Meat Pie, Sausage Roll: Joe Royle reflects on Oldham Athletic’s magical season in 1991

Oldham Athletic regained their top-flight status in 1991 after an absence of 68 years.

p28 oldham coliseum meat pie sausage rollAnd almost 26 years after that magical season, it provides the backdrop for a musical “Meat Pie, Sausage Roll” currently on stage at Oldham Coliseum until March 25.

Independent sports editor Tony Bugby, who was covering Latics at the time, was asked to interview Joe Royle for the programme and here are the manager’s recollections from that memorable campaign.

It was a period that, according to Joe Royle, not only put Oldham Athletic on the map, but also the town.

Latics followed the remarkable cup exploits of the “pinch me” season by regaining the elusive top-flight status in 1990/91 after an absence of 68 years.

Joe, recalling those halcyon days, remarked: “What happened certainly raised the profile of both the football club and the town.

“Everyone knew about little Oldham and many football fans had us as their second team.

“It was not only the success, but the attacking way we played with two wingers, Rick Holden and Neil Adams, that won admirers. And we were never short of firepower with the likes of Andy Ritchie and Frank Bunn in the side.

“I remember there were three consecutive games in 1990/91 that we beat Brighton 6-1, Wolves 4-1 and Plymouth 5-3. That was what we were about.”

After reaching Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup, semi finals of the FA Cup and narrowly missing out on promotion, it was hard to imagine Latics topping the 1989/90 season, but they did that 12 months later by securing the First Division place they craved.

Joe had no doubts Latics would win promotion that season and was so convinced that he recommended to the board of directors that they should insure against promotion to cover bonuses.

Despite the previous season’s success, Latics remained also rans with the bookies to win promotion from a Second Division containing the likes of West Ham, Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Wolves, Ipswich, Leicester, West Brom, Watford and Hull.

It was something that suited Joe as he explained: “After pre-season, I knew we would be promoted that season. We had a spirit and the players had an edge, but an edge I liked while they were quirky at times.

“It was a special group and the players loved their football. They worked hard and played hard.

“I recommended to the board of directors they should insure against promotion, even though we were 25/1.

“The directors backed us for promotion and also to win the league and the money they picked up covered the bonuses and more.”

Latics had been challenging for promotion the previous season only to be sidetracked by the cup runs in a remarkable 65-game campaign.

Joe recalled: “It wasn’t a case of running out of steam, but running out of players.

“Two or three needed small operations at the end of the season and a number were carrying knocks in the Littlewoods Cup final at Wembley and would not have played had it been a league game.”

While the “pinch me” season provided romance as Second Division Latics claimed numerous giantkilling scalps, the promotion campaign was arguably more important as they yearned to tackle big clubs each week as opposed to occasionally in cup competitions.

Joe added that early exits from the three knockouts – League Cup, FA Cup and Zenith Data Systems Cup – was a blessing in disguise as it enabled Latics to concentrate solely on the goal of promotion.

Latics went into the season having lost two key players, Denis Irwin to Manchester United and captain Mike Milligan to Everton,

Joe said: “They were big losses, but the great thing was we got our recruitment spot on.

“We brought in Richard Jobson, who could play centre back or right back, Neil Refearn who scored 17 goals from midfield that season and midway through the campaign Gunnar Halle was signed in as a natural replacement for Denis.”

And after losing out in the promotion play offs in 1987 – the first season they were held – Joe didn’t want to endure that pain again as he had his sights set firmly on the top two.

He said: “What made me certain we would go up was we had the plastic pitch, and we didn’t lose many games on that.

“But we could also play well on grass as we proved by winning eight away league games in the promotion season.”

Latics certainly hit the ground running winning their first five league games in 1990/91 and not experiencing defeat until the second half of November having put together a 16-game unbeaten run.

That provided the foundation on which promotion was built and the scope for a dip in form – they managed only one win in eight games in March/April.

But Latics regained their composure and promotion was secured with four games left following a 2-1 win at Ipswich Town.

Joe recalled: “It was an amazing night and we must have had a quarter of the 12,300 crowd, even though it was a midweek game and such a long journey. The fans wanted to be there when we secured promotion, and the celebrations at the end were something I will never forget.

“Both goals that night came from Ian Marshall, a terrific and underrated player.

“In another era he would have won England caps, but he was ungainly and didn’t catch the eye and flow as Paul Warhurst did.”

While Latics were promoted, they were determined to go up as champions, something they achieved in the most dramatic manner imaginable.

The last day fixtures saw leaders West Ham at home to fourth-placed Notts County while second-placed Latics hosted Sheffield Wednesday who were third.

Latics needed to win and for West Ham to lose, an unlikely scenario, especially when Latics were 2-0 behind after an hour.

But in a remarkable turnabout, Latics snatched a 3-2 victory through an injury-time penalty from Neil Redfearn while Notts pulled off a shock 2-1 win at Upton Park as the championship trophy headed north.

Joe recalled: “It was pure Boundary Park drama. I have been asked many times, was I surprised by our comeback? The answer was no because that team was never beaten and didn’t like to lose.”

He also revealed that the Second Division trophy, that was presented on the Monday night at Roger Palmer’s testimonial, had arrived with West Ham’s name already engraved on it as champions. It had been at their ground on the Saturday as they had at one stage looked odds-on favourites to lift in.

And reflecting on the enormity of becoming champions – it is only the third title Latics have won in the club’s 122-year history – Joe continued: “I was proud, make no mistake about it, after helping Oldham get back into the top flight for the first time in the lifetime of most fans. It was great for me as a young manager as I wanted to manage at the highest level and one year later the First Division became the Premier League.

“And if you were watching the television programme Pointless, I bet Oldham Athletic being founder members of the Premier League would be a pointless answer.

“The success we achieved was through a team effort from Ian Stott, who was a great chairman and taught me the value of every pound, to the staff and, most importantly, the players who helped light up the town.

“Only the other day I was looking at the clubs in the Second Division that season. It was a huge achievement to top a league containing teams of their calibre.”


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