Oldham Athletic Season Preview: 2017/18

As pre-seasons go, this one has been relatively normal at Boundary Park. With John Sheridan in charge, Latics finished the last two seasons strongly, proving that Oldham are destined to remain in League One forever. Now Sheridan has the task of recreating the form that has twice saved the club from certain relegation across a full season.

There’s a cautious optimism around Oldham this summer – despite the glaring absence of a goalkeeper – so could this be the first time Latics achieve a top half finish since 2009?

Here, I look at the strengths and weaknesses of the squad, and assess their chances in a competitive League One lineup.

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John Sheridan – can he lead Oldham into the top half?

Pre-season:

Out: Dunne, Law, Reckord, Croft, N’Goo.
In: Gardner, Davies, Duffus, Hunt.

So far, Sheridan has been fairly astute in his transfer business. Out went the dead-wood – although maybe Josh Law could count himself unlucky to have been released – and important players renewed contracts. Contracted players and retaining the services of Brian Wilson, Paul Green and Tope Obadeyi prevented a repeat of last season, when Steve Robinson had to bring in 20 new players.

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Dan Gardner – big season ahead?

Midfielder Dan Gardner has always been mentioned as a player who could make the move onto bigger things, so maybe this will be a make-or-break season for him after relegation with Chesterfield.

He’s been assigned the number 6 shirt and been deployed in a deeper role in pre-season, but with a competition in defensive midfield he’s likely to be relied on for a creative spark and long shot once the campaign begins.

Upfront, Craig Davies and Courtney Duffus will be tasked with improving last season’s miserable goal tally of 31 league goals. Davies is no stranger to Latics or Sheridan, but he has lost his pace since his previous spell at the club, so will need to be wiser with his play in order to make the most of Aaron Holloway’s knockdowns.

Duffus, who joined from Everton’s development squad, appears to be an exciting prospect. Two goals in pre-season is a promising start from the youngster who has signed to get first team football. If Sheridan manages him well, Duffus could have a good debut season. Going off first impressions, he seems the most dangerous of the strikers available to the manager.

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Rob Hunt – impressive signing.

Perhaps the most impressive signing is left-back Rob Hunt. His loan spell last year was solid, and to sign him on a three year deal is surely a coup for a club like Oldham. He’ll offer consistency down the left – a problem position for the majority of last season.

Missing from the list of summer signings is a goalkeeper. After fan favourite Connor Ripley returned to Middlesbrough at the end of last season, Sheridan has had all summer to replace him. Rumours of a heroic return for Ripley have refused to go away all summer, with Sheridan admitting there was a real chance of signing the man who equalled the club’s clean sheet record last season.

If there was any chance of Ripley returning, nobody can blame Sheridan for doing everything to make it happen. However, there should have been back-up options. Instead, it was back to square one, leaving Latics with no keeper just three days before the start of the season.

The Squad:

Looking at the squad, it’s fairly clear that Sheridan has built a physical team that will be hard to beat and versatile. The squad is set up to play either 3-5-2 or 4-1-2-1-2, with little options out wide.

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Peter Clarke – will he lead by example again?

In defence, captain Peter Clarke and Anthony Gerrard bring an experienced and no-nonsense approach, with one of Brian Wilson, George Edmundson and Jamie Stott ready to complete a back three.

Full-backs Cameron Dummigan and Rob Hunt have big seasons ahead, with important roles to play in defence, as well as supporting the attack. Both players are capable of becoming effective wing-backs provided they stay injury free.

In midfield, Sheridan almost has too many options available. Ousmane Fane had a mixed first season in League One, but after a strong pre-season the Frenchman is looking like he could be a key player in 2017/18. Alongside him, Ollie Banks or Paul Green will battle for a central spot.

Banks is another player who needs to be more consistent this campaign, while Green must maintain the level of performance he reached towards the end of the season.

Sheridan will rely on Dan Gardner and Ryan Flynn for creativity from midfield. Flynn was in an out of the side last season, and mostly failed to live up to the talent he obviously has somewhere. If he imposes himself on the game more, he is another player who could be key to Oldham’s chances. The chances are, though, that he won’t fit into Sheridan’s direct style and will disappear like much of last season. I hope I’m wrong.

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Tope Obadeyi – another option.

Width is an area lacking in the squad, but if Sheridan opted for a 4-4-2 formation with out-and-out wingers, he has two capable and pacey wide men in his squad. Ryan McLaughlin – subject of interest from Wigan – and Tope Obadeyi can operate on the wing or upfront, and will give Latics even more options if Plan A isn’t working.

In pre-season, Sheridan has favoured Aaron Holloway and Craig Davies upfront. Both will bully defenders, but the partnership won’t score plenty of goals. Instead, there is room for Obadeyi or Courtney Duffus to step in and work off one of the big men.

The Manager:

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How many John Sheridan fist-pumps will we see this season?

You know what you’re getting with John Sheridan. After twice keeping Oldham in League One, he won’t change a winning formula. Latics may not be pretty to watch this season, but they will be hard to beat and more competitive than the first halves of the previous two seasons. In particular, he will see a strong home record as key to any success this season.

His gamble on signing Connor Ripley aside, Sheridan has been shrewd and sensible. He’s made sure his team will have a presence upfront, and prioritised (most of) the troublesome positions from last season.

The club hasn’t started a season with the same manager that ended the last campaign since Lee Johnson in 2014, so the stability offered by Sheridan will surely mean Latics can think about looking up the table rather than over their shoulders.

The League:

Ultimately, Oldham’s fortunes will most likely rely on other teams. Mid-table should be the minimum aim, but whether a top-half finish is achievable will probably depend on whether rivals live up to their potential.

While the majority of pundits and bookmakers are tipping them for relegation again, Sheridan’s men shouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom four.

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Kenny Jackett’s Portsmouth – promotion contenders?

Instead, expect promoted sides Blackpool and Plymouth to struggle with the step up, alongside Shrewsbury and Gillingham who haven’t strengthened their squads after narrowly avoiding the drop last term. Similarly, AFC Wimbledon and Walsall haven’t made any notable additions so may find themselves near the bottom.

At the top, relegated Blackburn and Wigan have squads capable of title challenges, while Kenny Jackett’s Portsmouth (managed by Kenny Jackett) should be aiming for the play-offs as a minimum.

Below them any remaining team from last year’s top ten will all see the Top 6 as a realistic aim, while mid-table underachievers like Peterborough, Charlton and MK Dons will demand improved finishes.

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Bury have splashed the cash on player like Jermaine Beckford.

Then add Bury and Northampton, who’ve invested heavily and will want instant returns. However, whether all of their new signings can gel is another matter.

So if Latics want to finish above 15th for the first time in nine years, they may need to rely on others to get them there. Saying that, if they look after themselves, a top half finish is not beyond them.

 

Predictions:

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Courtney Duffus – top scorer?

Final position – 13th.

Higher than many predict, but the squad is still lacking the goals that would give them an outside chance of the play-offs.Top Goalscorer – Courtney Duffus.

He may be young, but there’s something about Duffus that makes me think he’ll have a good season given a run in the team.Player of the Season – Peter Clarke.

Who else? Captain Fantastic showed no signs of slowing down last season, so he’ll surely just pick up from where he left off.Young Player of the Season – Courtney Duffus.

Again, I’m hopeful Duffus will do well this season going off his attitude so far. If Rob Hunt stays fit, he’ll also have a good claim for Young Player of the Season.

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Will Ryan Flynn flatter to deceive again?

Disappointment of the Season – Ryan Flynn.

Flynn has the ability to be the team’s standout player, but arguably he’s only shown that over 90 minutes once in an Oldham shirt (last season’s EFL Cup win over Wigan in August). If Sheridan’s aiming for a direct style of play, Flynn probably won’t fancy it.Cup Runs?

A cup run is always nice, but this season it should be a priority.

Championship side Burton await in the League Cup, which is tricky but winable. The third round of the FA Cup is always the aim, but Latics should also take the Checkatrade Trophy seriously this year. It would give fringe players a chance, and a chance to give long-suffering fans a day out at Wembley.

A group with Newcastle U23’s, Crewe and Port Vale shouldn’t be a problem, and after that who knows? Plus, Sheridan owes Latics after that area final when he was incharge of Chesterfield…

 

Overall Verdict:

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Latics will be hoping there is no need for a survival race like last season.

There won’t be a repeat of the relegation scraps of the past two seasons, but fans hoping for a play-off push will probably be disappointed. A season of solidarity is probably the best they can hope for. Then again, I said that last year…

But with Sheridan in charge, you can’t rule anything out. His two half-season stints recently have resulted in play-off form, and if anyone can change Latics’ fortunes it’s John Sheridan.

Those at the club will tell you survival is the aim, and anything else is a bonus, but quietly they’ll be hoping for progress. After the ups and downs of recent years it’s refreshing to head into a season with some quiet optimism.

 

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