It was fitting that Oldham Athletic’s relegation to non-league was confirmed in farcical circumstances on Saturday.
With results going against them, Oldham trailed 2-1 against Salford on Saturday and needed two goals in 12 minutes to stand any chance of a great escape. But their long-suffering fans knew it wasn’t coming.
They invaded the pitch, not for the first time this season, and didn’t leave. A banner reading ‘Get out of our club’ was held up and broadcast nationwide. Youngsters got a ball and started playing their own game. The match was abandoned and essentially confirmed Oldham’s 116-year stay in the Football League was over.
When fans left the pitch due to the club turning on the sprinklers, over an hour later, the game was restarted behind closed doors. Fans downing their sorrows in the Joe Royle Stand tried to watch through windows, but Boundary Park stewards used advertising hoardings to block their view – and seemingly fire exits from the fan’s bar according to footage on social media. Oldham didn’t find the goals they needed and they were relegated in pathetic circumstances. Lemsagam, his brother, or any director have been notably absent from Boundary Park to see the demise of the club they have now taken down two divisions in four years.
Yet, when Lemsagam took over Oldham in 2018, he spoke of a ‘vision’ he had for the League One club. When Oldham were relegated that season, Lemsagam published a three-year plan aiming to return to League One by 2022 and aim for the Championship by 2025.
Lemsagam has successfully taken Oldham out of League Two in this timeframe, and it has been achieved entirely in his image. Except he’s taken them down again, becoming the first former Premier League club to drop into non-league as a result of a catalogue of high-profile incidents of mismanagement of a proud, 127-year-old football club.
Even club legend John Sheridan, who had successfully masterminded two ‘Shezurrection’ survival attempts in previous years, couldn’t save this sinking ship. Still, with those 12 minutes left on the clock vs Salford, Sheridan was on the pitch, pleading with fans that all was not lost. His standing among fans has only been enhanced by his valiant attempts this season.
Sheridan is the tenth manager to be appointed in Lemsagam’s four-year tenure, and his expected departure this summer will see an 11th appointment for Oldham’s attempted rebuild in the National League – a tier of English football the club have never played in since their admission to the Football League in 1904.
Oldham have never been a particularly successful club, but they have always been a mainstay in the league and were founder members of the Premier League during the ‘Glory Years’ of Joe Royle. No side has ever dropped from Premier League to the fifth tier, until now.
Since relegation from the top flight in 1994, Oldham spent three years in the second tier, 21 in the third tier, and four in League Two. Of those 28 years, only six have given fans a top-half finish, and only two have resulted in play-off campaigns. The highest finish in any division since 2009 has been 14th.
With that decline in mind, Lemsagam’s arrival was met with cautious optimism. Former chairman Simon Corney had taken the club as far as he could and insisted he’d found the right new custodian to take them forward in Lemsagam. He hadn’t.
Off-field issues have blighted Lemsagam’s reign, with multiple accounts of wages being paid late from former players, a very high staff turnover, tax issues, threats of administration, over 100 players signed, senior players being frozen out, and claims of the owner and his brother – Sporting Director Mohamed – influencing team selection and player recruitment.
Manchester United legend and Oldham fan Paul Scholes lasted just 31 days before resigning as manager in 2019, citing interference in his selection, although Oldham reportedly later won a claim for breach of contract.
Fans quickly became disillusioned with the Lemsagam reign, and attendances at Boundary Park steadily declined as dozens of foreign players, clearly not up to the required standard, were brought in. The off-field problems and regular reports of poor management led to an increase in protests this season that saw many pitch invasions, tennis balls and flares thrown onto the playing surface, a plane flown over Boundary Park, organised boycotts, and a coffin being placed outside Boundary Park with the words ‘RIP OAFC’.
Lemsagam even tried to get three supporters banned from Latics games for ‘promoting dislike’ of the club and the owner, one being an elected director of the club’s Supporters’ Foundation which holds a three per cent stake in the club.
Only after a national backlash and large petition did Oldham reverse the bans, and fans suspended their protests when Sheridan was appointed in January in order to back the popular manager and give the club the best chance of survival.
Sheridan is a club legend, and would take no interference in his selection and largely favoured the experienced players in the squad rather than the foreign players with no experience of a League Two relegation battle. Sheridan said it would be his greatest ever achievement in football to keep Oldham up. But Sheridan, too, failed.
Lemsagam confirmed his intention to sell the club in January, saying he was talking to interested parties, to much relief from fans. Since then, though, there has been no news on any talks and Oldham couldn’t provide any update on the subject when contacted by the Manchester Evening News for this article.
The Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Foundation say they are in contact with at least two interested buyers, while the Push The Boundary supporters’ group has also indicated they are aware of interest in the club. One prospective buyer, Chris Lees, told MEN Sport that the club had not replied to his enquiries when he decided to go public with his crypto-currency-inspired vision for the club. Lees has not offered any public updates on his interest.
It seems that Lemsagam’s ongoing disputes over the ownership of Boundary Park are holding up any talks, and in particular the ownership of the North Stand, built in 2015, which houses office, hospitality and conferencing facilities. When announcing his takeover in 2018, it was confirmed that Lemsagam was only buying the club, and not the ground, surrounding land or the North Stand. Any disputes appear to stem from whether the club should have owned the stand in the past.
Lemsagam said Oldham agreed a deal to buy the ground in March 2020, but no sale has ever been completed.
So Lemsagam is looking to sell a non-league club under embargo without a ground, and with no senior players contracted for next season – yet he’s reportedly asking for around £6m. Oldham were limited by their transfer business in the last 12 months after taking an EFL monitored loan to help with the financial implications of the pandemic, with strict restrictions on squad size and transfers.
As a result, Oldham’s squad has been unable to cope with injuries and suspensions in League Two this season and they have been unable to seriously strengthen in January and back Sheridan. Former manager Keith Curle claimed to The Sun this weekend that Oldham failed to read the small print when taking the loan that restricted signings to one-year deals with a limit on how much they could be paid.
Their finances will be stretched further in non-league, with EFL and Premier League incomes dropping by around £700,000-per-year, according to football finance expert Keiran Maguire (via Oldham Times ).
Lemsagam may argue that taking such a loan was necessary to keep the club afloat. Fans would argue that the terms of the loan have facilitated a catastrophic drop out of the league.
Ultimately, the squad has not been good enough. Sheridan achieved more than half of Oldham’s league points in less than half of the season, and his points per game would have been enough to survive over a full campaign. The managerial appointments before Sheridan were not good enough, either, and the recruitment for this season was clearly nowhere near acceptable.
The buck for that all stops with Lemsagam and his brother. Not the fans, who he’s accused of ‘killing the club’, not Sheridan, and not anyone else. This historic relegation is entirely on them.
The fears now are that Oldham will sink further. They have no players for next season, and a worrying financial outlook. There is every chance they will follow Stockport in dropping further down the non-league pyramid. Fans may well look to increase pressure on Lemsagam to sell to move forward.
Time is of the essence for Oldham, but if the owner is waiting for a conclusion to the saga over the North Stand ownership, then time may run out.
Oldham Athletic have been relegated to the National League for the first time in 127 proud years, and it’s hard to see a way back.