The Scot is about to begin his third year in charge of Oldham Athletic and the last man to complete a trio of years in Boundary Park’s home dugout was a man the Oldham supporters hold in the highest regard: Joe Royle.
The Royle era were special days but memories of those golden days during the late eighties and early nineties have all but faded. Expectations amongst the Oldham supporters are at an all-time low. Managers have come and gone since the days of Royle and the majority have found themselves incapable of being the man to finally end Oldham’s tortuous stint in League One. This year will be their 15th year England’s third division. The only pressure on Dickov this year – as with his previous two – is to keep the club, with its dwindling attendances and finances, out of the bottom four. Exectations and hope has eroded so much that eyes are fixed at the bottom of the league, rather than its summit.
Worryingly, owner and Chairman Simon Corney has uttered two words that may ignite some enthusiasm in the supporters, but has resourceless managers shuddering: top six. To demand that of Dickov is unfair, even to hope it seems a little harsh. The club has become one of the league’s smallest, less-feared ones. During the days of Iain Dowie and John Sheridan (who was the last man to fail in his third term) Oldham were expected to meander an easier division and find their way comfortably to the top half.
Corney isn’t a tough and ruthless Chairman to work with. He’s fair and realistic, but shrewd and swift. John Sheridan’s tenure had to end because stories were surfing of serious unrest and confidence had disappeared. A season that promised so much was spiralling into disarray. A 6-2 drubbing against MK Dons proved to be too much for Corney, who was overlooking his club lose touch with the top-six after being apart of them for so long. It was difficult to watch Sheridan – who remains another club favourite – speak during his final post-match interview. He knew his fate. He was sacked hours later.
Dickov may have feared the worst last season after a loss at the very ground that did for Sheridan. Another hiding, this time 5-0, coincided with a dwindling league position and fan-unrest. Having scrapped, quite doggedly at times, downright ugly at others, their way to safety last season, Dickov has now developed a promising team.
The midfield – consisting of Dean Furman, James Wesolowski, Robbie Simpson (who will play behind a striker) and Lee Croft – is one of the most talented and balanced in the league. When confident and fit it surpasses the ability of Sheridan’s midfield during his first year – which included Richie Wellens, now of Leicester City. So perhaps there is a little pressure on Dickov. Perhaps the fans are demanding a little extra this year. They expect progression but the top-six would still take a monumental effort. The feeling is there isn’t enough depth to sustain a Play-off hunt. Not just depth, but there are too many opposing sides capable of managing a push for those positions
Despite Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town’s promotions to the Championship to be replaced by the relegated Portsmouth, a club which may never recover its serious turmoil, Coventry and Doncaster, it is still a tricky division. There are still MK Dons and Sheffield United with fiercely competitive budgets – the Dons have been able to sign ex-Manchester Utd player Alan Smith. Bournemouth, Crawley and Swindon Town are financially powerful, while Preston, Brentford and Notts County are likely to be tough to beat. However, the last two years has seen the league take steps back to its old competitive self.
However, another season like the previous two could be fatal for Dickov. The resources available to him may be dwarfed by other clubs but the manner in which the team were defeated gave rise to doubts about the his ability, both tactically and motivationally. Should Dickov fail to deliver positive results with the side he has been able to ensemble, the supporters will be justified in their criticism. Last year’s team was defeated, all at Boundary Park, by the likes of Leyton Orient, Yeovil Town, and Scunthorpe United with relative ease. Goals were absent and costly mistakes in defence frequent. There will be an absence of tolerance in the stands this time around.
In truth, Oldham have been handed a difficult run of fixtures during the initial quarter of the campaign. Their opening match sees Dickov take his team to that dreaded Buckinghamshire town: Milton Keynes. The Dons represent one of the toughest tests for any side in League One. An opening loss would not be surprising, but the tie is followed by Walsall and Stevenage, both at Boundary Park (certainly winnable) Fixtures, then, include Portsmouth (A), Doncaster (H), Notts County (H), and heading towards late September matches against Brentford, Coventry, Sheffield Utd and Preston North End. The top six could easily be made up of the sides Oldham face early on.
It is difficult to gauge where Oldham will be after 10 games, but a poor start could sap confidence out of the players (and supporters) and that ultimately could lead to Dickov’s departure. He remains popular, but the fans remain impatient – and increasingly so. Though a managerial rookie, Dickov certainly needs to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt and that he can drag and advance a club cemented in a crippling rut. Prove this and who knows. He could yet be the club’s next Joe Royle. It’s waited long enough.
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