Few players or managers since the turn of the century are held in such high regard at Boundary Park, but John Sheridan sits at the summit for his performances on the pitch and in the dugout.
Signed by Latics legend Andy Ritchie on a Monday morning in 1998, 164 games as a player and 250 games as a manager later, he’s etched himself into Oldham Athletic folklore.
It’s a story of two spells as a player, six as manager, and countless survivals.
It’s 11 May 1991, and 26-year-old John Sheridan is approaching his peak as a player. A few months earlier he’d scored the winning goal in the League Cup final, as Sheffield Wednesday beat Manchester United 1-0 at Wembley. Having secured promotion to the First Division with the Owls, he took part in what was, for Sheffield Wednesday, a dead rubber game at Boundary Park.
Latics were 2-0 down against Wednesday, needing a win to secure the title. Ian Marshall pulled a goal back, before Paul Bernard equalised. A draw wasn’t good enough for the championship though, despite West Ham losing to Notts County. Deep into stoppage time, Andy Barlow made a run forward, looking to take the ball off Sheridan. Shez tripped him, setting in motion a dramatic finish to the season, and a relationship which lasts with Latics until this day.
Latics boss Andy Ritchie had taken Shez under his wing when he was a young lad at Leeds, and turned to the 33-year-old to help pull Latics out of the relegation zone in his first managerial gig.
He played 90 minutes in most games that year, and was pivotal in giving Oldham a fighting chance of survival. Latics managed to win their final two games against Stoke City and Reading, staying up by a single point on the final day.
John won Player of the Season, as he did again for his performances the following campaign, where Oldham finished in a comfortable mid-table place of 14th.
He started taking his coaching badges at the end of the year, saying “I’m going to see if coaching is for me,” adding, “and if it isn’t, I’ll buy an ice cream van.”
The 2000/01 season started well for Oldham, as they thrashed Port Vale 4-1, with Shez playing 83 minutes, but then things took a turn for the worse, as a knee injury kept him out until December.
Latics won just five games until he returned just before Christmas, with Ritchie’s side hovering just above the relegation zone, but an upturn in form, in part caused by Shez’s return to the team, saw Latics reach as high as 11th, eventually finishing 15th.
The 2001/02 campaign was Athletic’s best so far with John in the side, in terms of league position, a good start was followed by a winless October, afterwhich, Ritchie was sacked. Mick Wadsworth took charge and his side soon climbed the table, after a 2-0 win over eventual champions Brighton, Oldham sat outside the play-offs on goal difference.
But then tragedy struck again, the now 37-year-old Sheridan picked up another injury, keeping him out until the end of the campaign, and Latics’ form dipped, finishing the season in ninth, eight points off the play-offs.
2002/03 was one of the most exciting seasons and one of the best teams Latics have seen since the Premier League. Funded largely by he-who-shall-not-be-named, Iain Dowie had Latics playing some superb football, and spent most of the season at the right end of the table.
After featuring in a handful of the opening games, Shez accepted that his playing days were numbered under Dowie, who favoured a young squad and ultra-fitness regime which included swimming at 7am.
John concentrated on his role of assistant youth coach, working with Billy Urmson, as the first team reached the play-offs. Following the loss to QPR in the semi-final, the plug was pulled by the owner, and Latics fell into a financial crisis.
Shez was called upon to help Latics put a team together, with anyone of any quality and value sold for a fraction of their worth. He re-registered as a player, making his second debut away at Hillsborough. Due to his legendary status at Sheffield Wednesday, he received a standing ovation from both sets of fans. “The reception was one of the highlights of my career,” he said afterwards.
He converted from the spot after just six minutes as Oldham picked up their first point in what was going to be a long and hard season. A regular in the side until the end of November, he took-charge on a caretaker basis a month later with Iain Dowie moving to Crystal Palace.
17 points from 13 games kept Latics out of the bottom four, a respectable return considering the resources available. Towards the end of his spell as boss, he returned to the starting line-up, playing in the 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. He hobbled on, making a few more appearances, including 55 minutes during Celebration Sunday, when Latics thumped Grimsby 6-0. His last game in an Oldham shirt came on 21st February 2004, at home to Tranmere Rovers.
After over 700 appearances, a good chunk of which came in a Latics shirt, two World Cups, a League Cup and First Division title, John Sheridan’s playing career was over, the next question was, what next?
Into the dugout
John had spells as youth coach, assistant manager and reserve team coach, mentoring a host of young players who came through the ranks at Boundary Park. He threw his hat in the ring on a number of occasions for the top job, and was finally given a shot following the departure of Ronnie Moore in 2006.
Moore had Latics in a decent league position of tenth, but had been criticised for his unattractive style of football, which led to his departure. Shez managed to get results out of that same crop of players, while also playing a nice brand of football. That first season was explosive, the peak being the 5-0 thumping of Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day which saw Latics replace them in second place. Oldham were top of the league at the start of February, and looked in a good position to go up, but a slump in form saw Sheridan settle for sixth, qualifying for the play-offs.
Blackpool were the form team going into the post-season, but Oldham looked to have held them to a 1-1 draw in the first leg, just for Wes Hoolahan to run through, go past Pogliacomi, and tap home in the dying embers of the game.
It left Latics with a mountain to climb in the second-leg, which saw Blackpool run out as winners by three goals to one, with Matty Wolfenden’s 83rd minute consolation strike remaining to this day, Oldham’s last goal in a play-off match.
Despite the disappointment at first, missing out on automatic promotion, and then defeat in the play-offs, there were high hopes for the 2007/08 season, as Oldham held on to most of the players from the previous campaign. The notable departures were Chris Porter and Richie Wellens, but the attack was bolstered with the arrival of Craig Davies and Lee Hughes, with Neil Kilkenny returning and Reuben Hazell adding to the defence.
Shez had built a good squad, but the team started slowly, and despite a resurgence as the campaign went on, Latics finished 8th, missing out on the play-offs by nine points. That’s not to say there weren’t any positives that year, Oldham maintained their reputation as FA Cup giant killers when they knocked out Everton at Goodison Park thanks to Gary McDonald’s wonderstrike just before half-time.
Now in his third full season as Latics boss, Shez knew what the expectations were before a ball had been kicked. “I’m not daft, this is my third season as manager and I’ve got to win promotion this time, otherwise I’m in trouble,” he remarked.
It all seemed to be going to plan, top of the league at the end of October, third in January, promotion looked likely going into the business end of the season. Then there was the night at the dogs and subsequent 6-2 demolition by MK Dons. Sheridan departed the next day.
Just under seven years later, Latics are still in League One, but find themselves 22nd in the table, five points from safety. Simon Corney turns to John Sheridan with one goal - keep Oldham Athletic in League One.
The start wasn’t great, defeats away to Bradford and at home to Bury, it was clear that reinforcements were needed. Midfielder Matty Palmer came in, whilst the attack was strengthened with the arrival of Aaron Amadi-Holloway and Curtis Main, all three on loan. Anthony Gerrard returned from Shrewsbury, joining until the end of the season.
Results soon followed, with wins against Shrewsbury, Gillingham, Peterborough, and draws against high-flying Wigan and Scunthorpe. Latics finished February undefeated and had closed the gap to just one point, but there was still work to do.
Defeats to Sheffield United and Rochdale threatened to undo all the good work John had done, the next few games were vital.
After drawing 0-0 away at Burton on Sky Sports, Latics’ run featured three consecutive home games against Chesterfield, Swindon and Walsall, and they won them all, without reply. Those ten points lifted Latics out of the relegation zone, and survival was all but secured a few weeks later away at Southend when Curtis Main completed a wonderful counter-attack to secure safety.
Main arrived at Boundary Park having been deemed surplus to requirements by Doncaster Rovers, who sat in a fairly comfortable position in the league, and were 11 points ahead of Latics.
Curtis soon started scoring, netting vital goals against Swindon, Walsall, and Southend. With Doncaster sliding down the table and Oldham in the ascendancy, Rovers attempted to recall Main, but a clause in the deal stated that all parties had to agree to terminate the loan. Curtis wanted to stay, as did Latics, so he remained an Oldham player.
Doncaster were relegated at the end of the season, with Latics finishing eight points clear of them.
After a brief stint at Notts County, Shez’s services were required again. With Oldham in virtually the same position at the foot of League One, he returned to Latics almost a year to the day after he had last done so.
Goalscoring was a glaring issue that campaign, Latics had scored just twice at home in the league all season, and both of them came in the same game! Aaron Amadi-Holloway returned, as did Chris Taylor and Anthony Gerrard, whilst Rob Hunt and Aiden O’Neill came in on loan. But when it came to out-and-out goalscorers, Sheridan would have to work with what he had.
Striker Lee Erwin had scored just twice all season, he bagged his first under Shez away at Northampton, and from there he never looked back, scoring both in a 2-1 win over Oxford, and another against Peterborough - a beautiful volley. Latics faced two tough opponents in Fleetwood and Bolton, but Sheridan’s side defended defiantly, with Erwin netting the winners in both. It was a remarkable turnaround in form for a centre-forward who’d struggled for goals all season and apart from a loan spell in the Scottish lower leagues, didn’t have any kind of track record of finding the back of the net.
Oldham were almost safe. In the final home game of the season, all Latics needed was a point to confirm safety, and they came up against promotion-chasing Rochdale. Callum Camps’ early goal was cancelled out by Peter Clarke’s second-half header - Latics were safe, again.
The start of the following campaign was far from ideal, and despite glimmers of promise, especially the 3-2 victory over Bristol Rovers, Shez stepped aside after the defeat to Rotherham, waving to the fans at the end - he knew his time at Latics was over, or was it?
The Last Hope
After a 3-0 defeat to Harrogate, Latics are left seven points adrift at the foot of League Two, and need a miracle. Selim Benachour departs as caretaker, and John Sheridan comes out of retirement with the goal of keeping Oldham in the Football League.
Getting the most out of what he had at his disposal, he started with an unbeaten streak of seven games. Looking at the post-match celebrations following wins against Scunthorpe, Bristol Rovers, and Bradford, Shez was loving it, he was in his element, he was back.
For one reason or another, results didn’t continue, and Latics couldn’t beat the drop. As Oldham adjusted to life in its current division, Shez helped the club during its transition, before departing for a final time just over a year ago.
It might seem strange to some that a fanbase has such a connection with someone who never won anything with the club as a player or a manager, but it was his quality on the pitch, even though he was in his mid-thirties, which first drew the Boundary Park faithful to him 25 years ago.
From there, it was his desire to play on, even though his knee would trouble him and flare-up, It was the run to the play-offs, beating Nottingham Forest 5-0 on New Year’s Day, and dumping Everton out of the FA Cup. It was returning, twice, to save our skin in League One. From a man who’d been to two World Cups and played in the Premier League, he didn’t need to do it, but he did, because he loved Oldham Athletic.