Saturday 18 November 2017

Oldham brought back down to earth after last-gasp heroics

Oldham 2 Everton 2

Tim Rich

The corridors were jammed with microphones, television cameras and some breathless questions. Tony Philliskirk, the caretaker manager who that morning had overseen a 1-1 draw between Oldham's youth team and Rochdale's, was asked how it felt to have snatched an FA Cup fifth-round replay trip to Goodison Park with the last move of the game.

One of his replies was the kind that would have made most journalists inwardly sigh – that tomorrow's League One fixture against Stevenage was in its way as important as the 2-2 draw against Everton.

It is the sort of remark that managers reach for in an attempt to maintain a sense of perspective; a modern-day take on the slave who accompanied Roman generals in their triumphal processions whispering: "Remember you are mortal".

But Philliskirk was absolutely correct. Oldham finished Saturday night in the draw for the FA Cup quarter-finals but also in the League One relegation zone. Had they not been, he would not have been asked to manage the club in the wake of what seemed the sour ingratitude of Paul Dickov's dismissal – a man who had beaten Liverpool but had not won a game at home since they beat Shrewsbury Town in November.

A decade ago, Shrewsbury had knocked Everton out of the FA Cup and the questions to Kevin Ratcliffe, their manager, would have been very similar. His next game was at home to Southend. Shrewsbury lost 1-0; they won only two more matches and were relegated from the Football League.

Nevertheless, beating Stevenage will not earn Oldham about £450,000, as the three games against Liverpool and Everton will. For a club that had to instruct their players not to swap jerseys with their Premier League counterparts "due to the severe shortage of first-team shirts", this is precious revenue.

"I am under no illusions as to what this means to the club financially," said Philliskirk. "This run is keeping Oldham afloat. These are troubling times for everybody: there is no money about, the team has not done that well and attendances have been falling. I said our dream result would be a draw and when we equalised I turned and looked at the directors and they were jumping up and down. We will get another game, at Goodison, and possibly on television. That is the most important thing."

For Matt Smith, whom Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had compared to Didier Drogba and who now had overturned this tie with a header from the last corner of the game, it was the glory, rather than the money, that mattered. The memories of remarkable games against Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Everton will linger long after the last of the cash has been spent.

"The last three weeks have been indescribable, absolutely mental," Smith said. "To have come from absolute obscurity in a football sense to having your name in headlines is a pretty overwhelming experience."

Jose Baxter could measure his reception in the text messages that were flooding his phone. Last summer he was released by Everton, with all the uncertainties and self-doubt that entails. He could hardly have expected to be returning to Goodison so soon.

"I could never have imagined myself going back. To have played Liverpool and Everton in the same season has been a dream," he said, reflecting on the stick dished out good-naturedly by Leighton Baines during the tie.

"It was just weird seeing so many of my former team-mates on the same pitch. As for tickets for the replay, I am going to need the whole of the lower Gwladys Street End." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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