Friendly play

Rival football fans hate each other and glory in their opponents’ tribulations. Not in the case of Rochdale, Bury and Oldham, as supporters find mutual cause in battling unsuitable owners

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The year was 1999 and Ian Stott had an idea. Not a popular one, mind.

Stott, chairman of Oldham Athletic Football Club, suggested the merger of three football clubs in the north of Greater Manchester: Rochdale, Bury and his own club, all of which were struggling financially. Pooling resources might be the only way for each to survive, he thought.

Not surprisingly the three rival fan bases, schooled on hostile derby days and mutual mud-slinging, weren’t keen. Bury chairman Terry Robinson called the idea “revolutionary” but, in an under-statement, remarked: “There would not be total support from traditional fans.”

Stott didn’t last much longer as chairman and Manchester North End, as he billed it, never amounted to anything more than a figment of his imagination.

Much has changed in 23 subsequent years, but equally much has not. Stott’s prophecy of doom, that the three clubs might fold, has proven true in only one case – Bury, which went into administration in 2020 over unpaid debts. But Rochdale and Oldham continue to have problems of their own.

Rochdale’s owners – a series of individuals and the Dale Trust, which represents supporters – have fought off a hostile takeover by a businessman who is now banned from all football grounds for the language he used in a meeting about the club, comparing fans to “nancy boys” and saying disputes could be settled in a boxing ring.

Oldham fans have been at loggerheads with their owner, Abdallah Lemsagam, for four years. In a 2-1 loss to Colchester earlier this year, tennis balls and flares rained down onto the pitch at Boundary Park. What is remarkable though is the extent to which rival fans want the other clubs to get through their problems.

In January the Dale Trust announced plans for the fans’ traditional 6.5 mile walk from Rochdale to Oldham’s stadium for their fiercely fought derby fixture. What made the action unique, however, was that Oldham fans, despite being rivals, were joining them under the banner “Fans Together” – a marker of mutual solidarity for their respective battles. And as the Dale Trust raised funds to fight a high court claim taken out against it by Morton House, the company behind the failed takeover bid, many donations came from fans of other clubs – including Oldham.

The aid is reciprocal. When Oldham banned three fans from the ground for “promoting dislike” of the club, members of the Dale Trust were among the first to speak out, sharing petitions and voicing their concerns until the orders were overturned.

“We’ve happily promoted Oldham issues,” says Colin Cavanah, chairman of the Dale Trust. “You never want to see another football club struggle – the fans are no different people. The only difference is the postcode.”

This might seem alien to the ultra-highly strung world of elite level football, but many fans at this level are more reflective.

Matt Dean, director of the Oldham Athletic Supporters Foundation, has similar views. Since former football agent Lemsagam bought the club – one of the Premier League’s founding members – in 2018, it has foundered on the pitch, shed numerous managers, been relegated and just escaped winding-up orders. Alongside the missiles of disapproval that had become standard at home games, one protest saw fans dressed in clown suits with orange wigs carry an OAFC RIP coffin through the streets of the town. Fans thought the owners were clowns.

Dean started up a podcast – Boundary Park Alert System – onto which he has invited representatives of several other clubs that have had ownership problems over the years: Brentford, Blackpool, Leyton Orient, Stockport, Portsmouth, Northampton and Swindon. Pooling the knowledge of those who have fought similar battles, Oldham Athletic Supporters Foundation has been able to effect serious change. Lemsagam has now agreed to put the club up for sale.

When Bury was wound up, MP Damian Collins, then chair of the Commons Digital, Media, Culture and Sport Committee, said its demise was part of a “systematic and structural” problem afflicting the game, in which owners with poor financial track records were allowed to own clubs, there were lax controls on borrowing and supporters’ concerns went unheard.

“These failures were avoidable, and it is essential that the authorities urgently overhaul their framework if they wish to avoid the same fate befalling other clubs,” he warned.

Bury was expelled from the Football League in 2019 before it went into administration. It had been owned by Stewart Day, whose money came from his property empire. But £1 million of government funding confirmed last December has backed Bury FC Supporters Society in a successful bid for the club, with the aim being to renovate the historic Gigg Lane stadium and turn it into a community hub and the possibility of football returning soon.

Clubs are at once private businesses and also embedded in the heritage of cities and towns. In that sense they have two owners – those listed at Companies House and owners in spirit. Naturally, these can clash. “We need more security to stop people coming into clubs who are chancers or who don’t have the right motives. We don’t want to be a plaything for whoever,” says Dean.

Cavanah is reluctant to subscribe to broader theories regarding the post-industrial decline of Manchester’s satellite towns having knock-on effects on their football clubs, or even an over-saturation of teams in the area while the giants of Manchester City and Manchester United loom over them.

“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong here in Greater Manchester, compared to other places. People talk about City and United but they have always been there. It just seems to be a case of one area suffering from poor governance of clubs.”

The silver lining is shared experience. “When you’ve been in a situation like we have where the club is under threat, that’s where you see what the value of a club is to a town,” says Dean. “That’s why when you see other clubs struggling or a petition coming round online you’re more likely to reach out and try to help.

“Lower league clubs are going to have to be a lot more together to keep themselves in business. Maybe foundations like ours can drive that.”

Manchester North End was probably always a daft idea. But as the wealth disparity between the biggest clubs and the rest grows, it suggests that there was at least a nugget of sense in Stott’s plan.

Dean says: “The local games are the best games. You need Bury and Rochdale – the thought of any of them going out of business is awful. In their hour of need you have to back them.”

Photo: Oldham Athletic fans protest owners (Ryan Browne/Shutterstock)

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