THE last time a Merseyside team journeyed to the ramshackle surrounds of Boundary Park, visitors were welcomed with a leaflet boasting a simple yet pointed message.
“Welcome to REAL football.”
Certainly, when Everton’s pampered Premier League superstars step through the entrance of Oldham Athletic on Saturday, they will be entering a completely different world to what they are accustomed.
“Premier League players simply won’t be used to what they are going to experience at Oldham,” says Graeme Sharp. “The facilities are very basic, and the dressing room is tiny.
“The pitch won’t be what they are used to, and the stadium won’t be what they are used to. Oldham will look to use that to their advantage.
“If any Everton players get there, take one look and think ‘I don’t fancy this’ then they will find themselves in trouble.”
Sharp has first-hand experience of the differences between the two clubs having followed more than a decade of service at Goodison with a six-year stint at Boundary Park.
Not for nothing was Oldham’s dilapidated ground dubbed Ice Station Zebra by former manager Joe Royle.
“It was a culture shock in terms of the training ground and everything else,” says Sharp. “Everything was really basic.
“It was cold and bleak and you didn’t get many sunny days up there.”
Royle’s presence was the deciding factor for Sharp to make the move to Oldham in July 1991 with the Latics having gained promotion to the top flight.
“I went there for Joe Royle,” he says. “He sold the club to me, and he’d also gone through the same thing in his career where he had ended a long association with Everton.
“The first year I was there was really good, I was the top scorer with 15 league goals, but in the second season I had a few problems with my back, and then we were relegated.
“We had rubbed shoulders with and beat Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal at home. It seems a million miles away now, but in those days Oldham had a decent set-up and could compete.”
Sharp assumed the reins, initially as player-manager, once Royle returned to Goodison in November 1994, but it is not a time on which the Scot looks back fondly.
“It was hard being manager there,” he admits. “Joe left shortly after we were relegated, and when I took over one of the first things the chairman did was to hand me a piece of paper and tell me to get rid of 10 players on it because they were all on Premier League money.
“Oldham wanted to cut their losses, and if they’d been honest enough to tell the fans that was the situation then fair enough. But they didn’t. They gave the impression we were going for promotion, which was hard when we didn’t have the players for it.
“It soured things a bit for me. But there was no real ambition to get back up, and it’s been a difficult time ever since then.”
Indeed, Oldham were relegated months after to the third tier where they have since remained, although that is now under threat with the Latics two points away from safety at present.
A run of eight defeats in nine cost Paul Dickov his job barely a week after guiding the team to the famous 3-2 FA Cup fourth round home defeat of Everton’s neighbours Liverpool.
The television cameras will again be sniffing a shock at Boundary Park on Saturday evening, and Sharp adds: “Oldham will fancy their chances having disposed of Liverpool. Everton will have to be mentally strong and prepared for the battle. If they do that, then the more skilful players can come to the fore.
“Much will depend on the mindset of the players. Oldham battled for their lives against Liverpool, and I’m not sure whether that surprised Liverpool’s players, and in particular the younger ones.
“Oldham have nothing to lose and can claim another scalp in front of the television cameras. If Everton have their minds right then they should win. But they will have to roll their sleeves up and battle.”
This is the sixth time the pair have been drawn together in the FA Cup, with Oldham having progressed on three previous occasions.
The most recent was the shock 1-0 third round win at Goodison in 2008, while the Latics won the last time the teams clashed at Boundary Park in the competition, winning 2-1 in a fifth round second replay in 1990 en route to reaching the semi-finals.
Sharp turned out for Everton in all three games, and recalls: “We got absolutely robbed. We were 2-0 up in the first game and then Roger Palmer, who I went on to play alongside and is a smashing lad, made the most of a challenge and won a penalty.
“It was never a penalty. The referee was useless throughout and I told him this in no uncertain terms at the end of the game and got pulled up by the FA and had to go to London for a disciplinary hearing.
“Oldham got it back to 2-2 and then in the replay at Goodison there was a lot of pressure on Colin Harvey at the time as things weren’t going well.
“Big Norman Whiteside was sent off for kicking Mike Milligan and we drew 1-1, before going back to the plastic pitch and losing 2-1.”
With hopes of Champions League qualification having suffered the setback of defeat at Manchester United, there is a growing school of thought Moyes may put more stock in a good FA Cup run.
But Sharp says: “I don’t think he’ll put any more emphasis on this game. Even before the game at United I expected David to go strong against Oldham with a fully-fit squad. I don’t think that will change.
“Everton have taken the FA Cup seriously this season and fielded strong teams at Cheltenham and Bolton in the previous rounds.
“The top four is going to be tough and the result on Sunday hasn’t helped.
“The worry for me is that we keep conceding goals, and now we can’t score any at the other end.
“But I can’t imagine David Moyes taking the game lightly on Sunday.”