The spotlight falls on Oldham Athletic when they entertain Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, and Paul Dickov has told his players to make the most of it. Oldham actually played Liverpool at Anfield in the Cup last year, a match that generated headlines due to allegations that a visiting player was racially abused by a member of the crowd, but speaking in the crampedconfines of the sponsor's lounge at Boundary Park the Latics manager does not have to labour the point. Players near the foot of League One cannot take national exposure for granted.
"A game like this is massive for the players, even bigger than the last round against Nottingham Forest," Dickov says. "I said to the lads before that game that as stupid as it sounds, careers can be defined in a single FA Cup game. I've seen it before, where people from lower or non-league clubs have done well in a Cup game, got a lot of publicity and ended up getting themselves a move. It can happen."
A notoriously chilly venue at the best of times, a heated tent is protecting the Boundary Park surface from frost and snow, though this has been a tough winter for Oldham even without the recent cold snap. Results in the league have not matched those in the Cup, and with just a single point from the last eight league games Dickov's position is under scrutiny as the club has dropped down the table to just above the relegation places. Using poor results as a pretext, though possibly wishing to save money as well, Oldham sacked Dickov's three-man backroom team at Christmas following the seventh home defeat of the season, leaving the manager to pick up the extra workload. Times are as hard as the frozen training pitch that has forced Oldham to borrow Manchester City's indoor facilities down the road, but Dickov is soldiering on.
"The average working day is around 26 hours at the moment," he says. "I've been scouting for a long time as we haven't got a network of our own. Now I'm also watching games, taking training and doing the reserves. But no one has ever got anywhere without hard work. I see a lot less of the family now than I did when I was a player but I'm not going to moan about it. I see it as a challenge and a great experience. When you're a player you think you know what being a manager entails but you haven't a bloody clue. The last few weeks have been tough, there's no getting away from it, but there's always two ways you can go about things . You either spit your dummy out or roll your sleeves up and get on with it. I've found throughout my career that the way to handle things is to stick at it. The hardest part of losing my my staff was having to part with personal friends as well, but I didn't feel undermined. If I did in the slightest I wouldn't be here now."
While Dickov is under no illusions about the harsh realities of life at the wrong end of League One, he has an uncomfortable feeling that the rest of the country might be. "There's a general assumption that if you play football for a living, at any level, you are fantastically well-rewarded," he says. "I speak to friends outside football and they think players are on x amount of money, but it's not always true. We'll have players on Sunday that are earning £150, £250, £500 a week. People don't realise that. That's why a Cup game like this is so important. The upkeep of the club isn't just season to season, it's day to day and week to week. It's no secret that financially the club is really struggling at the moment so a tie like this will give us a little bit of security and stability. The chairman won't tell me what we're making but the important thing is it is money coming into the club. It makes a massive difference, because we've had situations before where players haven't been paid on time. The Liverpool game last year helped make sure everyone was on an even keel again. It was exciting to be at Anfield but the survival and stability of the club was the most important thing."
So while cup runs can help pay the bills, just ask Bradford City, Dickov is all too aware that his priority has to be League One survival. "We can't afford to drop into League Two with what we've got budget wise and squad wise, the brief is to stay in the division," he says. "We're a little bit too close to the bottom than I would like, but once we get players back and fit I'm sure we'll go up the table. That said, the Cup can give everyone a bit of a lift. Sometimes you need a distraction. What I've been stressing to the players is that in every single round there's always at least one shock. So let it be us. I wouldn't want it to be anyone else."