FA Cup: Oldham looking for Liverpool to freeze up in cup encounter

Boundary Park prepares for Liverpool visit and the Latics' history in the knockout compeitions is impressive, writes Richard Jolly.

It is a fitting time for a belated return to the limelight. After the snowiest week of the season in England, Liverpool travel to that most wintry of venues, Ice Station Zebra, today.

Not that such a name can be found on the footballing map. Officially Oldham Athletic's home of 106 years, which has required an inflatable tent to keep its turf warmer this week and make today's game playable, is called Boundary Park.

During their modern-day peak, however, their manager Joe Royle coined the nickname to describe a famously cold, inhospitable venue.

It was a place where underdogs upset their superiors, where cup runs began and gathered pace, where opponents slithered and slipped on a controversial plastic pitch and where goals were scored with alarming regularity.

Because, a quarter of a century ago, one of the most unlikely success stories in recent times began on the outskirts of Greater Manchester.

It was a time when the county had two cup teams who specialised in attacking football: Manchester United and Oldham. They had very little in common but at times, there was virtually nothing to separate them.

Now, with Oldham enduring a 16th successive season in the third flight, and more likely to leave it for the fourth tier than the second, it sounds utterly implausible. Even then it was still improbable.

But Royle, appointed in 1982, began to build an impressive, imposing team on a slender budget.

And, in 1986, Oldham became one of the four Football League clubs to dispense with grass and install a plastic pitch.

"So many teams, so many players were beaten before they set foot on our plastic," said Royle. Others were defeated by their positive football.

"Joe's Oldham played with risk and a sense of adventure," said Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, remembering Royle's penchant for fielding five forwards.

They first sprung to prominence in 1986/87, almost going up to the old Division One. Three years later, another promotion bid was scuppered by Oldham's prowess in the knockout competitions.

Royle's men were plotting two paths to Wembley as, in either the FA Cup or the League Cup, Everton, Aston Villa, Arsenal and Southampton perished at Ice Station Zebra.

But not, one of Oldham's finest footballers argued, because of it. "There was a myth about the synthetic pitch," said Andy Ritchie, Oldham's 28-goal top scorer that season. "Actually, you couldn't lump it and you had to play fast, attractive football, but people came with preconceived ideas."

The boyhood hero of a young Oldham fan named Paul Scholes, Ritchie was in his element spearheading the side. "It was Joe Royle's style of team," he said. "He wanted to play swift, attacking football."

Ritchie struck twice in perhaps the greatest game at Boundary Park, the 1990 League Cup semi-final which, played on February 14, became the St Valentine's Day massacre.

Royle made a late decision to push centre-back Ian Marshall up front, played 3-2-5 and beat West Ham United 6-0. A first major trophy eluded Oldham, beaten 1-0 in the final by Nottingham Forest, but they also pursued a more glamorous prize: the FA Cup.

The semi-final pitted them against local rivals and, like many a game since, could have been different with the aid of technology.

Nick Henry's shot struck the Manchester United bar, bounced down over the line and out again.

"If that goal had stood and we had gone on to win the game, Alex Ferguson would probably have been sacked as United manager," said Henry's fellow midfielder Neil Redfearn.

Instead, a remarkably game ended 3-3. With an extra-time winner from an Oldham boy, Mark Robins, United went on to win the replay.

Ferguson, who was sufficiently impressed to sign the Oldham full-back Denis Irwin, duly went on to pick up his first piece of silverware at United.

But 12 months later, Oldham had an honour of their own.

They responded by winning the Division Two title, courtesy of Redfearn's penalty against Sheffield Wednesday on the season's final day.

"It was one of the finest feats in modern-day management," said Ferguson.

Royle, realising how remarkable it was that, for the first time since 1923, Oldham were in the top flight, said: "Oldham Athletic, the unfashionable team from the town with the chimneys, were to rub shoulders with the Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and Arsenals. It was a footballing fairy tale."

It continued because, even without the plastic pitch that was banned in the top flight, Oldham survived.

In 1992, they became founder members of the Premier League. Staying there grew harder by the year with many of Royle's bargain buys - Irwin, Paul Warhurst, Earl Barrett, Marshall - making big-money moves elsewhere.

But they retained the Oldham spirit and the happy habit of scoring goals.

Seemingly down and out, Oldham entered the final few days of their season eight points behind Crystal Palace. They survived at their expense, finishing fourth from bottom and as the Premier League's third highest scorers.

"Harry Houdini would have been proud of our feat of winning the last three matches in the space of eight days to beat the drop," Royle said.

A small club had defied footballing gravity. They almost did again.

Royle's last great cup run came in 1993/94.

Oldham were minutes from the FA Cup final when Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser for Manchester United.

It sent Athletic spiralling downwards; into the second tier, as their last eight league games only produced three points, and, after a second relegation in 1997, into the obscurity of the third tier.

Now their average attendance is only 3,993, almost 10,000 down on their glory days. They have only taken one point from their last eight games and the club sacked most of their manager Paul Dickov's back room staff on New Year's Eve.

But they exacted a modicum of revenge for their 1990 League Cup final defeat by beating Forest in the third round to set up a meeting with Liverpool, the second of their three victims in the extraordinary end to the 1992/93 season.

A nostalgia trip doubles up as a way of raising much-needed revenue because, for Oldham, the olden times are the most enjoyable. It was their Ice Age.

In other FA Cup action on Saturday:

Brentford v Chelsea

Rafael Benitez, above, said finishing in the Premier League top four was more important for Chelsea – and his own future – than trophies this season as he attempts to avoid going out of yet another competition. Benitez arrived at Stamford Bridge in November but has watched one piece of silverware after another slip away in a campaign in which Chelsea have competed on an unprecedented number of fronts. “My idea is very clear. We have to be in the top four ... and try to progress in the other competitions,” he said. “It’s just what we have to do.”

Leeds United v Tottenham Hotspur

Leeds United’s Capital One Cup run ended with a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea last month but today’s FA Cup opponents Tottenham are an even better team than the European champions, according to the Leeds manager Neil Warnock. Leeds claimed the Premier League scalps of Everton and Southampton in the Capital One Cup and have another chance to impress against top-flight opposition at Elland Road. But Warnock said: “You look at their team from one to 11, they have everything. Pace, power, strength and entertainers. I think they are a better side than Chelsea.”

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