Thursday, 24 April 2008

Paying the penalty

I've long had a suspicion that we might see a Barcelona-Chelsea Champions League final - which should be good news to Manchester United and Liverpool fans, given my established predictive shortcomings. United now have to stop Barca scoring at Old Trafford and get something themselves. However, they have not been helped by Cristiano Ronaldo showboating at the penalty spot yesterday. Trying to side foot into the top right-hand corner is the sort of thing you do on the training ground, not in a vital match like this. Confidence can segue into arrogance when young players' minds are turned by inflated acclamations of their own brilliance, it seems.

The perils of the spot-kick are also highlighted in a new report that appears this week, implausibly enough, in the academic journal Scientific American Mind. English footballers missing penalties and women doing badly at maths could all be down to historical stereotyping rather than innate inability, according to researchers.

A new report by psychologists at Universities of St Andrews and Exeter (I first noticed this one in the local paper) argues that success or failure at work, school or in sport is not always down to lack of ability or incompetence. Instead, they suggest that the power of stereotypes can cause poor performance when a person believes they should do badly.

Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter explained, "The power of stereotypes should not be underestimated. What we think about ourselves - and also, what we believe others think about us - determines both how we perform and what we are able to become."

The report, published on 22 April 2008, argues that the roots of poor performance lie partly in the preconceptions of how well a certain group (usually relating to gender or nationality / ethnicity) should perform certain tasks. For example, one reason why the England football team performs badly in penalty shoot-outs (winning only 1 out of 7 in major tournaments) is that performance is impeded by a history of failure.

We think it, therefore it happens - a psychological mindset takes over which overcomes those given the responsibility of discharging the fans' dreams.

This won't be news to Sven Goran Eriksson. When he was interviewed some months ago by Gabby Logan on the BBC's Inside Sport, he said that the one thing he would have done differently during his tenure as England national manager would have been to employ a professional psychologist to assist with preparation for penalty shoot-outs.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Get drunk, have a kebab

More than any other type of venue, other than some pubs perhaps, football grounds in a southerly direction are frequently festooned by the red and white flags of St George - not just at this time of year, but throughout the season. Makes me a bit queazy, to be honest. Not just because the symbol has so often been colonised by far right xenophobes (there's no reason to let them monopolise it), but because it still often accompanies an unhealthy, chauvinistic form of Englishness. I say that as an English person with a miniscule trace of Scots ancestry that has played a significant role in getting me to look askance at all this. I also love they way Dumbarton fans have adapted the flag in a black and yellow direction.

Anyway, the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme commissioned a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek poem for 23 April - By George! by Scottish poet Elvis Mcgonagall. It's his copyright, please note, even though I've reproduced it below. If it doesn't want to make you laugh, bury stupid national differences, and have a friendly drink with someone a bit weird, nothing will.

Once more unto the breach, dear Morris Dancers
once more

Jingle your bells, thwack sticks, raise flagons
Cry “God for Harry and Saint George!”
Gallant knight and slayer of dragons
Patron saint of merry England
And Georgia, and Catalonia, and Portugal, Beirut, Moscow Istanbul, Germany, Greece
Archers, farmers, boy scouts, butchers and sufferers of syphilis
Multicultural icon with sword and codpiece

On, on you bullet-headed saxon sons

Fly flags from white van and cab

But remember stout yeomen, your champion was Turkish

So – get drunk and have a kebab


Tuesday, 22 April 2008

City put celebrations on ice

Well, as ever the Simon Barrow Predictometer proved entirely reliable... in being wrong. Within a minute Exeter City were ahead against Stafford Rangers tonight, and despite a spell in the first half when they could create but not score, they never looked back - winding up 4-1 winners and playing some good football. It could have been 8, frankly. Stafford were defensively frail and Man of the Match Dean Moxey thoroughly deserved his hat-trick.

Then came the news that Stevenage had lost 2-1 at home to Northwich Victoria. The Grecians are now through to the promotion play-offs irrespective of the results on the final weekend of the season this Saturday. At this stage it looks likely that City's opponents in the two-leg semis will be Cambridge, with either Burton Albion (who fell apart tonight) and Torquay, also defeated this evening, in the final on 18 May. Exciting times. But there was restrained celebration at St James' Park. As manager Paul Tisdale (pictured) is bound to say: "We haven't won anything yet."

One pleasing moment was when Ishmale Reid, Rangers' best player, scored in the 90th minute with a scorching shot to the top right-hand corner of Paul Jones' net. The strike was met with generous applause from Exeter fans. Stafford are already relegated, and the supporters who followed them deep into the southwest this evening were a superb testimony to football loyalty. I'm glad this was reciprocated with a sporting gesture, albeit one not taxing for a side contemplating the possibility of a Football League place next term. Still, it's good to see a counterpoint to the unfortunate nastiness that has crept into the game in recent years. Good luck to Stafford next season. It will be tough for them, no doubt.

As a footnote, Matt Taylor was deservedly hailed Player of the Year in a short ceremony after the game. Along with Moxey he has been a tower of strength for the Grecians.

Yeah but no but yeah but...

First published in The Grecian, 22 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Stafford Rangers

As the Grecians face tonight’s final home match of the season, you will either be eagerly anticipating another victory to tip us into the play-off places or anxiously hoping others lose to give us another chance.

Will be get there? As Vicky Pollard would say, “yeah but no but yeah but no but…” a final “yeah”, we hope. It’s been a rollercoaster season. At the start I didn’t think we’d do as well as we have – fearing the after effect of the disappointment at Wembley in May, plus the loss of a couple of inspirational players (I particularly liked Jon Challinor).

Then we had an incredible run, followed by a mini slump, followed by… as many twists and turns as you can imagine. Sometimes City have played with verve and imagination, while on other occasions we have lacked a vital killer punch, had defensive wobbles, or felt key absences in midfield.

Overall, this side really deserves another crack at the play-offs and Paul Tisdale, greeted with scepticism by some associated with the club when he was first appointed, has done a very good job indeed.

With a strong youth policy and everyone rallying around, Exeter’s future is bright. We just pray that the glow intensifies sooner rather than later. But whatever the outcome of this campaign, it is important that Grecians supporters get behind the team and its management, rather than squabbling or grumbling.

There certainly wasn’t much to grumble about in that pulsating game against Aldershot. It was the best I have witnessed this season. End-to-end stuff at times, the game was marked by moments of real quality, passion and commitment.

In reality, Exeter were unlucky not to come away with three points. But for a breathtaking save from Nicky Bull right at the end, we would have. There were squandered chances at both goals, plus lightening breaks, crunching tackles, deft touches and tactical battles across the park.

We also witnessed a bit of history, with Aldershot Town finally securing their return to the Football League 16 years after Aldershot FC sadly folded. These boys are no Shots in the dark. They have oozed quality and appear to have what it takes for a top ten finish or better in League Two next term.

What’s more, Exeter lived with them and even out-manoeuvred them on occasions. That’s a real signal for the future. Playing against decent sides often brings the best out in the Grecians. What is needed is greater consistency and penetration.

Given that Aldershot needed just a point, they could have thrown a blanket over this game. But they knew City were too good to do that. They often had five across the middle, but always geared for a possible attack.

Similarly, Exeter nudged players forward, going for victory rather than accommodation against a side that many would have been grateful for a solitary home point off. We were vulnerable on the right flank in the first half, but plugged that gap in the second.

Bringing on Carlisle and Moxey on the hour was nearly Tisdale’s miracle, with the two combining for what was almost the perfect super subs’ goal. But Deano’s header was narrowly squeezed away. So near but so far. That, of course, is the phrase we all hope we don’t end up using next week.

Heartening, too, to see Exeter fans congratulating Aldershot on their well-deserved promotion success at the end of the game as the cameras swooped. Rivalry and ribbing aside, football is sport – and it is all the better for being conducted in that atmosphere. No buts – yeah.


The road to glory?

As someone who couldn't exactly be accused of being a football glory hunter, I confess to a twinge of regret that I won't get to see the broadcast of the Liverpool-Chelsea Champions League semi-final broadcast tonight, even if it is on the dreaded ITV. That's because I'm off to see my locals Exeter City take on already relegated and bottom placed Stafford Rangers in their last official home game in the Blue Square Premier. It will be a tense match (the one at St James' Park, I mean) because the Grecians should win, and they desperately need to if they are to get into the promotion play-offs. It would help if Stevenage lost, too. I don't think that will happen. This is one of those nail biters when the inner fitba pessimist in you says, "here's a train wreck waiting to happen". If I was ogling the telly with a cuppa in my hand I wouldn't have so much of an investment... and, er, the game might be rather better. I just hope Exeter play as they did against Aldershot Town. That was a cracking match. As was Liverpool against Arsenal, of course. {The pic is of Jon Challinor, who Exeter lost after the play-off final defeat at Wembley last May. See? Getting myself in the mood...}

Monday, 21 April 2008

Saints go marching out

One of the first games I ever watched Dumbarton play involved us getting unceremoniously dumped by St Johnstone - 16 August 1980, 0-3 at Boghead Park, if you must so. Even so, I surely wanted the Saints to overturn Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final at the weekend. They must be gutted going out on penalties. St Johnstone put up a good fight on a poor pitch against a changed but determined 'Gers and almost grabbed it near the end of extra time. It would have been extraordinary to have two First Division teams in the Final at Hampden. As it is, one half of the Old Firm will be taking on Queen of the South and are they are naturally odds on to grab the Cup.

With the Blues certain to claim a Champions League place, most likely by winning the League title whatever happens against Celtic on Sunday, the Doonhamers will now follow in the controversial footsteps of Gretna by being a club from outside the top flight representing Scotland in the UEFA Cup next season. I understand why the SFA want to put a stop to this kind of thing. They think it is a further disincentive to other SPL sides who already know they cannot finish top. But it gives both the Cup and the aspirations of lower league sides and their supporters (like me) something to dream about. QOS deserve their day in the sun. I hope UEFA go on resisting the continual fiscal drift of the game towards the 'haves'.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

An ill wind benefits Sons

While the rains and mist descended gloomily in southwest England, the weather up in Dumbarton was described by Sonstrust chair Denise Currie as "beautiful but Baltic" today. The wind can whip up difficulties for teams visiting the Strathclyde Homes Stadium, "and it's fair to say that Craig Brittain's goal had an assist from the conditions", writes Alan Findlay of today's 1-0 win against East Stirlingshire for the last home game of the season. The match itself was pretty dire, I'm told, but those vital three points mean that Sons can go to Forfar next weekend knowing that they will not end up the worst professional team in Scotland. Some relief after a grim term. All eyes are on the what lies ahead now. Something better, surely?

Meanwhile, my local team Exeter City secured an important 2-0 away win at Rushden and Diamonds. Together with the point achieved at home midweek against 2007-8 Blue Square Premier champions Aldershot Town, that means the Grecians currently occupy the crucial final promotion play-off spot. A win against bottom-of-the-league (and already relegated) Stafford Rangers on Tuesday night will put them in poll position next Saturday and mean only a point is needed against Burton Albion, even if Stevenage (who have superior goal difference) get full marks from both their remaining games. That's definitely achievable in terms of ability. The question is whether ECFC have the psychological strength to claim the four points they need.

I can't end without a word of congratulation to the new champions. Twelve years after their namesakes folded, Aldershot Town are back in the Football League. The game against Exeter last Tuesday was fast, furious and fabulous: a credit to the game and to the Blue Square Premier. These guys are no Shots in the dark. They ought to be top ten in League Two next season, possibly higher. That the Grecians lived with them in the 1-1 draw, and by rights should have beaten them (bar a miracle save in the dying embers), bodes well for the future.

[Pic: Dumbarton goal hero Wee Craigie, (c) Donald Fullarton]

Look to the future

First published in Sons View, 19 April 2008, Dumbarton -v- East Stirling

The last home game of the season already? It hardly seems possible. They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, you’d be hard pressed to describe much of what’s happened this term as “game for a laugh” as far as Dumbarton fans are concerned, but the weeks have still disappeared at an alarming rate. In just seven days we’ll be counting the hours to another campaign; or possibly getting a life for a few months – one or t’other!

There are a couple of Scotland games to look forward to, of course. Away to the Czech Republic in May and then home to Northern Ireland in August, by which time Sons’ pre-season friendlies will be upon us. Fabio Capello’s new England (much like the patchy old England so far) couldn’t be tempted into a scrap with the Auld Enemy in Hampden’s cauldron or Wembley’s shiny void, sadly. Too much to lose, I guess.

Of course Scotland deserved to be at Euro 2008. As ever, it was a whisker between gloom and glory, and we ended up in the mousetrap rather than with the cats at play. But it will still be a tournament full of incident, and a useful barometer for how the Beautiful game is fairing across our expanding continent.

Meanwhile, after what we all hope will be a resounding wrap up to the SHS season against East Stirlingshire today, it’s time for the annual awards and celebrations, in spite of the poorest finish in the league for a number of years. There’s no point being down, and I don’t think I’m tempting fate too much to say that the only way is up.

It won’t be instant, mind. Jim Chapman will no doubt strengthen the squad and the Sonstrust has no intention of resting on its laurels. But the path to a better future for the Sons is going to comprise of hard work and careful stewardship, rather than trick ponies and bottomless pockets.

More often than not, things have not gone well for The Famous DFC on the pitch this year. That much is obvious. But it doesn’t mean the players and coaching staff haven’t been working hard. By tonight we’ll know who the fans have chosen as player of the season. I suspect I may have voted for the likely candidate, but being a 760 mile round trip away from SHS I’ve only seen five live matches this season, so I’m suitably circumspect about offering further comment.

One thing I do know, however, is that there’s a lot more to a player worthy of the Footballer of the Year accolade than a bit of flash and brass. That goes for the national game too, as journalists, pundits and sponsors bandy about their Big Names to remember the season by.

In the Sunday Herald the other week, reader Victor Murray from Glasgow made his own nomination of a player likely to slip by the official judges’ panels, but a great exemplar of what football is about nonetheless. Lee Wilkie doesn’t ply his trade for the Old Firm, where you have the bonus of other top performers and some stiff European lessons. These days he’s part of Craig Levein’s revamped Dundee United.

Wilkie made his name across the road at Dens Park, however, before a promising career, already adorned by a few Scotland caps, was hampered by a cruciate ligament injury which had ‘end of story’ written all over it. But Lee fought back, several times. Now, by all accounts, he’s inspiring many younger players and turning in the kind of backbone performance that all teams depend upon.

Such heroes of hard work and dedication, inflamed by more than the odd bit of inspiration, are undoubtedly what Dumbarton is looking to add in 2008-9. Where they’ll come from, who knows. Sometimes it’s the anticipated idea and sometimes the quite unexpected gamble that pays off.

At our level, the stakes are naturally smaller than we’d like and the risks seem bigger than those contemplated by teams with the necessary dosh to pile on a few bets and twist the big wheel of fortune. But if we all look to the future I reckon Sons will be there or thereabouts next season. So let’s get those piggy banks jangling and see if we can use the impending football half term to keep the Sonstrust and DFC on the road to better days.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

A result worth struggling for

First published in The Grecian, 15 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Aldershot Town

Whatever the final verdict on the Grecians this season, the continued vibrancy of the Club and its aspiration toward greater achievements rests squarely on those who care about it most – the supporters. In an age of corporate power, the participation of fans is still the only way to ensure that football retains a heart as well as a head.

So it is very good news indeed that the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust has increased its funding of the Club by 8 per cent to £65,000 for the 2008-09 season. The trust also plans to put in £75,600 in 2009-10 and £78,000 in 2010-11, if all goes well.

This means that fans themselves will have paid over £850,000 to City since the trust was formed. On top of these cash contributions there is an additional £20,000 to be repaid to supporters who lent money when the trust bought its majority shareholding in ECFC in 2003.

Contrast what has been happening at Exeter with the ownership scrapes that some other teams are in right now. Rotherham United’s chairman is facing a ban from becoming a director or holding a 30% share at any Football League club because of two insolvency events effecting the Millers since March 2006.

Meanwhile, Wrexham are facing the drop into the Blue Square after years fighting off a developer who wanted to sell off their ground for a hefty profit. Mansfield Town are staring bleakly at relegation too, plus the ignominious possibility of being re-named to attract commercial interest.

The idea to re-title the historic club ‘Harchester United’, supposedly to attract enthusiasts for Sky’s Dream Team soap series, has come from motor-sports entrepreneur John Batchelor, who unsuccessfully tried the same gambit at York City during his brief spell as controlling investor in 2002-3.

Batchelor has been hoping to take over the Stags for some time, but the recent appointment of Mansfield’s town mayor Tony Egginton as the Club’s non-executive chair looks like it may thwart that ambition. Much depends on whether a mini-revival can keep them in the league.

The mayor has described the renaming ploy as “a bizarre publicity stunt”. Stags supporters are also dismayed that the man who may grab the reins in their uncertain future is on record as saying: “If I am successful in achieving ownership, this will be my Club, my business, and up to me to provide entertainment. I am not even interested in discussing it with ‘fans’; however I will talk to customers any time.”

Whatever the outcome, this seems to sum up the attitude of a certain kind of ‘suit’ coming into football right now. While no-one denies that the game has often suffered from turning sound business logic on its head, the opposing tendency towards transforming local Clubs into ‘brands’ is equally undesirable – and usually short-lived.

Properly run, decently accountable trusts provide a positive alternative to these extremes because they bring together hundreds or thousands of people with a direct interest in football, and the combine this with a shared motivation for ensuring that their team is run in as sensible way by people with knowledge as well as commitment.

The problem is that stakeholders in a provident society can become harping critics, blaming decision makers without having to bear the burden of responsibility; or else mere voting fodder. But the evidence so far is that these undesirable tendencies can be mitigated by the sharing of information and genuine consultation.

That’s certainly what we want at Exeter City. In the meantime, it would be great if the Grecians and the Stags could face each other in League Two next year. That would certainly be a result worth struggling for.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Walking the talk

First published in Sons View, 12 April 2008, Dumbarton -v- Montrose

No Dumbarton fan could say that Jim Chapman short changed them with his ‘meet the manager’ session after the Stranraer home game a fortnight ago. Following a disappointing defeat and a frankly disjointed performance, he was in realistic but ebullient mood – taking questions fired at him across the Community Suite head on.

Almost everyone I talked to afterwards was quietly impressed (it’s not the DFC way to offer too many optimistic hostages to fortune!), but after a tough season there is one big, lurking concern. “We may be able to talk the talk, but can we walk the walk?” – particularly in that not-so-small matter of getting Sons out of the nether regions of the league and into a position where we can realistically aspire to something more in line with our historic traditions.

Jim was not in a mood to gloss over problems, but he remained upbeat about the larger picture. He’s clearly not just a man with football in his veins and a fair bit of experience, but he’s a Dumbarton man too. He wants the Sons to succeed as desperately as any of us fans, but the decisions he and his team have to make on a weekly basis are the ones that really count.

It’s not an enviable position to be in. Everyone has a view about what tactics are needed, which players are really there for the jersey, who’s got the most to offer, and so on. Equally, it’s clear that we haven’t been up to the grade for much of the season. Fiba lives by its clichés, and ‘the table doesn’t lie’ is undoubtedly one of them. But it only got to be so because of its underlying truth.

The last few games of a downbeat campaign are especially difficult. Minds are turning to next season, as the game at East Fife demonstrated. On the one hand it’s a time to test and experiment. On the other, you still don’t want to end up shipping goals and losing points if you can possibly avoid it. That bottom spot in the Third Division is one we are all keen to avoid. It’s a bit of a Shire trademark, too; a kind of reverse badge of honour that no one covets.

Meanwhile, Jim Chapman was playing a fine balancing act as the fans’ interrogation continued. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to criticise the players and that he wants them all motivated and supported to the last drop of their efforts and ability. Then again, he was frank about the need to bring in fresh blood, about his behind-the-scenes efforts to identify four or five winning gambits in the upcoming transfer market, and about the desirability of blending the enthusiasm of youth with the canniness of experience.

Another key talking point was the balance between individual match play and team strategy. Here Jim was straightforward in acknowledging that your tactics will only be as good as the players you have on the pitch, their ability to follow a plan, and the decisions they make under pressure. You might want a midfielder to occupy that vital central ground, for instance. But just as surely the team you’re playing will try to render him ineffectual on the flanks.

For fans this can be a surprisingly tricky concept to grasp. We’re used to watching world class players on telly and seeing how they can ‘make things happen’. But that ability to dictate a game doesn’t translate nearly as easily at other levels. As the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci once said (in a turn of phrase that isn’t nearly as daft as it first sounds): “everything in football is complicated by the presence of the opposition.” He’d obviously realised the huge gulf between even the best training ground and what happens on the pitch come Saturday. That’s precisely what the coaching staff has to negotiate, too.

All of which brings us back to ‘walking the talk’. We expect Jim to do it. We expect it of the players, too. The Sonstrust is all about putting words into action. But what about the fans in the stand this afternoon? Getting frustrated and yelling a bit of abuse (especially at the ref) is easy. Getting behind the team even when it’s going wrong is a little harder. But it’s definitely what we need until the larger changes we all long for can take shape.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Doing it the hard way

First published in The Grecian, 12 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Northwich Victoria

When likeable Fulham boss Roy Hodgson contemplated his Premier League side’s recent trip to the Stadium of Light, bereft of a single away victory in 32 previous attempts, he didn’t describe it as a ‘must win game’. He called it a ‘must, must, must win game’. They duly lost 3-1 to resurgent Sunderland.

Make that 33 away defeats, then. Another third of a game and it’ll be a record, quipped a fan. Not a very good joke (even if you are old enough to remember the playing speed of vinyl records), and not one that many in the West London club are likely to enjoy as they contemplate hosting Championship football next season and enduring the wrath of a certain Harrods owner. But when times are tense you need light relief somehow.

Thankfully for the Grecians, it’s life at the top end of our league we’re contemplating, rather than a four-points-adrift relegation scrap, but today’s game is definitely in the ‘must, must, must win’ category, with little slack for possible dropped points around us after Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat against Salisbury. Northwich Victoria are not out of the drop zone and will be fighting for every ball.

After the expected array of twists and turns, including a hard-won away win at fellow Blue Square Premier play-off contenders Stevenage, and a disappointing draw at home to lowly Droylesdon, Exeter City’s fate is not quite in our own hands. But almost. Win the remaining games and we might well be off to Wembley again, this time for celebrations rather than consolations.

But no one reading this programme is likely to believe it will happen straightforwardly. Since relegation from the League, ECFC, with no small leg-up from its hugely loyal supporter base, has achieved a remarkable turnaround and consistently high finishes in what some see as Division Three, but which still feels like the wilderness to those who have come to expect ‘the proper thing’.

You certainly couldn’t say it’s been plain sailing. Before last year, we had missed out on a series of promotion opportunities by the merest whisker, losing games we should have drawn and drawing games we undoubtedly should have won. That’s happened this term, too, but so far we are very much in with a fighting chance as the finishing line hoves into sight.

The Grecians still do things the hard way mind, and all the professional punters (among whom I’m certainly not one) will no doubt be putting their money on things not reaching a definite conclusion until the last Saturday of the season. So we will just have to go on biting our nails, even after three points and a few more goals this afternoon.

I confess I’ve missed a few of ECFC’s ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ over the past couple of weeks. It was my 50th birthday on 30 March, and I was on holiday in Scotland with my wife, sponsoring a match at Dumbarton’s picturesque Strathclyde Homes Stadium – contemporary site of my oldest footballing love.

Like the Grecians, the Sons have an active Trust, the first in Scotland. But promotion from Division Three is still a dream. The mighty DFC’s main aim this year is not to steal East Stirlingshire’s longstanding ‘bottom of the pile’ title. Our haul while I was there this time was two defeats and a postponement.

So even if things feel tough St James’ Park, remember: it could be much worse, and with any luck it will end up being a good deal better.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

Can anyone buy us a goal?

A second goal-free draw in a week for Dumbarton against Montrose this afternoon. Gaffer Jim Chapman has been outspoken about the forwards' inability to convert chances ("beyond a joke"), and by all accounts that's what happened again this afternoon, albeit with a better performance than in the dismal midweek Forfar fixture. Meanwhile, happier times for Exeter City, who grabbed three vital points from a tense and exciting home match against Northwich Victoria - a side whose performance certainly belied their lowly league status. With Burton and Stevenage losing, fate is back in the Grecians' own hands as far as the struggle for promotion is concerned. Dumbarton, however, remain one of three clubs separated by just three points at the foot of Scottish Football League Division Three, with a home and away game against the other contenders (East Stirling and Forfar) for the end of season booby prize. It could be tough unless we can find some inspiration. 'Mon Sons! Don't make mugs of yersels... please.

Doonhamer heaven

Congratulations to Scottish First Division mid-tablers Queen of the South, who got to the Scottish Cup Final for the first time in their history this afternoon, with a hard fought and historic 4-3 win over SPLers Aberdeen. Incredibly, the Doonhamers could be in Europe next season, if Rangers overcome Partick Thistle and St Johnstone, as expected, and win the League. If they don't, another piece of history will occur: a Final with no-one from the top flight in it. Either way, that's got to be good for the game north of the border.

As it happens, there are a number of Dumbarton connections with Queens. Back in July 2007 we lost keeper Stephen Grindlay to them, but he has been kept out of the team by Hearts on-loan Scottish under-21 international Jamie MacDonald. Equally important for us was sorely missed striker Stephen Dobbie (pictured), who made 17 appearances for the mighty DFC in 2006-7, netting 10 goals. He went off in the Aberdeen semi just before half-time.

Then there's forward Robert Campbell. Finally, midfielder Neil Scally also turned out for the Sons, but suffered a serious knee ligament injury against Dunfermline at East End Park in December 2007 and has been out for the season.

Back to reality... sort of

Well, after two Dumbarton games (one home, one away) I am back in the southwest, and it's off to St James' Park this afternoon for a vital Exeter City match against struggling Northwich Victoria - whose hopes of escaping relegation from the Blue Square Premier have been boosted by some solid performances of late. It'll be a bit of a nail-biter, given ECFC's somewhat wobbly play-off ambitions, and I wish the Grecians all the best. Naturally, I'd really rather be at SHS watching the mighty Sons take on Montrose, who are pushing for promotion and are considered to be one of the better footballing sides in the Third Division - not a masive crown of honour, it must be said. My hopes of being up in Scotland for the last DFC home game against East Stirling have also been dashed. But there are some compensations. To be frank, the quality of the football I will watch today is likely to be considerably better, for a start. The Sons have been pretty dire this term. Hope for next season rests largely on who manager Jim Chapman can bring in as well as inspiring some confidence in young hopefuls. It's easy to snipe, but the fans should get behind him.

[Photo (c) and with acknowledgments to Donald Fullarton. Buy his pics, folks.]

Well done, 'Gers

I don't profess to be a big fan of the Old Firm, given their effective stranglehold on the game in Scotland - which is not without its benefits, but overall sucks resources, fans and hubristic attention in hugely disproportionate quantities. That is the way of the modern, corporately-driven football world. However, it would be churlish not to congratulate Rangers on their fantastic UEFA Cup quarter final achievement in beating Sporting Lisbon away from home by two great goals. I only caught the highlights, but it looked to be a solid, professional performance, even if Sporting were not exactly on song (especially defensively) and Fiorentina in the semis will be a different prospect altogether.

The 'Gers are still outsiders for the trophy, albeit with odds cut to 13-2, but it seems that their fans (who remain haughty, even if they do play in the SPL and are seen as minor in European terms) have suddenly decided that the UEFA Cup is not a 'diddy competition' after all. Quel surprise. Good luck to 'em, anyway. Not that there is much interest down south, where "Britishness" amounts to "are there any English teams in it? No? Oh well, switch over then..."

Swings and roundabouts?

I confess that I haven't been following the ins and outs of Dumbarton's ownership situation as closely as I should, but it seems that the fans are reacting with cautious optimism towards the latest development, announced a couple of days ago on the club's website. In short, the sale of the majority shareholding is now complete and the purchaser is a "special purposes corporate vehicle" (hmnn!) named Brabco, controlled by current director Callum Hosie. It is funded by private equity and its priority "remains to secure the long term future of the Club and to improve the Club's standing both on and off the park." So it says on the packet.

Meanwhile, Ian MacFarlane has resigned as chairman and director. As a result Alan Jardine assumes the role of chair and Gilbert Lawrie has been appointed as CEO with a remit from the Board to run the club on a day to day basis and "advise on strategic matters and policy". Good wishes to all concerned. One issue, of course, is how all this will impact the role of the Sonstrust. A holding announcement has been issued about this, subject to impending discussions, and Gilbert's appointment warmly welcomed. I had a brief chat with him at the lunch before Stranraer game. Seems a sound chap.

A long-standing issue of concern has been the future of the Rock. The Sons only moved there in 2000, following the sale of Boghead Park, formerly the oldest professional ground in Britain, for a housing redevelopment. In recent times there has been much speculation about whether the Strathclyde Homes Stadium (as it is formally known) could survive in its picturesque location underneath the castle and on the banks of the river. It is a neat little ground with good potential. However, the expansion of housing in the area meant that developers had been sniffing around. Now, it seems, the heat is off a little because new local properties are not selling. In any event, £10 million (or whatever) in the pocket and no logical site for an alternative stadium is not a safe place for any team to be in... as Brighton and a number of other clubs could testify on the basis of recent experience.

Friday, 11 April 2008

A matter of respect

First published in The Grecian, 29 March 2008, Exeter City -v- Halifax Town

Good on Barnet manager and England C national football team coach Paul Fairclough. His decision voluntarily to adopt a code whereby only his Club captain, Brian Harrison, is authorised to speak to the officials when there is an on-pitch dispute about a refereeing decision is already paying dividends.

In fact, it is improving things in two directions. First, it is taking the heat off both officials and players in the midst of controversy. Second, according to Harrison, it is giving a new sense of dignity and self-belief to the Barnet players. Not everything is easily resolved, but as matter of feeling positive about fairness and respect within the game, everybody wins.

Next month the Premier League has a meeting with the Football Association to discuss player reactions to referees and disciple on the pitch. Both these bodies have an important role to play in improving things for football as a whole, and that includes the likes of Exeter City and the Blue Square Premier.

Why? Because what happens at the highest levels has a huge impact on young players and fans lower down the system. Officials will tell you that the verbal response they get from players often mentions and reflects actions and reactions in the Premiership.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole ‘respect’ agenda, and from a number of angles. Grecians fans will no doubt say that standards of refereeing at our level are not good enough, and that they and their players are often justified in ‘having a go’. I disagree.

Yes, the decisions I witness week by week are sometimes questionable and (more to the point) inconsistent. I say that as someone who is not constitutionally inclined just to side with my team when there is controversy or disagreement. Fairness is important to me, as to others on the terraces. But the key point is that standards do not rise when players hector and bully, fans shout abuse, and referees and assistants (who do the job for love and a pittance remember) feel themselves to be in an atmosphere of constant threat and criticism.

We need to take a highest common factor approach based on support as well as scrutiny, not opt for a lowest common denominator “you don’t know what your doing” ethos. It’s in everybody’s interest that things on and off the pitch improve.

The FA bears a great deal of responsibility here. There is a strong argument that referees at the highest level are not getting the kind of backing they need, and that they in turn are sometimes lacking the courage of their convictions when it comes to stamping down hard (if I may use that phrase!) on bad fouls and unacceptable behaviour by some of the game’s household names.

A good example would be Ashley Cole’s lunge at Alan Hutton in the riveting Chelsea-Spurs 4-4 goal fest a couple of weeks back. Almost everyone was agreed that this should have been a ‘straight red’, even a friend of mine who backs the Blues. Cole subsequently apologised for his behaviour and his response.

But according to Graham Poll, who was famously surrounded by eight Chelsea players when he produced a yellow in November 2006, refs are nervous because they are not backed up. This incident produced no action against the Club, because, incredibly, the FA told Poll that he “didn’t look intimidated”. What was he supposed to do, cry?

Leadership on the issue of cleaning up the game and concentrating on the football has to come from the top. We can all play a role however. That includes Grecians fans.


Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Just too much excitement

Well, it was hardly the game everyone's been talking about this evening (my heart is still in my mouth after the Liverpool -v- Arsenal Champions League thriller), but Dumbarton finally got to play out our home tie against fellow stragglers Forfar Athletic this evening. It was originally set for 08 March, then due to an unplayable pitch rescheduled for 01 April, while I was up in Scotland. That too was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. So this evening the Sons' date with destiny (or, rather, the Loons) finally happened, drawing the lowest crowd of the season. A 0-0 draw and nothing to write home about, apparently. For the record, since it is really rather dated by now, my column for that programme - focusing on matters managerial and Scotland - is reproduced here.

By the miracle of text I kept Sons View editor Graeme Robertson, who has an interest in Liverpool, up to speed with the action at Anfield, which I was watching in an Exeter pub, while he did his duty at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. Meanwhile, Exeter City were losing 2-0 away to Salisbury, necessitating a late night re-write of my programme article for Saturday's ECFC home fixture against Northwich Victoria, which goes to the printers' tomorrow morning. What a complex football web we weave.

I can't let the evening pass without offering some kind of note of consolation to the doubtless inconsolable Gunners. Liverpool deserved their victory on balance, but Arsenal have every right to be aggrieved at the two penalty decisions that went against them across the two legs of the tie. At least one should have gone the other way, and if it had done so tonight Wenger's men would undoubtedly be expecting to face Chelsea in the semi-finals. The fourth Liverpool goal was a detail after Gerrard's spot-kick, which was the killer blow. It's sad to see the aspirations of a wonderful footballing side derailed so comprehensively, even if they are one of the 'big four'. If both they and Chelsea beat Manchester United in the Premier League (not impossible but not likely), Arsenal are still liable to finish second or third.

[Picture (c) BBC - Diaby's goal for Arsenal]

Monday, 7 April 2008

In Trusts we trust

Exeter City Supporters' Trust has increased its funding of the club by 8% to £65,000 for the 2008-09 season. The trust, which became the majority shareholder of the club in 2003, is also anticipating putting in £75,600 in 2009-10 and £78,000 in 2010-11. It means the trust will have paid over £850,000 to City since it formed. "If the Trust had not provided significant financial support in recent years, Exeter City might not exist today," said treasurer Nigel Banks. On top of the cash contribution the trust is also looking to repay £20,000 to fans who lent it money when it bought its majority shareholding in 2003. [Courtesy of BBC]

Ah, how we'd like to do something on that scale at Dumbarton, where the Sonstrust was first off the mark in Scotland but is still tiny by comparison even with a non-league English team. Very well formed, though, and ambitious for the future. It will be interesting to see how DFC's future ownership structure, still in negotiation, works out.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

When I'm 64

First published in Sons View, 29 March 2008, Dumbarton -v- Stranraer

Some people might choose celebrate their 50th birthday by bungee jumping off the Empire State Building (or trying!), but I prefer to do things in style. That’s why I’m jointly sponsoring today’s match against Stranraer jointly with the Sonstrust, of which I’m a proud member.

Call me mad – go on, you won’t be the first – but there is nowhere else I’d rather be other than the Rock for my half century, which is actually tomorrow, so if I look young it’s ‘cos I still am, OK? Well, Boghead comes to mind, of course. That brings the memories back. But the view from SHS is simply spectacular, even when things are a bit tough on the pitch. Which they won’t be today, I’m sure. Go, boys!

It struck me the other day that when I’m 64, the famous DFC will be 150 years old. That’s right, Dumbarton’s centenary and a half falls in 2022, which not only sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster (“Cruyff Junior shoots… he scores, and the Sons win the Champions League for the second successive season!”), it’s also only 14 years away. Terrifying.

Where will Sons be by then? Who knows. But I’m going to predict the SPL, or whatever it’s called by then. Though not a gambling man, I might even take that one down to betting shop with a tenner. Dafter punts have been won. Plus I’ll then be able to wave this programme around imperiously and yell, “There, I told you so!”

Meanwhile, my brain and fingers decided to take a walk back through history courtesy of the first edition of Jim McAllister’s and Arthur Jones’ official Club history, The Sons of the Rock. I wanted to remind myself what was happening around the time I was born in 1958, and eleven years later when I became a supporter.

In 1957-58 the legendary Hughie Gallacher was in the team, even though he stalled on his contract because he wasn’t sure Sons could get back into League A where he wanted (and deserved) to be playing. A 7-1 drubbing at Shawfield probably didn’t encourage him, in spite of getting the goal. But then he netted four in a 10-3 victory over… Stranraer. The only game post-war when Dumbarton got into double figures. I like to think it might be an omen for this afternoon, even though I don’t believe in omens.

The next year, Sons once again missed promotion by failing to consolidate a positive season with a good run-in. Gallacher scored four against his former side Arbroath at Gayfield, but ended up on the losing team because Dave Easson banged five back against us. I predict a slightly more cautious defensive approach from Jim Chapman and the bench this afternoon. Otherwise the after-game Q&A session might be even more interesting.

Gallacher got another four goals against Hamilton Accies in a 6-3 victory that year, by the way. He won a bonus, DFC scored 370 goals in four seasons without actually getting promoted, and the Club’s first full-time manager, Bobby Combe, came in. I think I’ve got that right. If not, expect a tannoy announcement from Jim in a wee while.

As for 1969, well that was near the start of the Jackie Stewart years, leading to a revival, the famous 0-0 and 3-4 games against Celtic in the Scottish League Cup semis of 1970, and eventually promotion as Second Division Champions in 1972. Heck, the man even signed Davie Wilson and had a go at getting my boyhood football idol Denis Law. Those indeed were the days.

But this is now. Things are tougher for Sons, but we’ll get there. Not least because of fantastic fans and a great Trust. In particular, I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to editor Graeme Robertson, to Denise Currie (who keeps me up with the score via her texts), to Alan Findlay (who got me into the Trust with his great hospitality a few years ago), to Tommy Hughes (Mr eBay), to Tim Rhead (for making Dumbarton the first British club to hold a match in support of Amnesty International)… and to my wife, Carla Roth.

Carla deserves a plug for two reasons. First, she doesn’t like publicity. Second, she never really knew that I was a Sons fan when she married me, nor quite what that would mean, poor woman. Ah, well she’ll have a great afternoon at the Rock, I’m sure. You too, I hope. ‘Mon, Sons!
29 March 2008 Match Sponsor versus Stranraer


along with member, Exeter exile and Sons View columnist


who is 50 years young on Sunday.

He is dedicating most of this advert to…


The Dumbarton & Lomond Amnesty Group was founded in 1971 by veteran human rights activist Mrs Elizabeth Burnett. We cover Helensburgh, Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven.

The Group has supported several Prisoners of Conscience, the most recent being Ngwang Sangdrol, a Tibetan nun, Khamtanh Phousy, from Laos, both released from prison. Amnesty is concerned about China as attention turns to the Olympics.

Action taken by us includes letters, petitions, concerts, work with teachers – and cooperation with THE SONS at a match in 2006 to support Ma Khin Khin Leh, a teacher in Burma who is serving a life sentence because of the peaceful political activities of her husband.

The Group produced the first Amnesty flag, an Amnesty tartan, and has active support from West Dunbartonshire Council. There are two sub-groups, one at Bonhill Parish Church, and the other for WDC employees.

We hold monthly meetings. We welcome both new members and those who can help occasionally. Email: dandlamnestyATgooglemailDOTcom or visit


Thursday, 3 April 2008

Still the people's game

First published in The Grecian, 03 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Droylesdon

Right now the focus at St James’ Park is not on the FA Cup, or any other cup. What Exeter City need, without a doubt, is three points to keep us in the play-off zone and right on that promotion pathway – following the disappointment of five points out of six dropped on the road at Crawley (I was there, on a bitterly cold night) and York. [Nb: The Grecians have won at Halifax since then; but this programme note was written way back in March. The Droylesdon game was postponed until tonight - so the penultimate para is a little out-of-date]

For others, however, the Cup still overflows. I’m thinking of Barnsley (back-to-back wins over jolly giants Liverpool and Chelsea), Cardiff (an away win at Middlesbrough) and West Brom (who frustrated Bristol Rovers, but now have a crack at Manchester United’s vanquishers, Pompey).

Believe it or not, some of the whiners on internet message boards for ‘the Big Four’ were complaining last week that “the FA Cup has been devalued” – not by the Football Association’s highly questionable decision to use Wembley to stage the semi-finals, mind, but by the early exit of their precious teams.

What? The usual complaint from the Premier Leaguers, even down to Reading’s Dave Kitson, whose only glory this year might be avoiding relegation, is that the world’s most prestigious national Cup competition has become a bit of a meaningless distraction. Now they are upset they’re not in it.

You’ll recall that the rot set in, or was confirmed, when Manchester United made an ill-fated decision not to compete in 2000, travelling instead to Brazil in January for the inaugural World Club Championship – where they were promptly humiliated.

But the idea that the 135-year-old FA Cup lacks genuine meaning when MUFC, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, who expect to continue their dominance, are knocked out, will be greeted with hilarity in many more than four other locations come the semis on 5 and 6 April.

By contrast, for the neutrals this has been a vintage year. Every round has produced its heart-stopping twists, turns and upsets. Just as we thought “the romance of the Cup” could have become a cliché too far, the hope that football might truly remain the people’s game has been restored.

Whatever happens, and even if the famous trophy heads to the South Coast’s Premier boys, as everyone close to Fratton Park believes will happen, one of a set of teams who have not held that Cup aloft for at least 40 years will assuredly do so on 17 May. Barnsley last won in 1912, Cardiff in 1927, Portsmouth in1939 and West Bromwich Albion in 1968.

The stranglehold of the Capital and certain other outposts has also been broken, with the semi-finalists coming from the north, the Midlands, the non-London south and Wales – which for our purposes can be thought of in kinship with the southwest. Hey, the Cup could even head out of England for the first time in 61 years!

In a strange way, although Exeter’s interest in the competition ended disappointingly in a 1-0 defeat at Bury on 1 December, all this should matter to us, too. The Grecians know the excitement and heartbreak of Wembley, and as we are not going to win the Blue Square Premier outright in 2008, we are all rooting that we’ll have our day again in May via those play-offs – this time with a win propelling us back into League Two. First, of course, there’s the small matter of Droylsdon today, Kidderminster Harriers next week, an away trip to Weymouth, and then Halifax, before the critical April run in.

I’m not offering any predictions, but let’s put it this way – no Cup style upsets please, lads. You can do it.


April showers

Dumbarton fans had hoped that our 'mad March' of postponement-based rearranged fixtures might be it. But the advent of British summertime saw further persistent rain leading to a waterlogged pitch at SHS and the second postponement of a home tie against Forfar on 01 April - no fool, this one, though you just have to grin and bear it. The game will now be played on 08 April, the day after I return to England. Ah well. Let's hope the away match on Saturday at high flying East Fife can give the Sons an adrenalin boost which will carry over for three days and see a few more points in the bag before the end of the season. Meanwhile, I spent my Tuesday evening watching the Champions League on the telly. If I'd thought about it, I could have headed off to Hampden to see Queen's Park lose out by the odd goal in five against Cowdenbeath. The pitch there was in rather better shape, as I discovered when I popped in yesterday for another look at the Scottish Football Museum. The picture, by the way, is DFC's Andy Geggan - the bright spark in an otherwise dismal display against Stranraer five days ago.