Scotland and will be looking to make his mark in England.
Robinson has characterised his squad with players who have a point to prove, either to themselves or to English football in general. Midfielders Carl Winchester and Ollie Banks have both failed to make the most of their obvious abilities, and are both in desperate need of successful seasons. Similarly, there must be a football player in Jake Cassidy somewhere, but it wasn’t on show last season and an improvement is quickly needed this season.
However, the rest of Robinson’s squad is fairly inexperienced in English football. Despite this, full-backs Josh Law and Jamie Reckord appear to be solid acquisitions, and Dutchman Marc Klok has already won over fans with his declaration that he has fallen in love with Oldham. Latest signing Ousmane Fane joins from Kidderminster and appears to have promise, as does young striker Darius Osei. If Robinson can create a competitive culture around Boundary Park, his experienced professionals should expect solid pressure from this group of players who will no doubt want to establish themselves in the English league system.
At one stage, Latics only had five contracted players, but Robinson’s quick recruitment drive means he is approaching the season with a decent-looking band of fringe players who should be ready to perform when called upon. Brian Wilson will always be reliable, while Connor Brown will cover the full-back positions despite his status as squad scapegoat. Youngsters Luke Woodland, George Edmundson, Kallum Mantack and Jamie Stott all receive good reviews when they play, so should have the chance to put themselves in Robinson’s plans for the future.
Most of Robinson’s signings seem to be big and physical, and that is a good sign for me. When I look back at successful League One teams over the years, most have won the physical battle first. It probably won’t mean instant success or attractive football but it suggests Robinson is being pragmatic in order to create a team that can compete.
Last season Latics sorely lacked a leader until it was nearly too late. Anthony Gerrard stepped in then, but this season Peter Clarke’s influence should be invaluable from the start.
Another strength lies in the new-look management team. Robinson is clearly a good coach – his previous jobs as Motherwell and Northern Ireland assistant managers are decent pedigree. Behind him, Ian Baraclough has managed in League One and the SPL, and was willing to become a number two having worked as Robinson’s manager at Motherwell. Then, Sean O’Driscoll will be a key member of the club if he sticks around. His experience should be invaluable to Robinson and Baraclough – the combination of the three as a management team feels like a good fit.
Time will tell if the club’s new approach to their coaching staff will work, but early signs are positive.
However promising Robinson and his quickly-assembled squad may be, the fact remains that he has never managed a league team before and his team will need time to gel. That will take time, so supporters will no doubt have to put up with some frustrating afternoons early on. This was shown by five pre-season defeats from five. If Robinson and his team can’t get their message across quickly enough, Latics would be in danger of being dragged into a relegation battle similar to last season.
The squad also looks thin on pace in the wide positions. Flynn, Green, and Lee Croft can play out wide, but none are blessed with pace. If Robinson is indeed going for a physical approach, then pace would help in order to put crosses in to McKay and fellow striker Lee Erwin.
Looking ahead, presuming Latics achieve their customary mid-table finish, the squad looks thin for next season. Only Flynn, Banks, and Fane are contracted past 2016/17, and a situation similar to this season could be on the horizon if extensions are not given throughout the season.
Final Position – Most realistic Latics fans would take a mid-table finish with signs of progression. I’d imagine there will be periods where the club flirt with relegation in a strong League One. A cup run and some good away days would provide the support with something to cheer after a fairly miserable couple of years.
Best Players – Ryan Flynn has the ability to be a real influence in this league, while Peter Clarke should continue his form after being crowned Bury’s player of the season last year. Striker Billy McKay has a decent record, and will be a favourite with the fans if that continues.
Disappointments – Full-backs Josh Law and Jamie Reckord may struggle if they are tasked with providing the team’s width on-top of their defensive duties. Jake Cassidy is a player with no confidence, and is unfortunately unlikely to turn his form around. I’d also place doubts over Ollie Banks – I’ve heard his name at Chesterfield for a while, but he’s never seemed to progress with the Spireites. He feels like he’ll be a utility player which will ultimately affect his form.
Top Scorer – Billy McKay
Player of the Season – Ryan Flynn.
Young Player of the Season – I can see loanees Cameron Burgess and goalkeeper Connor Ripley impressing. They have received praise from pre-season performances, so I look forward to seeing their progression.
How will Robinson do? – He already seems better prepared with more backing than last season’s flops Darren Kelly and David Dunn. His staff (Baraclough and O’Driscoll) will no doubt help him, but I still feel he’ll need a season before we can really judge him as a manager. If he shows signs of developing his style while learning from his mistakes, he’ll have my backing.
How will the board do? – I want to say they’ll keep quiet, but I’m not betting on it. I applaud their backing of Robinson, and they won’t want a repeat of last season’s three managerial appointments, but I’m worried for the next controversy they will attract.
If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it’s that Oldham Athletic will find a way to remain in League One. I’m not worried about Robinson’s inexperience or a quickly-assembled squad. After the last two seasons, all I want is a quiet, uneventful campaign.
Is that too much to ask?