Ahead of Oldham Athletic’s game against Forest Green Rovers last Saturday, fan group Push The Boundary tweeted testimony from fans supporting their ‘Empty the Park’ protest. “Holder of a subscription for 13 years and absolutely no chance that I [Boundary Park] today, âsaid one of them. “They have emptied the life of our club and that has to change.” The same sentiment was repeated over and over. âI’ve been a Latics fan for 50 years and a @OfficialOAFC season pass holder for 30 years,â said another. “However, I will not be present today to protest against the disastrous property of Abdallah Lemsagam.”
At kickoff, with stripes of blue seats in all directions, those feelings of disillusionment manifested themselves in a visibly sparse crowd. The contrast to Push The Boundary’s ‘Pack the Park’ protest, where fans boycotting the club were encouraged to attend the November game against Port Vale in a unique show of force, was stark.
According to the club’s official attendance figures, which of course include season ticket holders, there were 3,464 home fans at the Forest Green game versus 4,107 who came to cheer on the team – and to express their anger at the game. club property – against Port-Vale. While freezing rain, freezing cold and biting wind off the Pennines may have helped turnout decline last weekend, absent fans made their case.
Oldham supporters have a long list of grievances with Lemsagam, a former football agent who was announced as a majority shareholder in January 2018. âIt’s like death by a thousand cuts,â says Steve Shipman, one of the founders of Push The Boundary. âIt’s too easy to say, ‘We’re near the bottom of the league, which is why people are starting.’ This is clearly not the case. We found ourselves in this situation because of the way he runs the club. It was inevitable, really.
Since Lemsagam became the owner, Oldham has changed managers nine times. After naming Latics childhood fan Paul Scholes with great fanfare in February 2019, it only took 31 days for the Manchester United big to stop citing interference (a claim Lemsagam denied, with a hearing arbitration later in favor of the club). After appointing his brother Mohamed as sporting director, Lemsagam kept him in place despite the club’s totally dispersed strategy. It’s another cause of resentment among supporters, many of whom believe his record speaks for itself.
While Scholes’ exit was a major embarrassment for the club’s hierarchy, the relentless hiring and firing of managers has clearly had a destabilizing effect in the long run. When Lemsagam took over, Oldham was 22nd in League One. They are now 23rd in Ligue 2 and are at serious risk of dropping out of the Football League altogether, with Keith Curle becoming the latest management casualty when he was sacked last month after nine wins in 40 games. The last few years have also seen absurdly high player turnover. More than 70 have been signed since 2018, including 14 this summer alone, several of which have already left.
Curle’s summer recruiting was limited by a transfer embargo that limited him to free transfers and lenders, a condition of a monitored loan deal with the Football League. Oldham was placed on an even stricter embargo in October after being found in violation of EFL rules regarding missed transfers or compensation payments, although this has since been lifted. At this point, fans are used to alarming updates on the situation off the pitch. Oldham faced several liquidation requests during Lemsagam’s tenure, luckily avoiding the administration each time, while last year the club admitted to being warned by the EFL of the late payment of wages in January, February and March.
The list of indignities does not end there. There have been bitter disputes with players including former Bolton defender David Wheater, who on his own was frozen last season after a disagreement over pay cuts in the early stages of the season. pandemic, which left him feeling bullied and miserable. There has also been a high attrition rate for the staff behind the scenes, which many fans see as yet another sign of the unease at the club. Get into a complicated argument with former owner Simon Blitz, whose stadium is owned by the Brass Bank company, and the club begins to emanate an air of pervasive chaos. It is this sense of dysfunction that has led fans to protest as much as their precarious position in the league.
âMost things got worse during the time that [Lemsagam] has been in charge, âsaid Matt Dean, board member for the Oldham Athletic Supporters’ Foundation. “If it hadn’t been for Covid and fans hadn’t been allowed into the ground, I think the protests you’ve seen this season would have happened last season.”
The past few months have been marked by land invasions, sit-ins on the central circle, flyovers, tennis balls thrown from the stands and fans appearing on the ground dressed as clowns, while a coffin bearing the words “RIP OAFC” was placed in front of the entrance to the main stand ahead of Oldham’s game against Hartlepool in September. That same month, ticket sales were temporarily suspended as the club struggled to get the situation under control.
While few fans are sympathetic to Lemsagam, not everyone agrees on the best strategy for the future. Ahead of the “Clear the Park” protest, Push The Boundary, the Supporters’ Foundation and The Athleticos, a group of fans, issued a joint statement calling on people to come together to ensure “a sustainable future under new ownership.” Inevitably, however, for all of those who stayed on the sidelines there were others for whom missing match day and denying the club’s income was a step too far. âWe have to try to unify our fan base if we are to challenge the owners and really build something better for the future,â Dean said.
Even Lemsagam’s fiercest critics admit that Oldham’s decline began before he arrived. A founding member of the Premier League in 1992 following a heroic rise under Joe Royle, the club were relegated two years later and have not seen a promotion since. The Latics haven’t finished in the top half of the table for over a decade, whether in League One or League Two. When Lemsagam first took office, there was a brief burst of optimism that a new owner could help breathe new life into the club.
There are other economic pressures on Oldham, including the gravitational pull of Manchester United and Manchester City to the region. With Bury, Bolton, Macclesfield and Wigan hit by their own crises in recent years, the Northwest’s lower league clubs have been particularly vulnerable to financial insecurity and the problematic owners that tend to accompany it. Nonetheless, the dysfunction under Lemsagam added fuel to a previously slow fire. âWe have been suffering from a period of apathy for 20 years, but since Abdullah took over, it has accelerated,â says Dean.
Whatever long-term challenges the club face, Oldham fans know things can get a lot better than they are now. In an open letter to fans in September which, blaming them in part for the current situation, came across as a misjudged no-excuse, Lemsagam made five pledges, including a pledge to meet monthly with the Fan Foundation and to attending fan forums twice a year, the appointment of a new Fan Director, greater financial transparency and the development of a new three-year plan for the club.
The Fan Foundation has since accused him of breaking all five promises in one way or another. It is no wonder that there is a lack of confidence in his property. (Club hierarchy has been approached to comment on their inadequate communication with supporters but, at time of publication, have not responded.)
Lemsagam’s failure to keep those commitments has made fans “more determined than ever” to force a change of ownership, according to Dean. The protests are expected to continue for the foreseeable future, with Push The Boundary promising further action and soliciting opinions on future protests. The Supporters Foundation, which already owns a 3% stake in the club, has emergency plans in place in the event of an administration. It remains a hidden fear for fans, although Lemsagam has insisted it will not happen and the club are on a stable basis.
The Supporters’ Trust also laid the groundwork for the 1895 Fund – a nod to the year the club was founded – to purchase the club or Boundary Park. While fan ownership is seen as a last resort by some, others believe it could revitalize Oldham as a community institution. “It’s a really critical time for the club,” Dean said. âA club like ours, which has fallen to where it fell, needs to be rebuilt. It can only be rebuilt by the fans, we have to take our responsibilitiesâ¦ it is not enough to say: “This is my football club, this is our football club” and do nothing to save it.