Wind back one month and Richie Wellens was asked to take caretaker charge a club with well-publicised problems of unpaid staff and continual struggles against relegation.
Oldham Athletic, one of the founder members of England’s Premier League 25 years ago, were bottom of England’s third tier, League One. They had lost their first seven games of the season and managed only one win in their opening 11. A 5-1 defeat at Rotherham saw the previous manager John Sheridan sacked. Sheridan, who had saved Oldham from almost certain relegation in successive seasons, had been asked to work with a collection of free agent players as talk of a foreign takeover circulated.
Wellens took charge for a game against high-flying Peterborough United on September 26. They won 3-2. The former Manchester United youngster asked Wes Brown, a friend he had met in the late 1990s, to watch the game from the stands and give direct feedback on how Oldham’s defenders were doing. Brown, the former United and England defender, gave a few pointers, but was otherwise impressed.
Brown and Wellens had been at a bus stop eighteen years ago in Salford when a BMW stopped and the window wound down. It was Alex Ferguson, legendary manager of Manchester United. He asked Wellens and Brown where they were going. They said "town" (Manchester) and Ferguson told them to get in. Wellens was reluctant because his trainers were covered in mud and his heart sank when he opened the back doors to see cream seats and plush pristine carpets.
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Wellens’ solution was to try keep his feet off the floor for the 15-minute journey, while Ferguson extolled the virtues of Neil Diamond. By the time the car reached town, Wellens' legs were in agony while he tried to keep Ferguson’s carpets unsullied. He almost managed it, but when he got out of the car at Piccadilly bus station he looked down and saw two unmissable dirty big footprints.
Oldham went to Portsmouth for their next game, a big club who were chasing promotion. They won 2-1 and were so worthy of their win that Pompey fans applauded them back onto the team coach.
Wellens told a friend that the person he would like to speak to more than anyone was Ferguson. He had been a young professional under the Scot but left Old Trafford for Blackpool after one first-team appearance 17 years ago. He didn’t even know if Ferguson would remember him, but he obtained his phone number and called him. Ferguson was taking a morning walk and he remembered all right. For 25 minutes, he dispensed advice to Wellens.
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Wellens, who wasn’t sure whether to call the most successful British manager of all time "gaffer", "Sir Alex", or "Mr Ferguson", appreciated it greatly and no damaged carpet was mentioned. He felt that his new job was taking over his mind 24 hours a day and even affecting his sleep. Ferguson gave him tips on how to relax and deal with the problems which confront managers on a daily basis. He also said he could call him back.
This is normal for Ferguson. He keeps in touch with scores of his former players on a regular basis, asking them how they are playing. He also dispenses advice. Another young former United professional, Ashley Westwood, contacted him early in his managerial career in India.
“We’d signed the national team captain, but he was with the national team at the start of the season and hadn’t taken part in our preparations,” Westwood explains. “He was the best Indian player and he was expected to play, but I wasn't convinced he was ready. Nor did I think it fair on the other lads. I texted Fergie and he called me from a cab in New York. He told me to explain honestly to the player why I was leaving him out. I did that and he understood. It helped that I told him the advice had come from Sir Alex.”
Wellens, who has done all his professional coaching badges during and following a 700 game professional career and, at 37, is still fit enough to join in training with the Oldham players, prepared for his next game at Crewe Alexandra in the Football League Trophy on October 3. Oldham won 1-0, making it three straight wins.
Speculation then linked the former Manchester United player and Oldham resident Paul Scholes with the manager's job. Scholes had been linked with the post before and it is understood that Simon Corney, the club’s owner, liked the idea of a high-profile personality like Scholes on board, but the former United and England midfielder is a part owner of ambitious Salford City and didn’t put himself forward for the job when he spoke with Oldham. Scholes said that Wellens should get the job.
On Saturday, Oldham played a fourth game under Wellens, this time against another high-flying side, Blackburn Rovers. A season high crowd of 7,788 – boosted thanks to a large Blackburn contingent – saw Oldham win 1-0 with a late goal to make Wellens the first manager in the club’s 110-year history to win their first four games.
Wellens' 100 per cent winning started was halted on Tuesday following a 1-1 draw at Bradford City. It didn't harm his employment prospects though. On Wednesday he was installed as the club's 25th full-time manager in 23 years.