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.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

In the nick of time

The start to Dumbarton's season has been less than spectacular, but far from disastrous. I remain convinced that some good signings have been made and that Jim Chapman can still galvanise the side into a team. By December, the picture will be clearer. Meanwhile, the transfer window, extended by 24 hours in Scotland, saw Sons make a last minute swoop for young Hamilton Accies striker Paul McLeod looks to have been a good piece of business. The lad is clearly keen to show what he has to offer. Pity that there is no game this weekend. In fact DFC's next home league game is on 20 September against Cowdenbeath on 'Raise the Rock Day'. I'll be there. Meanwhile, good luck to Scotland this afternoon in their first World Cup qualifier...

Time to show what we're made of

First published in The Grecian, 06 September 2008, Exeter City -v- Accrington Stanley

This afternoon’s game against Accrington Stanley comes on the back of a hard week for Exeter City. We’ve suffered two defeats, have been knocked out of a cup competition at the first hurdle, and have lost one of our brightest young talents in George Friend.

But this is not a time to waver. After four games, the measure of League Two and the demands it will make is becoming clearer. The defences are tighter, the thinking is quicker and the chances are fewer. City have shown that they have playmaking quality, but they need more bite in the final third and sureness in dealing with set plays.

Undoubtedly, we will miss George. Like many, I had hoped he might be with us until the next transfer window. But Mick McCarthy’s statement that he will immediately be competing for a first team place at Wolves (as Jamie Mackie did for another Championship side who shall remain nameless) is testimony to his class.

What we should not forget is that George is a product of City’s fine academy. So while no-one can doubt that, in today’s rapacious football market, quality will always be preyed on by the wealthy and willing, the club’s overall policy of nurturing talent will continue to pay dividends.

What’s more, the proceeds of this sale mean resources for the continued construction of the team. For that is what’s going on. Being ‘back in the League’ is not business as usual. It’s a step into a footballing environment that demands constant change. If you stand still, you move backwards.

At the same time, durability and rigour are also vital. Those were two words that came to mind as I watched Manny Panther against Shrewsbury a few days ago. The outcome of the match was disappointing, with missed chances costing the Grecians’ dear. But there were some strong individual performances and Manny’s appearance as a second half substitute was one of them. He chased, harried, found space, ran at the opposition – and if his shot had been just a little bit lower I doubt that the net would have survived.

When things are difficult you need to build on strengths, and tackle weaknesses without allowing yourself to be defined by them. That applies to the fans as much as the players and the staff. At St James Park in midweek it was therefore encouraging to see (and hear) some youngsters around me keep up a constant barrage of support for City… blissfully undaunted by being in ‘the polite seats’!

It’s fair to say that the Johnstone’s Paint trophy didn’t end up colouring the town red and white on Tuesday. But the 1,523 who came along saw some good football, one or two agonisingly close moments in front of goal, and an Exeter side that was within minutes of taking the game to penalties.

I admit to a small feeling of disappointment that the cup-tie didn’t go the full distance, and not just because it meant we were out. I’ve been to hundreds of football matches in the last forty odd years, but I have never actually witnessed a live penalty shoot-out – other than from the sofa.

Ah well, that spectacle will have to wait. Much more important is three points against Accrington. Stanley have done a small town proud by returning a historic club to the League. That’s something we in Exeter can well appreciate. But their initial seasons back have not been without severe testing, and things are not made easier by the lure of the football giants surrounding them.

This time they made a fighting start. Then after two victories they lost on the bounce in league and cup, like us. Both sides have something to prove. The Grecians’ need to show just that little bit more resolve.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Ending on an august note

First published in Sons View, 30 August 2008, Dumbarton -v- East Sirlingshire

Okay, I’m about to indulge in some football sentiment about today’s opponents, so before I go any further (and run the risk of an Apache Army search party being set on my trail!), let me make it quite clear that what we want at the end of this afternoon is three more points for Dumbarton and a hatful of goals to our credit.

That said, I wish East Stirlingshire the best of luck this season, apart from when they face the Mighty DFC. For while it’s undoubtedly been tough for Sons supporters in recent years, we haven’t yet endured the ignominy of being dubbed “Britain’s worst football team” – the sub-title of journalist Jeff Connor’s 2005 best-seller on the Shire, Pointless.

Last season, East Stirlingshire saw out their final game at Firs Park with a 3-1 victory over Montrose. This, together with Dumbarton’s away draw against Forfar, meant that they avoided finishing bottom of the Division Three for the first time in six years. The result also meant that they did not trigger the suspended SFL punishment of being made associate rather than full members of the League.

As Shire manager Jim McInally said at the time: “"You can see how much it meant to people at the club when they celebrated as they did. When you think about it, finishing ninth in the league is nothing much to celebrate. It's understandable given what this club has been through, but we have come here to deliver much more.”

That determination spells out just why Dumbarton cannot afford complacency today. Last term, our home record against East Stirlingshire was solid. In December Sons ran out 3-1 winners, ending a lamentable seven games without a victory. It was also the first time that two Dumbarton players had been on the score sheet together for sixteen games.

Then on our last home game of the season, Wee Craigie’s first goal in four years ensured that Dumbarton would avoid the wooden spoon themselves, leaving the Shire rueing the winds swirling round the Rock that day, and needing one last haul (and a further favour from the Sons) to consign Forfar to the foot of the table.

It was far from glorious for DFC, but much better than those grim four days in August 2007 which saw us lose two away games at Firs Park and concede seven goals, first in the League and then in the Challenge Cup.

Those defeats formed part of a stretch when the Shire won six games in a row for the first time since their 1968-9 season. This afternoon Sons have a chance to put yet further distance between August indignity and our current attempts at rejuvenation.

As we know well at Dumbarton, since we are proud to be the first Scottish club to form a supporters’ trust (keep those Sonstrust membership forms coming in, by the way!), fan involvement is crucial to the identity and success of a team. After discussions going back to season 2001-2, East Stirlingshire’s supporters followed our lead in July 2004.

On limited resources, they have now happily secured 10 ‘A’ shares in the club, while trust committee member Tony Ford has been officially registered as a member of the Board of Directors.

Apart from ‘Shire TV’, today’s opponents have one other curious distinction among SFL minnows. They remain massive in Norway. At the time of writing, the ‘Norwayshire’ website and fan club has nearly 6,500 subscribers, making the Shire third only to Manchester United and Liverpool in the country’s popularity stakes. A few of their Nordic hardcore and a television camera even made it over for that Firs Park farewell.

It remains to be seen whether this icy enthusiasm will weather the loss of popular defender Carl Thywissen, who took his leave in July 2008 after four years with the club. It was his appearance in Scotland, together with global publicity around the Connor book, that galvanised the ‘Norwegian Army’.

All of which might well be water off a White-billed diver’s back as far as our own Apache Army are concerned (that’s among the top five bird species to be spotted in Norway, by the way). But they may still be interested in adding the following chant to their repertoire: “Dere er Soldat i forkledning?”

Roughly translated, this means, “Are you the Warriors in disguise?” Answers on a postcard… and enjoy the game.


Thursday, 4 September 2008

Consistency is the key

First published in The Grecian, 30 August 2008, Exeter City -v- Luton Town

What a glorious moment! Finally being able to celebrate Exeter City’s first win in the Football League for five years, following our descent in 2002-3 and re-ascent via Wembley last season. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be in Bournemouth for the nearest the Grecians get to an away ‘derby’ this term, but I swear I could hear the cheering 87 miles away.

How appropriate, too, that the scorer of the goal that secured this historic victory should be one of our fine younger players, Ryan Harley. The blend of freshness and experience, vitality and solidity, youth and age in the squad promises well for the future.

That said, there are likely to be many ups and downs this season, and it is extremely important that the team and the fans adopt a positive approach to both – taking heart from the good times and seeking to learn from the difficult experiences without allowing them to get us down.

The disappointment at St James’ Park against Shrewsbury a fortnight ago is a good example. Here’s a side which will be ‘there or thereabouts’ in April and May. They’ve already tipped Dagenham off top spot with a win against Aldershot and they epitomise the tough challenges the Grecians will face at home in the coming months.

But we should also recall that Shrewsbury, like ECFC, came down to the Conference and bounced back via a play-off final in 2004. Since then they have proceeded to consolidate their position and have now put themselves in a place where promotion is a realistic possibility. That’s the example the Grecians should be following.

What’s more, we will have our day again against the Shrews as soon as next week in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, which will also provide an opportunity for some more research and development outside the crucible of League Two.

In seeking both to steady the ship and to edge forward, it is clear that Paul Tisdale’s approach is focussing on “one match at a time” as well as forward-thinking. He is not taking anything for granted, and that’s absolutely right when you find yourself in a new league. You can watch your upcoming opponents on video, but there’s no short cut to direct experience.

Indeed, when he was asked in a recent television interview whether he had the answers for League Two’s challenges in 2008-9, Tisdale acutely replied, “I don’t quite know what the questions are yet.” It was evidence of a man who knows that there’s little point strategising in a purely speculative way. In football you have to be prepared to adapt, change, organise and dig in according to what comes at you.

All of which means that it’s difficult at this stage to predict exactly where Exeter City will be at Christmas, which is around the time of year when the shape of what has been tells you a good deal more about what is to come.

In all probability, this season will be a rollercoaster ride, not least emotionally. That’s what makes the game so absorbing and addictive. But the point is to retain a level of consistency whether fortune seems to be smiling or frowning upon you at any given moment. Exeter City and their ambitious manager have, I believe, built up the trust and respect among the fans that is vital to sustaining such an approach.

A cynic once wryly completed Rudyard Kipling’s famous poetic encouragement, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” by adding “you simply don’t understand the situation!” It’s a great one-liner, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.