One year in, Mike Ford’s determination to rebuild Oldham burns brightly: and could son George join one day?

Alex Spink
Mike Ford Oldham RLFC PA

Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Archive/PA Images

By Alex Spink

When George Ford became a father on Monday evening he messaged to break the news to his dad – and told him he could see Boundary Park from the hospital room.

Mike Ford, managing director of Oldham rugby league club, looked at the photo sent by his England union star son and smiled. It took him back to a conversation a couple of summers ago with Frank Rothwell, owner of Oldham Athletic, as he contemplated a return to the club he played for and coached and which has forever been in his blood.

“It was July 2022 and I managed to get a meeting with Frank just after he had taken over the Latics,” Ford snr said. “I told him I was interested in helping Oldham rugby out. If I did, was there any way we could play at Boundary Park? 

“Frank is an Oldham lad and the football ground is right near the hospital. He gazed out of the window and said ‘You know, my kids were born in that hospital’. 

“I said, ‘funnily enough, mine were as well’. He looked back at me and, right away, said ‘yes’.”

In March the following year Ford formally took charge. This weekend he will cap a highly emotional family week by celebrating his first anniversary at the helm.

You will get an idea of what Oldham, the town and rugby club, means to the Ford clan from George’s photo message during one of the most emotional times of his life.

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But it goes way deeper than that, to Mike’s middle teenage years, when two Wigan directors turned up at his house looking to sign him. The 16-year old, who would go onto play for England and Great Britain as well as make more than 500 appearances for eight different clubs, looked earnestly at his dad, who got up from his seat and left the room.

The family home, like so many at the time, had one phone, plugged in at the bottom of the stairs. His dad picked up the receiver and dialled Oldham rugby club. “Look, are you going to sign Mike, what are you going to do?”

The timing was wrong, a deal could not be done and the young scrum-half whose heart was set on his hometown club instead signed for Wigan, going onto make 85 appearances before finally getting to Oldham, via Leigh, in 1987.

“In the 1950s Oldham were probably the best team in England,” said Ford. “It is a rugby town yet last October, against Leigh, was the first time in 22 years Oldham kids went out with Oldham colours on.

“The talent that has come out of Oldham in that time is ridiculous. Paul Sculthorpe, Iestyn Harris, Kevin Sinfield, Barrie McDermott, our George.. they all grew up in the same community.”

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Ford was club captain when Great Britain great Sculthorpe was a ballboy. He coached Sinfield when the Oldham-born starlet was in the under-13s.

The place has a hold on his affections and son George feels something similar, citing a desire to get back up north to near family and his roots when leaving rugby union champions Leicester in 2022 for Sale Sharks.

“I was surprised if I’m honest,” said Mike. “When we talked about it and he told me why it was an emotional chat. He didn’t mention rugby really.”

This then is the background for Ford Snr’s decision to lead the Oldham rebuild. 

Every heartland club was above the Roughyeds in the pecking order when he came in. They weren’t playing in the centre of town, crowds ranged between 250 and 400.

“I thought to myself ‘I’m sure I can do better’,” he said. “I went initially to have a look and see if I could help. To have a chance to be successful I knew Oldham needed to be playing in the heart of the town at a stadium which gave them the opportunity of revenue.

“Frank agreed to our request and it has snowballed from there. The council got involved, invested more than £1 million in a new hybrid pitch on which you can play both football and rugby, and all the stars aligned.”

Ford’s vision is shared by Sean Long, who turned down opportunities in Super League and the Championship to join as head coach and local boy Jordan Turner, who dropped down from the top flight to captain the ambitious League One club.

At the first age-group trial 270 kids turned up. None of them knew who Ford was, only one could tell him what colours Oldham played in, but that did not matter.

“Everyone thinks we’ve spent a load of money but, as I told the Workington chairman last week, we honestly haven’t spent half of what you think,” he said.

“Sean is a good example of the spirit we have and the passion for what we’re trying to do. We offered him a two-year contract, but he signed for three because he said he didn’t want to miss out on the journey.”

All of which is great, as is the winning start Oldham have made to the campaign and the indications that that they will draw a 2,000 crowd for their upcoming game with Rochdale.

“But for the club to grow and get back to where I believe it belongs we have to do it as a town,” Ford stressed. “Buy a scarf, a season ticket or just bring a friend. We can do this if we muck in together.”

Mike has one more item on his wish list – and it concerns son George, who last Saturday spent his birthday pulling the strings for resurgent England against France in Lyon.

“I’m hoping that when he is 35 or 36, he decides he has one more challenge in him,” he said. “He comes back to league and plays for Oldham.”

It sounds a long shot, but with the Fords and Oldham you might not want to rule it out.

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