They were the first, but wouldn’t be the last.

Former Everton and Manchester City star Joe Royle had been in the job for just a few weeks shy of five years, maintaining Oldham Athletic’s place in English football’s second tier without previously threatening to end their 64-year exile from the First Division. By the end of the 1986/87 season though, the Latics were pushing hard for one of the two automatic promotion places having become more adept at turning defeats into victories, primarily through a much tighter defence than in previous campaigns. Their chief rivals were Portsmouth – managed by Royle’s former Everton team mate and World Cup winner Alan Ball – and the soon-to-be Robert Maxwell-bankrolled Derby County.

By the penultimate day of the season, the Rams had secured their place at the head of the table but the runner-up spot was still up for grabs. Whoever could fill that position would be spared the extra difficulty of trying to navigate themselves through the inaugural promotion and relegation play-offs that had been introduced into English football to liven up matters for clubs who may otherwise have had nothing to play for as the season came to a close. Oldham finally blew their chance of going up automatically at Gay Meadow, losing 2-0 to lowly Shrewsbury Town, yet in truth, four losses in the final eight games – including a heavy defeat against Portsmouth at Fratton Park – had done for them. This untimely dip in form coincided with a similar run by Portsmouth, so Royle’s men had forsaken the golden opportunity gifted to them by the club that eventually pipped them.

Despite that late slump, Oldham still finished seven points clear of Leeds United in fourth and while moral superiority was certainly on their side for finishing third, the play-offs – even back in their infancy – showed no great respect to the teams that came so agonisingly close to automatic promotion. Having won the semi-final first leg by a single goal at Elland Road, Leeds showed up at a packed Boundary Park knowing they had to hold firm against the hosts on their relatively new and much-maligned plastic pitch. An early Garry Williams goal brought parity on the aggregate score line and then, in the dying embers of the 90 minutes, Mike Cecere leapt highest to meet a deep Denis Irwin cross to seemingly ensure Oldham a place in the final. However, the old footballing cliché that you’re never more vulnerable than when you’ve just scored a goal yourself was never truer; Leeds pumped the ball forward in a desperate attempt to send the game to extra-time, and when the ball broke free in the penalty area, substitute Keith Edwards calmly drilled home a shot past Andy Goram in front of the Oldham support at the Chadderton Road end, whose emotions must have plummeted from sheer delirium to abject despair in a mere 40 seconds. Billy Bremner’s side triumphed, after 30 minutes of goalless extra-time, leaving Royle to curse both his team’s luck and the unforgiving rules of the competition. Leeds would eventually lose the final to Charlton Athletic, who retained their First Division status for another year (initially the play-offs were played between the fourth bottom club from the top flight and those who placed third, fourth and fifth in Division Two).

Everyone’s favourite underdogs

This brush with success whetted Royle’s appetite. However, his attacking style contributed heavily to their defensive frailty – something that compromised their subsequent two league seasons. By the 89/90 season, Oldham’s squad had come together nicely; the experience of the likes of Roger Palmer and Andy Ritchie was blended with up and coming talent such as Mike Milligan, Earl Barrett and Nick Henry as Royle realised his preferred combination of direct wing play and quick-tempo midfield dominance.

For the first time since that desperate end to the 86/87 campaign, Oldham were back in promotion contention. As Leeds and Sheffield United streaked away at the head of affairs, Boundary Park – often jokingly referred to as the coldest stadium in English football – became something of a fortress; the solitary home league defeat came against the Blades in March when, just like three years earlier, late season results soured. On this occasion, the deterioration of their league form was justified, coinciding as it did with their headline grabbing Cup exploits. The momentum began to gather in the League Cup (sponsored by Littlewoods at the time) in October 1989; Frankie Bunn’s famous double hat-trick – a competition record that still stands – helped Oldham to a 7-0 win over Scarborough. They followed that up in the next round with an even more impressive result – a 3-1 home victory over a full-strength Arsenal side, who had been crowned champions of England just six months earlier. Ritchie was the hero with a brace

After Christmas, the double-fronted assault on the cups continued. Birmingham City (after a replay) and Brighton and Hove Albion were dispatched in rounds 3 and 4 of the FA Cup before another top flight side succumbed at Boundary Park in Littlewoods Cup in another replay – this time it was a Southampton team that featured both Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer amongst other internationals. This earned the Latics a semi-final match up with West Ham United – then a fellow Second Division side. The first leg was played at home to yet another packed house; Ice Station Zebra, as manager Royle christened it, had become one of football’s in vogue venues in the new decade.

The Hammers were duly hammered 6-0 rendering the second leg at Upton Park an irrelevance. Oldham lost it 3-0 but left east London with an appointment across the capital at Wembley for their first, and so far only major final 7 weeks later. Very quickly, the sublime was becoming the ridiculous.

Between those Littlewoods cup games was the FA Cup 5th round and a trip to Goodison Park to face Everton. Despite being huge underdogs, Royle came away from his old stomping ground with a draw and a second crack at the Toffees four days later. A similar result meant that a second replay was necessary; Oldham’s mix of bravery and skill more than a match for their supposedly superior opponents. Another packed house at Boundary Park saw the visitors take the lead before a controversial goal by Palmer drew the home side level. It was left to former Everton man Ian Marshall to finish another upset off with a penalty.

With barely enough time to digest the enormity of exactly what they were accomplishing in those crazy few months, they were at it again; First Division league leaders Aston Villa – managed by future England boss Graham Taylor – were the next to leave the Pennines cursing that artificial surface and the pumped up Latics after a 3-0 defeat.

The nation had taken this plucky bunch under their wing for everything they had achieved in those whirlwind few months. Supporters of the bigger clubs heralded them for humbling their rivals in the cups while being thankful that they avoided them in the draws. Followers of smaller teams lived vicariously through Oldham’s exploits, hopeful that one day they would have a similar moment in the spotlight, and that spotlight barely shone brighter than for their FA Cup semi-final clash with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United at Maine Road. Remember, this was United before their days of all-out dominance, when their free-spending and underachievement almost cost Fergie his job; Mark Robins’ cast as the apocryphal saviour in the third round which kick-started what would be an unprecedented dynastic run of success at Old Trafford.

April 8th 1990 was a Sunday. It was the first time that both FA Cup semi-finals were televised back-to-back. The BBC could not have foreseen how spectacularly that decision would pay off for them; the lunchtime kick-off between Liverpool and Crystal Palace served up a 7-goal all-time classic, with the upset secured after a pulsating 120 minutes at Villa Park thanks to Alan Pardew’s header in extra-time. That game rightly holds a place in FA Cup folklore as one of the great games in the competition’s history, however, it wrongly casts a shadow over the second semi-final to be held that day which was a belter in its own right.

Earl Barrett – the least likely of goal scorers – put Oldham ahead on five minutes before the most likely scorer, Bryan Robson, equalised for United on the half hour mark. The game ebbed and flowed for the next 40 minutes, throbbing and bubbling in the warm conditions. Neil Webb headed the First Division giants in front with 15 minutes left only for Latics’ ungainly striker Ian Marshall to restore parity with a sweet volley. Danny Wallace raced through to put the supposed superstars of United ahead early in the first half of extra time, but with time running out, it was fittingly left to Boundary Park stalwart Roger Palmer to get on the end of a teasing centre by Marshall to jab the ball past Jim Leighton. Rick Holden’s long range effort almost drove the knife into Ferguson’s heart, but a replay was the just outcome given the feast both sides had served up on that Sunday afternoon.

Having thrilled everyone in the first encounter, the second was to be no less dramatic; another 120 minutes with incident aplenty at both ends. Ferguson’s salvation fell yet again at the feet of supersub Robins whose low shot in extra time put United into a final they would win (eventually).

Everybody’s new favourite second team did at least have a thoroughly deserved day out at Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup final, although it came at a cost. All the extra games were taking their toll on the league form and eventually Oldham slipped out of contention in the Second Division play-off race. Luck would also desert them in that League Cup final against Nottingham Forest; Nigel Jemson’s third minute goal after Andy Rhodes had saved the initial effort had a strong whiff of offside about it. The managerial colossi Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough might have stymied Big Joe’s quest for silverware but 1990 was Oldham’s year to claim the title of moral victors.

From Ice Station Zebra to the Promised Land

To label Oldham Athletic at the turn of the 90s as just lucky, plucky underdogs would be doing them a huge disservice. As they proved in their 1990 FA Cup and League Cup adventures they were about more than just heart and grit. Joe Royle’s team was built very much in his own image, with plentiful hints of his own playing style determining the way they functioned. Royle was a target man in his days at Everton, Manchester City, Bristol City and Norwich City and thrived playing with wingers. His teams were attacking – to the point of being cavalier – but everybody served a distinct purpose to achieve the right blend of attributes as Joe saw it. A big man up front was inevitable; he had Ian Marshall and later Ian Olney and Graeme Sharp but he also had canny finishers like Andy Ritchie, Roger Palmer and Frankie Bunn. Royle loved width in his sides wherever he managed. At Boundary Park the chief wizard was Rick Holden, a man who could twist this way and that and deliver quality ammunition into the opposition box. In midfield, he successfully combined desire and vision with people such as Neil Redfearn and Mike Milligan; both tenacious but with the ability to direct the game how Royle wanted it to go. And at the back he employed raiding full backs and big, strong central defenders. These days Royle’s style would be mislabelled as formulaic, basic even; but it was uncomplicated and simplistic, and above all it was effective – much like the manager himself.

He had a real eye for a player and for finding the right piece to fit the jigsaw rather than making the puzzle from scratch of the portrait of one person. He resurrected stalling careers and developed fledgling ones in equal measure; just ask Denis Irwin, Paul Warhurst, Ian Marshall, Andy Ritchie, Andy Goram, Andy Linighan, Rick Holden or Earl Barrett amongst many others.

The unlikely feats of 1989/90 instilled a new confidence in Oldham for the following league season. They would need it. There were now expectations. Right from the off they went top, scoring freely and barring a few minor blips along the way, they never dropped out of the top two positions all season. Early exits in both major knockout competitions may have disappointed those hoping for a repeat of the previous year, but those kinds of heroics are meant for somebody different each year, and besides, the primary objective was to haul themselves into the First Division. The Second Division championship was wrapped up, in extraordinary fashion, on the final day of the season – leaders West Ham couldn’t see the job out, losing at home to Neil Warnock’s Notts County (who came up via the play-offs) while Oldham came from two down to win a five goal thriller at Boundary Park against surprise League Cup winners Sheffield Wednesday; as West Ham waited to be presented with the trophy on the Upton Park pitch, 227 miles away Neil Redfearn buried an injury time penalty sparking scenes of hysteria as the bursting Chaddy End emptied out onto the pitch in jubilation.

Royle was now a god in Oldham, seemingly infallible, but the not-insignificant task of survival would need to be achieved without one of the club’s greatest assets – the plastic pitch that had greatly aided Oldham’s rise and that had witnessed the jubilant invasion at the end of the Sheffield Wednesday game had to be ripped up and replaced with grass, as per the new regulations to be permitted to play in Division One. Just as Luton Town and Queens Park Rangers found out, the big boys no longer feared the irregular bounce of the ball and the threat of severe carpet burns that the old Astroturf threatened. This compounded the difficulties of the jump in the class, and while Oldham had scared the life out of several top flight clubs in their glorious cup runs, repeating those exploits on a weekly basis in league football was a whole different matter.

Against the odds, however, Royle consolidated their place with a 17th place finish ensuring little Oldham Athletic would be one of the founder members of the all-new Premier League, with all the benefits of Sky’s TV circus and wealth that came with it.

The following couple of seasons were, unsurprisingly, a struggle; they survived on the last day of 1992/93 on goal difference. They would be less fortunate a year later when, in the last round of fixtures, any two of five clubs could have followed Swindon Town through the Premier League trap door. As Everton completed the greatest of relegation escapes, the same could not be said of Oldham; even if they’d won at Norwich they would have gone down. The 1-1 draw rubberstamped it.

However, there was one last hurrah for Royle and his ragtag band of misfits, has-beens and nearly men; a repeat of the FA Cup semi-final of 1990, this time played at Wembley, and a chance to take revenge on Manchester United who, in the intervening four years, had become the premier club of the Premier League.

Once again Royle’s side frustrated Ferguson’s stars in a war of attrition, taking them to extra time after a goalless 90 minutes. It certainly wasn’t the classic of 1990. However, Neil Pointon seemingly set Oldham up for a return visit for the final with a rare goal, but then, with just a minute left on the clock and the Oldham fans furiously whistling for the referee to call time on proceedings, Mark Hughes muscled his way between defenders to rescue United’s double hopes with a trademark volley.

Heartbroken Oldham had come so close yet again, only to be foiled by Alex Ferguson at the last hurdle. The replay at Maine Road proved to be a step too far – Manchester United cruised to a 4-1 win.

1994 was the end of a crazy, yet spectacular period for a club who had never seen the likes before. Top flight football, Cup runs, repeated giantkilling acts and national exposure. After relegation from the Premier League, the side slowly began to break up and when Royle’s first love Everton came calling in November 1994, when they needed digging out of a hole, he had no hesitation in taking the reins at Goodison Park, no doubt of the opinion he had taken Oldham Athletic as far as he possibly could. He would also finally get to lay his hands on the FA Cup just seven months later as Everton upset the odds in the final by beating, ironically, Manchester United thus denying them a single piece of major silverware for the first time in six years. Few would have enjoyed or deserved that win more than Joe Royle.