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It was all very different from the first time Oldham Athletic fans staged a protest against Abdallah Lemsagam’s ownership in 2019 and only 27 people turned up. Back then, the warnings from some supporters that Oldham could go the way of fallen neighbours Bury or Macclesfield Town without concerted action seemed to fall largely on deaf ears as apathy gripped the fan base.
Not any more. More than 500 people attended a peaceful but passionate demonstration before Saturday’s game against Hartlepool United and it was hard to escape the feeling of a unified movement forming as fans attempt to rescue a club who have been a pillar of the local community for 126 years from the threat of ruin at the hands of a Dubai-based former football agent.
The chants of “We want Abdallah out” were in full swing by the time a symbolic coffin bearing the words “RIP OAFC”, trailed by a fan posing as the Grim Reaper, emerged from the plume of blue and black smoke at 2.13pm and was laid to rest by the doors to the main entrance at Boundary Park by four mock pallbearers, one of whom was dressed as a clown. “I thought since Abdallah is acting like a clown that I’d come as a clown as well,” Morgan Bocking, 21, said. “It’s not funny, though, because we think he’s running the club like a circus.”
At the back of the noisy crowd, friends Paul Norbury and Glyn Hinchliffe, who have been watching Oldham since the early 1960s, hold up a placard that reads: “Fan since 1963. Never locked out before. Just go, you pillocks”.
“We’ll end up in administration and probably go out of the League if these owners stay,” says Norbury. “Hopefully we’ll do just enough to keep the club alive so we don’t go like Bury.”
Although neither Lemsagam nor his brother, Mohamed, the club’s sporting director, are present, others executives have been told to keep their heads down on the advice of the safety officer but there is no hint of disorder and there would be no repeat of recent pitch invasions later in the day.
Inside the peeling walls of Boundary Park’s dilapidated main stand, Keith Curle peers out of a grimy window and surveys the scene below. Kick off is looming but Curle, Oldham’s eighth different manager since Lemsagam bought the club in January 2018, knows emotions run deep and wants to gauge reaction. “We respect the demonstration,” he says. “We sympathise and empathise. Credit how the fans conducted themselves. It was a peaceful demonstration and people are entitled to have an opinion.”
By contrast, the uprising seems to have provoked a grim resolve in Lemsagam to dig in his heels. Rather than adopt a conciliatory tone, the owner has gone on the attack, accusing protesters of “devaluing the club” and exacerbating his “honest mistakes” with the sort of rhetoric that fans the flames of civil war.
The reasons behind Oldham’s slide to the foot of League Two have been well documented: a scattergun recruitment policy, the managerial merry go round, damaging disputes with senior players, accusations of interference in team affairs and plunging gates.
But the decision to block non season-ticket holders from buying tickets on the day against Hartlepool and a ban on the sale of alcohol inside the stadium, reputedly on safety grounds, felt like the most extraordinary act of self-sabotage yet given the club’s parlous financial state. It also had some depressing consequences. There were stories, for example, of OAPs being turned away at the turnstiles, unaware the club had communicated via Twitter and their official website at 6.30pm the night before that there would be no pay on the day facility.
A minor point but even this observer was told I would not be allowed to leave the ground to attend the protest outside if I wanted to be let back in again before common sense prevailed.
There was far worse going on elsewhere, though. The wife of Dermot Butler had arranged for 50 friends and family of the lifelong Oldham fan, who died suddenly from a heart attack in March, to come together in celebration of his memory in the Joe Royle Stand only for those plans to be derailed at the eleventh hour by the ticket and alcohol ban.
Instead, the group decamped en masse to the nearby Rifle Range Inn, Butler’s old drinking hole. “It’s just sad we couldn’t remember his name on what would have been his 52nd birthday at the club he loved,” Butler’s brother, Brian, said. “We couldn’t do it at his funeral because of Covid so we’d arranged to come together at the stadium and were even denied that.”
A newly published book, This Is How It Feels, which charts Oldham’s remarkable journey from the brink of extinction to the Premier League under Royle, was actually dedicated to Butler by his friend and author, Mike Keegan. It offers a timely reminder of what can be achieved in the face of acute monetary constraints when smart, creative people with a vision pull together. But Mohamed Lemsagam, evidently, does not have the same eye for talent as Royle and his old chief scout, Jim Cassell, and Abdallah does not place the same stock in the manager-chairman relationship as Ian Stott once did at Boundary Park.
Still, you do not have to travel far to find some of that old spirit and soul. Roy Butterworth represents everything that is still lovable about Oldham. The matchday press officer is 81 now and has missed just 10 home matches since 1963, despite never being paid a penny. “No talent but cheap,” he quips. Butterworth’s warm, personable touch and indefatigable air is shared by Curle, who recalls hating coming to Boundary Park in the early 1990s as a Manchester City player but faces a huge challenge to restore even a semblance of that fear factor now as he fights to keep a team of free agents, loanees and kids in the Football League.
A plane trailing a banner that reads “Al & Mo Time To Go! #SaveOAFC” circles overhead as Curle, who took over from Harry Kewell in March, paces his technical area. A half-time rollicking seems to do the trick as Oldham take the game to promotion chasers Hartlepool in the second period but missed chances highlight the desperate need for a goalscorer and a 0-0 draw is not enough to lift the club from the bottom.
Amid the reports of interference from above, Curle makes a point of stressing he has had no one meddling in team matters and is clearly not afraid to share a joke with the owner. “He [Abdallah] sent me a text today about his travel plans and I asked him if he has his boots ready because we might need him on Tuesday [against Brentford in the League Cup],” the manager said.
Has he met the owner yet? “No, but I have good dialogue with him,” Curle says. “It’s not a dating site. I know he’s coming over.”
Curle’s challenge is to ensure the unrest does not leave his players cowed in the battle against relegation. “If we were top of the league, would it quieten the situation? Massively,” Curle said. “Negativity courts company. If you get involved in that negativity it drags you down.”