WHEN Oldham and Rochdale Hornets go head to head for the Law Cup at the Crown Oil Arena on Sunday (3pm kick off) it will be exactly 20 years and six days since the ‘new’ Oldham club played its first-ever game on the same ground and pulled off a stunning 36-16 win in front of a crowd of 3,097.
It was New Year’s Day, 1998 — a day that will be forever etched in the annals of Oldham Rugby and a day that will always hold a special place in the memories of the large band of Roughyeds’ supporters who far out-numbered their Hornets counterparts.
In his new book ‘Roughyeds – Against All The Odds’ (selling at £12.95 with all profits going to the club), Craig Halstead recalls: “When I turned up at the ground that day, not quite knowing what to expect and if truth be known not knowing several of the players the new board had signed, it was with trepidation that we might get a good hiding but also with a heady mix of pride, relief and joy that Oldham were back.
“The team wore a traditional red and white hooped jersey. That felt good. Not only had this group of players never played together before, they had not trained together for long either. For Oldham to win would take a Herculean effort; nobody but the most parochial of fans would have backed them to win that day.
“Well, nobody wearing red and white on the pitch had read the script. Turning in a fantastic performance, full of guts and pride and with a terrific will-to-win, plus no little skill, Roughyeds rocked Hornets from the kick-off, the forwards dominating the hard slog up front and the backs looking dangerous every time the ball was moved wide.
“Backed by a vociferous following of fans , Oldham scored six tries by Joe McNicholas (2), Adrian Mead, Mike Prescott, Martin Maders and Ian Sinfield plus six goals from the immaculate goal-kicking of second-row forward Brian Quinlan.
“It was real Roy of the Rovers stuff and I recall with great pleasure the moment scrum-half Neil Flanagan received the Law Cup and his ecstatic team mates launched him on to their shoulders for the post-match photographs and celebrations.
“Oldham were back and the new club — Oldham RLFC (1997) — was up and running.”
The author goes on to tell the full story of the ‘new’ Roughyeds over the next 20 years — an excellent read, with pictures, in a tale which began at the ground then known as Spotland and which, coincidentally, starts the second 20 years of its life in the same surroundings, now named the Crown Oil Arena.
Since that first Law Cup classic in 1998, there have been 14 in total —- 11 of them at Rochdale — with honours even at seven wins apiece.
Going back in time to the early days of these traditional pre-season derby battles, Oldham have won 43, Rochdale 20 and there were draws in 1954 and 1976.
It was first staged in 1921 as the Infirmaries Cup, with all proceeds going to the Oldham and Rochdale Infirmaries but with the birth of the NHS after the War the trophy was renamed the Law Cup in commemoration of its original donor, Mr A J Law, a Rochdale MP and Littleborough mill owner.
In the rugby league boom period of the 1950s, Law Cup games attracted some fabulous crowds. The biggest post-war Law Cup attendance at Watersheddings was 11,653 in 1952 to see Oldham triumph 25-8.
The best at the Athletic Grounds was 9,200 in 1955 when Hornets won 23-17.
Hornets currently hold the trophy, following their 24-12 win at Bower Fold, Stalybridge last year and, just as in 1998, Scott Naylor’s men will go into Sunday’s game as underdogs, not only taking on the cup holders in their own backyard but going into the game as a League 1 side against a Championship team.
With Oldham fielding many new faces and several players on both sides up against former team mates it should be a cracker.