‘Ticking timebomb’: Oldham braced for more protests amid sorry decline

·5-min read

This week an artist shared a painting of Boundary Park in happier times, packed with fans waving flags. In reality, the picture at Oldham Athletic is not rosy or harmonious and apathy reigns in advance of another planned protest against the owner, Abdallah Lemsagam, who has presided over a malaise that has left them bottom of the Football League. These days, most of the banners carry a similar message. “Enough. Sell The Club” read one on display in defeat at Leyton Orient last Saturday.

That 4-0 hammering is a good place to start given Oldham took drastic action to block supporters from buying tickets for that game. The same applied to this Saturday’s home match against Hartlepool, in an attempt to quell discontent – fans halted their last home game after invading the pitch – before a U-turn on Tuesday. Only season-ticket holders had been able to buy tickets, and season tickets were withdrawn from sale, before the club reversed their decision. Oldham said they were “advised to change its ticketing arrangements” after dialogue with local authorities including Greater Manchester police. It is understood police did not advise on specific action.

Oldham supporters halt the game at home to Barrow this month by invading the pitch.
Oldham supporters halt the game at home to Barrow this month by invading the pitch. Photograph: Ryan Browne/Rex/Shutterstock

A timeline of the Abdallah years makes miserable reading. Late payments of salaries, threats of player strikes and threats of administration have punctuated Lemsagam’s reign. One former club employee describes Lemsagam, a Dubai-based former football agent, as “not malicious” but stubborn and badly out of his depth. “He loves a name,” says one source. “He appointed high-profile managers and he likes to think he is popular.”

Staff were bemused when Lemsagam brought the former Arsenal forward Júlio Baptista to the stadium in 2018 and, when the club hosted a charity game a month later, the Moroccan promised to delve into his contacts. “We got Paul Scholes playing, some ex-Latics players, Colin Hendry and a couple of ex-internationals,” says another source. “I said to Abdallah: ‘Do you know any players that could come down?’ He said: ‘Leave it with me, on the night you’ll have Maradona.’ The night came and we didn’t have Maradona. He pulled in nobody but Mohamed Lemsagam.”

Abdallah has rattled through nine managers in his three and a half years, with Keith Curle the current incumbent, but his brother, Mohamed, the sporting director, has survived every sacking, to the amazement of supporters. Those who have worked with Mohamed say he takes an extremely hands-on approach. Results suggest it is a failing model, with Oldham, relegated three years ago, beaten in six of their opening seven matches. They could become the first founding Premier League members to be relegated out of the Football League. “People think we have hit rock-bottom but we don’t really know where rock-bottom is at the moment, while this owner is here,” says Steve Shipman of Push The Boundary, an independent fans’ action group. “It feels like they are playing Football Manager with a real-life football club.”

One former staff member recalls the scene in 2018, amid winding-up petitions and five late salary payments in six months: “Players came knocking on the door every day, in groups asking for news on wages. In the first meeting he had with all staff, one of the coaches put their hand up and said, ‘Can you guarantee we will be paid on time?’ and Abdallah’s answer was, ‘No.’ It was a ticking timebomb and now it is as bad as ever. Protesting, running on to the pitch. I am just surprised it took this long. But he [Abdallah] is a very charming man; says all the right things, does all the wrong things.”

Oldham did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment. The club are under a transfer embargo and supporters have had enough. On Saturdayfans are due to gather outside the main entrance and plan to walk a coffin down Furtherwood Road. “We want it to be peaceful but passionate,” says Shipman. But Lemsagam said in an open letter this month: “I do not want to sell my ownership of the club. I am more determined than ever to make the club successful.” He also said he accepted he had “made many mistakes since I took over”.

If anything defines the absurdity, it is that last season the former club captain David Wheater, released in March, was ordered to train with the youth team while the first team struggled en route to leaking a league-high 81 goals, after rejecting what he claims would have been tantamount to a 70% pay cut after the club placed players on furlough. Wheater, a 6ft 5in defender, says he ended up wearing youth-team shirts that resembled a “boob tube” and shorts like “hot pants”.

The former Oldham striker Craig Davies described the environment as “like the wild west” and disputes have not been limited to senior players. Scholes lasted 31 days as manager, and various staff have left, been sacked or suspended. In the same open letter, Lemsagam said “there have been no employment tribunals in the last 12 months”. He added, “Some staff departures were not handled as they should have been.” This month the club advertised for a club secretary, ticket office manager and finance manager.

Fans and sponsors have walked away in numbers, vowing not to pay another penny while Lemsagam remains. The Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Foundation, which owns 3% of the club, has created a contingency fund to potentially help save the club. “We need to press the reset button,” says OASF’s director Matt Dean.

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