The Royle Rundown: When Oldham Athletic nearly upset football royalty


Back in the late 80s and early 90s, football felt a little more even. Of course, money still helped (a lot) but it did feel like that there were more ‘smaller’ clubs competing for trophies – especially in the cups.

We had the rise of Watford and Wimbledon – both going from Division Four to Division One and both earning themselves FA Cup Final slots, Wimbledon famously winning in 1988 after Watford had lost in 1984.

Oxford United, Norwich City and Luton Town were victorious in the League Cups Milk and Littlewoods. Crystal Palace shocked Liverpool by beating them in the FA Cup semi-final and took Manchester United to a replay after drawing 3-3 at Wembley.

Palace even finished third in Division One and, as we crossed into the FA Premier League era, Norwich City and Aston Villa (OK, not small but certainly not perennial title challengers) found themselves battling with Manchester United to lift the new trophy for the first time.

And we had the likes of Leeds capable of coming straight up and winning Division One whereas Nottingham Forest, Ipswich and Newcastle (albeit slightly better funded and not so small) had decent first seasons back in the top tier.

On top of all this, for a spell in 1989 and 1990, Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic of Division Two were the team everyone wanted to avoid in the cups.

Joe Royle, Oldham Athletic manager

Royle was something of a North West legend following his playing career. He had represented Everton 270 times between his debut in 1966 and his final runout in 1974 before he moved to Maine Road and Manchester City. 119 goals for Everton was followed by 23 in 99 games for City before less productive spells at Bristol City and Norwich saw his career close out in 1982.

Royle won six England caps, scoring twice – and following his retirement for playing he, as expected, was straight into the dugout and embarking on a managerial career.

In June 1982, Royle was unveiled as the new manager of Oldham and set off on an initial journey with the Lactics that would last 12 seasons – with the highs of reaching Wembley and playing in the first ever season of the FA Premier League and the lows of being relegated at the end of the 1993/94 season.

Early into the new season post-relegation, Royle was back at Goodison Park as their new manager – the credit in the bank more than good enough for Everton given his previous success.

And it is that success we are going to drill into now.

Oldham Athletic 1988/89

The 1988/89 season was Royle’s sixth in charge at Boundary Park. It’s fair to say, if you judge the results and the eventual finish in Division Two (16th) that not a lot was pointing to what was just around the corner.

The season had actually started exceptionally well – unbeaten in the first two outings including an astonishing 4-1 over Manchester City at Maine Road. City would go on to be promoted alongside Chelsea at the end of the season.

But Oldham were inconsistent throughout the campaign – failing to register back-to-back wins at any point and going out early in both cups. Their famous plastic pitch was not giving them much of an advantage.

Who would believe that next season they would reach Wembley and come close to shocking Manchester United?

Oldham Athletic in 1989/90

Yet, the bones of the team were there that season – Andys Holden, Barlow, Rhodes and Ritchie were retained for the 89/90 season as were Denis Irwin, Earl Barrett, Frankie Bunn, Jon Hallworth and Ian Marshall. Also already at the club the season before were Mike Milligan, Nick Adams, Nick Henry, Paul Warhurst and Roger Palmer.

The only new addition seemed to be winger Rick Holden, signed from Watford.

The Division Two season got off to a slow start, Royle’s side failing to win in the first four games. A 3-2 home win over Plymouth kickstarted things and Oldham won four on the bounce, including a 2-1 win over Leeds in the League Cup 2nd Round first leg.

A defeat to Sheffield United stopped that mini-run but they responded well – another three wins on the spin followed, including the second leg against Leeds.

Defeat to AFC Bournemouth on the 14th October was Oldham’s last defeat in the next ten as they picked up five wins including a 7-0 hammering of Scarborough where Bunn famously scored six.

The next defeat was relatively meaningless, Newcastle knocking the Latics out of the Zenith Data Systems Cup (blimey, had forgotten that European filler) meaning the club actually went on a run of 15 Division Two games without defeat (Arsenal were beaten in the Littlewoods (League) Cup) – taking them into early January where a defeat to Swindon away ended their unbeaten spell.

Good teams bounce back however, and Oldham were becoming a good team with promotion aspirations.

The Latics embarked on another 11 match unbeaten run taking them into early March and including seeing off Southampton in the Littlewoods Cup and holding Royle’s hometown club Everton twice in the FA Cup. The side also got a 6-0 home lead in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final over West Ham on their plastic pitch, goals shared by Adams, Ritchie (2), Holden, Barrett and Palmer.

West Ham sought revenge at Upton Park and were able to end another good run by Oldham, beating them 3-0 but were never in serious danger of scoring the 7 (seven) needed to claim a place against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at Wembley.

This boosted the team’s confidence and they approached the second replay with Everton full of belief – and they knocked out the Toffees 2-1 at Boundary Park before killing Aston Villa 3-0 the following weekend, therefore progressing to the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in their history.

Before that, a push for promotion was still in full swing but all the cup activity seemed to be catching up with Oldham – they lost four out of six Division Two games between the two FA Cup fixtures, effectively killing off any hopes of automatic promotion. The best they could now hope for would be the playoffs.

THE 1990 FA Cup semi-final – Oldham Athletic 3 Manchester United 3

It is fair to say we were blessed with the FA Cup semi-finals in 1990. Crystal Palace successfully recovered from the 9-0 battering they received at Anfield against Liverpool to knock them out 4-3.

Could the other underdogs, Oldham, do the same?

The match at Maine Road kicked off after the Palace giant-killing – for Manchester United, this provided the best opportunity so far for Alex Ferguson to get to Wembley.

Patience was starting to wear thin at Old Trafford – especially in the fanbase no matter what the boardroom was saying – and Fergie could well have been out of a job had Mark Robins not scored a crucial 3rd Round goal against Nottingham Forest.

Oldham already had one date at Wembley in the diary – 21 days later they would be playing Forest in the League Cup Final. Here they had a chance to become the first side outside of the First Division to get to the final of both domestic cup finals.

Had the game been played straight after Oldham beat then Division One leaders Aston Villa in the quarter-finals, you could have argued they were the favourites. But since that victory, Royle’s side had gone through a tricky spell – losing the previous three without scoring and dropping down to 9th in the table.

United, on the other hand, were showing signs of positive consistency – they arrived at Maine Road with back-to-back league wins for the first time in yonks and sat comfortably (remember, this is 1990) five points above the relegation zone.

Bryan Robson and Neil Webb were also back from injury for United which tipped the balance back in their favour – just the way Oldham liked it.

Fergie had noted in the prematch build up that Oldham were very, very fast and would look to win the game in the first half. The opening period certainly showed United’s manager had his finger on the pulse as the Latics flew out of the traps.

Five minutes in, we caught an early glimpse of where Jim Leighton was at in his career – a mix up between him and Mike Phelan conceded a needless corner and you have to wonder how many times in history pointless set-pieces given away have led to a goal.

Leighton failed to deal with Holden’s corner and Earl Barrett was able to put Royle’s team ahead.

Oldham were on top – United looked rattled and Fergie’s surprising tactical choices of Phelan at right back and Brian McClair playing wide right with Webb in a 10 position supporting Mark Hughes seemed to be adding to their disarray.

But, of course, they had Robson. Having realised that someone needed to sort the mess out, England’s captain was put through by Webb and his shot squeezed past Jon Hallworth for the leveller.

Both sides then had good chances just before the break – but the teams went in 1-1 at halftime.

20 minutes into the second period, United felt they should have had a penalty when left back Lee Martin was felled in the area. Joe Worrall said no.

Five minutes later, Denis Irwin added to his market value stopping Hughes in his tracks when a chance looked likely. Moments after that, Robson departed for Danny Wallace – United’s number 7 spent after giving everything in his first game since Christmas.

It was a good move by Ferguson as Wallace was straight into the action – getting a cross to the far post which was recycled and Webb, a player who looked like he’d do plenty to avoid heading a ball out jumping Hallworth to, yes, head it home.

United were 17 minutes from Wembley – Oldham looked like they’d run out of gas.

But, defending an FA Cup semi-final lead can do funny things, even to teams far better than United at this point in their evolution.

Oldham found the spirit and drive to go again and were level four minutes later.

Neil Redfearn got away from Ince and got a cross in – half dealt with by United’s defence. The ball fell to Ian Marshall – a classic late 80s/early 90s centre-back-cum-centre-forward and he volleyed the ball past Leighton.

Both teams had one more good chance each before the final whistle but were unable to force a winner – extra time again and a game certainly matching the one before it.

Two minutes into extra time and United took control once again – Wallace, bright as a button since coming on, chased on to a pass from McClair and sneaked an unconvincing finish home. 3-2 United!

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Once again, Royle’s fighters found the strength to not let this game die – Roger Palmer, a Boundary Park legend, was presented an open goal with 12 minutes left. Ian Marshall’s good work again meant he could not miss and the game was level at 3-3.

And like before, both sides had amazing chances to kill the game and book a place against Palace at the end of the season. A combination of tired finishing, good defending and top goalkeeping meant they had to do it all again during the week.

Three days later, the replay at Maine Road also went to extra time. The game was a lot tighter, more nervy and understandably less frenetic.

McClair opened the scoring for United after 50 minutes. Andy Ritchie got a late equaliser for the Latics, forcing another 30 minutes. United’s FA Cup hero – how much does Fergie actually owe to the current Coventry manager? – Robins scored the winner.

United were off to the FA Cup Final where they needed a replay to beat Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace.

The 1990 League Cup Final – Nottingham Forest 1 Oldham Athletic 0

Oldham had five matches in which to not only lick their wounds but close the gap on the teams above them before they’d head to Wembley for the League Cup Final.

However, form was now patchy – they won the two home games against Leeds and West Ham (obviously) but lost the three away to Port Vale, Plymouth and Portsmouth.

Oldham headed to Wembley hoping they could continue the recent run of new finalists playing the holders and beating them – Arsenal beat Liverpool in 87 but then lost to Luton in 88 who then lost to Forest in 89 and Forest, as we know, were up against Oldham in 90.

74,000 were at the Home of Football on the last Sunday in April to witness what turned out to be Brian Clough’s last major trophy in football.

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As a spectacle, there is almost nothing to reflect back upon – especially compared to the blockbuster that was the FA Cup semi with United.

Forest won 1-0 as we know – Nigel Jemson scoring two minutes into the second half. His shot had initially been saved by Andy Rhodes but he recovered to drill home at the second time of asking.

Whereas before Oldham had been capable of finding another frenetic gear to cause chaos, this time they were unable to – Des Walker superbly marshalling the Forest backline and picking up the man-of-the-match award.

As well as being Clough’s final trophy it also remains the last trophy won by Forest – 32 years ago.

Could Oldham get promoted?

Alas, it was not to be for Oldham this season – they won two and drew two of their remaining league fixtures but it was only enough to finish 8th. They missed out on the playoffs by six points.

Well, there was always next season.

Oldham Athletic in the 1990/91 season

Royle was able to keep a lot of the squad together going into the new season with plenty of optimism.

Neil Redfearn, Richard Jobson and Gunnar Halle were the main additions and Oldham flew out of the blocks.

The Latics had to wait until 17th November to taste league defeat for the first time that season – a loss away at Port Vale – and one defeat became two as they followed that up by losing against Bristol Rovers.

The side were possibly helped by having three back-to-back matches at Boundary Park to get back on the horse. They smashed Brighton 6-1 and Wolves 4-1 either side of a 7-2 defeat away to Sheffield United in the meaningless (unless you get to Wembley) Zenith Data Systems Cup. Then the third Division Two game at home in a row was another goal-fest – Plymouth beaten 5-3.

Form was solid going into 1991. A 3rd Round FA Cup win over Brentford had the fans hoping another deep run was on the cards but, to Royle’s benefit, the team crashed out in the next round against Notts County.

Free from cup distractions, Oldham could now focus on the main priority – promotion to Division One.

The next game after the cup exit was a 5-1 hammering down at Oxford – goals again but the away form possibly questionable. But, the Latics would only lose another four Division Two matches between March 23rd and the end of the season, 11th May.

Their consistency and end-of-season form took them into the final match of the league campaign where they faced Sheffield Wednesday at home. Wednesday were third and hopeful of sneaking into second if they beat Oldham and West Ham, in second and hoping they could nick the title, lost.

It was another game full of goals – and Oldham came out the sunny side up of a five-goal thriller beating Wednesday 3-2.

The Division Two title was theirs.

What happened next?

Oldham survived in their first season in Division One meaning they were in the first-ever FA Premier League which started in 1992/93.

Royle managed to lead the team to survival on goal difference as Palace, Middlesboro and Forest were the first teams to depart the new league.

Oldham’s stay of execution lasted one more season – they were relegated the following campaign but also reached the FA Cup semis once again where they played their old rivals Man United, this time at Wembley.

0-0 going into extra time, Oldham scored first and thought they’d got the better of Ferguson this time. They hadn’t as Hughes equalised with virtually the last kick of the game taking them to another replay. United won 4-1.

Oldham ended up finishing second-bottom, three points below Ipswich who survived and going down with rock bottom Swindon and Sheffield United.

Joe Royle left the club that summer to take over at Goodison Park, managing his boyhood club Everton and winning the FA Cup (against United) in 1995.

Oldham, well they never returned to the top table and sadly dropped into non-league with relegation from League Two in the 2021/22 season.

Fans at Boundary Park will always have the good times to look back on – and hopefully they can return for the Latics in the not too distant future.