Sunday, 28 December 2008

A merry ding-dong on high?

First published in The Grecian, 28 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Brentford

Along with the match against Rochdale at St James’ Park on eight days ago, today’s challenging tussle with Brentford is one of two home games either side of Christmas that have given the Grecians a crucial opportunity to steal a march on a couple of sides who remain among their key promotion rivals.

Promotion rivals. How does that sound, eh? A year ago, Exeter City FC was still rueing a missed opportunity to clinch a Football League place at Wembley back in May ’07, and quite a few of our fans secretly wondered whether we had what it would take to mount a serious challenge again so soon.

Wrong. After bouncing back and triumphing through grit and sheer inspiration in the 2008 play offs, here we are in the top half of League Two with a serious chance of a crack at the next step up. The path so far has not been without its pitfalls and with one or two missed chances bagged and errors avoided City could perhaps be in an even better position than we are. But this Sunday there is a chance to build on a hugely positive start and put some frustrations behind us with a strong and victorious showing.

Brentford, of course, will have similar ideas. They’re a side with a good deal of experience and determination. So even though the Christmas and Boxing Day celebrations are behind us, we should still be in for a real Festive ding-dong. Whether it will take us ‘on high’ or not depends upon Exeter’s determined capabilities and perhaps that little bit of luck which so often makes all the difference in football.

This is one of those matches I would have loved to be present for, but which I am going to miss out on as a live experience because of a regular commitment to be with friends in the Big Smoke at this time of year. In fact I will be on the trail with Leyton Orient, who the Grecians would like to face in League One next term, because they are the favoured team of my host, East End vicar Kevin Scully.

The particular heart connection with this match against Brentford is that the Bees were the first football team I ever saw live, playing at Griffin Park against Notts County during the cold winter of 1967. My companions that day were my late grandfather, Stanley R. Barrow, who introduced me to the game that became one of the loves of my life, and a school mate called Guy Pilkington – who I haven’t heard of since, but in the age of Facebook and Friends Reunited you never quite know…

The Brentford manager back then was the legendary Scottish coach Jimmy Sirrel, who ironically went on to make a name for himself with the black and whites in Nottingham. Very much a football traditionalist, Jimmy passed away recently and his time at the Bees didn’t feature large in the obituaries. But I’m pleased to say that I was there to witness it.

Not, you understand, that I have split loyalties. Yes, I still keep a look out for Brentford’s results, along with a number of other sides for personal reasons (it won’t surprise you that this includes my namesakes AFC Barrow in the Blue Square Premier!), but I have now been following the Grecians for five seasons since coming down to Devon, which means that the red, white and black colours have a distinct “ooh – aah” attached to them for me these days.

Incidentally, the ‘return leg’ of this match against Brentford will be in London on 11 April and I aim to be there. For those who like to make a note of things, there are four pubs at each corner of Griffin Park, which makes pre- and post-match deliberations relatively easy to plan. This afternoon the Grecians need to keep a steady nerve and reserve their celebrations for the pitch, however.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Lest your eyes deceive you...

As an addition to my Seasonal routine I've finally updated Only Just Offside to include all of my Dumbarton and Exeter City matchday programme notes since the end of September '08. I won't list them here, but will leave you to scour the site (or the 'posts by category' index for the respective Sons View and Grecian columns) if you're that keen. Hmmnn... thought so. ;-)

In order for me to feel properly up-dated it now remains for me to plug (and add links for) a couple of fellow football scribes in the blogosphere - namely, Sons stalwart Campbell Yule with the caustically entertaining Sonsdiary, and The Grecian editor Mike Blackstone's fine Dark Rock Diaries.

The background to the latter is here, in the Express and Echo newspaper, which Mike also writes for. He has recently penned an acclaimed Grecian Anthology about Exeter City FC. Well worth getting.

Talking of books... the volume which I am co-editing with Graeme Robertson to mark the 25th anniversary of Dumbarton's accession to the SPL (more strictly the Scottish League Premier Division back then) is progressing well, and we still hope to have it available by mid-March '09. That said, a few more fans' memories are required. Watch your inboxes, lads and lasses.

Last but not least, here's a photo to frighten the horses - me (left) with Bigrab (a.k.a. fellow Sons fanatic Robert Ryan), courtesy of his equally well-worth-reading The Ben Lomond Free Press blog. It was taken back in September, just before Dumbarton's last gasp victory against Cowdenbeath at the Rock.

There, that should be enough pluggery and mutual back-scratching to see us all through to the New Year. Though there are still a few more issues to be sorted out on the park before then, of course...

Good news for Dumbarton

I was about to title this piece 'fearful symmetry', for reasons connected to last week's away defeat at Annan Athletic (which I made the trip up from Birmingham to see). But over the past week, notwithstanding our own failings, results around us have gone in Dumbarton's favour.

The upshot is that, in spite of the frost-occasioned postponement of today's home clash with bottom club Elgin City (which should have been three points in the bag, though you can never tell), Sons still lie in third place in the Irn-Bru Scottish Football League Championship Third Division... even with the patchy form of late. Berwick did us a favour by winning against Montrose this afternoon, leaders Stenhousemuir dropped two more points against Annan themselves, and we have a game in hand over the Shire.

Best placed for top spot at the moment are Cowdenbeath. It was they I saw robbed of a point at the Rock in September, when Dumbarton grabbed a very gratifying 2-1 victory on the edge of extra time. But the same fate befell the Sons at Galabank last Saturday, after a lacklustre performance from both sides in appalling conditions left the affair balanced at 1-1. Thus the unpleasing symmetry. To compound my misery, a series of public transport woes meant that I didn't make it back home until gone 1am.

But it was a good day out overall and great to see the Sons crew. I'd have been far more forlorn had the match been postponed in the morning... which would have meant being stuck in Carlisle for 8 hours awaiting a fixed-time advance return train.

Overall, it looks as if other sides in the Third Division have sussed the Sons' 4-4-2 game plan now, and greater adaptability is needed. Even so, that was only the third defeat for Dumbarton in 16 league games. We cannot afford more slip-ups against teams below us, of course. But the failure to convert a number of draws into wins may prove the more decisive factor later in the season. I still think we'll make the play-offs...

[Picture: (c) Donald Fullarton. Ross Clark's penalty against Annan. I was behind the goal, soaking but happy.]

A journey to the East

Yesterday afternoon I whiled some football time away at Brisbane Road watching my friend Kevin Scully's beloved Leyton Orient fail to achieve their Eastern promise against Swindon Town. The last 15 minutes was pretty exciting, thanks to some controversial refereeing decisions involving a penalty and plenty of shouting. Then, as often happens, the game sprung to life... and juddered to a halt: though not before the Os had grabbed a goal back in a match they never looked like winning, in fairness. The League One scrapping continues in Colchester tomorrow, and I'll be there, too - thanks to a Christmas sojourn in Bethnal Green. Oh yes, that's me on the far left above (taken this time last year), with Kev next to me in the exotic red scarf, an an assortment of his relatives from Australia, and servers from St Matthew's Church, where he's the rector.

A chequered past

First published in Sons View, 27 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Elgin. The match was postponed and replayed on 10 March 2009. Two programmes were issued.

It seems only two shakes of a linesman’s flag since the season began, but here we are anticipating the last home game of 2008 already. By the time you read this, Christmas will be a receding memory, and the New Year celebrations will be on everyone’s mind. Let’s hope it’s a convincing display with good goals and three points to take away this afternoon, so that dreams of promotion in 2009 remain a realistic prospect.

Our friends from the north, Elgin City, are no strangers here at the Rock, since they did the honours of providing our inaugural opposition at the newly opened Strathclyde Homes Stadium on 2 December 2000. The famous ‘fish eye’ photo of the first ever SHS goal, part of a 3-0 Sons victory, is the screen saver on my home computer at the moment. Sadly I missed the match, as I was somewhere near Lake Geneva on a work trip at the time. Tough life, eh?

That historic game was notable for another reason, too. It was the first ever visit to Dumbarton from the Black and Whites following their accession to the Scottish League that year alongside Peterhead. Later in the same season Sons won again 2-0 at the Rock. We also beat Elgin 4-2 in the first round of the Bells Challenge Cup in August. But in order not to seem too mean-spirited, I assume, we gifted them their first home victory as well, again by two goals, on 30 September 2000.

No such generosity is needed this afternoon, at least not in a footballing sense. In all other ways, a day out at the Rock will prove as warm, welcoming and enlightening as ever, I’m sure. Back in this year’s August sunshine, Sons made the journey to Borough Briggs and came away with a share of the 1-1 spoils. Since then, the City have had a pretty miserable season, propping up the Third Division and suffering at home, on the road and with a player registration spat in the Scottish Cup.

Even so, they proved capable of creating a notable upset in October, stunning league pacesetters Stenhousemuir by beating them 4-2 at home. Craig Campbell, Darren Shallicker, Guy Kerr and Paul Kaczan secured victory for Elgin on that occasion. For this and other reasons, no-one on the Sons bench will be inclined to take this game in the least for granted. The conditions will be tough and both sides will be very keen indeed to end 2008 on a high note.

Our visitors today have a history which shows them capable of taking both hard knocks and glittering prizes in their stride. On the down side, their fair city was more or less pushed off the map in 1390, when one rampaging Wolf of Badenach took a terrible vengeance for his excommunication by the Bishop of Moray. Just 503 years later the Lossiemouthers hit back by forming a football club and two years later by joining the Highland League. They won the Highland championship 15 times in 104 years of membership – nine times in a golden period from 1956 to 1970 alone.

Back in 1968, Elgin enjoyed their best ever Cup run, ending up in the quarter finals before going out 2-1 to our old rivals Morton, then something of a power in the land. Eight years previously they had nearly managed a shock third round result against Celtic. But it wasn’t to be, and the final outcome was defeat by the odd goal in three.

As for the notorious Wolf? Well, he never made any lasting impact on Scottish football and records suggest that he died a few years after his crimes against the good people of Elgin. There’s another legend, though, which says that his demise was in 1406, after playing chess with the devil. Visited at Ruthven Castle by a tall man in black with a penchant for board games (rather than refereeing), Wolf played on until his guest moved one of the chess pieces and called ‘check’ and then ‘checkmate’. As these words were spoken a terrible storm broke, and in the morning Wolf and his men were discovered dead and blackened by lightening.

Quite how far these ancient facts have played a role in Jim Chapman’s no doubt careful preparations for today’s match, only time will tell. But the Sons will not want to end up as pawns in this game, for sure.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Free footie for Scottish kids?

Via the BBC: The Scottish Government has backed calls to allow thousands of children free entry to football matches. The campaign was spearheaded by Labour MSP Frank McAveety, who said there were 60,000 empty seats at Scottish Premier League stadiums every fortnight. Sports Minister Stewart Maxwell has now urged the SPL and Scottish Football League to consider letting youngsters into selected games for free. He said it would be a "win, win" situation for clubs and children. Maxwell said the free entry policy - which has already been adopted by some Scots clubs - would promote healthy lifestyles, as well as stoking interest in Scotland's national game.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Season's Greetings

... to one and all. I hope I'll have time to get back to speed by the New Year - including quite a back catalogue of programme notes.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Generating the right atmosphere

First published in The Grecian, 20 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Rochdale

A fortnight ago the Grecians turned round a less than inspiring first half performance and a lead conceded to opponents Lincoln City by grabbing two late goals, one from Dean Moxey on the brink of full time, to steal all three points.

Leaving it that late isn’t good for our hearts, so this afternoon we’re hoping that the lads can get the tide running in our favour rather earlier. It’s going to be tough, though. Rochdale have set out their stall very clearly, and they will be as keen as Exeter to welcome Christmas with a decisive victory.

There has been a lot of talk in the game of late about fans and what we are ‘entitled to expect’ when we come along to a game. During the Lincoln match, I was slightly irritated by someone sitting not far from me who decided to keep up a constant barrage of criticism whenever one of our players failed to do what he thought they should do.

I didn’t say anything and he’s as entitled to his opinion as anyone else. But I just couldn’t see the point of it. The expert advice being hurled in the direction of the pitch included such pearls of tactical wisdom as “come on… do something!” and “kick it forward!” We all get frustrated when the team is a bit off colour or things aren’t clicking. But booing your own players or shouting gratuitous comments does little to lift spirits or change anything.

The general response when such negativity is questioned these days is, “the fans have paid out good money and they’re entitled to have a go if they feel like it.” Well, yes and no. I do think paying punters can reasonably expect to see a team that’s really making an effort. And that’s what I feel we get at Exeter City. Paul Tisdale has instilled a sense of pride and responsibility in his side, and has gone with players who are here because they want to move forward with the club, not just to pick up a pay cheque and look good.

This season we have seen some good performances and an overall improvement in quality to match the all-round higher standards of League Two. That doesn’t come without trying. Likewise, when the team has struggled and mistakes have been made, I have never felt that the players have given less than their best. It can’t help, though, when supporters are getting on your back.

Perhaps the worst recent example of this was not a local one (thankfully), but the treatment meted out by Gunners fans towards under-fire Emmanuel Eboué at the Emirates earlier in the month. Having been brought on after 32 minutes against Wigan, the tired and nervy Ivorian proceeded to have what can only be described as ‘a shocker’. But the abuse he received was so venomous that Arsène Wenger felt the need to substitute him before the end and he came off shell-shocked and tearful.

Wenger has stood by the player and wants him to be strengthened rather than undermined by the incident. “In our job it’s very important that we don’t expect too much from other people, but that we do expect a lot from ourselves,” he commented level-headedly. Several friends of mine who follow Arsenal told me afterwards that they felt more than a little queasy about the “£1,000 a season” fans thinking that their cash gave them the right to treat another human being like that.

Here at St James’ Park there’s a great atmosphere and the more voluble abusers are in a distinct minority, but in quieter moments on a small ground they can make their presence known. The best response is not to start an argument but to really get behind the team. Winning sides have a winning ethos that extends to the terraces as much to the training ground, and that’s definitely what we all want to see at Exeter City.

Monday, 15 December 2008

A Cup full of memories

First published in Sons View, 15 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Ross County - Homecoming Scottish Cup Third Round Replay

Well, here’s one game most of us didn’t expect to be watching, if we’re honest. Like many Sons fans, my initial reaction when I heard the Homecoming Scottish Cup third round draw was: “Ah dear, away at Dingwall. That means a long journey to play the highest ranking side we could possibly face at this stage, with little realistic prospect of a result and not much money tipping back into the coffers either.”

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Dumbarton’s ability to surprise us, sometimes even in pleasant ways! Although the quest for promotion to Division Two and a regaining of the initiative following a couple of disappointing results is our absolute priority right now, a bit of Cup respite certainly won’t do morale any harm. Especially after the 7-0 whopping we took against St Mirren earlier in the season. Of that, I’ll say no more. I’m just glad that some of the loyalists who suffered at Love Street had something to cheer on the eve St Andrew’s Day. This afternoon, too, we hope.

No football supporter needs reminding that the balance of a game can twist dramatically in the last ten minutes. But Derek Cancary’s brace in the match against Ross County that produced this tantalising replay probably took the most starry-eyed Sons optimist (if such exists!) by surprise. You don’t go down 2-0 on the road to a side with its sights still fixed on the SPL and expect much change beyond a consolation goal. But Dumbarton pulled off a shock and we deserve this day in the sun… possibly wind, snow, rain, sleet or hail. The weather won’t matter a jot if we defy the odds again and make it to the fourth round.

When it comes to Cup exploits, a certain generation of Dumbarton fan finds him or herself inevitably contemplating two legendary occasions. They were moral victories, if not actual ones. I’m thinking of the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts in 1976, when we were initially within one header of glory. Just as remarkable were those two heroic games against Celtic in the 1970-71 League Cup semis, when Sons drew 0-0 with the Bhoys and then went down 4-3, fighting ’till the end of extra time, in the return match.

Even some of the English-based newspapers remembered Dumbarton’s existence then. I still have the cutting from The Times somewhere in my possession. I’d been following the Sons for less than a year, and along with the 1972 promotion season to follow, it probably gave me a false prospectus for what turned out to be some wilderness years from then on. But what would football be without its dreams and its dreamers, not to mention sticking it through thick and thin?

Apart from some Stirlingshire Cups, the Scottish Second XI trophy (1881/2) and the 1951 Quaish (if that counts), Sons have not been lavish in our acquisition of silverware through knockout tournaments in the past. Our opponents today, however, notched up a total of 18 Cups of different shapes and sizes during their 65 years in the Highland League, before persistence finally paid off with expansion of the Scottish League in 1994 and their ascension to the higher echelons. Those trophies were four League Cups, two Qualifying Cups. Four North of Scotland Cups and eight Inverness Cups, for those of you who like to keep track of such things.

Mind you, it hasn’t all been glory. That Scottish Premier League target has eluded Ross County so far, while their dearly beloved rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle, in addition to accruing probably the best ever Cup headline (“Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious!”) have already made it to the top flight ahead of them. Just remember not to say that too loudly around SHS.

All this is pretty much irrelevant this afternoon, however. Despite the gap between the teams, County know that Dumbarton are ambitious, obstinate, and have one or two experienced campaigners in our ranks as well as youngsters keen to prove themselves. You can’t chuck the formbook out of the window exactly, but Cup competitions are always the opportunity for someone to prove somebody else wrong. Is it time for Sons to do that? No-one in yellow and black will say anything else today. Hopefully because they’re too busy singing their hearts out for the lads, whatever the weather.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Not when, but weather

First published in Sons View, 13 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Forfar

After the disappointing postponement of last Saturday’s away game at Cowdenbeath, and the adrenalin of Cup football against higher league opponents on Tuesday night, it’s back to solid League action with the visit of Forfar to the Rock this afternoon.

Stenhousemuir and Montrose both did us an unlikely favour in dropping all three points against Berwick and East Stirlingshire respectively last week. This means that a win over the Loons today would keep Dumbarton firmly in the promotion mix.

With the half way mark in the season hoving rapidly into view, it’s tight at the top. There’s a small gap emerging between the two halves of the Division. But as we know, two or three results can make a big difference – especially as Sons have six games coming up (including today’s) with sides in the lower half of the table, punctuated by a visit from the current League leaders on 17 January. By then, we’d certainly like to be safely ensconced in play-off zone, edging for the top spot. That will require a lot of hard work and consistency.

Of all the factors that will shape the Sons’ destiny over the next month or so, the weather will play a large role. When the cold really bites it can hit training and match fitness. It can also contribute to the accumulation of a fixture backlog. It’s certainly no fun for the fans, either. That’s without even beginning to think about the economics of postponements, especially when hospitality has to be cancelled.

Looking in from the outside (in my case, the relative warmth of southwest England, where it’s still pretty icy, I can assure you!), the fact that Scotland, along with England and Portugal, remains the only major European league without a winter break seems rather odd. I have a vested interest in thinking about that right now, as I have just forked out money on a return rail ticket from Birmingham to Annan on 20 December, in order to join Dumbarton fans for that away venture. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It will be a long day, but it’ll go a lot quicker if there’s some football and banter!

The reality is that postponements have long been part and parcel of the Scottish game between November and February – sometimes a bit before and after, too. A few years ago the SPL tried a break in January, but the result was a logjam in December and no-one ended up being particularly happy. Now the issue is back on the agenda again at the end of this month.

From the perspective of the lower leagues, gates can be up over the Festive season and no-one wants to lose precious pounds at the turnstiles. Then again, the cost of games called off, especially at the last minute, can outweigh that, and coaches rightly worry about the increased chances of injuries on bone hard pitches and games that end up being lost as much to the conditions as to the opposition.

If there was an obvious solution, it would be good to think we’d all take it. I’m tempted by the break notion. But a cold or wet spell can occur when you aren’t quite expecting it. Weather is no respecter of sporting schedules. Some say that good ground maintenance and well-gritted teeth are still the best defenders against Jack Frost. But there can be no guarantees. Winter breaks work well where climes are slightly more predictable and when they are embedded into the culture. But in Scotland…?

No doubt the argument will swing to and fro for many years to come, unless UEFA decides to try to persuade their members into another ‘common policy’. Frankly, there are too many other controversial issues ahead of winter in the decision-making queue (finance, rules and transfers among them) to make that likely. It’s those who fund, run, play and watch the game in each country who have to find a way through the fog.

Which brings us back to this afternoon’s game. Forfar are five points behind us and they’re only three off Dumbarton’s goal difference. But their form away from home this season has been very strong. They’ve lost only once in seven games on their travels, taking four victories. At Station Park in September Sons held them 2-2. This time we need more than a point. It’s going to be tough, though.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Jim Chapman's assessment...

The Sons manager tells it as he sees it...

Drawing the right conclusion

First published in The Grecian, 06 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Lincoln City

In a strange way, you could say that being on the wrong end of a painful FA Cup giant killing a month ago (from a team several levels below us) is a positive measure of distance travelled for the Grecians.

After a number of seasons outside the League, some spent fighting for our very existence, Exeter City is now a scalp worth having. We may not be quite in Theatre of Dreams territory, but we’re a class apart from simply trying to reclaim “our rightful position”. But the further forward City go, the more the teams we have passed will want to cause an upset.

Thankfully, that disappointing game against plucky Curzon Ashton is already history. Of more concern now is only 2 points out of a possible 9 in the last three games, the quest to maintain our purchase on the League Two play-off zone, the need for a good home performance against Lincoln City, and the hoped-for satisfaction of walking off with three points.

While there’s plenty of time after Christmas to press upward (the Grecians have certainly unleashed a few important ‘late bursts’ in recent years), as many goals and wins as possible before the New Year will set the tone for the all-important second half of the season.

Football watching, both on the park and across the acres of coverage now available online, on telly and in the paper, is all about searching for patterns. Sometimes they’re plain to see. A remorseless slump or a continual rise gets tongues wagging, pens scribbling and (in the former case) the team’s many unpaid advisers turning out in force on Exeweb!

Exeter City’s season has been less clear-cut than that, at least in terms of results. No-one in their right mind could possibly complain at seventh or eighth place at this stage in our first term back. Along the way we’ve recorded some significant victories and taken a couple of salutary hammerings – just to remind us not to take anything for granted. The pay off for these highs and the lows has been a number of other games where City have ground out a result even though we haven’t been anyway near the top of our game.

But while determination to ‘keep on keeping on’, especially when the going feels tougher, is the backbone of success, moments of decisive action are also indispensable. As Paul Tisdale observed, we missed several recently against Rotherham. Drawing the right conclusion from the season means more than drawing a spate of games. Especially at home.

The difficulty at home is that the teams Exeter are playing now realise that they are dealing with a side capable of open, creative football. We have become a ‘known quantity’. For many the answer will therefore be to pack behind the ball, try to wrestle control in the middle of the park and look for opportunities to break when we are coming forward.

For all the technical skills and tactical niceties of this wonderful game (and there are many of them), some things remain simple, but not easy to achieve. You only need one mistake or a couple of unintended cracks in the best-laid plans for things to go awry. That includes set-plays, where positioning, awareness, quick reactions and knowing you can rely on your team-mates is crucial.

Another priority is not letting things slip in the final quarter of the game. When limbs tire and nerves start to jangle, that final whistle can seem further away rather than nearer and woodenness can start to undo you. A dramatic example was Portsmouth’s loss of an incredible and deserved two-goal lead against AC Milan in the last six minutes of their UEFA Cup tie at Fratton Park the other week.

With all due respect to Lincoln, Pompey were facing one of the finest sides in Europe. There will be fewer excuses for the Grecians this afternoon. Hopefully we won’t need any.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Well done, my Sons

I emerge from my partial footie blogging hibernation to bring glad tidings. What Graeme Robertson drily describes as "an eventful last ten minutes" at Dingwall on Saturday gave Sons an unexpected Cup replay on 9 December. Donald Fullarton writes: "Brave Dumbarton shared the honours against first division Ross County [...] The home side seemed to be cruising into the fourth round of the Homecoming Scottish Cup, despite having striker Dyron Daal sent off in the 40th minute, through two Sean Higgins goals. But two goals in the last ten minutes by substitute Derek Carcary earned Jim Chapman's men a replay at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium." Way to go lads. You nearly gave Denise Currie an aneurism, but you did us proud.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Back to the front again

First published in The Grecian, 25 November 2008, Exeter City -v- Rotherham

Goodness, it seems so long since we’ve seen first team action at St James’ Park – three weeks and three days, to be precise – that you could almost be forgiven for having forgotten what the place looks like!

These domestic hiatuses, together with periods when it feels like we are rooted to home turf, are just part and parcel of the annual fixture lottery. But that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant to the business of preparing the players and seeking the right balance to keeping the Grecians on the upward League track.

It is often said that results at home determine a team’s ultimate fortunes. And the reason for this is that, like many commonplaces that pass for clichés in football, it’s often true. Not that there’s anything magic about your own territory. It’s more that familiarity ought to breed a strong degree of reliability.

At St James’ Park, for instance, the characteristic swirl of the wind during the colder months can be seen to have a significant impact on matches, as keepers and defenders struggle from swinging crosses, or the ball is by turns lofted unexpectedly forward or surprisingly retarded and swerved in mid air.

Professional footballers should be prepared for such vagaries, of course. Reports and DVDs all play a role in providing crucial information about the opposition and their ground. But there can be no doubt that the home side’s intimate knowledge of the feel, scale, features and play of their own pitch ought to make a positive difference. Not to mention the passion of the fans. At home, factors that can be unpredictable elsewhere may be taken into better account, if not controlled.

So the ‘home boost’ is the foundation upon which many a successful season is based, or alternatively the rock upon which otherwise well-honed football dreams are dashed. In Exeter’s case, one of the cracks in an otherwise fine and daring return to the Football League has been a series of deflating defeats and draws on Well Street – culminating in that awful mauling by Chesterfield, where defensive blows seemed to eat deep into the Grecians’ second half confidence.

Thankfully, the determined performance against Chester City at the beginning of November, resulting in a 2-0 win, was exactly the response City needed. That resolve rather than panic was the response to an unexpected, crushing blow tells you all you need to know about why this side has the capacity to stay in contention for honours throughout the cold Winter and on to the 2 May conclusion of the 2008-9 campaign – which, it should be noted, will be away to tonight’s opponents, Rotherham.

Of course there are many talking important points that could preoccupy us from more recent outings at Aldershot and Morcambe, not to mention the FA Cup game against minnows Curzon Ashton. No lessons can be unlearned if the ups and downs we inevitably experience are to be put in proper perspective. But I suspect it will be the spirit and shape of that gutsy display against Chester that will prove most significant as Exeter face a Rotherham side who have struggled so far this season, and who will be all the more motivated as a result.

City defender Matt Taylor, interviewed by the Express & Echo in the aftermath of the Chesterfield debacle, made a good point about why home can sometimes be where the heartbreak is. In away games “maybe [opposing teams’] full-backs push on a bit and leave a bit of space in the channels,” he declared. For home games “there is not much space in behind and we find it hard to break teams down.”

With reference to the challenging standards of League Two, Matt added: “It is proper football now, and teams are coming to watch us every week. Word gets round we are a good passing team and maybe we need Plan B.” Rotherham will try to stifle us tonight, no question. But watch out. Here at St James’ Park, football is coming home.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Time to turn up the heat

First published in Sons View, 22 November 2008, Dumbarton -v- Albion Rovers

It was symmetry, certainly. But not of the kind that we want to be seeing on a regular basis, thank you very much. After dishing out a 5-2 hammering to Berwick Rangers at home a month ago, Sons took a licking by the same score at the hands (or rather, feet) of the Shire at Ochilview last week, punctuated by that 1-1 draw away to league leaders Stenhousemuir in between.

You hardly need me to tell you that getting back to winning ways against Albion Rovers at the Rock this afternoon is a priority. With defensive frailties in evidence over a number of games, the result against East Stirlingshire was, if not exactly predictable, not entirely surprising either. Football can dish out hard lessons when you are not expecting it. Even more so when you’ve come to the match in question off the back of surviving against fellow high flyers by determination, but not by playing at your best or doing anything spectacular.

At this stage of the season we can take some comfort from the truism that ‘the table doesn’t lie’. But it is most truthful in the last third rather than the first third of term, and while Dumbarton are still in second place, it is by the skin of our teeth. Stenny have been able to surge ahead on points due to our mighty stumble, Montrose and Cowdenbeath are poised to pounce at a point’s distance, and we have allowed Shire to continue their revival while smelling the possibility of promotion contention. Last season East Stirlingshire’s early successes made for a grim start to a miserable season for Sons. This time we mustn’t let them become more than a temporary footfall on the path to success.

Next up, then, is today’s tussle with the boys from Cliftonhill. Like us, Rovers are very much in need of a lift. They are well clear of the wooden spoon zone, which no-one wants as a Christmas present. But after succumbing last week to newcomers Annan Athletic, whose early promise has wilted on the Third Division’s wizening vine, Albion will be pulling out all the stops at SHS, hoping that Dumbarton are in the midst of a ‘difficult patch’.

Now is the time for Sons to claim back the initiative again. Five goals would be good, too, though without any obligation to give away two for charitable purposes at our end. Mind you, we’d take a scrambled 1-0 win just as eagerly… though what is really required is a proper morale boosting performance, to clear our heads of recent difficulties on and off the pitch.

There are many pieces of history that relate Dumbarton and ‘the Wee Rovers’, who were founded ten years after us by the amalgamation of two teams called (you guessed it) Albion and, let’s see… yup, Rovers. One link is that we share the strange distinction of being the only two League teams to reach a Scottish Cup final in the same year as being relegated. For the Albion it happened in 1920, when they went down to Kilmarnock in front of 95,000 spectators at Hampden, before going down altogether at the end of the 1919/20 season.

Dumbarton got there first in 1897, however, just five years after being crowned Champions of Scotland. While in League Two, Sons made it to the Scottish Cup final against Rangers. It was not a great day. We lost 5-1 and then two months later we were voted out of the League, entering a time of enforced exile before going out of existence in 1901 and returning to life in 1905. After winning the Combination, Dumbarton returned to the Second Division of the Scottish League in 1906/7. Out of interest, we beat Albion Rovers 1-0 at home that season, drawing 2-2 away. The omens from 1919/20, when the Wee Rovers did their own Cup Final / relegation double, are even better. Two 2-1 victories. Mind you, our opponents did finish bottom, so Sons were not exactly isolated in their triumph!

One thing we can guarantee this afternoon is that neither of the sides appearing before you at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium will be making the trip to Hampden Park in May 2009. For one of us, however, a date with First Division football next season is still the hoped-for destination. Three points please, lads.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Anything seems possible

Goodness. The dark sky is illuminated by multi-coloured flashes of light, the United States has elected its first African-American president, Bush is on fire, and Dumbarton are on a winning streak - scoring five goals on Saturday (including a Stevie Murray hat-trick). The Sons are now pushing hard for the top spot in the Third Division of the Scottish League. The sky's the limit, it seems. Who knows, I might even update this site properly with all my recent programme notes soon... if only to keep Partick Kenny happy. (OK, thanks for the Stevester, mate. He's just what we needed. And Paul Keegan is doing well with my shirt sponsorship, too.) What next? Celtic to rip a few chunks off Manchester United, maybe. That would be good: an Old Firm underdog (heh, heh!) coming good against tiresome MUFC swagger. And low and behold, they're 1-0 ahead at the moment. But watch out Fergie and Gordo, the Rock [see pic] is the up-and-coming 'theatre of dreams'! [Footnote: 1-1 at Parkhead in the end. The Bhoys did pretty well, given the sheer quality they were up against]

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Back to the future

First published in Sons View, 01 November 2008, Dumbarton -v- Berwick Rangers

You know, I think we should get used to this winning lark! Sons’ hard-fought victory away to Montrose the week before last solidifies our challenge for a sustainable promotion-winning position. Cup games apart, that has always been the goal this season. This means we must remain determined to take all three points from Berwick Rangers this afternoon.

It will likely be another tough match, though. There’s a good deal of history between the clubs, and the Wee ’Gers are well motivated. Their away record is something they are determined to transform, having taken only one point out of a possible 15 so far in this campaign.

Yet that is only part of the story. For our opponents have the best home record in the lower half of the table. It is also equivalent to the fourth placed Gable Enders (superior in terms of goals scored) and exactly the same as the side currently perched in second place in the league – the mighty Dumbarton. Our task, then, is to ensure that a Berwick ‘away revival’ doesn’t begin here at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium and to keep our results tally on the up.

Lat year ’Gers had an even more humiliating time than Sons – being relegated from the Second Division after shipping 101 goals (nine in one match against Peterhead) and finishing bottom. The bitter disappointment of taking the drop came only one season after their triumphant Third Division Championship success in 2006-7, their first since 1979.

For Sons fans with long memories, Berwick shared the stage for the crowning moment in one of our own great successes. On 3 May 1972, Dumbarton claimed a 4-2 home victory over ’Gers that saw us secure the old Second Division Championship and a long-awaited return to First Division football.

A number of landmarks were achieved that day. It was Sons’ Centenary year, some 9,000 fans packed Boghead, we’d been outside the top flight for a full 50 years, and the title was achieved on goal difference – the first time this had occurred in Scottish football. Mind you, if goal difference had counted in 1890-91, Sons would have claimed the first-ever Scottish Champions title rather than having to share the honour with those other Rangers.

But back to ’72 for a moment. There’s a good chance that a few of you reading this were at that amazing match. As for me, I was a fourteen-year-old who’d been following the Sons for two-and-a-half years (I seemed to have sensibly picked the Jackie Stewart era to kick start my unlikely Dumbarton fandom!), but I was languishing down in Worthing on the south coast of England.

At that stage in my life, it would have taken about twenty years worth of pocket money to make it up to Boghead, and in the days when the internet hadn’t even been imagined I had to rely instead on BBC radio to keep me up-to-date with what was happening.

After the initial elation of going in front after three minutes came the anxiety provoked by Berwick’s equaliser and a slender 2-1 half-time lead. Then the news seemed to dry up altogether until the late news, when the glad tidings came through that we’d made it. Elation! Though nothing compared to the scenes at Boghead, I’m sure.

The goal heroes for Dumbarton that day were Charlie Gallagher, who scored a brace and had played a huge part in propelling us through the season, Peter Coleman (who gave Sons the lead), and Kenny Wilson, who netted an astonishing 43 goals in the 1971-2 campaign. All three had also played a crucial role in the Scottish League Cup semi-final tie and replay heroics against Celtic in 1970.

Of course there’s no point simply trading on past glories. But in leaner times we do well to remind ourselves that this small Club has some outstanding moments to its credit. In that sense alone, we need to go back in order to reach out to the future.

A good result today would be a further small contribution towards bringing better times to the Rock. Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be a long haul. But if effort and willpower remain a substantial part of what’s needed to carry us forward, then the signs remain decidedly positive. ’Mon Sons!

Carry on, but not regardless

First published in The Grecian, 01 November 2008, Exeter City -v- Chester City

No-one likes to see their team get whipped 6-1, to put it mildly. So although at one level I’m sorry I had to miss the Grecians’ last home game against Chesterfield for work reasons, in another way I’m obviously not. We entered the game against a side in mid-table and we had high hopes based on third place in League Two after thirteen games. Unlucky for some.

The killer proved to be the fourteenth, though. The BBC’s comment that “Chesterfield stunned high-flying Exeter with a crushing win at St James Park” was no exaggeration. It’s just one game, that much is true. But you don’t ship six goals unless something has gone badly wrong or you’re very unlucky. Last Tuesday night it was down to plain errors at the back.

No doubt that Paul Tisdale will have been on to the situation very quickly, and we will see an improved performance today. A defeat on this scale can be a body blow, but Exeter must show real character and carry on – not regardless, but regardful of what has happened. If the lessons of this defeat and the one against Macclesfield in September are absorbed, then no lasting damage need be incurred.

It is interesting that City have had a harder time against some of what may be regarded as the ‘lesser’ teams in the league (though that term is strictly relative, of course) than against those who the bookmakers have as promotion contenders. You can’t read too much into these things, however. It is the details of specific performances that count.

From the fans’ point of view, other ‘patterns’ are sometimes noticed. Not so long ago there was talk of a “television jinx”. When the cameras turned up, the players seemed to flounder. That one was well and truly torpedoed by the Grecians’ astonishing fight back against Oxford United in the Conference play-off semis two seasons back, among other examples.

I’m not someone who has much time for ‘omens’ or superstitions. But I have sometimes wondered why it is that we often seem to suffer a hiccup when a big crowd turns up at St James Park. The gate of 5,093 against Chesterfield was by far the most encouraging statistic of that grim evening. What’s needed now is for the supporter enthusiasm to continue, spurring the lads on to keep in the play-off zone into the New Year. This is not a time for discouragement.

Chester, currently seventeenth and licking wounds from their own 1-6 nightmare against Rochdale on 21 October, won’t be sitting on their laurels just because they secured an impressive 3-0 win against Brentford on Tuesday… or because they share the first seven letters of our most recent tormentors! A bounce-back home win for the Grecians is important, and that’s what we’ll all be rooting for this afternoon.

On a happier note, former Grecians boss Alex Inglethorpe, who helped keep City in contention for promotion back to the League before Paul Tisdale came in from Team Bath and finished the job in some style, found himself unexpectedly in the national media spotlight last weekend. Along with Clive Allen, the Spurs youth team coach ended up picking and preparing the winning Tottenham side against Bolton, after the sacking of Juande Ramos and equally sudden arrival of Harry Redknapp. Exeter enjoy a good relationship with Spurs, not least as a result of North London hero Steve Perryman’s work down here at St James’.

One of the upshots of the latest comings and goings in the Premier League is that homegrown managers are once again occupying poll position in many top clubs. It was good to see Tony Adams given the berth at Fratton Park following ’Arry’s departure. Tony has worked incredibly hard since he graduated from Arsene Wenger’s academy and the school of hard knocks. He’s a decent man with the potential to be a top manager. Much like someone sitting on the bench here at Exeter City this afternoon.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Dedicated to success

First published in The Grecian, 28 October 2008, Exeter City -v- Chesterfield

Everyone I see wearing red, black and white walking around the fair city of Exeter seems to be smiling these days. There must be grumps around too (some of them may be pouncing on Exeweb as I write!), but they are surely few and far between at the moment. Being fans, we can always complain. But we’d be daft to do so right now.

For the Grecians are not only in the play-off zone, they have also beaten perhaps the best two teams in the league away from home (what does that make us?), have clinched a two-year rolling contract with excellent manager Paul Tisdale, and have assembled a group of players with a good balance of skills and a willingness to really dig in together.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, as the old cliché has it, “this is football, son!” Expect the unexpected. Due to the happenstance of deadlines, for instance, I am penning this without knowing the outcome of our game against Barnet on Saturday. My instinct is that we will have picked up at least one point, hopefully three. But as the Grimsby game showed, the teams who appear to be struggling can be very, very hard to beat sometimes – whereas sides like Bury and Port Vale, who you would sensibly quake over, can be taken on convincingly.

The difference is often to do with space on the pitch: its presence against confident teams who know they are doing well and who like to open it up themselves, and its absence against those who close down tight and pack behind the ball in order to save goals and points. I have no disrespect for the latter, by the way. Sheer numbers at the back doesn’t make it an easy or risk-free business defending and marking the opposition out of the game, as those who have come undone trying will tell you. Plus, we’ve all been there ourselves at some point.

But while caution can save your skin, a high level of daring is needed to win. That’s what the Grecians have shown this season, and even when there are setbacks (as there almost certainly will be), this quality – together with the ability to get over those humps – will surely see us good in the end.

If the game against Barnet has gone well, by the way, that will just provide a different kind of challenge against Chesterfield this evening: the one called “no let up, no easing back.” The higher you ascend the football ladder in this country, the less room there is for breathing easily or counting your proverbial chickens. Just when you think you have it clucking in the bag, it can slip from your fingers.

It may well be the case that Exeter City are doing just as well in League Two this term as we were in the Blue Square Premier last year. But that doesn’t mean this division is no tougher, or that we know we will inevitably be fighting for promotion in a few months time – as we always thought we would be in the Conference, to be honest. Nothing can be taken for granted whatsoever.

Which is why I am glad we have Paul Tisdale in charge. He brings an evenness and intelligence to his approach. And as he has made clear, he wants to move on up with the Grecians. Paul’s depth of commitment was shown at Team Bath, and we are seeing the same spirit and professionalism here in Devon. So I hope those who were initially sceptical about him (remember that? Seems an age away, thankfully!) have learned their lesson.

Quality in football doesn’t come with reputation or longevity alone; it is the result of hard work, thoughtfulness, inspiration and dedication. You can have the talent and lack those qualities, and vice versa. That’s something the players will be remembering as they take to the pitch tonight too, I’m sure. ’Mon City!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Sons in the Premier League

A publishing plot is being hatched between me, Sons View matchday programme editor Graeme Robertson, the Sonstrust and Dumbarton fans... in the shape of a forthcoming book on our ascent to the Scottish Premier League in the 1980s. The details, including information about how to get involved, are here on the official DFC site. Graeme is doing most of the hard work at the moment, but once the copy starts flowing, I'll be a pretty busy bee too. We will be producing the book in time for the Sportsmans' Dinner on 21 March 2009, all being well.

Diary of a man who disappeared

That's the title of a piece of music by Leos Janacek [obscure factoid of the day]. And it also describes me, as far as regular readers of Only Just Offside are concerned - hi, Alan! Life has overtaken football for me over the past month, but the end is in sight for this shameful state of affairs. Good thing too, as there's plenty of exciting things happening at Mighty Dumbarton, and also in my local area with Exeter City. Watch this space. On second thoughts, you must have better things to do, surely? ;-)

Saturday, 18 October 2008

It's Grimsby up north

First published in The Grecian, 18 October 2008, Exeter City -v- Grimsby Town

So the global economy is in a mess, the polar icecaps are melting and according to some the world is generally going to hell in a hand-basket. But, on the bright side, Exeter City took three points off league leaders Bury in a 1-0 away win last week and sit convincingly in seventh place after ten games. Football helps you get these things in perspective. Well, sort of!

The point is, things are looking good for the Grecians, and if we can stay in the top eight through to the New Year then it is clearly realistic to talk about aiming for a play-off place come April 2009. But there is a good deal of hard work to be done before then, and much of it will take the shape of games like today’s tough home encounter with Grimsby Town.

There’s plenty of past form between theses two sides, of course. No that long ago our former striker Steve Flack turned down a move to the Mariners in order to complete his service with then Conference located Exeter, and to seek his hundred goals. Good old Flacky, we said. Grimsby, who were fighting for promotion from League Two around that time, were less than thrilled by his decision. Sadly, they lost the 2005-6 play-off final at the Millennium Stadium 1-0 to Cheltenham Town. Grecians fans know what that’s like from our first Wembley visit the season before last.

Since then, Grimsby have lost a Football League Trophy to Milton Keynes Dons on 30 March this year (my birthday, as it happens) and ditched their third manager in a row after a depressing spell of 15 consecutive games without a win. Under the experienced Mike Newell, late of Luton Town’s relative glory years, they are now seeking a revival. But it’s not proving easy. Indeed it’s been ten games without a victory this term alone, and the Grimsby still sit a worrying 21st place in the League.

In short, the past few years have been grim for football fans from the Humber Estuary, laced with financial goings on and sadly broken dreams on two big occasions. An away win here at St James’ Park against an up-and-coming Grecians side will therefore be a much sought after prize for the Mariners, and Paul Tisdale and his coaching staff will no doubt have been working hard over the past week to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

But while Exeter are not (and ought not to be) in any sense desperate about winning, it is still extremely important that we try to build on the momentum of our recent form. This has seen not only some superb victories home and away, but some really attractive, flowing football, too.

What a positive message that sends out. Sometimes you have to grind out results when things aren’t going your way or when you’re feeling slightly off the pace. That’s the mark of a side that can go places rather than just tread water. But it isn’t what packs the stands and terraces in the lower leagues. For that everyone wants to see a bit of flair and invention.

The new Exeter – as I think we can justifiably refer to this carefully crafted squad – also want to play football to the best of their ability, with a bit of love and devotion as well as grit and determination. So far, it’s going rather well. The signs are that this is a side that can continue to step up a gear. For that, however, we need consistency and the ability to iron out the blemishes and mistakes which can be the main difference between life at the top and bottom of this league, and (dare to mention it quietly) ascent to the one above.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Sticking to the task

First published in The Grecian, 04 October 2008, Exeter City -v- Gillingham

It’s a topsy-turvy life in League Two. Victory at home to Accrington, a bit of a mauling away to Bradford, a hard-fought draw against Notts County, and then last Saturday’s fine 4-1 win at Macclesfield. Now we face Gillingham, then high-flying Bury away, who have still not lost a league game. Quite a test.

Overall, things are going pretty well for Exeter City this season. That was the verdict of manager Paul Tisdale, speaking to the media just before the latest victory. His sensibly cautious smile was probably a little wider on Sunday morning – but I’m equally sure the work rate at the Cat and Fiddle training ground will have stepped up a gear in anticipation of the visit of the league leaders.

Even without winger Charlie Daniels, who has opted to go back to Spurs following his month-long loan spell, the Gills are going to be a tough proposition. (By the way... have you heard the one about “what’s difference between Tottenham Hotspur and a triangle?” the answer is that a triangle has three points.)

Levity aside, the next twos matches really will show how Exeter can fare against the best. Have an off day, make too many mistakes or fail with our touch in the box and we will be punished. Even the teams nearer the foot of the table – and leaving aside those trying to claw back massive point deductions – are sides capable of more than they are showing. League Two is tight.

Thankfully, we have a sane steer on the Club from our coach, management and Trust. Twice this past week I have seen press headlines proclaiming “Chaos at St James Park”, and have felt thankful that we in Devon are separated from Newcastle by more than just an apostrophe in the names of our respective grounds!

Top-level football really is a surreal business these days. While the world economy is in turmoil and people are concerned about their homes and security, a few multi-billionaires remain keen to soak up big Premier League sides for fun, with decidedly mixed results.

A comedian recently joked that Goldfinger would now have a new line to throw at Britain’s favourite fictional secret service agent: “So, Meester Bond…” (swarthy accent required), “our people can now buy as many Frank Lampards as we want, and there is nothing your country can do about it!”

Not that there is much laughter resounding around that other St James. With King Kev dethroned, fan-owner Mike Ashley has been desperate to offload a sinking asset while the supporters abuse him, and probably any non-Geordie manager who doesn’t immediately turn things around. Forbearance is a rare commodity around the Tyne.

Not so in the land of the Grecians, I’m glad to say. But it’s useful to remind ourselves that if we take a few knocks in the coming weeks, sticking together becomes even more vital. That’s true for the players, too. And they are showing it.

Here’s how. The day after that Bradford hammering, my internet connection was down and I had to access the wi-fi at a local hostelry. Nope, I’m not making this up! Anyway, there I was, penning a piece for The Grecian, when who should I see opposite me but a few ECFC boys enjoying a night off together – very soberly, I should add, lest a certain Mr Tisdale is reading! I had a quick word with Dean Moxey, and he immediately emphasised his confidence that our strikers would come good, after a couple of difficult games.

Sure enough, Exeter have just scored six goals in two outings. One or two more today would be a welcome addition. If you believe it, the whole team believes it and everyone sticks hard to the task – it can happen. That’s the meaning of unity.

The agony and ecstasy

First published in Sons View, 4 October 2008, Dumbarton -v- Annan Athletic

After hard fought back-to-back wins against Albion Rovers and Cowdenbeath, plus the capture of third place in the table, last Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Forfar and fall into fourth – when we could have been second – was undoubtedly a disappointment for Sons fans. The old “two points dropped rather than one gained” scenario bit hard.

Hang on a minute, though. There’s another way of looking at this. Jim and the boys need no reminding that there are weaknesses to be addressed and improvements to be made at the training ground and on the pitch, I’m sure. But compare the early achievements of this squad with what we saw last season, and you sense that even though it’s proving tougher than pre-season hype (those pundits putting you among the favourites to win the league are a curse!), Sons are still on the march forward.

We may not be unstoppable yet, as the Loons painfully reminded us. However, seven points from nine in three matches – including two away – is something we would have crossed our fingers or prayed for in 2007-8. Now we expect rather more. Even the frustration at what we missed at Station Park is therefore a positive indication of distance travelled.

So, if you’ll forgive the terrible pun, this is no time to ‘look back in Angus’. Today, Dumbarton have the opportunity to return to winning ways against new boys Annan Athletic, who themselves want to avoid a dip turning into a slide.

After their great start, the Galabankies are now fully aware that Division Three is no pushover. I’m sure they never thought it would be, but when the shine of the grass is running for you, confidence is understandably high. Now the armchair cynics are out in force, suggesting that Annan, though a determined and skilful outfit, will struggle to make the course.

I’m sure no-one in the Dumbarton camp will be, in President George W. Bush’s immortal phrase, “misunderestimating” our the Dumfries and Galloway opponents this afternoon. We know full well that Annan will be looking for revenge for their CIS Cup exit, and a share of today’s spoils. Sons will have to be Rock-like in denying them and pushing forward to victory.

Good grief, I’m sounding perilously like one of those over-enthusiastic motivational coaches! It must be the ‘bounce’ from Raise the Rock Day last fortnight. Once again, those who put all the hard work in for that grand occasion deserve our plaudits, while Sons played their part with a famous, hair-raising win.

When we lost that fragile 1-0 lead against Cowdenbeath on the precipice of full time, you could read the “same old story” reaction on the home support’s faces. Equally, when Ben Gordon snatched Dumbarton’s winner with the last kick of the game (other than the one the referee allowed from the centre spot before blowing his final whistle), the surge of joy really did Raise the Rock. Well, I’m sure my seat was shaking – though like everybody else I was leaping in the air and screaming like a mad thing at the time. It was a great moment… followed by some good, extended celebrations.

Now when you’ve travelled several hundred miles to be at a game, as I had on 20 September, victory tastes extra sweet, especially when grabbed from the jaws of a draw that would have been like defeat in the circumstances – and when you haven’t physically seen your team win since 2003-4.

For SHS regulars, however, the picture is obviously different, and being an ‘exile’ I fully respect that. Naturally, as a long-term fan, I feel low when Sons lose or don’t play to their potential. But I don’t kid myself that following what’s going on by text is anything like being there, biting your nails with every lost chance.

The ‘far post’ fan experience brings a different perspective, however. It reminds you that precious football moments are there to be cherished, and that we shouldn’t let the harsher realities take them away from us. Much though I too feel like swearing at the first person who tells me “there’s always next Saturday” after some grim failure, they are, of course, right. It’s a game. But it’s still one we’re utterly determined to win!


Friday, 26 September 2008

Yes, I know....

... I seem to have gone AWOL. It only takes a last minute 2-1 Dumbarton home win over Cowdenbeath and I'm lost for words, huh? Well, not quite. But life has pulled in a few other directions since last Saturday (which was a really great day). Back on the case very soon... And, hey, let's face it. Life can survive without my thoughts on football. Just. ;)

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Sing to keep them winning

First published in Sons View, 20 September 2008, Dumbarton -v- Cowdenbeath

Usually when you read this, I’m hundreds of miles away lost in the wilds of Devon or somewhere equally removed from Castle Road. If I’m at another game, I’ll be checking my mobile phone or the BBC Football online updates to see how the Sons are doing. Then, later, the hunt for match reports and reactions begins.

Being a long distance fan is a strange business. Thankfully, today, I’m sitting not far from you at SHS, all being well. I might even have sold you the programme if Denise Currie puts me into action with the sales patter. So this column is The Near Post for a change.

Today is the second ‘Raise the Rock’ event in a row I’ve managed to get to. Whether and when I can make it to Dumbarton games partly depends on my work and domestic schedule, partly on whether I have any pennies in the coffers, and partly on finding a suitable excuse to get within striking distance of a Sons match!

This time it’s worked out well. And I don’t just mean my own plans. Last Saturday’s 3-1 away win against Albion Rovers was just the boost the team and manager needed. Deep down we all believe this can be the season to get Dumbarton on track to higher and better things, but there’s still problems to overcome, confidence to build, and defining chemistry to be created between squad members old and new.

Being fans, we all have our pet ideas about what should be done, who should play where, what tactical changes are needed, and so forth. But when you’re in the dug out, stopping the shots, moving into midfield or taking to the wing theory melts into air and reality bites.

Progress is clearly being made at Dumbarton. This is a more durable, flexible side than last season’s. We have a well-qualified manager who loves the Club and craves success. If Sons can now take the momentum from that Cliftonhill victory into this afternoon’s encounter with Cowdenbeath (who have made their own intentions very clear in the initial games of the season), then we will get a result and really feel we’re ‘on the way’.

To achieve something creditable on the pitch for ‘Raise the Rock Day’ would be especially fitting. Because this is an occasion designed for family fun, for showing off the facilities here, for encouraging the youngsters, for getting the message across with Your Radio FM, and for persuading more people that coming down to SHS to cheer on Dumbarton on a regular basis is a fine way to spend a Saturday afternoon – and occasionally a Tuesday night!

I’d be here every time if I could. Indeed one of my ambitions is to live within three hours train travel of Dumbarton East, to make that possible. Since my work mainly involves writing, much of it can be web based. Not so for my wife, unfortunately. But she talks about Edinburgh from time-to-time, so you never know…

Back to today’s proceedings, and the quest for some goals and points – which is what will surely persuade those who live a bit nearer than me that SHS is where they should be. When the supporters really get behind a team, it always makes a difference. And Dumbarton has great fans. It’s something those who share their story in the new Sons View ‘Fan of the Week’ column almost always mention. ‘Raise the Rock’ is about getting more of them.

I’m certain the Apache Army will be in good voice. They’ve made a big impact, home and away, showing that although Dumbarton fans are never going to be less than hard bitten (we’d have to be, wouldn’t we?), there’s a deep reservoir of loyalty, dedication, enthusiasm and – dare I say it – optimism, alongside the quips and the cracks.

Nick Hornby summed it up well in Fever Pitch: you’re not a football fan because it always puts a stupid grin on your face. No, you’re hooked because in spite of many setbacks this really can be the Beautiful Game, and it carries with it those moments of unexpected, shared delight that make a few damp afternoons and some less than stellar results worth it after all. And right here, right now? You sing, the boys will try to win. That’s what we want to see.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Great Grecian expectations

First published in The Grecian, 20 September 2008, Exeter City -v- Notts County

The good news is that Exeter went one up against League Two high-fliers Bradford City in the first half. The bad news is that we then shipped four in the second, outflanked by their lightning paced wingers Joe Colebeck and Omar Daley – who The Observer described as being the football equivalent of his fellow Jamaican, sprint star Usain Bolt.

But that was then and this is now. Today we face different opponents, Notts County, a team with a journeyman pedigree laced with some uplifting moments along the way. Like the Grecians, they are in a lower mid-table position at the moment, coming into this game on the back of a 1-1 away draw at Accrington Stanley – who Exeter topped in a positive home display recently.

The task, then, is to learn the lessons from a heavy defeat, put it behind us, and get down to the game in hand. On paper, City have the players, the organisation, the grit and the flair to do the job and walk away with three points this afternoon. No question. But we are learning that how things look in print and how they work out on the turf is not necessarily the same thing. So real concentration will be needed.

Every game this term is proving tough, and the players and manager need the fans fully behind them. In the Conference, the expectation of Exeter City supporters was always high. It still is in League Two. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ambition is a vital ingredient in negotiating the path to success in football. As someone once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’re pretty sure to hit it!”

However there is a difference now. We’re in a higher league, and make no mistake, it is higher. Over the past few seasons I’ve often heard spectators speculate that many of the teams in what became the Blue Square Premier would flourish in ‘the football league proper’. There was talk of a ‘fifth division’. I always remained sceptical about this.

It’s true that most of the sides promoted from the Conference in recent years have done well. Some have done very well. But let’s not forget that they were often shades above their non-league competitors anyway, they had established or developed pedigrees, and they recognised the vital need to strengthen as they moved up.

There have been also been sides like Chester, who dominated in their promotion season and then struggled. There’s no magic formula, no guarantee. I’d be delighted if, as some were saying before this season began, the Grecians could claim a top eight finish. But I’m not counting on it. That isn’t pessimism, it’s realism. Because as well as expecting too little, you can overstretch by expecting too much.

It’s been wisely said that the best way to avoid disillusionment is not to have too many illusions in the first place. The genuine confidence that produces results (rather than the pride that leads to a fall) starts from a realistic estimate of strengths and weaknesses – not from pipe dreaming.

It’s this kind of feet-on-the-ground approach that enables a well-adjusted football team not to get too carried away by victory or too deflated by results like last week’s against Bradford. That seems to be the spirit around Exeter at the moment, which is why I’m expecting (that word again!) a good display and result this afternoon.

Usually I’d be cheering on from the stands, too. This week, however, I’m up in Scotland lending voice to the team I’ve supported for nearly 40 years, Dumbarton. But my antennae will also be tuned to St James Park (the real one, not the mad-house on the Tyne!) rooting for a Grecians win.

I’m especially sorry to miss the Notts County encounter. Back in 1967 they were the first team I ever saw live, at home to my grandfather’s side, Brentford. The Bees beat them 2-1. I hope that’s an omen.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Things must be serious

Even if you don't spend your life watching the news (as I do, frankly), you know something is afoot in the world when you go to two pubs and find that Sky Sports News has been displaced by the Financial Report. Now many would say that this happened in the English Premier League years ago. But I'm talking about people being more worried about their mortgages and jobs than the future of the diamond formation in a restructured midfield. It will be interesting to see if the banking crisis hits the billionaire clubs in the near future. If it does, you can guarantee that the disease, whatever form it takes, will be transmitted downwards. The task and gift of lower league football is to build an alternative vision of the game, and how to finance it sustainably. We shouldn't forget that as we scrabble for the next few quid to keep going. [Image: Another McFootball marketing opportunity]

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Looking to the youngsters

So Dumbarton head off to Coatbridge on Saturday to take on Albion Rovers at Cliftonhill Stadium. Only alphabeticisation [and goals scored, as Jack Deighton points out to me] separates the two teams after five games in the Third Division, with both the Sons and the Wee Rangers on six points and no goal difference. Three points for Dumbarton would set us up nicely for the 'Raise the Rock' day on 20 September and the home game against Cowdenbeath.

Getting up for only a game or two a season -- last year was a record four -- I very rarely see the mighty DFC win (the last time was in 2004!). So it would be good to change that. Meanwhile, the Club website is rightly emphasising Sons' Youth Development Initiative. Getting talented youngsters through to first team football is a tough job, but I really do think that such programmes are the way to build loyalty, profile and a future for a small outfit like Dumbarton. Well done to everyone involved.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Turning the tables

What a fascinating night. A good 2-1 win for Scotland against Iceland, in spite of one or two shakes. Kirk Broadfoot of Rangers (pictured, celebrating his goal) made a good debut and the Scots got exactly the boost they needed. Wales were less fortunate to have a draw snatched from them at the end in Moscow by a commanding Russia. But inevitably the talking point of the evening will be England's 4-1 demolition of Croatia. After an uneasy start it was an impressive display of determination, organisation and (when the confidence was flowing) skill. I still don't think they are anywhere near being top class, but Fabio Capello will make them cunning and hard to beat. He is clearly going for the team solidity and tactical depth they have often lacked.

The fact that this was, in some respects, like a blood and thunder Premier League game helped quite a bit. Croatia were unexpectedly poor, too. The decisive difference was the inspiration of hat-trick hero Theo Walcott -- an intelligent, decent young man (and a fine, pacy footballer too) who has been well nurtured by cautious Arsene Wenger and whose time has now come. At the 2006 World Cup, Sven Goran Eriksson was criticised for taking him at just 17 years old. He no doubt hoped that in training he would show the flashes needed to be trusted as a super sub. It didn't work out. But Capello was well rewarded tonight.

Once more unto the breach

After failing to salvage a point away against Macedonia in an admittedly tricky beginning to their World Cup qualifying campaign, Scotland very much need a win in Iceland tonight - both to improve their position in the (nascent) table and to gain the confidence boost that a first victory under George Burley will give to both players and manager. That acknowledged, I think defender Gary Caldwell is quite right to say it's far too early to be pressing the panic button.

"To judge it over one game is incredible, to say we are out this early," Caldwell commented. "We know we have got a team that is capable of winning games and qualifying. The reaction is a bit embarrassing to be honest - that people can judge people so early and jump on it as much as they do. They need to take a look at themselves, really, and get behind the country because we are all trying to do something that has not been done for a long time. A little bit of help would come in handy."

For those of us with just terrestrial TV the game won't be shown down here, so instead I will venture to the pub to see England in Croatia. The Croatians have improved since they knocked the English out of the Euro 2008 qualifiers, while Fabio Capello has so far struggled to get much more out of the squad available to him. The boo-boys will be quick to blame a "foreign manager" (undoubtedly one of the finest in the world) if England fail to perform or get a result again. But with your own fans jeering you, a team of players quite a few of whom wouldn't make it into other European sides, and a combination of talents acclimatised to the energy of the Premier League and relying on more technically adroit overseas colleagues (yes, it's still true)... is it that surprising? We'll see.