Hats off to Oldham Athletic’s captain, Peter Clarke, for attempting to sweeten a dog’s dinner this week. A sprinkling of optimism is sorely needed around Boundary Park where the club’s chairman, Simon Corney, was in such a steaming funk after elimination from the FA Cup by non-league Lincoln City on 5 December that he cancelled the club’s Christmas party.
Oldham are bottom of League One, winless in seven league matches, subject to a transfer embargo and due to play at second-place Sheffield United on Boxing Day. But Clarke, keen to look up, ventured it could be to their advantage that few people expect them to win at Bramall Lane on Monday. Without riffing on anyone’s woe – in the interests, indeed, of helping a down‑on‑its-luck club – let us see if we can lower expectations for Oldham even further. A look at their Boxing Day history should do the trick.
Sad to say, Oldham are football’s Boxing Day punchbag. They have not lost more than any other English team on that day, it is just that their defeats tend to be thrashings. They have been beaten in 35 of their 80 Boxing Day matches, which does not even put them among the 10 most hapless (Burnley and Newcastle United have the worst records, both having lost 42), but Oldham have conceded more goals on 26 December than any other team in League history. Sheffield United, as it happens, are fourth-highest in the all-time scoring charts for that day.
It all started misleadingly well for Oldham. Their first Boxing Day fixture, in 1907, came in their first season after admission to the Football League and they celebrated with a 3-2 victory over Blackpool in the Second Division, a fine way to get Christmas Day’s 4-1 defeat by Leicester City out of their system. The following year they lost 3-0 at Tottenham Hotspur. Then, in 1910, with Oldham now in the top flight, came a positive omen that Clarke may or may not wish to invoke: a 2-1 Boxing Day win over Sheffield United. But then the ill‑starred stuff really started.
In 1911, amid what was otherwise an encouraging period for Oldham, the Latics lost 6-1 against Aston Villa. The two clubs met again at the same time in 1912, whereupon Villa made even more merry, winning 7-1.
Oldham recorded a thumping Boxing Day win in 1914, beating Bradford Park Avenue 6-2. They went on to miss out by a single point on being crowned English champions, finishing second to Everton.
In 1915 competitive football was suspended because of the first world war and it would be 14 years before Oldham, by then back in the Second Division after relegation in 1923, won another Boxing Day match – a 4-1 victory against Millwall in 1928. In that first season after going down they were thrashed 5-0 by Leeds United on Boxing Day.
Oldham were not destined to return to the top flight for 68 years and when they did, 1991‑92 was an admirable first season back but Boxing Day again proved memorable for the wrong reasons as Joe Royle’s team lost 6-3 at home to Manchester United.
Promotion in 1991 had come at the end of a long journey, much of it spent in lowly surroundings. In 1935 they sank to the Third Division North after a season in which they had beaten Blackpool 4-0 on Christmas Day 1934, only to lose to the same opposition 3-2 the following day. The contrast between festive fixtures would be even starker in 1935: on Christmas Day Oldham beat Tranmere Rovers 4-1 at home; on Boxing Day they renewed hostilities at Prenton Park and Oldham lost 13-4.
They did not have the rub of the green that day (not that there was much green, the pitch being “ankle-deep in mud”, according to the Liverpool Daily Post). One of their defenders, Norman Brunskill, suffered an injury in the fifth minute and had to go off for treatment. Tranmere took full advantage of his 15-minute absence, increasing the score from 1-0 to 6-0. Then Oldham mounted a comeback of a kind and scored four goals while restricting Tranmere to merely another seven.
Oldham’s right-half, Tommy Williamson, later said that his team’s goalkeeper, Lewis Caunce, “played a blinder”. Caunce even saved a penalty from Robert “Bunny” Bell, a feat that prevented the striker from bringing his personal goal tally for the match to double figures. Still, his nine goals earned Bell a chorus of For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow from the supporters at Prenton Park, some of whom carried him shoulder high to the director’s office at full-time, when he was presented with a match ball signed by both teams. No doubt Bell was also later treated to some hearty pats on the back at the Liverpool shipping office where he worked, having turned down an opportunity to play football professionally just two weeks before enjoying his Boxing Day leisure time at the expense of Oldham.
On Boxing Day 1963 many sides threatened to surpass Tranmere’s tally – more goals were scored than on any other day in the history of the Football League led by 66 in the First Division alone – although none managed to do so. Perversely, Oldham managed to beat Notts County 2-0 in the Third Division.
At the risk of reviving expectation, we must also draw your attention to Boxing Day 1961. Oldham, then in the Fourth Division, beat Southport 2-1 at home and spanked them 5-0 on New Year’s Eve, which meant they were confident they had Southport’s number by the time they met again on Boxing Day 1962. Sure enough, on a pitch that Southport’s players later compared to an ice rink, Oldham skated to an 11-0 win. Bert Lister scored six, all with his trusty right foot, and was later voted player of the season as Oldham gained promotion.
Southport, it turned out, also pulled off a stunning feat that season. Shipping 11 goals at Oldham, seven at Tranmere and six on four other occasions meant that the figure in their goals against column at the end of the season was the worst in the League – 106 – yet they still finished in mid-table, 13th out of 24 teams. It shows that no matter how many goals a team concedes in losing, they can survive if they score enough to win other matches. That is likely to be of little comfort to Oldham, who are presently the lowest scorers in the Football League.
It seems highly unlikely that a team who have managed just 12 goals in 21 matches will trouble a Sheffield United side who have only lost once in the League since 20 August. But if they can defy expectation and keep things uncharacteristically tight, they might just edge their way to a first Boxing Day win since 2008 and haul themselves off the foot of League One. That might even hoist them off the bottom of the all-time Boxing Day chart for goals conceded, as the next two most porous teams, West Bromwich Albion (154 goals conceded) and Sunderland (151), are respectively away to Arsenal, who need a big victory to ease the traditional winter grumbling about Arsène Wenger, and Manchester United, the highest Boxing Day scorers in League history.