They say certain things in life are guaranteed. One of them is surely Oldham Athletic competing in England’s third tier. After John Sheridan masterminded another great escape at Boundary Park, that will happen for the 21st consecutive season in August .
Oldham lost Sheridan to League Two Notts County in the summer, and successor Steve Robinson couldn’t get the best of a quickly-assembled squad. With Latics sitting bottom of the league having scored just twelve league goals, Robinson was sacked after just 24 league games.
Back came Sheridan, who had saved the club from a similar position the year before, and Latics amazingly battled their way to safety with a game to spare.
For most of this season, I’ve written regular Post Match Verdict reports. Now the campaign is over and Latics have secured their annual 17th place finish, I’m going to look back on the highs and lows of another eventful year at Boundary Park.
After John Sheridan had completed the impossible and kept a squad built by Darren Kelly and David Dunn in League One, optimism was high at the end of 2015/16.
However, key players like Liam Kelly, Mike Jones and Jonathan Forte left the club, and Sheridan soon followed after being tempted by League Two Notts County.
The exodus killed any momentum gained by Sheridan’s return, and showed an extraordinary lack of ambition by the club.
This was followed by a farcial process to replace Sheridan, leaving incoming manager Steve Robinson with around two weeks to sign a whole squad of players and prepare them for the season.
On paper, Robinson looked like a decent appointment. Backed by Sean O’Driscoll and Ian Baraclough, both of whom have League One experience, the Northern Ireland assistant appeared to have the credentials to at least make Latics competitive.
His signings were a mix of players he knew from his time in Scotland, and free agents from other League One teams.
Centre-back Peter Clarke and midfielders Paul Green and Ryan Flynn were the stand-out names, while the club paid a fee for promising Frenchman Ousmane Fane from Kidderminster.
Most of Robinson’s quickly-assembled squad were unknowns or loan players – strikers Billy McKay and Lee Erwin had goods record on paper, with centre-back Cameron Burgess and goalkeeper Connor Ripley appearing to be decent young players.
Before the season began, I previewed the campaign and predicted who would stand out. Reading back, my predictions show just how little we knew about the squad and how it would perform – although there’s no excuse for predicting Billy McKay to be top goalscorer…
August – September
The season began with a poor 3-0 defeat at Millwall. It was always a tough place to start the campaign, but the nature of the defeat wasn’t encouraging. However, days later Latics responded with a very impressive display against Championship side Wigan in the EFL Cup.
Ryan Flynn’s solo goal and Josh Law’s late winner secured a deserved win that now appears so out-of-character for the rest of the season.
Consecutive 0-0 draws meant Latics had to wait until their fourth league game for a goal, which came from a Bury defender in a derby win. This was followed by a very respectable 1-1 draw at Bradford.
Signs of improvement were dashed in a crazy 4-5 defeat to Carlisle in the Checkatrade Trophy. Despite some promising attacking play, the five goals conceded were embarrassing and previewed some of the awful defending that Robinson’s side were capable of.
After a slow but steady start to the league campaign, Latics were quickly back to square one in September.
A 3-2 home loss to Shrewsbury was self-inflicted, before Robinson’s men failed to score in draws against Chesterfield and Coventry, and defeat to Swindon.
September was rounded off by a 1-1 draw at Charlton, thanks to another important Peter Clarke equaliser.
October – December
The low-scoring form continued into October with identical defeats throughout the month, starting against MK Dons.
Each time, a poor first half saw the opposition go ahead, before Latics were slightly improved after the break without really threatening, before a second goal killed the game.
To make those defeats even more annoying, Latics managed a win at Fleetwood in the Checkatrade Trophy and a late winner at Gillingham in the league to give hope of a change in fortunes. However, those wins were followed by an noncompetitive loss at Bolton.
Perhaps the result of the season came in October, as a stuttering Latics side came up against surprise leaders Scunthorpe. Against the odds, Freddie Ladapo and Lee Erwin gave Latics a very impressive 2-0 win and their first home three points of the season.
A much needed FA Cup win against Doncaster, and penalty win over Blackburn’s ‘U21’ side gave Latics a decent start to November, but points in the league were needed desperately.
However, another goalless draw at home to AFC Wimbledon, defeat to Scunthorpe, and a late draw at Port Vale followed instead.
Until December, Latics had struggled but managed to scrape points and cup wins that gave the impression good form was one or two good results away.
That changed when they travelled to National League side Lincoln City infront of BT Sport cameras. Robinson’s side fell to a pathetic 3-2 defeat – where the two late goals for Latics were extremely harsh on Lincoln.
A draw at Oxford, and another 2-0 home defeat – this time to Southend – saw Robinson take his men into Christmas sitting bottom of League One. Boxing Day and New Years Eve defeats to Sheffield United and Fleetwood meant 2016 ended in abysmal fashion.
January – February
2017 began with a sixth 0-0 draw of the season against Port Vale, and this one was perhaps the most demoralising of the lot. Robinson then took his team to League Two Mansfield in the EFL Trophy, where a 2-0 defeat ended up costing him his job.
As much as Robinson tried, under circumstances that would be difficult for anyone to generate results, he was taking Oldham down. Bottom of League One with just twelve goals from 24 games, Robinson could have no arguments to his sacking.
The man to save Latics – yet again – was John Sheridan, who returned almost a year to the day of his appointment in 2016.
Ten straight defeats and a foul-mouthed rant to a referee saw him dismissed from Notts County, but however his time in League Two went, Sheridan returned with a no-nonsense approach to make Latics hard to beat again.
He brought back Anthony Gerrard and Aaron Holloway, who both performed well in last season’s great escape. Chris Taylor also returned, Tope Obadeyi added some much-needed pace, and youngsters Aiden O’Neill and Rob Hunt were energetic recruits.
Sheridan’s first game saw a gritty 1-0 win over Gillingham thanks to a Josh Law free-kick. The goal was so unexpected it was greeted with bemusement and sheer joy from the Boundary Park crowd.
Defeats against struggling Shrewsbury and a good Bradford side then followed, but were sandwiched either side of a battling 2-0 win against Peterborough infront of a bumper crowd.
It was a game Latics would have lost earlier in the season, and there was certainly signs of a changing atmosphere within the squad.
That changing atmosphere was epitomised at relegation rivals Chesterfield. Anthony Gerrard was sent off at half time, but Latics battled and were rewarded with an injury time winner thanks to Captain Fantastic Peter Clarke.
The highs of the Chesterfield win were reversed days later when Latics conceded a 96th minute goal at MK Dons to lose a hard-earned point. Sheridan didn’t let that setback affect momentum though, as important home wins against Coventry and Charlton followed.
Sheridan even managed to make Latics’ speciality goalless draws positive results. A must-not-lose stalemate at relegation rivals Swindon, was followed by an incredible home blank against Millwall.
Connor Ripley was well on his way to becoming a fans favourite before this game, but his two incredible penalty saves in injury time secured a valuable point – and one of his record breaking 18 clean sheets.
Unlike earlier in the season, where Steve Robinson struggled to build on positive results, Sheridan went on to mastermind another victory at Northampton.
March – April
Momentum was temporarily stopped into March, as Latics fell to defeat at Walsall thanks to Lee Croft’s early red card. Another must-not-lose 0-0 draw followed against Bury, and an important 2-1 win against Oxford helped the survival effort.
Draws at Peterborough and at home to leaders Sheffield United left Latics in a good position heading into the final month – something unthinkable just six weeks before.
Even though Latics finished the season with the fourth best defensive record in the division, a 3-0 thrashing at Southend was a low point of Sheridan’s reign. The goals conceded were weak, and a point should have been earned after the hosts went down to ten men.
The defeat was soon forgotten, however, as impressive home wins over Fleetwood and Bolton made it 7 points from three home games against the league’s top three.
Easter Monday defeat at Bristol Rovers was expected after a team effort to beat Bolton, but a competitive draw against Rochdale was enough to secure survival with a game to spare.
Now safety is secured for another year, it’s easy to look back and criticise Steve Robinson. His squad were toothless upfront, and ended up scoring just 31 goals all season. No Latics side has scored less in the league.
He was also responsible for a series of identical defeats, with the same mistakes made week after week. As nice as he may be, he showed no signs that he could turn fortunes around, so he had to go.
Despite this, Robinson just wasn’t given a chance to succeed at Oldham. He was brought in late, and had no time to build a team. It was no environment for a first-time manager to start his first job.
I’m sure Robinson will make a decent managerial career for himself, and he was certainly better than previous rookies in charge – Dean Holden, Darren Kelly and David Dunn for example.
He also deserves recognition for bringing in the club’s two stand-out players of the season – Peter Clarke and Connor Ripley.
Given the position the club were in at the New Year, credit must go to John Sheridan for masterminding a second great escape.
When he took over last year, his efforts cemented his position as a club legend. His summer exit soured that slightly, but you’d struggle to find an Oldham fan with a bad word to say about him now.
Sheridan has always been honest about his intentions. The pitch was poor for most of the season, and the squad couldn’t score goals, but Sheridan did what he had to do and didn’t hide the fact he was sacrificing pretty football for results. It’s an approach that worked last season, and worked again this year.
Saying that, a team that fights for every ball is all a supporter asks for, and pretty football is a bonus. Sheridan certainly delivers the fight, and he now has a pre-season to bring some style to Boundary Park.
He has a core of players contracted to stay next season, led by the solid defence of Peter Clarke, Anthony Gerrard and Brian Wilson. If he can add some pace and creativity in midfield and attack, then there’s no reason Latics can’t be looking towards the play-offs.
It seems both Sheridan and Latics have learned from last summer and have realised that the grass isn’t always greener if they part ways.
Sheridan has shown top-six form over his last two half-season spells at the club – if he can replicate that over a full campaign, there is room for some cautious optimism at Boundary Park.
Now though, it’s time for a quiet summer without Oldham Athletic to worry about – is that too much to ask for?