Ahead of the Oldham vs Walsall fixture in August 2016, the Saddled fanzine asked me to write something comparing the similar footballing landscapes in Manchester and Birmingham.
A year on, both sides find themselves beginning yet another League One season, and both sides are widely tipped for relegation. So is survival the best Walsall and Oldham can hope for given the bigger clubs on their doorsteps, or is there reason for fans to hope for bigger things?
Note – This article was originally written in August 2016. It has been updated slightly ahead of the Walsall vs Oldham fixture on 12th August 2016.
Oldham travel South this weekend to face my team Walsall in the new League One season in a fixture between two very similar clubs. Both teams are regular residents in England’s third tier, with Walsall starting their 12th League One season in 13 years and Oldham in their 21st consecutive campaign at this level. However, it isn’t just the two respective League One life sentences that unite the clubs.
Both the Latics and Saddlers lie firmly in the shadows of bigger and more successful neighbours. Walsall have to compete with Birmingham, Aston Villa, Wolves and West Brom. Meanwhile, Oldham have the small matters of Manchester United and Manchester City down the road. At Latics, we also compete with Greater Manchester’s host of professional clubs, most of which have enjoyed successful periods in recent years. There’s Rochdale, Bury, Wigan and Bolton in the Football League and a strong non-league contingent including Macclesfield, Stockport, Altrincham and the more recent forces of Salford City and FC United of Manchester.
The rise of the two Premier League rivals in Manchester coupled with very little success ourselves has meant that attendances have slowly declined at Boundary Park, especially when City started offering cheaper season tickets following their 2008 takeover. Since then, the Etihad has been expanded, and Premier League tickets are available for cheaper than Oldham charge for a cold afternoon watching third tier football.
The money factor is key in shaping the footballing picture in Manchester and I’m sure it plays a part in Birmingham too. City and United can afford to offer cheap tickets while throwing about tens of millions of pounds on transfer fees, yet Oldham had to ask fans to donate funds for a scoreboard. If any promising player emerges from Boundary Park, they are quickly snapped up by any club who offers six figures.
The only way clubs like Latics and the Saddlers can change their fortunes and claw back their fanbase is by slowly building a team full of youth players and cast-offs. I had a lot of respect for Walsall’s promotion push in 2015/16 under a young manager who put faith in his academy. Although they fell short, the season gave hope to similar clubs like ourselves that there is a way out of League One.
Last season, Walsall showed how hard it can be to replace key players. After losing Tom Bradshaw and Romaine Sawyers last summer, they finished 14th following an inconsistent season.
With limited budgets, Oldham, Walsall and a host of other lower league teams are caught in a never ending cycle. Any promising squad is dismantled and best players sold before they can help the club to success, and attendances decline due to the lack of success.
Still, there is hope. Walsall’s neighbours Burton have enjoyed a meteoric rise to the Championship on a small budget, while Oldham’s neighbours Rochdale have reached their highest ever position by building an identity at the club despite constantly selling their best players.
The club has produced a number of future Premier League stars and gained millions in transfer fees to reinvest – Ricky Lambert, Craig Dawson, Adam Le Fondre, Scott Hogan and Glenn Murray all came through the Spotland ranks. Manager Keith Hill knows how to build a squad on a tight budget and encourages attractive football. However, despite this success, the club still only average around 3000 fans. It’s a reminder that money still talks regardless of success, especially in a poor town like Rochdale.
Although Walsall are the small fish in a big pond containing four bigger clubs, and Oldham only have two Premier League neighbours, there is not just pressure from above on Manchester’s football league clubs. Hyde, Altrincham, Macclesfield and Stockport have all graced the Conference relatively recently, while protest club FC United of Manchester and project club Salford City are further evidence of the Premier League’s influence in the city – FC United were formed in protest against the Glazer ownership of Manchester United, while Salford are owned by United’s Class of ’92. The clubs have different motives, but they’re rising through non-league quickly and attracting fans, placing more pressure on existing clubs in the area.
The money-throwing competition between the big boys in Manchester and Birmingham means the gap between themselves and other clubs in the area is only going to grow. Don’t get me wrong, these city rivalries are great to watch, but they are impacting more and more on the smaller neighbouring clubs. It’s getting harder to build a team that will take a Walsall or an Oldham to the next level, but that won’t stop these clubs trying.
As I look at Oldham’s chances of finally leaving League One in the right direction, we could do much worse than follow Walsall’s model over recent years. The two clubs are cut from very similar cloth so I certainly wouldn’t begrudge the Saddlers another promotion push this year.