Abba Voyage, image by Johan Persson

There are many reasons to regard Abba’s Abbatars with caution, not least for the threat they might pose to the future of football.

First, consider the nature of the event. People are paying more than £150 a head to listen to an assortment of session musicians – an ad hoc tribute act – play Best Of tracks behind an unusually sophisticated lights show. That’s all. Interaction? With what? Yet the enthusiasm of ‘concert’-goers seems unfeigned and they call it an ‘experience’. Tellingly, they say it has to be seen to be believed.

Second, the ‘concert’ marks a new high-water mark in the encroachment of digital trickery on reality. Arthur C Clarke’s famous observation comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Reviewers have quibbled over whether the figures on stage are holograms, avatars or something else. They miss the point. Whatever the figures on stage are, they are not musicians.

Third, the age of the music itself is troubling. Abba split up 40 years ago. What does it say for contemporary music, or for the output of the past two score years, that people will spend so much on a night’s nostalgia and make-believe?

Fourth and not least, what kind of precedent might the apparent success of the Abba experience establish?

This is where football needs to take note. Several developments might converge on the Abba model. The people who thought a European Super League was a good idea will surely have noticed the potential.

Football is already a game played largely for television audiences. Meanwhile, video games as spectator sports appear to be growing in popularity. If it can be done with ‘musicians’ in a purpose-built arena, why not ‘footballers’ on a ready-made screen?

Apparently the Abba avatars are least convincing when at rest. That makes the technology sound ideally suited to modern footballers, whose movement varies between languid and frenzied but is rarely static. Not so the greats of the past, but there would be no need to restrict teams of avatars to current squads; as Abba demonstrate, players well past their prime could be drawn out of retirement. The teams might represent Best Of XIs.

Could teams of avatars play out 90-minute competitive matches? No injuries, no refereeing controversies, no massive wage bills (once image rights are resolved), just tireless footballers scurrying around in perpetuity.

  • Last night I saw a French film called La Famille Bélier, the charming if slightly heavy-handed drama of which the award-winning Coda is an English-language remake. At the end of the film, a number of people – a good proportion of a thin audience – applauded. La Famille Bélier was made eight years ago. Nobody involved was present. People were applauding flickering coloured lights.

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.