Calling time

See you next year? Oldham players applaud the fans after a rare victory

It has long been my contention that the legendary Jack Sprat was and is an Oldham Athletic supporter. Now it turns out that he is related to Old Mother Hubbard, and the cupboard is finally bare.

Would Jack have been among the pitch invaders on Saturday? I suspect not. I see Jack as a philosophical fellow, accustomed to long years of decline at the club he has followed for decades. He is too old and too phlegmatic to be crossing any lines. Also there were a few minutes left to play… Athletic might have snuck a couple of goals past a tiring Salford.

Jack would have looked with regret at the online fans’ forum afterwards. Here, the people to whom Oldham Athletic’s fortunes really mattered were in an unforgiving mood. They vented their anger not only on the club’s owners and directors (past and present) but also at each other. Later, some apologised (though not to the club’s owners and directors).

Jack might have tried to get an optimistic thread going, to offset the sorrow and occasional ferocity. Rather than apportion blame, how about acknowledging those individuals who emerge from the wreckage with any credit? The efforts of manager John Sheridan, above all, deserved recognition, but also those of club captain Carl Piergianni and a number of other players (though fatally somewhat fewer than 11). And the supporters who responded vocally and in huge numbers to Sheridan’s return… they deserved better.

Or he might have looked for silver linings. Fans of the other relegated team, Scunthorpe United, had no top-tier success to look back on, no League Cup final nor FA Cup semi-finals. In fact Oldham may be the most distinguished team ever to appear in the National League – Notts County have more history, but not much within living memory.

But Jack did not. His heart would not have been in it. The tone of the majority of deeply disappointed supporters struck a sympathetic chord. If Jack felt it less acutely, regarded it as a matter of regret rather than of any real importance, to have said so would have been to give gratuitous offence.

Besides, there was the question of whether the club would actually survive to begin the next season in the National League. Relegation from League Two stripped away any lingering sense of the club being special. Why, then, might it not stumble down the same ill-lit path as Bury and Macclesfield Town? It was hardly in rude health financially. Supporters might look at the National League table and contemplate visits to Eastleigh, Wealdstone and Bromley with dismay, but that was better than nothing.

Phlegmatic but occasionally prone to sentimentality, Jack would have let his mind wander back to October 1961, when his dad had first taken him to Boundary Park. Playing in the old Fourth Division, now League 2, Oldham had beaten Accrington Stanley 5-0 that day. The result was later declared void as Stanley went out of business. It was an unhappy augury.

Jack would have felt sorry for the younger fans in particular. He, at least, could look back on good days; he’d had his money’s worth. For a period of a few months in 1990 Oldham were the Team of the Nineties. But there had been no promotions since 1991, little to savour apart from an odd result here and there. A generation of fans below the age of 20 had known only mediocrity, decline and, now, fall.

Jack Sprat would have gone home on Saturday knowing that Oldham Athletic offered him even less to look forward to than usual. As he tucked into his dinner – the top off his father’s egg – he would have reflected on the perverse satisfaction he derived from that, the curious fit of the club’s fate with his own character. Mrs Sprat, who had abandoned Manchester United for Manchester City some years earlier, had the usual 5-1 win to celebrate.