2001 in review

Last updated : 09 January 2002 By Dave Moore
In the decades to come, when future generations look back on the history of Oldham Athletic, 2001 will be viewed as one of their most turbulent years. It’s no exaggeration to say the club has changed forever, turned upside down by a one-man whirlwind. The entrance of chairman/owner Chris Moore – his personal helicopter the modern version of a white charger – means Athletic are among the well-off in their division. At whatever level, it’s a long time since you could say that. Athletic’s status and outlook are very different to 12 months ago,when they began 2001 in symbolic condition.

Both on and off the pitch, Athletic were looking a bit sickly – there was still no money to spend and the relegation zone was worryingly close. The situation was reflected by a bug which swept through the camp so quickly that only three players were fully fit for the match at Port Vale. Athletic eked out a draw, but the crisis was bad enough for Andy Ritchie to dust off his boots one last time and play in the LDV Vans Trophy. Only three older men had ever represented the club.

Athletic had scrapped their way up to mid-table, but a group of fans decided urgent action was needed to revive their overall fortunes. SAFE (Secure Athletic’s Future Existence) was born, its founders warning that the club wouldn’t survive if it went on haemorrhaging cash at the current rate. Everyone at Boundary Park, however, got a big lift when Carlo Corazzin (pictured) scored four quality goals in a 5-1 win against Wrexham. It was his first hat-trickin English football (though he had achieved the feat for Canada) and turned out to be almost half his tally forthe season.

The ownership saga really took off, with an advert appearing in the Times newspaper business section: Football League Club For Sale. Majority shareholders David Brierley, Derek Taylor and Peter Chadwick had decided to take affirmative action and tell the world they were seeking an investor. Speculation and rumour dominatedevents on the field, where Athletic’s slim play-off hopes were blown out of the water by a four-match losing streak. Their heartening FA Youth Cup run was ended by multi-national Arsenal, while Andrew Holt joined Hull on loan and transfer deadline day brought new recruits in Sam Parkin and Neville Roach.

An average season drifted towards its low-key end, although Athletic became the Albert Pierrepoints of division two by dooming Oxford and Swansea to the drop. There was more activity on the shares front as chairman Brierley revealed he had held talks with three interested parties. Matthew Tipton and Mark Innes were taken off the transfer list, John Sheridan signed for another year and Ryan Sugden went on loan to Burton Albion. SAFE Day was a big success on Easter Monday, but Athletic were hit by a £200,000 bill for the league pension fund.

Chris Moore, the 46-year-old executive chairman of Torex plc, bought 53 per cent of the club. He invested aninitial £1.5million to secure the future and made it clear there was more where that came from. Ritchie’s lengthy contract talks, which began under the old board, ended when he signed for another 12 months –effectively giving him a trial period. And the massive turnover of players began to kick in, with departures including Holt (£150,000 to Hull) and popular servant Neil Adams, who decided to retire.

Invited to spend significantly for the first time in his reign, Ritchie attended the summer sales. He snapped up Darren Sheridan (pictured), Stuart Balmer and John Eyre, who all joined earlier signing Lee Hardy.

New hope, new expectation and a new sensation for Athletic fans – their team got off to a good start. Mr. Moore, having been brave (or daft) enough to say he could GUARANTEE promotion within three years, put his money where his mouth was and backed a club-record £750,000 approach for Sunderland winger John Oster. It failed, but the scale of his ambition was more obvious than ever. Horizons were expanding, including for goalkeeper Gary Kelly, who scored the winning penalty in a shoot-out at Stoke.

Athletic went top of division two thanks to their longest unbeaten start since the promotion year of 1990/91.They tried to strike while the iron was hot, only to be foiled in inquiries for Craig Faulconbridge, Paul Dickov,Terry Cooke and Jason McAteer. Even so, goals were flying in from all angles and Athletic were loving their unfamiliar taste of the high life. Little did they know what lay around the corner . . .

Four consecutive defeats, including a terrible display at Brighton, dropped Athletic to eighth place. All of a sudden, question marks were raised against Ritchie – and it would soon come to a head. Dean Holden, Julien Baudet, Marc Richards, Wayne Gill and Chris Armstrong were all signed as Ritchie tried to halt the slide. He did so at the end of the month. But it was too late and, despite the offer of a different job, his number was up.

As Ritchie admitted he was “devastated and shocked”, the usual suspects cropped up in connection with Athletic’s vacancy. Though Mick Wadsworth, known as a meticulous man with a great reputation for coaching, was mentioned, many thought a more famous name would be appointed. It was Wadsworth, however, who moved in to complete the job of winning promotion which Ritchie had, to an extent, started. Iain Dowie soon joined him, followed by David Beharall, Paul Rachubka and Allan Smart. On the negative side, Athletic took plenty of stick for their stance on Oldham Roughyeds and the ground-sharing deal.

After a defeat at Cardiff on December 1, Athletic’s record for the month read: won, won, drew, won, won, won.The incoming flood continued with David Reeves and Paul Murray, and it meant the squad had to be trimmed – hence 13 players being told they could leave. First to go were Ben Futcher and Chesterfield-bound Mark Allott and Mark Innes. And it isn’t over by a long chalk. After a year of dizzying activity, stand by for a repeat.