Monday, 27 August 2007

Managing our great expectations

First published in The Grecian, 27 August 2007, Exeter City -v- Weymouth

Whatever the post-match arguments about England’s mid-week performance against Germany, one thing was always clear. Given the choices available, no-one quite expected the 5-1 triumph of yesteryear that hailed the arrival of that new managerial hero – Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Sven’s story illustrates just how fickle the worlds of football fandom and sporting journalism can be. And though there is no comparison between the world of international footballing icons and the tough realities of the Blue Square Premier, perhaps the question of how we manage the ‘great expectations’ we have of our coaches isn’t that different.

For months the cool Swede could do no wrong. His image as a football technician was contrasted with the kick-and-hope approach many believed had stunted the English game. His unflappable temperament was heralded as a sign that, unlike those touchline prima donnas, he wouldn’t be too swayed by emotion.

How attitudes changed. Within a few years these same qualities were being dismissed as “a lack of motivational drive” and “a failure to understand the passion of the game.”

What happened was that Eriksson could not quite turn an upper-middle ranking football nation into the team of all-conquering heroes many people imagined they had a right to be. The shadow of 1966 meant that Quarter Finals in succeeding World and European championships was not enough.

So in spite of a couple of near misses and the achievement of gaining the highest percentage of points from competitive matches of any England manager, Sven’s reign ended – with a large boot from the tabloids – amid cries of ‘failure’ and ‘disaster’.

As Eriksson has shown in his club career, not least with the impact he has had on a changing and disjointed squad at Manchester City, those judgements were as superficial as the triumphalism that accompanied his earlier England results, not least the symbolic crushing of Germany.

Football these days is about instant passions, fast bucks and quick decisions. But we shouldn’t forget that there is a long view too. And those coaches who we look back on as real successes are usually the ones who had the guts to do it ‘their way’ in spite of the barracking.

We’d be wise to bear that in mind with our own Paul Tisdale. After the deep disappointment of losing at Wembley there was an understandable wave of uncertainty over the summer.

As well known faces went and last season’s play-off team became a memory, people began to make noises about whether we could really trust the manager. Who was going to replace the old players? What was the plan? Would we be ready in time for the new season?

After the opening few games things are looking clearer. With a host of injuries and a good deal of re-adjustment, it will be tough. But we’ve had a decent start. The emphasis is shifting to youth, with the back up of shrewd ‘experience imports’.

Tis is also making it clear that he’s his own man and won’t be rushed. Without Sven’s millions or experience, he remains more calculating than excitable. With no shortage of advice, he wants to take things at his own pace.

We have a long season ahead of us. For many the play-offs are being described as ‘a minimum’. But we forget that when Tisdale arrived many were unsure The Grecians had it in them to get even that far.

Having great expectations is one thing. But handling the weekly pressures of rebuilding a team and digging in for the future are what it’s really about. So let’s not leap too quickly between hope and despair.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Anyone here speak football?

First published in Sons View, 25 August 2007, Dumbarton -v- Albion Rovers

While your intrepid Sons View editor was working his way across Canada with the Tartan Army a few weeks ago, I was lounging on the east coast of the USA. My wife is American, so we have to keep putting pennies in the pot to be able to visit relatives and friends from time-to-time.

As everyone knows, the US of A is, contradictorily, both a football desert and a place where a huge number of kids play ‘soccer’ until they are about 14 years old – when most then lose touch with the game altogether.

The solution, in reality, has nothing to do with David Beckham, and a lot to do with the language he struggles to speak. No, not English – give the poor boy a break. I’m thinking about Spanish.

Latinos make up a massive and growing proportion of the US population, and many of them are football fanatics. They are also far more liable to be poor, and to fall out of the thin financial net that supports young athletes. Which is why ‘soccer’ will most likely continue to languish, whatever happens to LA Galaxy.

Helping talented and enthusiastic Latino kids into proper training programmes – that’s where the real investment should be going. But the free market sees it otherwise. And so does the media.

Certainly if you are looking for footie coverage on US TV or in the big papers, forget it. The very word is reserved for a game where, ironically, people pick up a ball and throw it. Go figure.

To me the rules of American Football (insofar as I can fathom them) seem rather better suited to deploying Sherman tanks than jinking past midfielders. But that’s the way they like it there. Rough, tough and focussed on a few big games a season.

Even so, there’s a growing curiosity Stateside about what the educated few insist on calling ‘real football’. That and a bit of jealousy about the fact that, unlike NFL and Major League Baseball, our game truly is a global phenomenon.

One of my nieces is a potential fan, and said she would like to go to ‘a proper game’ at some point. I promised to work on it. I’m sure her imagination was really itching to travel to the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. She just thought she was fantasising about Chelsea or The Champions League.

Naturally, after a bit of a chat, many American people ask (out of politeness as much as anything else) who you support. But the answer doesn’t necessarily mean that much. Celtic or Dumbarton sound equally foreign to the uninformed ear, frankly.

So the next question usually goes, “Is Dumbarton a big club, then?” Bigness being a bit of a virtue in the States, you understand. “Well, they’re big in my heart”, I think, wondering how I should go about explaining just how really, really small (but perfectly formed) the Sons are.

Sometimes it would be rather tempting to spin it out a bit. I’m wicked like that. “Well, only recently we hosted one of the finalists in a big European game at our noted training facilities in the shadow of one of Scotland’s natural beauty spots”, I hear myself opining. In my head, anyway. I’m not that tricky… am I? Hmnnn…

The PR campaign continues. “Plus, of course, we’ve won the Scottish championship a couple of times” (omits the words ‘1890/91’, ‘tie with Rangers’ and ‘1891/92’), “not to mention the Scottish Cup… which is, um, the biggest cup competition in Scotland, not counting golf.”

At that point I might sound like I’m about to flounder. But believe me, I’m quite good at this PR lark. Then again, no. I couldn’t really. It would be cruel. And I’d hate myself in the morning, surely?

Actually, some persuasive footie fans did manage to super-hype the lowly Brentford a few seasons back, inadvertently nourishing a minor US celebrity following for the club that has just descended into English League Two (as they insist on calling the Fourth Division). You had to smile.

Meanwhile, I’m writing that imaginary Press Release for the glorious Sons. “Our bigness is better measured in longevity than mere money or success”, perhaps? No, the Yanks won’t buy that. Though in 1872 their West was still wild, remember.

Ah well, one day my American friends and family will understand the true meaning of football, I’m sure. And then they will realise that teams like Dumbarton are worth a dozen Big Timers. For those with imaginations larger than their wallets, anyway. C’mon, my Sons!

Overpaid and over here?

Most people think top footballers should be given a substantial pay cut, a survey for the Fabian Society says. While the UK's (read England's) best-paid soccer players earn millions a year, the poll found people think that, on average, they should be paid just £62,000. The think tank spoke to a representative sample 3,000 people. At the other end of the pay scale, respondents said that experienced hospital nurses should get a pay rise, from the current typical salary of £21,985 to £33,000. The survey follows on from the excellent work done by Noreena Hertz with her May Day For Nurses campaign, which persuaded half of all English Premier League players and managers to give up a day's pay to assist hospital workers' quest for a just wage through a hardship fund. Donations are still welcome. [Pic: Noreena with players from Reading last season]

Friday, 24 August 2007

I'll drink to that

The unexpected late-night arrival of a Celtic fan at my London pied a terre {cough!} the other evening necessitated the brewing of a good strong cuppa. Naturally it was offered in my fine Sons mug [pictured]. What better way could there be to imbibe health and well-being with a lost soul who finds himself in need of a bed for the night? Well, a sofa anyway. Should you, too, wish to acquire this fine piece of drinking equipment, you can do so at the Dumbarton FC online shop. "The first port of call for sporting accoutrements of distinction, mate." I'll be drinking to at least a point off Albion Rovers at the Rock tomorrow, for sure.

United by grief

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously commented: "Football isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that." He was talking friendly bollocks, of course. And no doubt, if he was alive today, Shanks would have been among the first to honour the memory of 11-years young Everton fan Rhys Jones, who was (appallingly and incomprehensibly) shot dead in Croxteth the other evening. It's gratifying to see that even the deepest sporting rivalries can be put into perspective by a tragedy like this. The sight of red and blue scarves entwined is a heartening in the midst of loss. It would be wonderful if it could happen more often - but without the spur of pointless violence to get us to see how trivial our differences really are. [Pic: courtesy of the BBC]

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Scotland 1 England, er, didn't

If progress in football is measured by the ability of a less than on-song team to grind out results against talented opposition (as is often said), Scotland's 1-0 victory against a lively South African side at Pittodrie says rather more about their development than England's 2-1 defeat to Germany at Wembley. In truth, England deserved a point against an experimental German side, but were thwarted by what may come t0 be known as "McLaren's luck". That and a goalkeeper drought which must have the likes of Alan Rough and Bobby Clark smiling. They and other Scottish keepers have had to endure years of mockery from Down South, fuelled by the legend of Banks, Shilton and others. The reality now, however, is that England do not have an indisputable world class keeper to drawn on, and are being forced to turn to a veteran to help - and one who has had more than a few question marks against him in the past, too. How McLaren's team must long to be able to choose someone of the quality of ex-Hearts sticks man Craig Gordon (pictured), recently poached to Sunderland by the Premier League money-machine.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Living with footie's telly belly

First published in The Grecian, 20 August 2007, Exeter -v- York City

So, the new season is well underway – though still at an early enough phase to indulge our dearest hopes. For Exeter City fans, a promotion place is the main goal. Of course.

But few would turn down a big, juicy FA cup tie with the premiership elite, either – not least because of the TV revenues attached to such an occasion.

As Grecians fans know, TV plays a major role in making football an inhabitable environment, and not just because of its entertainment and information value.

Those two precious ties against Manchester United in 2005 live on proudly in the collective ECFC memory. But more than that, they are part of the reason why – in spite of the disappointment of losing last season’s Wembley playoff – we are where we are right now.

Imagine what life would be like without the revenue the Man U matches provided? Those within the Trust and the club who worked so hard to turn survival into flourishing would have been given an even more mountainous task.

All of which reminds us that, for those at the lower end of football’s financial food chain, so much of the telly belly that can spell fitness or failure depends upon, well, sheer luck. The right draw at the right time. The upside is also the downside.

There’s no question but that the TV companies have spooned millions into our beloved game, as well as raking millions in for themselves. But after the record close season transfer spending fuelled in large part by money from television revenues worth £2.7 billion over the next three seasons, no-one can seriously doubt that the influence of the little screen is to produce a hall of mirrors in some board rooms, either.

For while the financial cake depends upon investment, gate receipts and merchandising, it is TV which has had the lion’s share in turning the Beautiful Game into big business – and a top-heavy one, at that.

This, the optimists say, is “simply the way of the world”. But it’s also uncomfortably like the law of the jungle – the big eaters get to rule the roost, and those who survive on smaller scraps are constantly looking over their shoulders to see where the next meal is coming from.

The answer, for us anyway, is to make sustainability the name of the game. In spite of the difficulties and wrangles along the way, that has been a key part of the Grecians' revival story.

Sure, we’d all like more money to splash on bigger players. But the spend-now-pay-later policy comes with a hidden price, given the vagaries of a sport that can turn on the outcome of just a handful of games.

In 2005-6, fewer than half of premiership clubs posted profit. Their growth model is based on looking jealously at the astronomical revenue of NFL or Major League Baseball in the USA, where telly also plays a pivotal role.

But those megabucks are only achieved because relegation isn’t an issue and neither is serious global competition. What’s more, the market is both bigger and (in a number of respects, like transfers) more controlled.

All of which means that the crazy world of soccernomics is unlikely to become saner by Supersizing, unless the fabled European League really does happen.

Here at Exeter we may sometimes envy the big boys’ big bucks, and curse the injustice of a money system which depends massively on luck or location. But at least we have our fate in our own hands. Some of the household names in football may soon come to crave that more than they can imagine.

Beckham insurance shocker

This fabulous story on poor old Becks is from peerless US satirical magazine The Onion. "L.A. Galaxy club officials said Monday that, under the terms of the insurance policy intended to protect their $250 million investment in star midfielder David Beckham, they would under no circumstances permit the high-priced Beckham to play soccer for them ever again." Hat-tip to my esteemed brother-in-law, Kevin Roth, down in Denver, Colorado, for spotting this one. Mind you, nothing could quite top the unintended satire of the cable TV show 'The Beckhams Arrive in America', which I watched, open-mouthed, when in the US last month (July 2007). Perhaps the best moment was when Posh expressed surprise that a vehicle registration agency photo couldn't be touched up, and said that her (filmed) detention for a traffic offence in LA had mainly been traumatic "because I was wearing flat shoes when I got out of the car". A veritable fashion disaster! No wonder David kept himself out of the camera's way for most of the first programme.

Grecians face a yorker

Before tonight's Blue Square Premier clash against York City, most Exeter fans would probably have settled for a 1-1 draw. That is until the 87th minute of the game, when York's slippery striker Onome Sodje - who had long threatened - snaked through the Exeter defence to equalize Richard Logan's penalty 10 minutes before half-time. It seemed scant reward for a fine performance against one of the best teams in the league, albeit a side who have started poorly. The consolation, I guess, is that there won't be that many tougher home ties. And in spite of a radically diminished midfield, the Grecians were well-organised, determined and lion-hearted throughout. Ironically, given that it is the one area of the field where they have options at the moment, they may have lacked a little bite up front. But the defending, that crucial moment apart, was oftentimes heroic. York were able to push up further than they should, but they faced skilled tackling and marking, attackers (Jamie Mackie and Logan - pictured) prepared to cover gaps in the centre of the park brought on by injuries, and a very able goalkeeper in 36-year-old veteran Andy Marriott - a new signing from recently demoted Boston United. Exeter deserved more than a point, but the performance was reward in itself. One of the most compelling games I've seen at St James' Park for a long time.

Drinks and blue faces all round

I have no idea whether Alex Ferguson eventually shared a glass of wine with Sven Goran Eriksson after Manchester City triumphed 1-0 over United to take an unlikely lead in the English Premier League on Sunday. But if so, it must have tasted of remorse. The Swede had graciously ignored Fergie's routine taunts and invited him to a customary post-match imbibing. The two had famously fallen out over Sven's decision to play Wayne Rooney for England in the world cup. Now the boy wonder is injured again. And Ferguson's response at the pre-game press conference was terse. "If he wants to give me the bottle, I'll take it. But I won't be drinking it with him." His team then dominated the game, but lost. And Micah Richards played a blinder. The re-match at Old Trafford is going to be electric. But right now the table looks just fine to those of us bored by the Big Four (get the t-shirt of the moment from those fine Philosophy Football people, if you will.)

Monday, 20 August 2007

Sons' fantasy football

The Herald newspaper would appear to be a mite less than impressed with the Sons’ triumphant idea to capitalise on our intimate knowledge of our own team. Is there just no romance left in their souls? Plus they’ve missed out on the main point, which is, of course, to test fans’ knowledge against that of their manager. I predict a raging success... of sorts. And a graveyard for the cynics.

“Our lower league clubs face a constant struggle to survive. Paltry attendances, little sponsorship revenue, no marketing income ... the need for innovative new plans to boost revenues has never been more essential.
“But to be honest, we’re not sure
Dumbarton and East Stirlingshire’s latest wheezes are really the answer to all their problems.

“Third division side Dumbarton have launched a fantasy football game on their website. Not a bad idea, except the only team you can pick players from is ... Dumbarton.”

The Shire’s idea, lest you should wonder, is the less-than-guaranteed money spinner that is Shire TV. Hmmnn... On the other hand, they’ve beaten us twice so far this season. So I’d better shut up.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Grow up, England

Good luck to Manchester City against Man U tomorrow. Though it's going to be tough, to say the least. As one City fan delightfully put it on the BBC this morning: "We do tend to struggle against teams in the bottom half of the Premiership!" In particular, I hope that Sven Goran Eriksson rapidly re-gains the respect he deserves as a manager following the pasting he took from press and fans alike at the end of his England tenure. It says a good deal about the sheer childishness of much football newsmongering that a coach who achieved the highest point percentage of all time in major tournament matches for an England manager could be called "a disaster" by a series of senior columnists. Grow up, England.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Trimming the grass...

Just a quick 'admin' note to say that it's my intention to keep my articles for Sons View and The Grecian at or near the top of the blogging pile. So newer comments may, in fact, appear below them. If you have link or story suggestions do drop me a line. And comment away, of course.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

A drubbing down the park

First published in The Grecian, 14 August 2007, Exeter -v- Crawley Town

Though you can grow into it, football is often something you either get or don’t. My partner, like a significant majority of her fellow Americans, is basically in the ‘don’t get’ camp. She swears that, before we married, I hardly ever mentioned the Beautiful Game.

Anyway, as soon as we settled down, disguising my secret passion became rather more difficult. There were soon three people in this relationship. No, not Camilla or the patter of tiny feet. I’m talking about me, Carla and Sky Sports News – the only thing I’ve ever really thanked Rupert Murdoch for.

Walking outside the front door is a football addiction hazard, too. That’s because we live only a short hop away from Heavitree Pleasure Ground – where I have been actively encouraged to keep my ageing bones in shape.

Carla once dismissed footie with the usual “22 men just thumping a ball around” routine. The ball, undeniably, is indispensable. But the number of people involved in a game, their age and gender, are a bit more flexible. Especially in the local park.

Now being a true football fanatic, I’ve never really been able to walk past six kids belting a tennis ball into a goal-shaped pile of coats without getting at least mildly absorbed.

Thankfully I’ve not quite got to being one of those sad gits who starts shouting coaching advice from the ‘touchline’, while absent-mindedly kicking stray dogs out of their line of vision.

Nor do I charge into the junior fray, demanding a place in the forward line in the vain hope that at least I might finally be able to get a hat-trick against a bunch of eleven-year-olds. I’ve been tempted, but they’d rightly call their social workers on a mobile and get me sent off.

No, I just wander along the path, listening intently to Carla (of course)… and wondering whether those lads in the muddy jumpers might be better off trying a diamond formation to wrestle control of midfield from the ones in the, um, the other muddy jumpers.

If I’m really lucky, some hapless hoof-footer (of the kind I used to be at school) will fork the ball off the ‘pitch’ altogether, straight in my direction.

This is not an opportunity to be missed. The way to handle it is to stay cool, trap the ball with your instep, raise a suave eyebrow in the direction of the nearest goalkeeper, and nonchalantly punt the ball eight feet to his left. Like you intended.

“So you agree that’s what we’ll do for our holiday, then?” Carla asks, interrupting the seamless tactical machinations of my finely-honed footballing brain.

“Yes, that sounds fine”, I venture confidently. “Great idea!” Carla looks unconvinced. “You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?”

I protest. I have heard quite a few of the many wise words she has been lobbing at me, I assure her. I’m just not sure which order they went in or what they meant.

But Carla’s usually right, so there’s more than a 50/50 chance that saying “yes” is the sensible thing to do.

This time I have apparently agreed to give up a relaxing week away so that we can rebuild our house out of organic straw while eating only brown rice, or something.

Whatever. At least I managed to see that lad with no jumper and a puce shirt head a beautiful goal into what would have been the top right-hand corner of the goal – if a pile of jackets had a top right-hand corner.

There’s always an up-side to everything. That’s what I like best about football.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Hate-filled nonsense

A judge in Brazil thinks that gay people shouldn't be playing soccer. Apparently, they aren't "manly" enough. Hat-tip to Sarah Hill for this link. The prize quotation is this: “What is not reasonable is the acceptance of homosexuals in Brazilian soccer because they would harm the uniformity of thinking of the team, the togetherness, the balance, and the ideal. Not even to mention the uncomfortable feeling of the fan, who wants to go to the stadium, sometimes with his son, and see his beloved team succeeding in the competition, instead of losing oneself in analysis of the behavior of this or that athlete with an obvious personality or existential problem, making it uncomfortable also for the teammates, the coach , the technical commission and the managers of the club.”

Talk about trying to rationalise mindless prejudice. Football is now at least in the process (imperfectly) of giving racism a hefty boot out of the game. But blatant sexism is rife, and homophobia is still an unmentionable in many less enlightened corners of the sport. This needs to change. And things change when we have the courage to talk about them. Meanwhile, I loved the T-Shirt.

Close seasons in the sun

First published in Sons View, 4 August 2007, Dumbarton -v- Elgin City

So here we are again, catapulted into a new season full of possibility. For the Sons it can only get better, surely. This is a time of optimism and fresh commitment. Those dark summer weeks are banished.

Hang on, ‘dark summer weeks’? It’s still August, for goodness’ sake! Phew. And for all I know, you spent June and July either sunning yourself on the Rock or heading for even more sweltering climes.

The shadow on the proceedings that I’m thinking of, however, is the “no football” one we’ve just had to negotiate. Thank goodness that’s over. Though what with Killie, the Pars and St Mirren, you’ve probably banished the memory of ‘close season’ already.

And let’s face it, it isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. My recollection of the 1970s, admittedly clouded by the odd ‘senior moment’, was that I was even forced to scour the Aussie results to see if I could discern some meaning in life. How I survived, I’ll never know.

The torture of not seeing football on a regular basis was only relieved by international competitions and friendlies. And they were rather thinner on the ground back then than they are now.

The big difference today, I guess, is the endless speculation about transfers. Not the actual transfers, you understand, but the ones that go on in our heads. Usually dreamt up by some clever newspaper hack with not enough copy to fill the space.

Actually, it’s not even that clever, this transfer rumour malarkey. What you do is basically this. First, you think of a footballer who could possibly be linked to a club that you want to write about. Even vaguely. Easy, right?

Then you ring the club’s communications supremo and find, conveniently, that there is no-one matching that description available. So you ask to speak to someone else with a tangential link to the manager. Like the director of football, or possibly the deputy assistant honorary groundsman.

You “just want to see how things are looking for the upcoming season”, you say. No-one really believes this, but it’s a kind of ritual.

Then at some point in the amicable “off the record” exchange you ask casually if there’s any truth in the rumour that X player may be joining on a loan/free transfer/part-exchange for a ton-of-jelly basis.

“None whatsoever”, comes the categorical reply. “Are you off your trolley or something? Who on earth fed you that one? We’d have about as much chance of getting David Beckham as that guy.” Result!

“Dumbarton were keen to deny any link to Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, just six years short of the twilight of his career”, reads your World Exclusive in next week’s edition.

“This has fuelled feverish speculation that the Dutchman, mindful of countryman Johan Cruyff’s career-shattering Sons snub in the ‘80s, has decided that he may make SHS his new home.”

You resist mentioning that the club has also put in a bid for Beckham, on the basis that this really is pushing your luck. Though research might just show that only 174 generations back, Posh may have had an uncle who was a gardener at Leven Grove Park or something – providing a sure fire local connection.

And there you have it. Enough pointless speculation to keep us addicts ruminating to our hearts content.

Then there’s dozens of new websites, the Football Manager 2007 portal, and a Subbuteo revival (“ah… flick to kick!”). Not to mention pubs offering dodgy foreign satellite games. There was a crackdown on those south of the border by a company called Media Protection Services earlier this year.

All-in-all, then, the life of the football fan between seasonal feasts of the Beautiful Game has now been overgrown with compensatory distractions, of varying quality.

But let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like the build-up to a proper league or cup match day itself.

Getting those last few household tasks out of the way (cough). Catching the radio and TV gossip. Finding out how the players you really did end up recruiting are checking out. Lubricating the lungs. Scrutinising the team sheets. Wondering whether you’ll be cheering or sighing at the end of the afternoon.

All that and, for the first few weeks of the season, at least, a bit of real sunshine. What could be better? OK, having Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for real, sure. Just give him a few years. Honest.

An amnesty off the park

I'm delighted that Dumbarton was the first club in Britain to host a football match (against Forfar) dedicated to an Amnesty International campaign to release a political prisoner - one held in Burma. It happened last year, and the cause was the freedom of Ma Khin Khin Leh [pictured], a 38-year-old teacher and mother who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Myanmar in 1999, after a pro-democracy rally. The campaign was organised by local Amnesty International activist and Dumbarton supporter Tim Rhead. He said: "Myanmar is a difficult country to deal with, their human rights' record is very bad. "It is a very serious situation. We have been working for two to three years on this and are organising a national petition... Ultimately, we want the prisoner released. She knows the campaign is taking place, it is very important to keep her morale going." Dumbarton has historic connections with Myanmar. Sadly Ma Khin Khin Leh is still in jail. But you can take action here. The struggle to free her and tens of thousands of other prisoners worldwide goes on.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Solid as a rock

First published in Sons View, 30 July 2007, Dumbarton -v- Celtic Reserves

Let’s get this straight. I may be a poor benighted Sassenach, I may live in the south-west of England, I may only get up to Dumbarton once in a while… but I’m a Sons fan through and through, and have been for 37 years.

Certainly, I have a season ticket to watch Exeter City and hope they reclaim their football league status. They’re my local team, and I’ve always made a point of lending a cheer to my neighbourhood sides.

Indeed I still look out for Brentford (where I saw my first match with my grandfather in 1968) and Southall – the west London outfit who now languish in the Cherry Red Middlesex County Football League Division One Central and East, believe it or not.

Even so, for me “the football test” is easy. Whoever played Dumbarton tomorrow, I’d be cheering the Sons on without hesitation.

In fact I often wear my yellow and black scarf to St James’ Park – hoping that I’ve rightly remembered what colour the opposition’s away strip is. “Honestly officer, I didn’t mean to start a riot!”

How did my Sons addiction begin? It started at approximately 4.50pm on Saturday 13 December 1969. That day, Dumbarton got whopped 6-1 away to Stranraer. We were in Division Two and eventually finished seventh.

So there I was, aged 11, watching the results on telly. At the time, like most of my schoolmates, I was a Manchester United fan. And my idol was Denis Law (I got some things right).

But I wasn’t a champagne Charlie in the making. I was becoming, er, a ‘fully rounded football fanatic’. And I especially looked out for the Scottish results. This was partly because my late mother’s family has Scots ancestry. She and I always backed Scotland against England, to my father’s mild annoyance.

What’s more, I liked Scottish team names better than English ones. It was a far away land (I hadn’t been north of the Watford gap then) and somehow ‘Queen of the South’ sounded a bit more exotic than ‘Scunthorpe’.

Thankfully, I didn’t end up casting my affections on the Doonhamers. What a mistake that would have been! No, on account of their spectacularly bad afternoon at Stair Park, I felt a compelling twinge of solidarity with the Sons. So I checked out their strip on my Subbuteo wallchart. It gained my approval, and that was it.

My mother pointed out, I recall, that the wee trace of Scottish blood we could claim was nowhere near the Leven. But to no avail. Questioning only toughens youthful conviction. And when my parents told me that supporting “an obscure Scottish team” was “just a phase you’re going through”, it made me really determined.

I wrote to ‘Inside Football’ magazine, found out how to contact Boghead Park, and asked to join the supporters’ club. Somebody sent me some programmes a few months (!) later, and I returned a postal order for 12 shillings.

Since my London schoolmates didn’t really believe that Dumbarton existed, and had decided I was plain nuts (not entirely without justification), being able to wave a programme at them did my cause a lot of good.

Indeed, though the concept of ‘cool’ hadn’t properly been invented back then, being a Dumbarton supporter acquired an odd glamour. Not least when news of the Sons' heroics against Celtic in the 1970 Scottish League Cup semi-finals appeared in an English newspaper. Proof!

So, here I am. Still following Dumbarton from the far post in 2007. Yup, that’s me with the dodgy machine-knit Sons scarf on the Great Wall of China in 2004 – overcoming my natural aversion to tacky tourist stunts for the sake of a bit of much-needed club publicity.

Don’t fear, I won’t bore you with too many tales of Sons dementia down south. There are plenty of other fitba issues to scribble about. But at least you know who I am now.

Oh, by the way, no-one ever did get back to me about the supporters club. Was there such a thing in 1970? I’m not too bothered. Long live the Trust!

[Picture: Caroline Fielder, with thanks]

In off the post...

Yet another football blog. Just what the world needs... Well, in this case, it's just what I need, anyway, as a space to curate my occasional forays into sports journalism. Which makes a pleasant change from all that religion and politics, some would say. Plus it's a less cerebral headspace than my scribings on music.

The very particular purpose of Only Just Offside [Who do you think you're kidding Barrow? Ref.] is to gather in one archive spot the regular columns I am writing in the 2007-8 season for the match day magazines of Dumbarton FC (Sons View) and Exeter City FC (The Grecian). These are musings on the weird and wonderful world of The Beautiful Game, the patiently stressful life of the lower-league fan, soccernomics, mascot wars, football on telly... you name it.

In the case of Dumbarton, I've been a supporter-at-a-distance for 37 years, during which time I've never been geographically closer to the Vale of Leven than London. Well, in terms of living, at any rate. Of course I have made my pilgrimages to the old Boghead Park - and now the glorious new Strathclyde Homes Stadium. But these visits have been far fewer than I have wanted. And in the pre-internet universe, even keeping up with regular DFC news was tough. So the column I am contributing to Sons View is unsurprisingly called 'The Far Post'.

By way of compensation, and because not seeing football in-the-flesh comes to be a minor form of torture for some of us, I have usually (with a couple of hiatuses brought on by that great interrupter of things known as 'life') formed an attachment with whoever my local team happens to be. First off, Brentford - my grandfather's team. Then in the 1980s that was Southall, whose fall from an already lowly state of grace has been sadly very great indeed. They now languish in a junior league, with a question mark over their very existence. It should strictly speaking have been Charlton, Dulwich Hamlet and Brighton & Hove Albion, too - but I skipped a beat on those. I must have been shifting furniture too much to concentrate properly.

However, since moving to Exeter in 2003 I have gone to see the Grecians on a regular basis. This year I've even succumbed to a season ticket - and, as you can see, writing for the programme. I was as gutted as the next fan (the cliches flow like water in football!) when ECFC lost out on promotion back to the English Football League proper last year. But not as much, I'm bound to confess, as when Dumbarton were relegated back to the Third in Scotland.

The way I'd summarise it is this. In England, and in my locale, I support Exeter - and there's none I'd wish to see take a point or goal off them. But in the world as a whole (and not just Scotland) I am first and foremost a Sons fan. How and why my lot fell in with Dumbarton is the subject of the first piece I wrote for Sons View. What on earth constitutes fan loyalty in football - especially in one so instinctively anti-tribal and non-chauvanistic as me - might be the subject of another column. Who knows. The mandate is to entertain, which doesn't always sit easily with the philosophising that comes as second nature to someone like me.

Meanwhile, you'll have to excuse me. I've got a match to go to.