In 1996, Oldham Athletic took their place in League One after slipping out of the Championship. At the time, it came just two years after Oldham had been relegated from the newly formed Premiership, of which they had been a founding member. What has followed can be described as a period of stagnation or of relative stability, depending on your standpoint.
In dropping through the Championship’s trapdoor, Oldham are hardly an anomaly though. Many other clubs have suffered a similar fate, falling rapidly from the Premier League into League One. In recent years this has in fact proven fairly common, with clubs such as Leeds, Wigan, Sheffield United, Charlton, Wolves, Norwich and Southampton all spending time in the third tier. In fact, most teams tend to return to the second tier after only a handful of seasons in the third.
There was to be no instant return however for Oldham. Over the following four seasons the highest position they could reach was 13th. Between their relegation to League One in 1996 and the 2015-16 season, Oldham have never finished higher than 5th. In that time they have had two unsuccessful play-off campaigns, and during their 18 season stay they have finished 15th or lower on a total of ten occasions. Oldham’s record of mid-table obscurity, along with the occasional foray into the top half of the table, has resulted in them being in League One for the current longest unbroken spell.
Unfortunately, this season might see that record come to an end. This was not what was foreseen at the beginning of the season, with The Guardian tipping the Latics as outsiders and potential gate-crashers of the play-off party. Oldham brought in former Blackburn veteran David Dunn, and while questions were raised as to the suitability of rookie-manager to the role and pre-season was far from convincing, the mood seemed cautiously optimistic.
Oldham currently sit in 22nd position, with a division-low of just four wins all season, and an uncomfortable five points separate them from 20th-placed Shrewsbury Town and safety – although they do have three games in hand on the Shrews. One positive is that they are tough to beat, having lost fewer games than the majority of the sides currently in the relegation fight. However, the side’s inability to convert draws into wins is ultimately the reason that they find themselves in their current situation. Oldham have secured a league-high 12 draws this season, in fact almost half of the games they have played have ended level.
On top of this, the January transfer window was a quiet one for the Latics. They brought in the experienced Anthony Gerrard on a free transfer, 20-year old Matt Palmer from Burton Albion, and renewed the loans of Cameron Dummigan and Daniel Lafferty from Burnley, but the team still looks short of goals. The Latics have scored a paltry 27 goals in 27 games, and are the division’s lowest scorers. Further reinforcements in attack seem needed in order to fire the club away from the relegation battle, and the emergency loan window could prove vital to the club’s ambitions.
Should they go down, Oldham will join a select group of clubs that have fallen from the Premier League to League Two. Bradford City, Portsmouth and Swindon Town (twice) are the only clubs in the ‘Premier League era’ to have dropped so far. Judging by their collective experiences, it doesn’t bode well for Oldham’s future. Swindon (2006 and 2011) and Bradford (2007) were the first two clubs to find their way to League Two after slipping out of the Premier League, with Portsmouth joining the club in 2013, and all have enjoyed at best mixed fortunes since.
Swindon; on both occasions that they found themselves in League Two, bounced straight back up, but financial difficulties have beset the club and every season seems to bring a new string of issues to the club. The club either flirts with promotion or relegation, with long-term planning seemingly impossible, and while the club has had the highs of three visits to Wembley in the past six years, this has also been offset by relegation in 2011. Bradford took longer to return to the third tier, finally gaining promotion in 2013, but since then have challenged in the upper reaches of the division. They shocked English football by reaching the final of the League Cup in 2013, but have also suffered some very poor seasons in the fourth tier. Portsmouth’s fall was the highest profile of all, dropping three divisions in three years having only recently won the FA Cup. Their existence in League Two has consisted of steadying their ship, and only now are they able to make a concerted effort to win promotion.
There is no guarantee that Oldham would struggle in the ways that other ex-Premier League clubs have done following their relegations to League Two. That said, a number of recently relegated sides have struggled to adjust to life in the fourth tier, with Portsmouth and Plymouth just two of many clubs who have endured difficult spells in the division – Bristol Rovers and Tranmere went further still and dropped out of the league all together. Given this, Oldham fans would probably agree that they would rather not have to find out about the difficulties of League Two first hand, thank you very much.
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