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!