OLDHAM have won only 17 of their last 65 games in the Championship, but club captain Gareth Owen is confident that Matt Diskin’s new-look squad can spring a few surprises and finish mid-table, at least, in 2021.

Chairman Chris Hamilton has invested heavily in retaining 14 players and adding a dozen new signings – four of them big, strong, experienced forwards in a bid to make sure that Roughyeds won’t be bullied physically and will at least have the size, strength, weight, knowhow and power to lead from the front.

Martyn Reilly, Luke Nelmes, Shaun Pick and Liam Kirk will provide the grunt and the gristle that will hopefully transform Roughyeds from the struggling Championship side of 2016, 2017 and pre-lockdown 2020 to an outfit that will command a great deal of respect in the coming months.

Hooker Owen, with 137 Oldham games already on his CV, is looking to pilot ‘Diskin’s Dreadnoughts’ to a comfortable position in what is, effectively, a second division which includes many teams, such as Featherstone Rovers, Halifax Panthers, London Broncos, Toulouse Olympique and Widnes Vikings, all of whom could put forward a good case for elevation to Super League.

Leigh Centurions got the nod, but Diskin’s charges will go head-to-head this year with each of the above teams plus Batley Bulldogs, Bradford Bulls, Dewsbury Rams, Sheffield Eagles, Swinton Lions, Whitehaven, York City Knights and Newcastle Thunder, who have been pushed up to the Championship to replace Leigh and to provide each side with 13 home league games.

Said Oldham skipper Owen: “It’s going to be tough, but we don’t intend to be fighting to stay up like we did in 2016 and 2017.

The Oldham Times: Gareth Owen in action for Roughyeds Gareth Owen in action for Roughyeds

“We’ve had enough of that. This time we’re aiming for mid-table at the very least. We’re ambitious, but we’re also realistic.

“It’s a massive jump from League One to the Championship and if we can finish in a comfortable spot, or in the top half, we’ll have done very well indeed.”

Covid-19 restrictions mean the build-up to the 2021 campaign, set to kick-off in the last weekend of February, has been a change to the norm for an experienced campaigner like Owen.

The anticipation for the new season is as great as ever though.

Owen said: “Pre-season training is very different this year.

“We only train twice, instead of three times, and we do lots of things in small groups.

“’Disco’ (Diskin) now has two assistants in Brendan Sheridan and Jode Sheriffe and that enables us to split up into three units. Every so often we swap round so by the end of the session each player has spent time with each of the coaches.

“After his massive Covid scare last spring, ‘Shez’ (Sheridan) is back to his best and he’s the life and soul of each session.

“Jode is new to coaching, but he’s doing a lot of it and he looks a natural. He’s doing his physical stuff first, as he’s also registered as a player, but then he puts on his coaching hat and slots into that role.

“We’re also doing a lot on our own away from the club and we can’t wait to get the season started. It’s been a long time between scrums.”

Merely playing will be a bonus after the curtailed 2020 season, with the cherry on top the possibility of playing in front of supporters.

Roughyeds are ready for either scenario though having seen other sports, such as football, play to empty stadiums.

“We’re crossing off the days on the calendar, hoping that when we start fans will be allowed in,” Owen added.

“It will be a shame if they’re locked out, but if they’re not allowed in we’ll just have to accept the situation as it is and get on with it.

“As for prospects, we’ve got a lot of new players, plus some of the old-faithfuls, and we’ve got a lot of good, young guys from Wigan and Warrington. We’ve got a nice blend of youth and enthusiasm and a lot of strength in the front-row.

“We’ve got a good squad, both in terms of mobility and numbers, and it’s clear even at this early stage of pre-season that there is going to be a lot of competition for places.”