Monday, 31 December 2007

Looking on the bright side

Football can be mean, mad, overblown and money-crazed. But it's also a joyfully meaningless passion of the kind we badly need from time-to-time; one which can make us both happier and more human. Saner even... I hope! Anyway, that's why I entitled this piece "Playing fantasy football", in spite of it referencing the dark side. But it came out from The Guardian as: A dystopian league of its own Comment-is-Free, Dec 31 07, 02:30pm: The death of a young footballer puts the big game's myopia into perspective, even if only fleetingly.

Well, indeed. I hope the couple of jokes and Dumbarton plugs (naturally) weren't entirely opaque, however.

So... Happy New Year to one and all! (But let's spare a though for Eileen O'Donnell and family at this time of appalling loss for them...)

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Awful news from Fir Park

I was just about to update this site when I caught the tragic news that Motherwell captain Phil O'Donnell, a 35-year-old midfielder, has died after collapsing towards the end of his side's 5-3 Scottish Premier League victory against Dundee United. The BBC's live online commentary for today's Arsenal -v- Everton match was interrupted with the terrible news of O'Donnell's death, and the response of was heartening. It hardly counts as a cliche to say that such numbing events put the game's passion into real perspective, since we are truly at a loss if we cannot see this. Everyone connected to the game will be sending out thoughts and prayers for Phil's family and those who were close to him. [Tributes here. Support CRY - Cardiac Risk in the Young]

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Local midfielder does well

Not much Seasonal cheer for the Sons at Station Park today, as basement prop side Forfar beat us 3-1. With a game in hand, they can now put Dumbarton at the foot of the entire Scottish League with a further win. Ouch. Having your fate in the hands of the poor old Loons, even temporarily, tells its own story; and a confidence boosting win at home against Albion Rovers on 2 January will be high on DFC New Year wish lists over the next few days. The other positive was a 40 minute goal from Chris Gentile (pictured). That brought a smile because I'm his away kit sponsor this season (though Sons were playing in gold and black today). Sonstrust chair Denise Currie can take some consolation too, since she sponsors Chris at home - as well as keeping me up-to-date on how the Sons are doing by text on match days and making sure I get my home programmes. Thanks Denise, you're a star. While I'm about it, very best wishes for the coming year to all connected with the Club, to Dumbarton fans at large, and to my various footballing friends. I'm not sure if "things can only get better" in 2008, but I hope I'm not over-optimistic in saying they can't get a lot worse for DFC supporters in 2008. 'Mon Sons! [Picture (c) and acknowledgements to Donald Fullarton]

England expects - but which one?

First published in The Grecian, 29 December 2007, Exeter City -v- Histon

According to the rough survey I’ve just conducted, by day two of the news that Italian hardball Fabio Capello had been appointed England manager, the event had already consumed 4,862 column inches in the national papers.

Actually, I just made that figure up (77.65 per cent of statistics are invented on the spot), but what it signifies is true enough. There’s a media obsession surrounding the national team coach, and the density of opinion on blogs, phone-ins and email message boards suggests it’s not just journos scratching for a living in the speculation mire.

But who, exactly, are all the people who’ve been talking ten to the dozen about The Appointment? (If it’s gone a bit quiet by the time you read this, take it for granted that it’s lockjaw not a demise of ‘opinionitis’ that’s to blame. That and the fact that England don’t have a competitive game until February, when the Swiss are sure to turn up on time.)

But hang on. Doesn’t everyone involved with English football care deeply about England – unless they have other national allegiances, or peculiar Scottish tendencies like mine?

Well, no actually. When the Big Games are on, everyone gets in the mood. But those with greatest enthusiasm for English glory seem to be denizens of the smaller clubs, while fans in the Premier League – especially those affiliated with the Fortunate Four – find it hard to disguise the odd yawn.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, while followers of little teams crave the sweet sunlight of success when England take to the field, draping their loyalty on pitch-side banners which spell out Crewe, Doncaster and, er, Exeter City, the Premiership squadrons are tempted to treat this as a bit below their dignity.

After all, their teams expect to bank trophies or headlines on a regular basis. Whereas England have won nothing of note since that Triumph which has done as much to atrophy the national spirit since 1966 as it did to boost it to unreasonable proportions at the time.

Football tribalism has also, if anything, grown stronger (or at least nastier) in recent years. So it’s a tough call for Boo Boys who have spent their season swearing remorselessly at an opposing player suddenly to switch off the hate taps and start loving him just because he’s wearing an England shirt against Kazakhstan.

For those at the other end of the football universe, different rules apply. We may have our heroes and villains in the top flight, but we can rarely muster up that much zeal or bile for them, especially when they’ve donned a white or red national jersey.

The same applies in Scotland, where Old Firm rivalry spills awkwardly into international allegiances, but most manage to forgive the gold diggers who headed down south for something sunnier than the SPL.

Meanwhile, the debates roll on. What Capello should and shouldn’t do, whether his appointment is a boon or a bane, is a harmless game everyone can enjoy before their eyes roam back to those parts of the sports pages relaying their league team’s fortunes.

But woe betide the Italian honcho when the World Cup Qualifiers come round. Then everyone will have an opinion, and anything less than victory will be greeted with crazed scorn and questioning.

Not that Capello seems too bothered. “Media criticism, why should I care?”, he has been quoted as saying in the face of onslaughts from the Italian and Spanish press. Those pre-match briefings will be as ruthlessly planned as anything on the pitch.

(The author is a St James’ Park regular and wholly unbiased Scotland fan.)

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Farewell to the football grinch

First published in The Grecian, 26 December 2007, Exeter City -v- Torquay United

’Tis the season to be jolly. Well, unless you’re a football fan. We don’t do ‘jolly’, unless we’re that annoying person next door who reckons that everything will take a turn for the better in the next game. The poor, deluded fool.

For some of us, ‘the true fans’, it’s even more annoying if the soccer optimist turns out to be (temporarily) right. Because that means we were wrong, even though we obviously know far more about the football grinch.

“Huh”, we say to ourselves. “I’ve been around long enough at St James’ Park to know how cruel life really is.” That means if the glass is half full it can only be because some sly wretch filched the other half while I was in the bathroom.

Which brings me to the topic of New Year’s Resolutions. Yup, those annual opportunities to turn over a new leaf, be nicer to everybody, remember to turn the central heating off, love the in-laws, sack the boss and ridicule that carthorse in midfield.

Oops! I let my guard slip instantly there, didn’t I? It was all going so well on the sweetness and light front until I allowed the thought that Exeter City are not five points clear at the top of the Blue Square Premier to dull my warm-hearted vision, opening up the necessity to find someone to blame.

When it comes to blame, there are only ever four candidates. The boss, the players, the fans and the media. Oh, and that guy who says “it could be worse, we could be in the Unibond”. His is definitely the smile of a person who’s just drunk half my beer. No wonder he’s cheerful.

My first football resolution of 2008, then, is to stop blaming so easily and start supporting more readily. Instead of fulminating about the sitter our sub’s just missed, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t a shot, it was a pass that got deflected by a divot and shows him to be both tactically aware and unselfish.

Of course, if he does it again I may have to revise my opinion in the light of evidence… but a lusty shout of “bad luck” is surely better than “you plonker”. Especially as there are others who deserve that far more. No, stop. Accentuate the positives. That’s my new motto.

Along the same lines, my second New Year football resolution is to be fairer to the officials. Instead of yelling, “why don’t you ask your optician if that was offside?”, I will instead proffer: “Thanks for giving the benefit of the doubt to our inferior and misrepresented opponents, ref. Adversity like this is building the Grecians’ character, and will now guarantee promotion in three season’s time!”

My third resolution involves coming up with shorter, snappier and more sound-bite oriented things to chant from the terraces. By that I don’t mean one word theories of alternative parenthood, either. I’m not quite sure what I do mean, yet. I’m still working on it. Once again, it’s a battle with the negatives, because football wit and wisdom seems invariably to flow downhill toward the morbid observation rather than uphill toward the snowy peak of reason.

Which brings me to my last resolution. Only four, but it’s a short column and a long year. I’m dangerously going to suggest we all give up chanting “Argyle are not very good” (or words to that effect). Because they’re three leagues above us. Frankly, it’s not dignified. We should be above such things, as well as higher up the table. Happy New Football Year!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Crimbo column confusion

Yup, I've published at least two more football programme columns since the last update, and I shall figure out which when the immediate effects of Seasonal cheer have diminished. Meanwhile, a very happy Christmas to you and your team (unless they are playing Dumbarton or Exeter in the near future, in which case may the mistletoe get stuck in your goalie's gloves and your centre-forward be whisked away by a renegade reindeer.) Oh, yes: the columns will go up under their respective dates, so you might need to scroll down as well as up...

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Going for a song

First published in Sons View, 22 December 2007, Dumbarton -v- Montrose. Scottish Football League Division Three.

We only sing when we’re winning? Chance would be a fine thing at the Rock this season, given our results so far. But the Season of Goodwill is always ripe for a bit of timely fitba optimism. Here goes, then.

The league table might not look quite so pretty as that tree in your living room right now, but the New Year often marks a turn in fortunes for struggling clubs. And while no-one in their right mind would be especially cheery about Gretna’s chances of survival in the SPL come April, the Third Division remains a different proposition.

There’s a reason some teams fly and others flounder, of course. But there isn’t that unbridgeable gulf that makes hope and despair a matter of course rather than a seasonable variable.

Many of the pundits were predicting a difficult time for the Sons this term, and they haven’t been proved wrong. But I’m still going to stick my neck out and say that we’ll find ourselves on the up come March and April 2008.

One of the reasons is the great spirit in the Club. Dumbarton fans can moan with the best of them, naturally. How could we look in the mirror and call ourselves true supporters if we didn’t? But you also don’t get to wear a Sons scarf without being willing to grit your teeth and keep on singing, either.

Not that actual singing is my strong suit, I have to admit. When it comes to spectating, I’m more the strong, silent type. I can be seen clenching my seat, emitting a sigh here and there, switching rapidly from momentary elation to, er, friendly advice, and then from time-to-time burying my head in my hands just to make sure it’s still there and I didn’t simply imagine that blatantly ridiculous offside decision.

The efforts of the choir don’t go unappreciated, either. Far from it. DFC’s barmy army do the business, for sure. Indeed, football chants remain an undervalued art form. Not just the predictable ones, but those you weren’t expecting, and the finely-honed bits of wit that tell you more about the resilience of a local culture than a gaggle of sociologists ever could.

In the surprise category, for me at least, was a lusty rendition of ‘Keep Right On’ greeting Alex McLeish for his recent first home game in charge at Birmingham. Losing Eck for the national team may be a sore point, but the choice of a Scottish song (long Brum’s unofficial anthem) was an acknowledgment that the game down south still owes one hell of a lot to a much smaller nation with, proportionately, a surfeit of footballing passion and wisdom.

I haven’t done a scientific survey of this, but outside Glasgow, my guess would be that Merseyside is the place in Britain that’s produced the most glittering examples of terrace tonsil-wagging over the past fifty years – as well as some of the depressing sectarian stuff that still occasionally blights the game, too, it must be admitted.

A great example of the dry humour that provides moments of added buoyancy came four or five seasons back when West Ham visited Liverpool. Lionising their hero at the time, and comparing him favourably with the Reds’ assistant manager, the legendarily long-nosed Phil Thompson, the Hammers fans chanted cheekily: “You’ve got Pinocchio, we’ve got Di Canio!” To which the Kop, rarely slow off the mark and remembering a lifetime’s worth of taunts about alleged Scouse light-fingeredness, responded: “You’ve got Di Canio… But we’ve got yer stereo!”

The game that afternoon finished in a resounding Liverpool win, and not just on the pitch. Anfield, as ever, was a cauldron. Until you’ve been on the pitch somewhere like that, players say, it’s easy to dismiss the claim that “the crowd can be a twelfth man” as yet another hoary old football cliché. But sometimes it has been, no doubt.

No-one’s likely to turn Strathclyde Homes Stadium into a sporting extension of the Red Army Choir in a hurry, of course. Just as a really large crowd can create its own surging volume pedal, so a much smaller crew can be a bit of a dampener. But getting our vocal chords loudly behind the Sons is still part of what can create a winning atmosphere, as well as keeping spirits up when the going’s tough - Midge Ure, or not, they are the ones.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Losing the prediction race

First published in The Grecian, 15 December 2007, Exeter City -v- Salisbury City, FA Trophy First Round

So, to sum up… Sven Goran Eriksson was sure that England would qualify for Euro 2008 under Steve McClaren. Then Plymouth Argyll were convinced they’d hang on to boss Ian Holloway (not much sobbing about that around here, of course!) And at the beginning of the year just about everybody who was anybody in football punditry said that David Beckham’s international career was finished. Definitely.

On a less high-profile note, back in the dim-distant-past that is 8 October 2007, I wrote that Blue Square Premier referees were really doing a pretty good job, all things considered, and that we should give them a break.

As naturally as a photocopier breakdown precedes a Really Vital Mailing, the official at the Grays game (in which City scraped a 1-0 win) gave, how shall I say, a less than stellar performance. Especially when he failed to act on what looked like a rather blatant last-man offence right near the end. Hey-ho for my programme note.

Still, I was pretty confident after our FA Cup performance against a certain Stevenage Borough In November that the Grecians could get a competitive bounce and leap on ahead in the league. We lost 1-4 at home to Burton Albion, our biggest defeat margin for four years. Thank goodness I didn’t mention that one in particular.

For today’s game, then, I am definitely keeping schtum. In fact I’m tempted to forecast a disappointing result for City, because even though I’m not at all superstitious, there’s a bit of me that always figures “even thinking it is the kiss of death.” It must be something to do with being a Scotland supporter.

In short, if ECFC win this afternoon, it was because I didn’t say we would. If we lose, it’s because I secretly thought we wouldn’t. And if we draw, it’s because the football gods like to toy with our fragile sporting emotions like Georgie Best on the edge of the box. Well, at least I’m certain he won’t score a goal this weekend, bless ’im!

The point is, football rests on failed predictions as much as glorious triumphs. That’s how the bookmakers make their money, it’s what makes for the best stories in the papers and on the telly, and it’s what enables each and every one of us entertain the illusion that we really know just as much as the expert at the end of the ether.

The really big guessing game of late, of course, has been the England manager’s job. Everyone is pointing out that there’s plenty of time to get this right before taking on the might of Andorra, Belarus and Kazakhstan. (I shall politely omit Ukraine and Croatia.)

That the FA will indeed take its time is a dead cert, I’e been telling friends. So knowing my luck, an announcement will have been made not long before you read this – and it will be our own Paul Tisdale heading to Wembley on a garland paid for by Exeweb. Only kiddin’.

Actually, ‘Klinsmann for England’, noted in this column weeks ago, is the prediction I’d really like to get right. First, because I nicked it shamelessly off my London flatmate and popular culture guru James Edward Smith. Second, because he’s 16-1 at the time of writing. Third, because both Motty and Franz Beckenbauer would finally have agreed on something.

Finally, of course, England needing a German manager to have a serous crack at the World Cup again feels so right in terms of football’s love affair with blatant incongruity. Oh, and I’d have got something right for once.

It’s not going to happen.

(The author predicts that his wife will fall in love with football. Yeah, right...)

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Do You Know the Way to Sign Jose?

Burt Bacharach made it to San Jose all right, but Brian Barwick didn't get within sweet FA of figuring out how to sign Jose for England. A wise decision by the Portuguese managerial muse, if you ask me (which, to be honest, no-one is likely to). Meanwhile, Mark McGhee and John Collins seem to be in poll position for the one I care most about, the Scotland job. McGhee is a shrewd character backed by Gordon Strachan and Alex McLeish. Surely that will be enough? Poor Motherwell, then. Many also rate Billy Davies, who got Derby County back into the English Premier League on slender resources - the same ones that have them pinned firmly downtable now, and cost him his job in the Rams' desperate hope for a twist of fortune. But please, don't let anyone call Souness, dear SFA. [Pic courtesy and (c) Soccerlens]

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Keeping our spirits up

First published in Sons View, 08 December 2007, Dumbarton -v- Stranraer. Scottish Football League Division Three.

The other day I got back from a local football match cold, wet and slightly grumpy. Nothing that a cuppa and/or a wee dram wouldn’t sort, of course. You’ve been there yourself many times, for sure. My wife, who is a wonderful woman but no fitba believer, dutifully enquired how it had gone. “Terrible,” I replied. “Our dog could have done a better job in midfield – and we don’t even have a dog.”

Oblivious to the restorative power of my cutting wit, Carla looked at me with a pity that can only really be saying “and how much did it cost us for you to go to this terrible game, dear?”

“Oh well, you’ll know not to bother next time”, she opined, sweeping triumphantly past me towards an unfinished bowl of washing up that I had been on a pledge to tackle as soon as I got back from the travails down the park.

What people who don’t ‘get’ football fail to understand, of course, is that being a fan isn’t about enjoyment alone, it’s about the deeply strange rewards of misery. I mean let’s face it, Dumbarton are without doubt an enhancement to any sane person’s life (cough), but that doesn’t mean we always win or, um, play well, does it?

So what would life really be like without its ups and downs, I ask? To which Carla would no doubt reply: “a lot better”. She has a point, frankly, and I’m all for coasting to a 5-0 win as frequently as we can, but there’s something about the struggle with difficult (if not insurmountable) odds that makes the victory even sweeter.

That’s probably why I’m just not cut out to be a ‘big team’ supporter. I know more than a few Sons fans also follow an Old Firm team or another comparative giant. It evens up the score in more ways than one, no doubt.

But it’s not for me. Well, I’m interested in all aspects of the game, for sure. I also have a passionate desire to see more Scottish teams challenging the Glasgow duopoly. The resurgence of Aberdeen and Dundee United in the 1980s was a great period, and there are some hopes of significant improvement from several SPL teams right now.

Hibs have done well, the Dons are giving a good showing in Europe, Killie are up and down, and the Hearts merry-go-round continues. It’s all grist to the game’s emotional appeal. But struggle is still etched into the grain of all those Club stories.

Down here in England, the teams I take a passing interest in tend to be lower leaguers too, and mostly relate to great memories or friends’ affections. Chelsea, Man U? They leave me cold.

Liverpool have a real, gutsy footballing tradition, of course. The passion of Shanks and his Scottish successors still courses through their supporters’ veins, even as the paella is passed around the dressing room.

Then there’s Arsenal. You just have to admire the way they’ve been playing this season (unless there’s been a sudden disastrous dip between me writing this and you reading it, of course!). If I had to pick one of the ‘big four’ to wish luck upon this term, the Gunners would be it. Arsene Wenger is a true ambassador for the game.

All that said, it’s the grassroots for me, though. Moments of surprising and sublime skill followed by first-touch gaffes and tactical confusions that have you cheering and despairing in one breath. Plus there’s always the illusion that you really could do a bit better with that corner. It’s not just fan bravado speaking. Well, OK, maybe it is.

The point about even a “terrible game” is that it still holds out the hope that next time everything is going to be different. Football is about the lure of another week and another shot on goal, as well as the one that flies in like a dream.

As you get older, the memories meld with the weekly fare, too. The Famous DFC have had their moments of glory, and tough they may have been few and far between and we may have missed a number of them personally, they’re all part of what it means to be a Sons fan.

That and the fact that we will be back in the SPL competing for a place in Europe within the next four seasons. For sure. You read it first here and I wouldn’t lie to you. Would I?

Monday, 3 December 2007

On a winger and a prayer...

[This is a slightly edited version of an article first published in the Heavitree & District News, Exeter, on 3 December 2007]

Concerns about the next England football manager seemed light years away when I returned to the game’s grassroots at Heavitree Social United two weeks ago. But thankfully the pitch was in better shape than the one at Wembley during that match against Croatia many would rather forget. It also cost a 500 millionth of the price, according to my calculations.

For those who don’t know, your local team’s ground is just behind the Social Club in East Wonford Hill. Admission is a round pound, there’s an all weather wooden stand, and their three sides play in the Devon & Exeter Football League.

As
Exeter City were away at Histon (I’m a season ticket holder at St James’ Park) I decided to take in a top-half Premiership clash between Heavitree and Clyst Valley on a nippy Saturday afternoon. Games start at 2.15pm at the moment, because there are no floodlights, you’re guaranteed a grandstand view, and you can get back in time for Final Score on BBC1.

Having seen off
Pinhoe last time, the Heavies were on a bit of a winger and a prayer against Clyst, who wound up 3-0 victors. The wingman in question was 16-year-old Sammy Gedye, whose father Phil, a well-known local painter and decorator, I was standing next to.

Sammy was in the middle for the second half, when Heavitree, who had more of the ball before the break but didn’t do much with it, were on the ropes. Some good skill, huge determination, goalmouth scrambles, and one or two random first touches summed up the game.

All very different from silly money ‘big time’ football for sure, but great fun, as the 46 people and a dog who saw this would testify. Catch the Heavies at home on 22 December 2007 against
Feniton if you can. See you there, perhaps.

{Pic courtesy and (c) of David Bauckham at Pyramid Passion}

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Football at the grassroots

No live football for me this weekend, so I find myself watching the BBC1 TV broadcast of a gutsy Second Round FA Cup tie between part-timers Harrogate Railway Athletic of the Unibond League One North and Football League Two strugglers Mansfield Town (founded in 1897 as the Mansfield Wesleyans). All mud, mouth and mix-ball, but good fun for that, and with no little skill. Mansfield are cruising to a 3-1 win as I scribe, so they can banish memories of their humiliation against minnows Stockton in the same competition in, er, 1952. (As I write this, Harrogate claw another goal back. The curse of Barrow strikes again!)

Talking of which: when I was a kid, growing up in Chiswick and then Kew, my parents had friends with the surname 'Mansfield', which meant that Barrow versus the Stags fixtures became an occasion for friendly rivalry - well, between the two young boys, anyway. Barrow sadly dropped out of the League in 1972, at the expense of Hereford United. They currently have a supporters' wall project - and as I think of them as my third team, along with Southall, I might contribute. It would give me great pleasure if they could make it back to the Blue Square Premier and full League status eventually, and I really ought to make a trip to Holker Street, Barrow-in-Furness, at some point. Maybe a journey break on the way up to Dumbarton.

Meanwhile, Mansfield have secured a 3-2 win against a Harrogate side described as "excellent" by Mark Lawrenson (for once, I agree with him) and are now heading for a Third Round away tie against Brighton (my abode for a few years until 2003).

Talking of football at the grassroots, last weekend I took in a game at Heavitree Social United, down the road from me and in the Devon and Exeter League Premier. The whole glorious story ('On a winger and a prayer') is told in the forthcoming issue of the Heavitree & District News. I'll post it here when it's published.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

True colours shining through

First published in Sons View, 24 November 2007, Dumbarton -v- Berwick - Scottish Cup.

Yup, those words are indeed from a sappy Cyndi Lauper song that hit the charts 21 years ago. Earlier in 2007 it was revived for a human rights gig and tour featuring Deborah Harry and Erasure. That’s good, and maybe it’s one of your favourites (in which case I apologise for being so disparaging), but I ask you: “True colours are beautiful, like a rainbow”? Per-leese

Still, at least no one’s going to get hurt. Which is more than can be said when I troop around in the true colours that really matter – the Sons’ stirring yellow and black uniform. By the way, is it yellow or is it gold this season? What’s the proper term for our shining shirts of virtue? I don’t really know, but as far as I’m concerned The Famous DFC never goes out of fashion.

Anyway, my problem is that I don’t wear my Dumbarton scarf, fleece and (occasionally, when I’m feeling really gauche) first team shirt only at SHS or in approved areas at away games. That’s mainly because I live miles away in exile and most of the time I have to make do with football in England.

It’s nowhere near as much fun as cheering the Sons, of course, but I enjoy my season ticket outings with Exeter City, who play in red, black and white. However, just occasionally I feel an unstoppable urge to fly the Sons’ flag, keeping me in touch with my spiritual footballing home. When that happens, I grab a DFC scarf and wrap it proudly round my neck before heading to St James’ Park.

All well and good. But it is useful, I have discovered, to do a little Internet checking just to make sure what colour away strip the opposition will be turning up in. This I endeavour to do, though some of my investigative efforts this season have proved a bit rubbish. With near disastrous consequences.

Oxford United is easy. Like Exeter, they used to play in the League proper and now languish in the Blue Square Premier, otherwise known as the Conference, aka pretend League Three, aka the Fifth Division in England. This means they are a known quantity. Besides, though the U’s turn out at home in the Dumbarton strip of 1985-6 (sad that I know that, huh?), I’m well aware that they play away in blue. My DFC scarf, happily, stays firmly on my shoulders.

Grays Athletic is a trickier proposition, though. Who, you ask? Well, quite. They hail from Essex and have stormed up the echelons of ‘the pyramid’ (as the lower league structure gets dubbed), so their away colours are not exactly etched onto even my fairly suggestible football mind. When Exeter played them a few weeks ago, I was in the mood to wear one of my Dumbarton scarves, and plumped for black and yellow.

Being a wise and cowardly fellow, I had taken the precaution of looking at a few Grays away pics on the web, and was assured that they had turned out in all-red attire. No problem there, I figured. Wrong. Faulty research; or, rather, duff calculation. The Grecians (as Exeter are called – it’s a long and rather inconclusive story) play in red and black, right? So an away team are unlikely to be allowed to waltz onto the pitch in, er, red. Correct.

Guess what colours they turned up in, then? Right first time, a kit pretty much identical to the Sons’ home strip for 1991/92 – and to the piece of knitwear hanging round my throat as I ambled towards my seat in the home stand. I got some decidedly odd looks, but figured out why just in time. I felt bad about consigning my Dumbarton identity to my shoulder bag, but calculated that me versus 3,700 Exeter fanatics wasn’t great odds.

Where things went even further awry was against the titans of Ebbsfleet United. On away trips they wear the 2004/05 to 2005/06 Dumbarton home strip. Plus I saw them the week after a fortnight in Scotland and two visits to SHS. Not only did I nearly get caught again with yellow and black about my person, but Ebbsfleet looked so like Dumbarton that every time they pulled off a nifty move it was all I could do to stop myself roaring approval.

Cyndi Lauper is correct. Your true colours do come shining through. Mine, without a shadow of doubt, are those of the Sons.

(Simon Barrow says his wife loves him in a DFC shirt, but he’s lying.)

Klinsmann for England

Though understandably disappointed (or 'gutted' as we football aficionados put it) that Steve Bruce has left his beloved Birmingham to manage Wigan, my good friend Jim Smith is no doubt consoled that his burgeoning prophetic powers regarding the unemployed and unlamented Steve McClaren's successor in the England mantle are very much in tact. Indeed his favoured candidate, Jurgen Klinsmann, is 16-1 at Ladbroke's and has been backed by luminaries of no less a stature than Motty and Franz Beckenbauer. Mind you, the Socceroos down under have other ideas. Remember though, just in case the FA decide to develop a special relationship with the German, you read it first here. [Picture: almost certainly Klin, unless Jim has been cutting back on the pasties]

Football's coming home?

England's flop against Croatia, dumping them unceremoniously out of Euro 2008, means that there are no 'home nations' in official action next summer. PM Gordon Brown has taken the opportunity to big up the idea of a one-off Home Internationals Championship. This is an idea I entertained in my Sons View programme note recently. What looks definitely on the cards is a Celtic Cup every two years. But the sweet FA in England (whose judgement, as we know, is just tip-top!) has set it's face against their participation. There are two reasons. First, they don't think it will make them enough money, the clash against Scotland apart. Second, they don't fancy finishing second or third.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The house that Gerry built

Ex-Dumbarton manager Gerry McCabe seems adjusted to his fate, albeit disappointed. Which is good. It probably won't cheer him up a huge amount to know it, but he is very far from the least successful occupier of the Sons' bench. In 'The Joy of Six: terrible managerial stints', Guardian football commentator Simon Burnton (not a pseudonym, just in case you were thinking...) plumps for hapless Jim Fallon as his best of the worst of all time. And not just at DFC. He writes:

Dumbarton started the 1995-96 Scottish First Division season well, winning their first two matches. An hour before their third fixture, against Dunfermline, they appointed Fallon as manager (strangely his assistant, Alastair McLeod, was the brother of his predecessor, Murdo). They lost that game 4-0, and it was downhill from there. In fact, though Fallon was in charge for 34 of the 36 games that season, his team won more points from the other two. They finished with 11, 25 fewer than the next worst team. As any reasonable person would expect, the board acted immediately - offering Fallon a new contract. "I feel that it was an unfair playing field for us as we were up against it financially," he moped of the dismal season. "The aim now will be to stabilise the club and make a determined effort to get back up." Fallon's determined effort the following season amounted to one win from 12 games, eight of which - including his last five - were lost. He left in November. In all, Boghead enjoyed only one home win in Fallon's 14 months in charge and his overall league record reads: Played: 46. Won: 2. Drawn: 5. Lost: 39.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

John Brown's body lies beyond the Rock

UPDATE: This on DFC's site: Dumbarton Football Club Ltd regret to announce, following a telephone call to our chairman Ian Macfarlane this morning that due to the most personal and private reasons John Brown, who had previously accepted the post of team manager, is now unable to accept the position. Chairman Ian MacFarlane said : "Having discussed this with both John Brown and his business advisor Andrew S McCormick, while disappointed, my board and I have to accept that the reasons are genuine."

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Former Rangers player and coach John Brown has been appointed as the new manager at Dumbarton FC, Alan Findlay has reported on the Club's official website. He succeeds Gerry McCabe, who was relieved of the post last week. Meanwhile, Jim Clark and Chris Hillcoat both remain at the Club as assistant manager and under-19 coach respectively.

Sons Supporters Trust Director Stephen Lynch commented : "I am convinced this is excellent news for the club and the Trust. Based on John's background and experience there will be even greater focus and knowledge in the Youth Development Initiatives.

"The Trust were instrumental in putting the youth development back at the club and we believe this is key to a successful community Football Club. I urge all fans to come down on Saturday and give him our full backing and let this appointment be the catalyst for getting DFC back to where it belongs. "

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Heartbreak at Hampden

What can one say? Scotland are out of the European Championship, but hardly deserved to lose against Italy today, especially to a goal in time added on which came from one of the most blatantly unjust refereeing decisions I've ever seen. The Spanish linesman was yards away as Rangers' Alan Hutton - Scotland's man of the match - was barged off the ball. It was a clear foul against him. Yet Italy were awarded a free kick, from which they scored. Quite astonishing.

Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez
had a controversial game in other respects, too. Arguably, two of the goals scored (one by each team) were offside, and one not awarded (for Italy) onside. There was also the strong Scotland penalty claim for an Italian handball offence in the area, which with other officials might well have been given. What's more Scotland played exceptionally well: better, commentator Alan Hansen suggested, than in the two outstanding victories over France. I'll take his word for it, having seen only the meagre highlights offered by the BBC at 10.20pm tonight.

Indeed I spent the latter part of the day in the famous Likely Lads scenario ('No Hiding Place', episode 7) - seeking desperately to avoid the results before getting home. Two young lads on the train from London to Exeter had a radio, so I knew Barry Ferguson had equalised in the 65th minute. Fortunately they got off at Reading. But nothing could prepare one for the gut-wrenching finale. Still, a 1-1 draw would have been even more cruel in some ways, leaving us on tenterhooks until the inevitable elimination on Wednesday.

To make matters worse for many Scots, England got given an unmerited 'get out of jail' card by Israel, who won 2-1 against Russia. They still need a point against Croatia, of course. But the odds are now stacked in their favour. Commiserations also to Northern Ireland, whose magnificent 2-1 victory against Denmark still leaves them needing to beat Spain and hope that Latvia pull off a miracle against Sweden. Stranger things have happened in football. But not that many.

A cup of good cheer

First published in The Grecian, 17 November 2007, Exeter City -v- Burton Albion

According to a certain kind of footballing wisdom, a good run in the Cup can work against the consistency needed to do well in the League. Well, yes, if the team is tempted to take its eye off the ball. But things can work in the opposite direction, too, and after the Exeter City performance I witnessed last Saturday in the FA Cup First Round, I’m convinced the Grecians can take some Cup bounce and inject it into their up-down-and-up Blue Square Premier campaign.

Make no mistake, Stevenage Borough may be a team in transition (who isn’t, frankly?), but they are also a useful side, and by signing up Peter Taylor as their manager they’ve issued a declaration of intent. They took a six point League advantage into last week’s tie at St James’ Park. But by the end of the afternoon, you wouldn’t have known it. The 4-0 result was no flattery to Exeter, who exhibited determination at the back, application in midfield, and daring up front.

The first fifteen minutes was a bit tense, with both teams concerned not to give away early hostages to fortune. But once Wayne Carlisle had smoothly tucked away an opportunity in the 18th minute and Jamie Mackie had capitalised on a poor piece of defending in the 40th, the team surged. When Steve Basham added a third with a sharp penalty on the hour, the Grecians were positively flying. Matt Taylor’s conversion of George Friend’s cross was the only addition to the score sheet in the last half hour, but it could easily have been a couple more.

The house was rocking, too. This is the happiest atmosphere I’ve experienced down Well Street for some time. The cries of “Taylor, Taylor what’s the score?” and “Give us a wave, Taylor!” from the Big Bank made you feel a bit sorry for the new Stevenage gaffer. It was a far cry from the Championship and the England bench, and though he clearly has some useful players, they were embarrassed by this encounter. That was a measure of Exeter’s endeavours.

Peter Taylor is a thoroughly decent man and a good manager. I wish him well, and like many Grecian supporters I appreciated the fact that he went straight to Mackie and Basham after the final whistle to congratulate them. This is what football should be about. Former Grecian Santos Gaia also got a warm reception when he came on12 minutes from time. This was a refreshing change from the Challinor boos a couple of weeks ago. Players who have given good service don’t deserve abuse when they return.

But back to Exeter’s prospects. There will be many more twists and turns before we learn if we can have another crack at Wembley and League Two. The title is already beyond us. But what the Stevenage tie confirmed is that the Grecians have it in them to succeed. No doubt there is strengthening and tightening needed. I’m sure Paul Tisdale has that in hand. However, we now have a keeper of poise and experience, the youthful wisdom of George Friend, Dean Moxey’s stylish revival, plenty of options up front (those who said Basham was a spent force are wrong) and resources in other departments, too.

The decisive thing is application and self-belief. Sometimes this season the team haven’t looked too sure of themselves. No doubt the manager and staff will now be urging them to go out on the park as if they are two up in the Cup every week! There’s no room for complacency, but plenty for wilful flair.

Triumph or tragedy?

When it comes to the Euro-qualifying decider between Scotland and Italy tonight, I dearly wish for the former but fear the latter in my bones. Historically, the Scots' footballing entwinement with "heroic failure" is rather too significant to ignore. In conversation with my sage friend James E. Smith, I suggested that the biggest obstacle facing Scotland was their own psychology. He replied: "Actually, Simon, the biggest obstacle facing Scotland is the Italian football team." Er, point taken. I shall miss whatever sweet agony ensues because (a) I don't have Sky Sports 1, and (b) I shall be on a train at 5pm - having also missed a home game at Exeter for the love of a good woman - to whom I am married, I should add (in case she is reading this. Which she won't be of course). 'Mon Scotland!

Monday, 12 November 2007

Taking on the auld enemy?

By some strange synchronicity, only six days after I wrote in Sons View about what a good idea it would be to revive the Home Internationals, or at least Scotland versus England, the BBC announces: "Scottish Football Association chief executive Gordon Smith will look to resurrect a fixture against England should both miss out on Euro 2008. It would be great to have it, even if it was on a biannual basis," he said. "It's something that we would look at." Of course, the premiss is not a very encouraging one. England versus Wales next year, thank you. Then we can talk.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

McCabe out at Dumbarton

Not too much of a shock to discover that Dumbarton have parted company with manager Gerry McCabe (picture, (c) BBC) today, after a really poor season so far. It wasn't a hasty decision, and with a new ownership structure and questions about how long the club will stay at SHS in the air, presages a period of significant transition for the Sons. Naturally my programme note at Exeter yesterday was about the managerial merry-go-round and how crazy it can be! Regarding the McCabe situation, Dumbarton vice-chair Colin Hosie has told the club website: "The directors felt that the time for change had come and today [Sunday 11 November 2007] Gerry was given the news. It was a difficult decision to make as we all know how hard Gerry worked. But we had to act in the best interests of the club. Our energies now will be fully focused on getting the right man for the job - meantime Jim Clark and Jim Gallager have agreed to look after first team matters. We now have a two-week break before our next game with Berwick Rangers and we invite applications for the position of manager at Dumbarton FC. We will not be speculating or commenting on any names until we find the right solution."

Singing for your last supper

First published in The Grecian, 10 November 2007, Exeter City -v- Stevenage Borough (FA Cup First Round)

How does the old song go? If my memory serves me right, something like: “Y’ put yer Ramos in, y’take yer Jol out; you add Taylor at Stevenage, and shake it all about; Y’do the hokey cokey ’cos Mourinho’s out…that’s what it’s all about…”

Forgive the doggerel, but the modern managerial merry-go-round gets more surreal with every swing. Naturally our own Paul Tisdale has had his “must go-ers” in Exeter’s lean spell.

In most cases, unless a number of other factors are thrown up in the air all at once (usually with massive pound signs printed on them), it’s stability not panic that makes for footballing success. But try telling that to punters and pundits.

I recall the press conference that luckless Graham Taylor gave when he was elevated from Watford to the disorienting heights of the England job. Surveying the assembled hacks, Mr Soon-To-Be-Turnip-Head emitted a wry grin.

“Just so that I can make sure none of you gets there first”, he mused, “let me be the first person to say ‘Taylor Must Go!’” I loved him for that. Some of the journos laughed, to give them credit. Others no doubt sat there figuring out how they would get say the same thing with a different set of syllables some time in the future. Which is partly why the vegetable metaphor got cooked up, I guess.

Sven suffered similarly, with shouts of “mash the Swede”. Now they want ‘carrots’ McClaren for the soccer minestrone. My friend Jim fancies Klinsmann to succeed. If he’s right, you read it first here. “The sour kraut must go!” is presumably how the Sun will dispatch him.

Closer to the pitch, it’s just as daft. At Bolton recently, Gary Megson received a “sack the boss” cry from one terrace wit before he’d even warmed up the bench. No wonder the compensation package is the first thing a coach’s agent looks for before his client signs up.

It may be mad, you’re thinking, but what’s the alternative? If a team is going downhill and there are fans, league places and bucks on the line, what do we do? The temptation to look for a quick fix and a new injection of adrenalin and personality to re-motivate the players isn’t hard to comprehend, given all the pressures.

As Trusts expand their influence over the lower echelons of football, it will be interesting to see if the ‘snap fingers management’ culture changes, at least as far as the grass and keepy-uppy end of things is concerned.

Meanwhile, a rather different approach is being mooted by a bunch of slick web operators. Back in May an entrepreneur persuaded the BBC to give some publicity to his ‘My Football Club’ idea. 50,000 people sign up, pay £35 into a fund, generate £1.5 million and buy and run a small club through an Industrial and Provident Society. Then, hey presto, you pick the team and manager every week. Well, you and 49,999 others.

Sounds great. A grassroots trust democracy. But how are decisions made? How many different opinions will thousands of people have? How is consistency possible? What if the owners are hopeless? What happens in year two? What becomes of the club if the IPS closes … and what if someone just waltzes off with your cash?

Several ‘clone’ operations have already appeared on the web, sought money and disappeared. The truth is, there’s no short cut to getting managers or players to succeed. But loyalty, relationships and patience are better starting points than greed and agitation, whether the owners are a company, a trust – or a web lottery.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The real Brit awards

First published in Sons View, 06 November 2007, Dumbarton -v- Forfar

When I was younger one of the highlights of the year was the Home International Championships – an annual opportunity for Scotland to assume their rightful place as the foremost football nation in Britain.

As I write this, there is a fresh wave of speculation about a revival of the contest between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some bunch of eager no-hopers south of the border.

Given the capacity of the English game and the interests of its global corporate investors to dominate any decision-making process, it’s no surprise that the major foot-dragging (bordering on straightforward opposition) seems to be coming from the English FA.

So, as most Sons fans will know, there is also speculation about a possible ‘Celtic Cup’ involving both jurisdictions in Ireland to make up the four.

The discussions have already been dragging on for five years or more, and they are unlikely to be resolved soon, unless someone shuts the door very firmly. Which, knowing my luck with ‘breaking stories’, may well have happened the day before you read this!

Apart from money, the chief obstacle, I guess, is the “too much football” argument. Sounds like a contradiction in terms to me! Though the threat of injury from overplaying at the top level isn’t, I admit, a frivolous issue – however much these guys get paid.

The main issue for England, of course, is that many of their players are caught up in post-season commercial activities and lucrative pre-season club tours of exotic places. And there’s the small matter of other international competitions and qualifiers for players from all nations.

All told, then, the odds look rather stacked against a revival of the ‘home’ tournament. But we can still dream, and many marketing people believe it could work commercially.

In the meantime, we have those memories of mammoth Scotland-England clashes; the pain and the glory; and of course the overlooked fact that, as a matter of record, we were champions of the world in 1967 – when we beat the ’66 Wembley titans 3-2.

(I have the T-shirt for that match. It winds up my London flatmate Jim Smith something rotten. And he wasn’t even born then. Ah, the power of truth.) *

Not all the memories are quite so sweet, of course. The one that sticks in my craw, and yours too, I’ll guess, was that Gazza goal in 1996. Not actually a Home International (they had ended by 1983-4), but the European Championships made it even more important.

As is so often the case with Scotland against England, things seemed to be going well just before they started to go really badly.

As it happens, I was watching the match in an adult education centre in the mists of Surrey. I’d neatly made sure that the charity workers I was teaching had a much-needed afternoon off (how thoughtful!), and I put my feet up in front of the telly with a lad from the kitchen – a Scot, thankfully.

It was 0-1 in the 79th minute and Scotland had won a penalty. This was it. The cheer from Bletchley could probably have been heard in Helensburgh. And then a kind of film car-crash slow motion effect took over…

The penalty was missed (I’ll spare the taker’s blushes), the ball ended up down the other end of the pitch, and Paul Gascoigne, the cheeky man-clown who is well remembered for his spell at Rangers, scored what even the most partisan Scot would have to admit was a magical goal. Which made it even more sickening.

Still, when these things go wrong, you think, there’s always next time. That was part of the allure of the Home Internationals. First, there’s the belief that you’ll beat England this year, for sure. And if not, you can still come out tournament winners.

And if that doesn’t work either, then the strategy is clearly to lure the Irish, Welsh and (especially) the English into a dangerous sense of false security… for next time.

Whether it could ever be quite the same, I doubt. The Home Internationals were at their height in what seemed like a more innocent age when commercialisation hadn’t reached the frenzy of today, and when the borders that we paid attention to were closer to home than those of a globalised environment.

But let’s be honest, there’s nothing like a Scotland-England clash. And even the revival of that alone every few years would be a fabulous gain. Not to mention a monumental challenge.

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* In fairness to Jim, I should point out that he says: "No, it doesn't annoy me, Simon. It's just too stupid for words. As you know."

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Dumbarton at Parkhead again

As I only have terrestrial TV in Exeter, I don't usually get to see Setanta, except when I'm staying up in London. So this evening I caught, quite unexpectededly (to say the least!) an extended highlights re-run of Dumbarton's 4-0 defeat by Celtic in the Scottish Cup back in January '07, which forms the banner of this blog. It was part of The Road To Hampden sequence. You couldn't complain about the result, frankly, but for a bunch of part-timers three leagues and a world apart from the Bhoys, the Sons didn't do at all badly. Some good passing and movement, in spite of the predictably large amount of Celtic pressure. As the BBC noted at the time: "[t]he in-form Third Division side should have taken the lead inside 90 seconds when McQuilkin found himself with space inside the penalty area but failed to connect properly from 10 yards and fired wide." DFC keeper Stephen Grindlay (who has also moved on) gave a good account of himself, too. (The picture is the front of the programme for this match.)

Then there was the Setanta SPL round-up, which I've seen several times of late. It makes a refreshing change to be able to see a bit more Scottish football down south, including the BBC website clips. The matches I saw indicate that the Old Firm revival in European competition and Scotland's national resurgence are not isolated phenomena. The quality of football is picking up all round. In comparison with England, I'd rate much of what I saw as top of the Championship or lower Premier League. There is, of course, still a big gulf in class, marked also by the huge economic chasm. But the idea that the SPL is a complete Cinderella is unfair. Among the second rank of European leagues, no doubt, but capable of putting pressure on the Auld Firm from time-to-time.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Some still call it 'diving'

First published in Sons View, 03 November 2007, Dumbarton -v- Arbroath

I admit I did a double take when someone started up a conversation about the evils of ‘simulation’ in football the other day. My instant assumption was that it must have something to do with Gordon Brown pretending to be thrilled when England win a sporting occasion, just so that he doesn’t offend voters down south.

But no. This coy term refers to what used to be known rather more prosaically as ‘cheating’ in the days of footballing yore – specifically the well crafted dive to secure a penalty, free kick or other unfair advantage at a crucial stage in the game.

There’s no doubt that there has been an increase in such unsporting activity in recent years, especially in the higher echelons of football. I mean it never happens at Dumbarton, does it? Not with our lads anyway; though I wouldn’t presume to speak for our noble opponents.

In all seriousness though, the Scottish FA is to be applauded for seeking new ways of tackling practices that bring little glory to the game and much annoyance on the terraces. The ‘sin bin’ idea was never really a starter, but a ‘name and shame’ list is more feasible. SFA chief executive Gordon Smith is also willing to take on FIFA over the issue of rescinding yellow cards for players who have been the victims of an opponent’s dive. Good for him.

Two high profile incidents have brought the ‘simulation’ debate into the spotlight in recent weeks. One involves Hearts midfielder Saulius Mikoliunas’ winning of a dubious penalty for Lithuania during Scotland's Euro 2008 campaign – together with what looked like exaggerated falls by Andrius Velicka and Tomas Danilevicius early in the same Hampden encounter.

More recently there has been the case of AC Milan goalkeeper Dida, and his ludicrous antics when gently (but completely inexcusably) happy-slapped by an overwrought Bhoys fan during the climactic moment of Celtic’s Champions League triumph at Parkhead. In that instance, EUFA had the good sense to hand down a two-match tournament ban.

To their credit, Milan also refused to make capital out of the incident and admitted that Dida was wrong, despite an inevitable appeal against the punishment. In contrast, the reaction of some clubs when their stars are caught bang-to-rights on the camera is every bit as much part of the problem as what happens on the pitch.

But let’s get back to the word itself. I suppose ‘simulation’ has come into vogue as a synonym for diving and feigning injury because in the days of celebrity soccer posing, footballers may be just as interested in the outside chance of an Oscar nomination as they are in winning a dodgy spot kick. Plus the inventiveness of their role-playing can be jaw-droppingly varied.

The hammiest Hollywood hustler would certainly have been proud of Dida’s performance at Celtic Park, when he spent several seconds vigorously chasing the invading fan, before suddenly discovering his mortal wound and tumbling to the earth like a scythed bear. All of which left him no alternative but to accept that proffered stretcher. It was a horribly cynical and absurdly comical moment.

The SFA’s response to this kind of thing (and let’s face it, it happens at all levels and in all countries, even if the visibility and temptation my be greater in big money games), is to target the offence of “simulation when committed by players who escape sanction from the referee” for a trial period from 1 January 2008.

Match referees will review footage of every televised match, and identify incidents where cases of blatant cheating occurred. If the player was spotted and punished by the ref, the SFA will add three penalty points to his record. If the player was also yellow carded in the same match for a separate offence, he will be regarded as having been sent off and will incur an automatic one match suspension. Similarly, officials can retract yellow cards.

It’s a bold move, and one that may still not go ahead if others overseeing the game have their way. Smaller clubs might also protest that it is one rule for the rich and televised, and one rule for the rest – like us down at SHS. But the thinking is that changing the culture of TV spotlighted football is a key component part of regaining respect in all corners of the game. For what it’s worth, I think this makes sense.

That said, we could do with a bit of humour too. So nominations for the coveted Rock Oscars will be gratefully received.

Buzzing with the Bees

Having rather summarily described Griffin Park [pictured] as not so much "a theatre of dreams right now, [m]ore like a parking lot of gritted teeth", in my previous Exeter programme column, I atoned for my neglect last weekend by paying Brentford a visit. Since I was up in London and my friend Kevin Scully's beloved Leyton Orient were away at Doncaster, we decided to trek westwards to catch the Bees in action against Lincoln City. They consigned their opponents to the bottom of League Two (the Fourth Division, as I shall always consider it), with a late goal securing a 1-0 victory.

Brentford was my late grandfather's team, and the site of my first ever live football experience, a 2-1 win against Notts County. Back in 1967 it seemed a lot bigger (the small child's inflated perception, a la James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist), and of course the open terraces at each end had gone. I was also sitting in the opposite stand. Or 'the wrong side', as it inevitably felt. The first half was as dire an excuse for a game of football as I have seen for a long time, and made me reflect on the fact that the top of the Blue Square Premier, where my local Grecians play, is at least as good, quality wise; probably better. The second half was a distinct improvement, with some entertaining goalmouth scrambles.

It's the mistakes that really count at this level, however. As the person I was sitting next to observed, there were some skillful moves which didn't quite make it to fruition. He usually watches Aussie A-League, from whence Brentford boss and former England centre-half Terry Butcher came, after his time at Motherwell. The standard there is quite a bit higher than this, probably the equivalent of top half League One or lower half Championship, I'm told. The weather's a lot better, for sure.

Football's moral bubble?

It's not every day that you get the chance to hold forth about fair play to the head of world football, still enmeshed in ongoing FIFA controversy (see the post below). But my mate Giles Fraser did recently - and tells the tale in The Church Times, of all unlikely places.

“It wasn’t a sermon,” said Sepp Blatter with a rather grizzly gravitas: “it was a message.” ... I guessed it was a compliment because of the accompanying air of bonhomie. He explained: “You and I think the same.” This came from a man dogged by accusations of financial mismanagement and corruption. I smiled, weakly. My sermon to mark the 150th anniversary of the world’s oldest football club hardly broke new ground in the realm of moral theory. I had suggested that football was in danger of losing its soul to money and celebrity, and went on to aver that the very first football club — Sheffield FC [pictured] — could teach most other professional teams a thing or two about the real heart of the beautiful game. ... The gathered glitterati of world football looked uncomfortable in church, and sang as enthusiastically as Fulham on a wet February afternoon. I spoke about the way football has the ability to break down barriers of class, colour, religion, and language. The congregation half-listened, with bullet-proof indifference... I had found no route past their defences.

Read the whole piece here. But be warned, Giles is a Chelsea fan. At least he knows what existential peril that puts him in, though.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

FIFA, fo fum...

I smell the blood. And even though he's a Scot, it could end up being PM Gordon Brown's. For he has chosen to put his trust in slippery FIFA chief Sepp Blatter and the promise that with a rule change in the world footballing body, England are in with a decent shout for the 2018 World Cup. In return, Brown says he will support investment in African soccer. That's good. So long as he doesn't think it's some kind of quid pro quo for guaranteed fair treatment. BBC1's alarming and well-researched 'Panorama' documentary about serious allegations of corruption at the very top of football (Monday, 22 October) would suggest otherwise. There are many arms to twist and shake yet. The determined silence of 'world football tsar' Seb Coe, who is supposed to root out this kind of thing, isn't encouraging, either. One of the few people with some credibility intact is former Scottish FA chair John McBeth (pictured), who has spoken out in spite of being traduced. Meanwhile, England's bid rolls on. Cue vast amounts of money being poured down drains or into pockets over the next few years.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Hiddink rubs salt into the wound

.... ouch! Methinks he's not in the for the job. Or Mourinho, in spite of the tabloid gossip. So that's Martin O'Neill, then. No one English is actually up to scratch, it seems. Meanwhile, as Alan Pattullo comments in The Scotsman: "The prospect of victory might be classed as slightly longer than a long shot, but Scotland at least know what they have to do when Italy visit Hampden Park next month. This is a blessing not offered the likes of England, who are required to sit and wait on others to supply a helpful nudge towards the Alps next summer."

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Those match day routines

First published in The Grecian, 20 October 2007, Exeter City -v- Rushden & Diamonds

I felt quite lost last weekend. For the first time in six weeks, there was no obvious football match to go to. Bereft of action at St James’ Park after two good home wins (a hard-fought 1-0 against Grays and that six goal rollercoaster ride with Salisbury City), I found myself up in London and the Southeast on a work assignment. So while you were cheering England or Scotland on the telly, I was delivering a seminar in the wilds of Chichester.

Strictly speaking I could have popped along to see Brentford on Friday night. But it was the other side of the town, I needed cheering up, the alarm was due to go off frighteningly early the next morning… and, well, Griffin Park isn’t exactly a theatre of dreams right now. More like a parking lot of gritted teeth. So I sent the Bees a quick good wish via my beer glass instead.

Recognising that the grimmer realities of lower league football have not historically deterred me from hitting the turnstiles, I realise that the decisive factor in my decision to sit out Brentford’s 1-1 tie with Peterborough was the fact that I would have had to rush to the game straight from a meeting, probably arriving in my seat breathless and programmeless about 28 seconds before (or after) kick off.

That’s definitely not how I like to do things. I may be almost late for everything else in life, but when I attend a football match I like plenty of time to get myself oriented beforehand and soak up the atmosphere when I arrive at the ground.

Footballers are well known for their often bizarre pre-match routines. But we fans have our rituals too, and not just those (like our gallant Exeter stewards, club and Trust officials) who help to get everything prepared for the big occasion.

In my case, getting ready for an afternoon with the Grecians is nothing too dramatic. But it feels very much part of the total ‘live football process’, nonetheless. After one or household activities, I like to settle down to BBC1’s Football Focus for my weekly dose of argument, comment and homely cliché. Then it’s on to the net to re-familiarise myself with the past week’s developments, drop into Exeweb (as a lurker rather than a participant) and generally get distracted from whatever else I could more usefully be doing.

For some strange reason, I never have lunch before a football match, unless I’m meeting up with friends. Instead, my body seems to crave a big bag of citrus fruit and a flask of unfeasibly milky tea to sustain me through all those frantic goalmouth incidents. That and a choccie bar or bottle of Fair Trade orange juice from the EFC catering outlets. The people who sit near me must wonder what on earth’s going to come out of the bag and go down my neck next.

Living in Heavitree, I need to allow about 20 minutes to walk to the ground. That means departing about 2pm, as I like to have time to pick up my copy of The Grecian, get to my seat in good time, catch up on the gossip … and commence my solo eat-a-thon. Something to do with concentration I think. If you need a Satsuma, just give me a nudge.

After the game it’s a dash back for the results and analysis. Then there’s only four hours or so until Match of the Day. And they say football fans have a one-tracked mind. Go figure.

There's only one World Cup

... and it most certainly is not the trophy being played for this afternoon by bruisers throwing around a misshapen ball. So whatever the result ('mon you Mandelas!), the real action doesn't start until 2010 with the Game that really is Beautiful. Scotland, of course, were world champions after beating England in 1967, and can repeat the feat by defeating Italy on 17 November. I know, a completely duff argument, Jim. But all the more fun for that! Meanwhile, let's hope Gordon Strachan is right. Georgia's coach Klaus Toppmoller is behind us too: "[I]t's unbelievable that we beat Scotland 2-0. They had to win and we had nothing to lose, but I would like to wish Scotland all the best against Italy." Good man. Update: Springboks deny England 'World Cup'

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Sven's inner smile

I'm sure he's far too nice to laugh out loud - and he knows the players personally, so schadenfreude is out of the question. But behind that hand there must be just the slightest inner smile playing across Sven Goran Eriksson's soul this morning. England's retreat from Moscow means that they are relying on Israel to trip up Guus Hiddink's men now, and this is most unlikely. The beastly English media trashed the Swede for getting England into a succession of world quarter-finals. Now, under his successor (nowhere up to scratch, and treated with even greater vileness), the '66 hangovers will probably miss out on a major tournament for the first time since 1994.

The whole situation is laden with irony. First off, the current (but not for much longer?) England coach has dropped 10 points in Group E. Eriksson qualified for three tournaments while letting 11 points slip over 24 games in all, as Kevin McCarra pointed out in the Guardian this morning. On top of that poor Steve McLaren has been tactically outwitted by his possible successor, Hiddink, who commented last night: "You could see in the first half that we had two strikers and they were playing with [newbie] Joleon Lescott rather inside as a central defender with Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. So in the first half we had a lot of space on the right side and so we could penetrate there; although our attacking was not fine-tuned we still had that threat. That was why I changed it at half-time; they were vulnerable that side. And I like making [the left winger] Joe Cole a left full-back: you get rid of one of their attackers. That is why we could damage them."

Then I have commented before how unjust and dumbass the anti-Sven, anti-'foreigner', Inger-landisms were. And the man himself has certainly done a good piece of advocacy for his talents at Manchester City. Well, now the England chickens have truly come home to roost by dropping the egg, committing unnecessary fouls (fowls, ouch!) and missing the bar. Bars are used to keep the hapless creatures penned up, right? Anyway, pathetic puns aside, it is more than possible that Britain will have no representatives at the European Championships - though my money is still on Scotland pulling off a shock against the Azzuri. I know, it makes no sense at all. And that's why it might just happen. Oh well, England may yet win a world cup again... but in rugby, which is a rubbish game and really doesn't count. (Sorry.) 'Mon Mandela!

Since I care much more, I shall withhold an analysis of Scotland's failings last night. Except to say that they were five or six players down, too cautiously framed, weighed down by expectations and up against a sprightly Georgia side with nothing to lose and a reputation to develop. As we like to say when we have nothing further useful to contribute: "that's football". Now back to the studio.