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 clich├ęs, 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.
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