It’s 1982 and one of England’s most famous footballers stands on the side of the M62 with his thumb out for a lift.
Joe Royle is supposed to be in Boundary Park for an interview, but with every passing minute he believes his chances of getting the job in Oldham, like his car behind him, are going up in smoke.
The role, which would be his first in management since a knee injury brutally ended his playing career, is much needed. This is a long time before the lavish riches of the Premier League. Royle is 33. He has a wife and three sons to support and pay a mortgage.
Joe Royle enjoyed 12 fantastic years with Oldham, leading them to the Second Division title in 1990-1991
“And a Labrador!” he adds when we meet again in town nearly 40 years later. “Honestly, I had to work. I’d had a few offers to sell insurance, but I wanted to stay in the game.’
What happened next was one of football’s great untold stories, thus far. Earlier this week, This is what it feels like: an English football prodigy, was released. Over 317, warts-and-all pages, it goes back to that hard shoulder, and traces the incredible nine years that followed.
By the time Neil Redfearn’s stoppage time penalty in the final game of the 1990-91 season secured the Second Division title, little Oldham had been sent from a small gated backwater club to the country’s favorite second team.
In a barely credible 1989-90 champions Arsenal (3-1), league-leader Aston Villa (3-0), Southampton (2-0), Everton (2-1 after two replays) and West Ham (6-0 in a half final) was blown away on a plastic pitch that turned into a killer pitch when a suddenly rampant Latics reached Wembley for the first time in their League Cup history, taking on Manchester United in an epic FA Cup semi-final. final they would lose cruelly in controversial circumstances after a brutal replay.
“They were the best team we played against all season,” said a shattered Sir Alex Ferguson.
Heartbreak was to follow under the Twin Towers when, with no energy at the end of a memorable 65-game season, Oldham fell narrowly to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and failed to make the League play-offs. But the following year, despite the loss of some top players, promotion to the highest division was sealed.
How Royle got it all done was a work of art and of car sales.
“I never played golf,” he recalls. “So when the rest of the guys were on the track, I was at the auctions. At the peak of my career (29 goals in a First Division season for Everton and appearances in England) I was making more money going to the auctions, buying a car, fixing it up and selling it again.”
Oldham took on Manchester United in an epic FA Cup semi-final which they would cruelly lose in controversial circumstances after a brutal replay.
This Is How It Feels: An English Football Miracle – follows the incredible story of Royale’s tenure
The book tells how Royle’s rescue arrived on that fateful first day in the form of a Liverpool truck driver, who took him the rest of the way. Once on the ground, which he would later call ‘Ice Station Zebra’ thanks to the microclimate at the foot of the Pennine, he was warmly received and told that it was his job. “And that I have to sell a player right away, otherwise we will go down,” he adds.
That afternoon he saw two strangers in his office. He went to them, assuming they were board members he hadn’t yet met. In fact, it was bailiffs who kept an eye on the furniture in exchange for an unpaid bill.
Royle soon found an ally in board member Ian Stott, who would later become chairman.
“He had heard about my car and told me he had a Jag agency and a motorcycle I could have laying on the ground. I couldn’t believe my luck. Later he gave me the bill – it would have cost me less to buy a new one! But that was the beginning of a beautiful engagement. We were best buddies.’
Stott was the one who would listen when Royle, going back to his car days, told him he’d found another “doer-upper” and wanted permission to make an approach. “I would give him the six magic words,” he explains. ‘We are going to make money with this’ and we have almost always done that.’
Royle dug up gems on the other side of the Pennines. Andy Linighan, Denis Irwin, Tommy Wright and Andy Ritchie all came out of Leeds United for nothing or a small fee. Then Howard Wilkinson took over from Billy Bremner and the mine was closed.
“I called Howard not long after he got the job and asked about David Batty, a talented lad who kept getting sent to their reserves at the time. He told me “250,000”. I started laughing and told him he hadn’t even played for the first team yet. Howard, a great guy, told me that when he told his directors I was on the phone, they went out the nearest window! We had to giggle, but there were no more deals to be had in Leeds.’
Earl Barrett and Paul Warhurst were from Manchester City, who later tried to make Royle their manager. In a move that is hard to believe in 2021, Royle said no to them.
“When I wanted to leave the meeting, (then chairman of the city) Peter Swales stopped me,” Royle says with a smile. He said, ‘Is there anyone else in our reserves that you think will make it?’ I had to laugh. They were tired of us taking their best young players for nothing.’
Royle pictured talking to his players during the first FA Cup semi-final with United in 1994
Mike Keegan of Sportsmail, author of the book, pictured with former Oldham boss Royle
The book, compiled with the help of Royle, his staff and crew, also takes readers to the infamous Tuesday Club, where the players let their hair down for their day off. There are stories of Molotov cocktails launched, endangered knee caps and a late season trip to Mallorca that saw most of the squad in jail before being on the island for 24 hours.
“It wasn’t Wimbledon,” Royle recalls. “And I always knew where they were on Saturdays, but they loved to work hard and play hard. As long as they didn’t cross the line, I was fine with that.’ Oldham is now in a very different place. Earlier this month, fans barged onto the pitch to protest an unpopular owner with the club ranked second in the Football League. The fear that they will become the next Bury is growing at a rapid pace. It’s all a long way from Royle’s reign.
“I remember going to see an end-of-the-year manager of the year in London, black tie,” he says before we leave. “I knew I hadn’t won, but then the big screen started showing clips of our cup runs.
Brian Moore, who had commented on some of our games, talked about the ‘team that has heated the whole country all winter months’. That was us, and I had a lump in my throat. I’ve often thought: if you’d put a plug in Oldham then, you could have lit the whole country.’
Former Oldham director David Brierley, Royle and Keegan pictured with the book
Here’s what it feels like: An English football prodigy is available from Amazon for £12.35 (List price: £16.99) https://www.amazon.co.uk/This-How-Feels-English-Football/dp/1914197240