GARETH WALKER of League Express looks at one of the most crucial games of the season, to be played at Whitebank on Sunday.
IS this finally the year that Oldham realise their long-held Championship dream?
The Roughyeds stand one game away from promotion on Sunday when they host Keighley Cougars at Whitebank, with victory sending the winners straight up in this year’s new system.
Avoiding a Grand Final would suit Oldham down to the ground. The club has lost six of the last eight in the third tier, on top of the 2001 NFP decider that would have seen them promoted to Super League.
One man who has been present throughout those defeats is Chairman Chris Hamilton, who has had more than his fair share of heartache since relaunching the club in late 1997.
“I do dare to dream, but there is always a realistic slant on it,” an understandably cautious Hamilton said.
“Anybody who has watched us through the course of this season would recognise that this is the same group of players, but different, if that makes sense.
“They’ve matured as a group and as individuals. There have been a number of games that we’ve won this year where in previous seasons we wouldn’t have.”
Has there been any stage where Hamilton doubted if the club would ever climb out of the third tier?
“It was starting to get that way,” he responded.
“They’ve all been hard to take, but perhaps last year, because of the fact that it went to golden point, was the hardest.
“But they’ve all been hard. When you look back to when we played York (in 2010) we finished 12 points ahead of them in the league, beat them in the semi and then lost in the Grand Final.
“We just haven’t performed on those days. But as I’ve been saying to everyone, the game on the 20th is billed as a promotion final at home – and we’ve never lost one of those.
“There are still doubts as to whether we’ll go up in terms of our previous record.
“But I think we’ve put ourselves in a good position, and there’s no reason why this group of players won’t go on and finish the job they’ve gone a long way towards already.”
Among those players, the supremely consistent back row pairing of Danny Langtree and Josh Crowley have again been key figures, along with prop Adam Neal, halfback Lewis Palfrey and several others. And Hamilton also believes coach Scott Naylor – crowned League One Coach of the Year last Monday night – should also be lauded for his role in the success so far.
“Scott deserves a lot of credit. He has come in and brought his way of thinking to the coaching side.
“He brought a lot of lads in who’ve worked with him and Spanner (assistant Lee Spencer) before.
“He is what he is – a very good coach, and that’s why we made the decision to give him this opportunity.
“We’ve kept the core of the squad together for the last two or three years and collectively they’ve developed.
“They’ve been very good this year in what has been, as predicted, an incredibly tough competition.”
A full report from the clash between Oldham and Keighley will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express.