The story of Oldham Athletic the only club to go from Premier League to National League

oldham on map with red pin in it

In 1992, the English First Division was rebranded as the Premier League in an effort to revive the beautiful game at the top level in England.

The move eventually led the English top flight to become one of the world’s biggest and most-watched football leagues.

One of the founder members of the new era of English football was north west outfit Oldham Athletic after enjoying a dream period under Joe Royle.

Oldham’s glory years under Royle

In the 1990/91 season, the Latics won promotion to the top flight by winning the Second Division title. This was a major achievement as Athletic had not featured at the top table of English football since 1923.

In fact, since their last spell in the English top flight, Oldham had even played in the fourth tier at times during their absence from the then First Division.

The mastermind behind the club’s rise was former Everton legend Joe Royle, who not only helped earn the club promotion but also took them to the 1990 League Cup final, where they suffered a narrow 1-0 loss to Nottingham Forest.

It was a glorious period for everybody connected with the club. Against all odds, Oldham survived in the English top-flight for three seasons.

They punched above their financial weight and gave many of English football’s biggest clubs major problems in the top division.

However, they finished 17th place, 19th place in the top-flight, and eventually suffered relegation, finishing 21st in only the second season of the Premier League.

A rapid fall from grace

Athletic didn’t just drop into the second tier, though, after the exit of Royle in 1994, the team seemed to plummet down the leagues.

The Latics struggled with life in the Second Division, not even looking like mounting a challenge for a quick return to the top flight.

After three seasons in the second tier, the club suffered relegation to the third tier, where they spent the next two decades.

In 2018, it got even worse for Oldham, as they finished 21st in League One and were relegated to the last EFL level of the EFL, League Two.

Once again, the Latics struggled to be competitive, and after four seasons in the English fourth tier, dropped out of the league completely in season 2021/22.

Back in non-League for the first time in modern history

boundary park oldham athletic
Narniauk at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For Oldham, non-league football was a first in the modern era of the game.

The last time they had experienced life outside the Football League was in the Lancashire Combination League in season 1907/08 before they were accepted into the Second Division.

Dropping down to the National League may not have been a major shock, considering that Oldham has seemingly been on a downward trajectory since their relegation from the English top flight in 1994.

A club in poor financial health

From the outside looking in, there has been very little joy for the Latics in the last 30 years, just decay from mismanagement of the club from top to bottom.

A number of owners and ownership groups have promised to come into the club and revive their fortunes. However, they have struggled to maintain the club financially, which has obviously not helped matters on the pitch.

The club faced the possibility of administration as recently as March 2020 when former part-owner Simon Blitz, who owns Brass Bank, looked to retrieve some of the debts owed to him.

However, the club found the money to pay off a significant amount of the debt and remained out of administration. The club also faced issues from the HMRC, which were also eventually settled.

Moroccan football agent Abdallah Lemsagam had already bought a 97 per cent stake in the club by January 2018, with the Supporters Trust maintaining a 3% per cent interest in the club.

In December 2021, Lemsagam decided to sell his share in the club, with talk of late payments of salaries and other financial problems within the club and yet another threat of administration looming large over the Latics.

Could Frank Rothwell be the man to take Athletic forward?

In July 2022, a deal was agreed to sell the club to local businessman Frank Rothwell. The following March, the Latics also repurchased Boundary Park from Simon Blitz, whose company Brass Bank had previously owned the stadium.

The club’s owner is a big character. At 70, Rothwell made history by raising £1.1m for Alzheimer’s Research UK in 2021, becoming the oldest person to row a boat solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

By all accounts, Rothwell seems to be a steady hand at the club’s helm. The hope is that his ownership will lead the club back to the EFL and give the fans something to finally cheer about after decades of almost constant frustration.

It will be a difficult task to get the Latics back into the Football League, let alone back to the English top-flight. However, as he has proven with his boating exploits, the club’s veteran owner certainly likes a challenge.

Will Oldham Athletic return to the Football League in the near future?

By Bob