by Kevin Henning

In 1989, Manchester was a weird and wonderful place. The Factory Records inspired ‘Madchester’ music scene was at it’s peak, the prisoners of Strangeways decided to spend the summer on the roof, City and United were scrapping it out for the 13th and 14th places and The Bosnians and The Bradshaws were attempting to stereotype us all as flat cap wearing hooligans.
The most bizarre story of the 1989/90 season however occurred eleven miles away at the most unlikely venue. Boundary Park, Oldham was the scene for a pair of cup runs that still look Melchester Rovers-esque some 21 years later. At a ground often referred to as ‘Ice Station Zebra’ due to the howling winds crashing in from the Moors, with an artificial pitch that could see balls bouncing around like the contents of a Baywatch bikini, the Latics became the region’s pride and joy.
It all started with a 4-2 aggregate victory over Leeds United in the second round of the Littlewoods Cup. A decent cup upset considering the size of the two clubs but they were in the same division at the time and therefore, little attention was paid. In the next round, Oldham were drawn at home to Scarborough. This was where word began to spread around the North-West due to striker Frankie Bunn’s remarkable double hat-trick which, along with a single goal from the original ginger-prince Andy Ritchie, produced a 7-0 drubbing of the Seadogs.

In the last 16, the mighty Arsenal were drawn to travel to Oldham. Surely the Champions of England would be the team to halt this bunch of cocky upstarts. Joe Royle’s band of misfits and youngsters were more than a match for the Gunners though. The plastic pitch was a fantastic leveller and it helped Oldham to a remarkable 3-1 win. A thirty yard strike from Nick Henry was sandwiched between an Andy Ritchie brace. The Latics were in the quarter final.
They were drawn away at Southampton who, playing on grass, expected to put the run to bed. The Saints led twice through Matt Le Tissier strikes but were pegged back both times by Andy Ritchie goals, the second of which arrived deep into injury time with his team staring down the barrel of the cup gun. Le Tiss and his men were dispatched in the replay at Boundary Park with Ritchie scoring again and Mike Milligan finishing the job. Oldham went into the Christmas period with a Semi Final against West Ham United to look forward to in what would prove to be an extremely prosperous New Year.

0-2 down to the Toffees at half-time, the biggest crowd so far that season willed on their unlikely heroes and witnessed an amazing comeback

Come the start of the new decade, Oldham began a second cup run with a run of the mill 1-1 draw at St.Andrews and beat Birmingham City courtesy of a Rick Holden goal in the replay. Brighton were next up and after going a goal down, the Latics responded by turning the game on it’s head with a 2-1 win. Goal machine Ritchie again bagging one of the goals. At this time, it all began to get a little surreal. Drawn at home to Everton, Boundary Park set about beating it’s own capacity on an almost weekly basis. 0-2 down to the Toffees at half-time, the biggest crowd so far that season willed on their unlikely heroes and witnessed an amazing comeback to earn a lucrative replay at Goodison Park.

Before travelling to Merseyside, Oldham faced the small matter of the first leg of a League Cup semi final. The crowd from the Everton tie was beaten as the locals packed into the country’s coldest ground. They were kept warm by an unbelievable 90 minutes of football. Goals from Neil Adams, Earl Barrett, Roger Palmer, Ricky Holden and the inevitable brace from Andy Ritchie meant that at 6-0, the tie was as good as over before a coach was boarded for the return leg in London.

The Everton replay came but again the sides couldn’t be separated. A 1-1 draw meant the tie needed a second replay back at Boundary Park. Joe Royle and assistant Willie Donachie prepared their troops by resting a few players at Upton Park. The Hammers won 3-0 but the astonishing first leg victory meant that Oldham Athletic were going to Wembley. That though would have to wait. Royle’s family had a third date with Everton to deal with. Again, a capacity crowd squeezed into the tiny Boundary Park to witness history. Local radio station Piccadilly were drawing thousands of listeners every time the Latics played and the entire area was looking forward to another big-gun coming unstuck against the most unlikely hitmen. On the night, Oldham again came from a goal down to knock-out one of the biggest teams in football. Record scorer Roger Palmer and an Ian Marshall penalty giving them a 2-1 win. Another quarter final and another big scalp awaited. This time, Royle’s men made easy work of it with a resounding 3-0 win against Aston Villa to set up a classic encounter with Manchester United at Maine Road.

The underdogs marched out on that balmy April afternoon and looked right in the eyes of their illustrious opponents

Back in the Littlewoods Cup, Big Joe led his team out beneath the twin towers beside the great Brian Clough and his Nottingham Forest team. It was the first time in the clubs’ 95 year history that they’d played at the national stadium and the occasion proved too much. Far from letting themselves down though, Oldham lost to a single Nigel Jemson (remember him?) goal. The Latics knew they had another fight to come. It came on one of the most remarkable days in FA Cup history.
Football fans across the nation settled down for a double header believing that Liverpool and Manchester United would sweep aside lesser opponents and go on to meet in the final. Crystal Palace and Oldham Athletic had other ideas though and what followed inspired a thousand tea-time kick abouts on streets and in parks in every corner of Britain. Crystal Palace started the crazy day by stunning Liverpool in a 4-3 thriller. Next up was the Latics against United and a quite astonishing encounter.
The underdogs marched out on that balmy April afternoon and looked right in the eyes of their illustrious opponents, managing to take an early lead through ex-Manchester City player Earl Barrett. The Red Devils fought back, flexing their muscles and taking a 2-1 lead with goals from Bryan Robson and Neil Webb. Oldham wouldn’t lie down though and levelled through Ian Marshall. The game went into extra-time where once again, United thought they had won it through Danny Wallace. Another ex-City man, Roger Palmer hit back and a replay was set for the mid-week back in Moss Side.
It proved to be a step too far for Oldham at the end of a marathon season. Goals from Brian McClair and Mark Robins saw United squeeze through despite an Andy Ritchie goal making it 1-1 and a disallowed Nick Henry goal. The Latics’ journey was over. They had taken on more than a quarter of the top flight and beaten most of them. They won the hearts of a nation who willed them on in the famous games with their Greater Manchester neighbours. Ultimately though they had fallen at the final hurdle in both competitions. They would find their pot of gold a year later with promotion to the top flight but nothing would ever compare to the season when the plucky underdogs on the plastic pitch had the country’s greats running for the hills.