Wednesday, 26 September 2007

In the Sons we trust...

First published in Sons View, 22 September 2007, Dumbarton -v- East Fife

Perhaps the most important change in football over the past 25 years is the blossoming of fan power and direct supporter involvement in the running of clubs – of which the Sons Trust is, of course, a fine and pioneering example.

There are many other trends in the game, positive and negative, that have grabbed more attention, naturally. The growth of football across Africa and Asia (positive) the finessing of the professional foul (negative) and the seemingly endless tide of designer suits and WAGs (I’ll lake you make your own mind up on that one!)

But if we are thinking about how the sport we cherish can genuinely flourish, then moves to ensure that it stays in the hands of those who love it most must surely be the most significant development of all.

It began with the blossoming of fanzines back in the 1980s – though the first one was probably ‘Foul’, which lasted from 1972-76. Two main trends led to people devoting hours to writing and circulating these blotchy samizdat publications, more than a few of which have survived well into the internet age.

First, ordinary fans felt that the influence on the game of those who cheered from the terraces and passed through the turnstiles was diminishing dangerously. At the same time, new money started to pour into football in the ‘loadsamoney’ era.

As choices about how to spend money and take decisions mushroomed, supporters wanted their own say on how clubs were being run and paid for, as well as the usual opportunity to gripe on teams picks and grouse about referees.

Second, there was dissatisfaction with what was coming over about football through the mainstream media, and complaints about its sometimes over-cosy relationship with the game it was reporting on.

Aberdeen’s original ‘Northern Lights’, I believe, first coined the name ‘The Daily Ranger’ for one of Scotland’s best-selling tabloids, summing up its verdict on the paper’s balance of coverage. Fanzines often enjoyed a tense relationship with their clubs and with journalists, as well as a friendly rivalry with each other.

But commentary was only the first step. In 1985 the Heysel Stadium disaster led Liverpool fans Rogan Taylor and Peter Garrett to found the Football Supporters Federation to campaign for better conditions and participation.

Grassroots opposition to racism and bigotry among a minority of fans grew in the same way. And as both larger and smaller clubs lurched into crisis, Independent Supporters Associations (ISAs) grew up, determined to have a stake in shaping the future.

This pressure was an important factor in getting government to take the game more seriously, and the formation of Supporters Direct in 2000 galvanised a new wave of involvement. As everyone knows, Dumbarton were the first league club in Scotland to have a supporters’ trust.

Now there are over 100 such trusts across Scotland, Wales and England. 59 of these hold equity within their clubs, 38 (including the Sons) have supporter representation within the boards of their football clubs, and 8 clubs (including the reformed Bankies, if you’ll forgive me reminding you!) are now owned by their supporters.

My own local team, Exeter City, was saved from bankruptcy by the incredible dedication of fans and the work of their trust. Well, that and a crucial money-spinning FA Cup-tie against Manchester United. Luck still plays a large role in the fortunes of the small and the brave.

According to Supporters Direct, trusts have, in total, brought around £10 million worth of investment into the game, and more than 75,000 people have joined these supporter-run, not-for-profit organisations dedicated to renewing their clubs in the community.

In an age where cooperation and mutuality often comes off second best to corporate greed, this is a not inconsiderable achievement. I am immensely proud to be a member of the Sons Trust, and grateful to those who keep it moving forward.

Of course now that trusts are allied to ‘the system’ in football, there will be those who worry that they will become the new establishment. But in a democratic organisation there is a solution. Get involved, have your say and pull your weight.

So if you happen to be reading this and haven’t signed up yet, please do consider it. For a small outlay, it’s a very important way of securing the future of Dumbarton Football Club.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Keeping football live

First published in The Grecian,22 September 2007, Exeter City -v- Ebbsfleet

The Premier league isn’t exactly trumpeting the statistics from the rooftop, but according to its latest survey of fan demographics, just nine per cent of those who attend big matches are under 24 years, and the average age of spectators is 43 – which is pretty old (given that this means a very substantial number are well above that age).

OK, I hear you say: I attend Exeter City in the Blue Square Premier, rather than the multi-million pound version, so why should I care? And the answer is because of what figures like this tell us about the connection between young people and live football – or rather, the growing disconnect.

Given the size of the local population, the league we play in and the fact that the southwest isn’t the most football-saturated region in Britain, the Grecians get a decent crowd – and we are working hard to make it even bigger, of course.

Though regulars may grouch about ‘tourists’ and ‘glory hunters’ for glamorous FA Cup ties or Wembley play-offs, those bursts of occasional local interest also give us a tantalising glimpse of the huge pool of potential fans that exists out there. But how do we get to them?

The real challenge is getting new generations in. Many of us caught the live football bug early. Once you’ve tasted the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the sheer physical and emotional presence of ‘being there’, you’re unlikely to find watching two-dimensional stick men moving around a screen quite the same – even if some of them are superstars and it’s HTD.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking TV football. It keeps the lifeblood of the game flowing for more than just the Saturday (and increasingly Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) experience. It also puts resources and a massive publicity machine at football’s disposal. But it just isn’t the same if you’ve got a certain kind of bug in your bloodstream.

Which brings us back to those Premier League statistics. The truth is that the majority of youngsters who aren’t going to see Chelsea, Manchester United and the rest (because they can’t afford to, can’t get the tickets or can’t summon up the peer group interest), aren’t going to many – and in some cases any – other games.

In the 1960s and ’70s, especially, people often caught their live footie addiction by starting out with a lower league team, even if they also craved the old First Division too. My grandfather inducted me into the magic circle at Griffin Park, Brentford.

I vividly remember that first game on a bleak midwinter’s day. The Bees beat Notts County 2-1, I nursed my blue lips round a Styrofoam cuppa (pre-eco consciousness) and the late Jimmy Sirrell, the Brentford manager, punched the cold air in delight. That was it, I was hooked. And so was my schoolmate Guy, also aged 10, who came along with us.

As it happened, I didn’t become a Brentford supporter (though I still look out for their results). Bizarrely, for reasons that I might explain one day, I came to follow Dumbarton up in Scotland. And now I’ve settled in Exeter I’m at St James Park whenever I can. But it would never have happened if someone hadn’t caught me at an impressionable age.

Exeter is among the clubs who are making the most effort to get kids into the game, both in the stands and on the turf. Given all the other distractions of post-modern life, it isn’t easy and the dividends aren’t instant. But it’s where the future of this great game lies.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Goodness, Mourinho has gone...

The sudden departure of "the special one" from his position as Chelsea manager will no doubt be interpreted by some as a 'jump before you're pushed' response to the poor Champions League performance against Rosenborg. But it almost certainly has rather more to do with deep machinations in the boardroom revolving around the wishes of the club's owner - and their incompatibility with the kind of managerial freedom Jose Mourinho desires. Ironically, this saga reaches its most dramatic twist at the same time as British PM Gordon Brown apparently rebuffed EUFA president Michel Platini's plea for curbs on the domination of the game by big money interests. Though he sometimes went way over the top, I for one will greatly miss Mourinho's colourful presence in the Premier League. His interviews were witty, acerbic and often laugh-out-loud funny. My favourite was probably his response to defeat by Barcelona a couple of seasons ago: "They never beat us over 90 minutes with 11 men" he suggested, archly capitalising on a Chelsea sending-off to steal the glee from his opponents.

Expect some incendiary fall-out from this one. "Mutual consent"? My foot!

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Playing to the gallery

First published in Sons View, 15 September 2007, Dumbarton -v- Albion Rovers

Though you can grow into it (I’ve heard a number of ‘slow conversion stories’), football is often something you either get or don’t. It’s as much about instinct as learning.

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. This may be true, though I recall one or two broad hints!

Anyway, as soon as we settled down domestically, disguising my secret passion became a darned sight 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 (when I’m staying up in London on business) a TV tuned to Sky Sports News – the only thing I’ve ever thanked Rupert Murdoch for in my life.

The best way I know not to get caught up in football is to cut myself off, hermit like, from its news tentacles. That worked for a few years in the early 90s, but as I got more professionally dependent on the internet it became impossible.

Walking outside the front door is also something of a football addiction hazard, too. That’s because we live only a short hop away from the local park – where I have been actively encouraged to walk and run to keep my ageing bones from atrophying.

Rather foolishly, 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 fan’ (as I like to put it – there are other medical designations, I’m told), 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 the stage of being one of those sad gits who starts shouting coaching advice from the ‘touchline’, while absent-mindedly kicking stray dogs out of my 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, 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 it.

Meanwhile, the household conversation has moved towards a conclusion, and my participation is clearly vital.

“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! You’re wonderful, darling.”

Carla looks cynical and unconvinced. “You haven’t been listening to a word I said, have you? You’ve been watching those kids whacking a ball around and waiting for that chance to impress them.”

I am wounded by this wholly unfounded accusation and protest strongly. I have heard, I assure her, quite a few of the many wise words she has been lobbing up field in my direction. I’m just not sure which order they went in or what they mean.

But Carla’s usually right, and 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 in the country so that we can rebuild our entire house out of organic straw using our bare hands while eating only 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.

So there really is an up-side to everything, I think to myself, consolingly. That’s what I like best about football.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

We can dare to dream

It's half-time in Paris as I start to write, and Scotland are drawing nin-nil with France in the European Championship qualifiers. 'Mon guys! [Update: 1-0 Scotland in the 61st minute. I'm rubbing my eyes... and now can't bear to look; well, reload the web screen, actually. 21.46: Alex McLeish has taken a leaf out of the Sir Alex Ferguson school of management and is masticating furiously on some gum, says the Beeb. Sir Alex is probably doing likewise up in the stands. 21.48: Two minutes to go plus time added on... this is unbearable.] YESSSS!!!! 21.53: FULL-TIME France 0-1 Scotland. Absolutely incredible. Words fail... Full report by By Thomas McGuigan. "They have talent and they also have a soul, a passion that we saw in the first match and in other games", said France coach Raymond Domenech on Scotland at the press conference yesterday. Now the sceptics will know he was right.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Raising the Rock

This coming Saturday (15 September 2007) Dumbarton entertain Stenhousemuir at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium - as part of a weekend of activities under the umbrella of Raise the Rock, an initiative to further strengthen relations between the football club and the local community. As I'm able to combine it with some work and domestic commitments, I'll be making the 364-mile trek from Exeter to be there... and also for the home game a week later, just before I return to the south west.

The Sons Supporters Trust, who along with the club and the local Lennox newspaper, are promoting the game, believe that increased attendances are one of the keys to a healthy future at DFC. There's more on the Supporters Direct site blog.

Trust director Stephen Lynch commented on the DFC website: "The ability of the club to prosper has many deciding factors. The performance of the team on the pitch is a critical one and equally what the fans can contribute is vital.

"Dumbarton FC are West Dunbartonshire's community club and our Raise the Rock days are intended to showcase what facilities we have on offer at Strathclyde Homes Stadium.

"West Dunbartonshire is a growing area which has 80,000 residents on its doorstep. So apart from a winning team what is it that really keeps the paying public from our matches? It is never easy to come up with the ultimate answer but one that should come up high on our list is the match day experience. And at Raise the Rock we can let people see what we have."

[Pic (c) DFC]

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Let the football do the talking

First published in The Grecian, 8 September 2007, Exeter City -v- Cambridge United

I’ve never been a great one for razzmatazz in football. The half-time penalty competitions, 'cross-bar challenges' and point-to-point races are fine. And of course there’s a place for proper ceremony at ‘occasion’ matches – cup finals, play-offs, Champions League games, internationals and the like.

But there’s something about our game that rightly resists too much distraction before and after the main event – or in the midst of it, for that matter.

What made me think about this was being in America earlier in the summer. The media keeps coming back to is the age-old question about whether ‘soccer’ will ever really take off in the USA.

Aside from the dominant questions of dollars and celebrities (the Beckham circus was in full swing while I was travelling), the real issue, I reckon, comes down to a question of spectacle versus story.

Football is about something rather different to the set-plays, stats and stadium antics that bolster the regular diet of American Football and Baseball fans week-in and week-out.

Not that I can’t see the appeal of this. In my brother-in-law’s honour we made a family pilgrimage to see the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Saint Louis Cardinals while we were on the East Coast.

This was Kevin’s university area baseball team versus my wife’s. But the split loyalties were made easier by the fact that the Pirates were going through a rough time in July, so no one expected them to triumph. And they didn’t!

I enjoyed the game. What made it additionally interesting for me, however, was to contrast its appearance with that of football here in Britain, and to try to figure out why they look and feel so very different.

For a start, statistics really are king in US sport. You spend a good deal of your time – perhaps the majority – studying the rapidly changing numbers on a huge scoreboard. And dotted around the stadium are people recording every digit as it flies past their eyes.

Somewhere in the midst of this is the game of baseball itself, which even more than cricket is a series of high-speed events that provide an adrenalin rush in between bouts of on-field reorganisation.

There are also regular competitions, adverts and announcements between plays – as well as rehearsed chants, beer and food sellers wending their way through the seating areas, and a ‘song and stretch’ at the top of the seventh (of nine) periods.

From a football fan’s viewpoint it’s a curious but strangely episodic event. Even the beginning and the end don’t seem such a big deal.

By contrast, football is about the forward motion of a continuous, unfolding story. There’s a kind of ‘narrative’ to a really good game –a shape and architecture to the whole thing, knitted together by moments of beauty, high tension and the almost physical release of a goal.

Of course, I’m deeply biased. For me, no game comes close to football for that elusive combination of skill, tactics, drama, athletic prowess and almost balletic artistry.

We've all seen dull matches, for sure. Probably rather too many – even at dear old Exeter. But when football comes together in all its glorious wholeness it becomes unsurpassably rewarding – not so much an instant thrill, more a work of poetry-in-motion.

Those of my American friends for whom football really is played with the feet recognise this too. But they tell me that in a 'society of the spectacle', as the USA is sometimes called, it's very hard to grasp.

What people are reared on is immediate entertainment. Football, on the other hand, is about the slower burn of passion. Long may it be so.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Oozing with professionalism

Congratulations to the impressively hard-working and dedicated editor of The Grecian, Mike Blackstone (who is interviewed here on the ECFC site). In today's Non-League Paper, page 40, the Exeter matchday magazine - which has won 'top of its class' awards consistently in recent years - is reviewed favourably, and described as "oozing with professionalism". I'm delighted to play a small part in that this season, along with many others. But the real credit goes to Mike. Hat-tip to Exeweb for pointing this out.

Ransacking the positives

Not a good day for the teams favoured by this blog. Dumbarton lost 2-0 away to Stranraer. Still, at least they did twice as well as poor Exeter City away to Kidderminster. Ouch. This, I believe, is what beleaguered England manager Malcolm McLaren (shome mishtake there, shurely? Ed.) calls "taking the positives". Talking of which, I was amused to discover This Is Not 1966 the other day. Indeed it isn't.