Sunday, 30 November 2008

Well done, my Sons

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

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Back to the front again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Time to turn up the heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Anything seems possible

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

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Back to the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carry on, but not regardless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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