Saturday 9 February – Oldham Athletic 2 – 1 Gills
With the Gills having won only twice in eleven games prior to this (perhaps no coincidence given the 12th game was a Crewe when Dickson scored his last goals for the club), it was vital that the team tried to pick up something to arrest the slide towards the relegation zone. However we didn’t exactly travel with high expectations, Oldham might have been decimated by injuries but a miserable run of no wins, two points and one meaningless goal in five games had destroyed the hope and confidence generated by the energetic wins over Forest and Huddersfield.
Having caught the 6.20 from Canterbury East and met up with some of the usual suspects for the 9.10 to Manchester Piccadilly I must admit the vibes weren’t bad, regular away fans are happier with the start Stimson’s made than home only supporters, the improvement away from home has been significant but sadly the results have begun to tail off again and with the season getting towards the sharp end it is high time some of the players began to deliver.
With the usual engineering works on the West Coast line (nine years now since we had a smooth, simple, quick run north on Virgin – NINE FUCKING YEARS!!!) we trundled through the arse end of Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton before arriving in the land of the Manc nearly three and a half hours later. A stroll across town and fifteen minutes on a local train to Oldham Werneth saw us arrive in arguably the most depressing place to host league football in the entire country.
The twenty-five minute walk though desolate streets of knackered terraced houses, boarded up shops and grim industrial wasteland awaiting developers that will probably never come (think Life on Mars without the style, humanity or Gene Hunt) apart from a Tesco superstore plonked incongruously amongst the rubble of a post-apocalyptic scene of desolation is hardly inspiring. Even the old social club-cum pub adjoining Boundary Park is now closed for demolition with the stadium set for redevelopment. The only option, a bland generic chain family pub-cum-restaurant adjoining a dual carriageway nestled between a roundabout and a big shed selling DIY stuff, complete with bouncers and play area crammed with local sprogs shrieking their lungs out in between bites of undefined meat products in breadcrumbs and fries. Perhaps it was all the E-numbers, perhaps just the prospect of growing up in Oldham…
We left them to it and ambled up the hill to Boundary Park past the outside of the main stand, a muddle of random gates and windows protruding from the Victorian red brick, before joining the rather spare collection of masochists, loaners, deluded optimists, eccentrics, kids and exiles in the away end – 186 being the final tally although two of our number had actually blagged their way into the press box for the afternoon.
As to the match, well the Gills adopted a 4-5-1 approach with the midfield five including Miller, Oli and Southall all detailed to break forward in support of the decidedly nippy Jackson up front. It was an interesting tactical experiment and for the first 40 minutes worked splendidly. Arguably it was the best performance since Huddersfield, we were able to keep the ball, pass and move, even fashion the occasional chance but the nagging fear was that we weren’t making the most of our possession. Then on 25 minutes we broke the deadlock, a deep Southall cross was headed powerfully back across goal, over the keeper and in, although with Jackson lurking on the goal line there was some confusion over whether his final touch had come before the ball crossed the line. There was also a pregnant pause as we all looked right towards the linesman before fully saluting us taking the lead for only the second time in a League game since December 29th.
We carried on our merry way until the latter stages of the half, Miller and Crofts spurned further opportunities to extend our lead but then we suddenly wobbled. For the five minutes before the break we lost our shape, our solidity and Oldham took full advantage, we lost the ball in midfield and one slick through ball later Taylor was through on goal, if I really wanted to nit-pick I’d say Royce was slow in coming off his line which made the task of slotting the ball home easier. It was a deflating and defining moment.
The second half was fairly even to begin with, we were able to knock the ball around but Oldham had revived from their lethargy and it was nip and tuck, but they created the better chances, one was carelessly drilled into the side netting by McDonald after a smooth interchange of passes, but we failed to heed the warning and on 67 minutes Oldham made us pay. Again it came from some neat inter-passing in midfield which saw the ball dinked through into the path of Davies to take the ball on before firing past Royce. We slumped in our seats, it had been on the cards really and another defeat began to loom large…
The Stimson threw on another forward (Facey) having already added Mulligan to the mix but to no avail. We faded badly over the final twenty minutes and Athletic took advantage of the extra space in midfield to hit us on the break several times. Royce saved one effort with a splendid full-length dive and in the dying moments a dipping thirty-yard pot shot from McDonald cracked the top of the crossbar. The final whistle brought only resigned silence from most as we filed out in the street facing the long trek home with nothing to show once again.
The train back to Manchester was enlivened by a stunning sun set, incongruous given the ugly, tired architecture over which it was setting, it made the place momentarily radiate beauty and calm, but then it was back to reality of the scheduled four hour trundle home on the Virgin train. Even that didn’t go to plan, the fire at Camden Market meant the power was turned off on the railway and we were stranded outside Northampton for nearly an hour. It was all getting very tight for people catching their last trains home although our worries were interrupted by the arrival of an old flat mate of Big Lee from Thanet who was with us. She was what you’d call eccentric, she was happy to regale us with tall tales of starring in pop videos with Robbie Williams (she genuinely still harboured hopes they might get it together in Burslem!?!) and insane conspiracy theories involving Aids, Muslims and any other whacko concept you’ve ever stumbled upon on the internet. It was a surreal trip home as we gave up trying to contradict her stream of consciousness and had to stifle a few giggles as she denounced all and sundry.
Thankfully the power was turned back on just in time, we left some people behind at Northampton who’d got off to stretch their legs – last seen sprinting down the platform waving their arms wildly – and made the last train home by ten minutes. It had been a long day, I walked in the door at ten too two, knackered, pissed off and thinking whether it had all been worth it… the answer would have to be no.
Champagne Moment:- The sunset over Oldham as we chugged out of town, beautiful!