Sunday, 28 December 2008

A merry ding-dong on high?

First published in The Grecian, 28 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Brentford

Along with the match against Rochdale at St James’ Park on eight days ago, today’s challenging tussle with Brentford is one of two home games either side of Christmas that have given the Grecians a crucial opportunity to steal a march on a couple of sides who remain among their key promotion rivals.

Promotion rivals. How does that sound, eh? A year ago, Exeter City FC was still rueing a missed opportunity to clinch a Football League place at Wembley back in May ’07, and quite a few of our fans secretly wondered whether we had what it would take to mount a serious challenge again so soon.

Wrong. After bouncing back and triumphing through grit and sheer inspiration in the 2008 play offs, here we are in the top half of League Two with a serious chance of a crack at the next step up. The path so far has not been without its pitfalls and with one or two missed chances bagged and errors avoided City could perhaps be in an even better position than we are. But this Sunday there is a chance to build on a hugely positive start and put some frustrations behind us with a strong and victorious showing.

Brentford, of course, will have similar ideas. They’re a side with a good deal of experience and determination. So even though the Christmas and Boxing Day celebrations are behind us, we should still be in for a real Festive ding-dong. Whether it will take us ‘on high’ or not depends upon Exeter’s determined capabilities and perhaps that little bit of luck which so often makes all the difference in football.

This is one of those matches I would have loved to be present for, but which I am going to miss out on as a live experience because of a regular commitment to be with friends in the Big Smoke at this time of year. In fact I will be on the trail with Leyton Orient, who the Grecians would like to face in League One next term, because they are the favoured team of my host, East End vicar Kevin Scully.

The particular heart connection with this match against Brentford is that the Bees were the first football team I ever saw live, playing at Griffin Park against Notts County during the cold winter of 1967. My companions that day were my late grandfather, Stanley R. Barrow, who introduced me to the game that became one of the loves of my life, and a school mate called Guy Pilkington – who I haven’t heard of since, but in the age of Facebook and Friends Reunited you never quite know…

The Brentford manager back then was the legendary Scottish coach Jimmy Sirrel, who ironically went on to make a name for himself with the black and whites in Nottingham. Very much a football traditionalist, Jimmy passed away recently and his time at the Bees didn’t feature large in the obituaries. But I’m pleased to say that I was there to witness it.

Not, you understand, that I have split loyalties. Yes, I still keep a look out for Brentford’s results, along with a number of other sides for personal reasons (it won’t surprise you that this includes my namesakes AFC Barrow in the Blue Square Premier!), but I have now been following the Grecians for five seasons since coming down to Devon, which means that the red, white and black colours have a distinct “ooh – aah” attached to them for me these days.

Incidentally, the ‘return leg’ of this match against Brentford will be in London on 11 April and I aim to be there. For those who like to make a note of things, there are four pubs at each corner of Griffin Park, which makes pre- and post-match deliberations relatively easy to plan. This afternoon the Grecians need to keep a steady nerve and reserve their celebrations for the pitch, however.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Lest your eyes deceive you...

As an addition to my Seasonal routine I've finally updated Only Just Offside to include all of my Dumbarton and Exeter City matchday programme notes since the end of September '08. I won't list them here, but will leave you to scour the site (or the 'posts by category' index for the respective Sons View and Grecian columns) if you're that keen. Hmmnn... thought so. ;-)

In order for me to feel properly up-dated it now remains for me to plug (and add links for) a couple of fellow football scribes in the blogosphere - namely, Sons stalwart Campbell Yule with the caustically entertaining Sonsdiary, and The Grecian editor Mike Blackstone's fine Dark Rock Diaries.

The background to the latter is here, in the Express and Echo newspaper, which Mike also writes for. He has recently penned an acclaimed Grecian Anthology about Exeter City FC. Well worth getting.

Talking of books... the volume which I am co-editing with Graeme Robertson to mark the 25th anniversary of Dumbarton's accession to the SPL (more strictly the Scottish League Premier Division back then) is progressing well, and we still hope to have it available by mid-March '09. That said, a few more fans' memories are required. Watch your inboxes, lads and lasses.

Last but not least, here's a photo to frighten the horses - me (left) with Bigrab (a.k.a. fellow Sons fanatic Robert Ryan), courtesy of his equally well-worth-reading The Ben Lomond Free Press blog. It was taken back in September, just before Dumbarton's last gasp victory against Cowdenbeath at the Rock.

There, that should be enough pluggery and mutual back-scratching to see us all through to the New Year. Though there are still a few more issues to be sorted out on the park before then, of course...

Good news for Dumbarton

I was about to title this piece 'fearful symmetry', for reasons connected to last week's away defeat at Annan Athletic (which I made the trip up from Birmingham to see). But over the past week, notwithstanding our own failings, results around us have gone in Dumbarton's favour.

The upshot is that, in spite of the frost-occasioned postponement of today's home clash with bottom club Elgin City (which should have been three points in the bag, though you can never tell), Sons still lie in third place in the Irn-Bru Scottish Football League Championship Third Division... even with the patchy form of late. Berwick did us a favour by winning against Montrose this afternoon, leaders Stenhousemuir dropped two more points against Annan themselves, and we have a game in hand over the Shire.

Best placed for top spot at the moment are Cowdenbeath. It was they I saw robbed of a point at the Rock in September, when Dumbarton grabbed a very gratifying 2-1 victory on the edge of extra time. But the same fate befell the Sons at Galabank last Saturday, after a lacklustre performance from both sides in appalling conditions left the affair balanced at 1-1. Thus the unpleasing symmetry. To compound my misery, a series of public transport woes meant that I didn't make it back home until gone 1am.

But it was a good day out overall and great to see the Sons crew. I'd have been far more forlorn had the match been postponed in the morning... which would have meant being stuck in Carlisle for 8 hours awaiting a fixed-time advance return train.

Overall, it looks as if other sides in the Third Division have sussed the Sons' 4-4-2 game plan now, and greater adaptability is needed. Even so, that was only the third defeat for Dumbarton in 16 league games. We cannot afford more slip-ups against teams below us, of course. But the failure to convert a number of draws into wins may prove the more decisive factor later in the season. I still think we'll make the play-offs...

[Picture: (c) Donald Fullarton. Ross Clark's penalty against Annan. I was behind the goal, soaking but happy.]

A journey to the East

Yesterday afternoon I whiled some football time away at Brisbane Road watching my friend Kevin Scully's beloved Leyton Orient fail to achieve their Eastern promise against Swindon Town. The last 15 minutes was pretty exciting, thanks to some controversial refereeing decisions involving a penalty and plenty of shouting. Then, as often happens, the game sprung to life... and juddered to a halt: though not before the Os had grabbed a goal back in a match they never looked like winning, in fairness. The League One scrapping continues in Colchester tomorrow, and I'll be there, too - thanks to a Christmas sojourn in Bethnal Green. Oh yes, that's me on the far left above (taken this time last year), with Kev next to me in the exotic red scarf, an an assortment of his relatives from Australia, and servers from St Matthew's Church, where he's the rector.

A chequered past

First published in Sons View, 27 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Elgin. The match was postponed and replayed on 10 March 2009. Two programmes were issued.

It seems only two shakes of a linesman’s flag since the season began, but here we are anticipating the last home game of 2008 already. By the time you read this, Christmas will be a receding memory, and the New Year celebrations will be on everyone’s mind. Let’s hope it’s a convincing display with good goals and three points to take away this afternoon, so that dreams of promotion in 2009 remain a realistic prospect.

Our friends from the north, Elgin City, are no strangers here at the Rock, since they did the honours of providing our inaugural opposition at the newly opened Strathclyde Homes Stadium on 2 December 2000. The famous ‘fish eye’ photo of the first ever SHS goal, part of a 3-0 Sons victory, is the screen saver on my home computer at the moment. Sadly I missed the match, as I was somewhere near Lake Geneva on a work trip at the time. Tough life, eh?

That historic game was notable for another reason, too. It was the first ever visit to Dumbarton from the Black and Whites following their accession to the Scottish League that year alongside Peterhead. Later in the same season Sons won again 2-0 at the Rock. We also beat Elgin 4-2 in the first round of the Bells Challenge Cup in August. But in order not to seem too mean-spirited, I assume, we gifted them their first home victory as well, again by two goals, on 30 September 2000.

No such generosity is needed this afternoon, at least not in a footballing sense. In all other ways, a day out at the Rock will prove as warm, welcoming and enlightening as ever, I’m sure. Back in this year’s August sunshine, Sons made the journey to Borough Briggs and came away with a share of the 1-1 spoils. Since then, the City have had a pretty miserable season, propping up the Third Division and suffering at home, on the road and with a player registration spat in the Scottish Cup.

Even so, they proved capable of creating a notable upset in October, stunning league pacesetters Stenhousemuir by beating them 4-2 at home. Craig Campbell, Darren Shallicker, Guy Kerr and Paul Kaczan secured victory for Elgin on that occasion. For this and other reasons, no-one on the Sons bench will be inclined to take this game in the least for granted. The conditions will be tough and both sides will be very keen indeed to end 2008 on a high note.

Our visitors today have a history which shows them capable of taking both hard knocks and glittering prizes in their stride. On the down side, their fair city was more or less pushed off the map in 1390, when one rampaging Wolf of Badenach took a terrible vengeance for his excommunication by the Bishop of Moray. Just 503 years later the Lossiemouthers hit back by forming a football club and two years later by joining the Highland League. They won the Highland championship 15 times in 104 years of membership – nine times in a golden period from 1956 to 1970 alone.

Back in 1968, Elgin enjoyed their best ever Cup run, ending up in the quarter finals before going out 2-1 to our old rivals Morton, then something of a power in the land. Eight years previously they had nearly managed a shock third round result against Celtic. But it wasn’t to be, and the final outcome was defeat by the odd goal in three.

As for the notorious Wolf? Well, he never made any lasting impact on Scottish football and records suggest that he died a few years after his crimes against the good people of Elgin. There’s another legend, though, which says that his demise was in 1406, after playing chess with the devil. Visited at Ruthven Castle by a tall man in black with a penchant for board games (rather than refereeing), Wolf played on until his guest moved one of the chess pieces and called ‘check’ and then ‘checkmate’. As these words were spoken a terrible storm broke, and in the morning Wolf and his men were discovered dead and blackened by lightening.

Quite how far these ancient facts have played a role in Jim Chapman’s no doubt careful preparations for today’s match, only time will tell. But the Sons will not want to end up as pawns in this game, for sure.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Free footie for Scottish kids?

Via the BBC: The Scottish Government has backed calls to allow thousands of children free entry to football matches. The campaign was spearheaded by Labour MSP Frank McAveety, who said there were 60,000 empty seats at Scottish Premier League stadiums every fortnight. Sports Minister Stewart Maxwell has now urged the SPL and Scottish Football League to consider letting youngsters into selected games for free. He said it would be a "win, win" situation for clubs and children. Maxwell said the free entry policy - which has already been adopted by some Scots clubs - would promote healthy lifestyles, as well as stoking interest in Scotland's national game.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Season's Greetings

... to one and all. I hope I'll have time to get back to speed by the New Year - including quite a back catalogue of programme notes.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Generating the right atmosphere

First published in The Grecian, 20 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Rochdale

A fortnight ago the Grecians turned round a less than inspiring first half performance and a lead conceded to opponents Lincoln City by grabbing two late goals, one from Dean Moxey on the brink of full time, to steal all three points.

Leaving it that late isn’t good for our hearts, so this afternoon we’re hoping that the lads can get the tide running in our favour rather earlier. It’s going to be tough, though. Rochdale have set out their stall very clearly, and they will be as keen as Exeter to welcome Christmas with a decisive victory.

There has been a lot of talk in the game of late about fans and what we are ‘entitled to expect’ when we come along to a game. During the Lincoln match, I was slightly irritated by someone sitting not far from me who decided to keep up a constant barrage of criticism whenever one of our players failed to do what he thought they should do.

I didn’t say anything and he’s as entitled to his opinion as anyone else. But I just couldn’t see the point of it. The expert advice being hurled in the direction of the pitch included such pearls of tactical wisdom as “come on… do something!” and “kick it forward!” We all get frustrated when the team is a bit off colour or things aren’t clicking. But booing your own players or shouting gratuitous comments does little to lift spirits or change anything.

The general response when such negativity is questioned these days is, “the fans have paid out good money and they’re entitled to have a go if they feel like it.” Well, yes and no. I do think paying punters can reasonably expect to see a team that’s really making an effort. And that’s what I feel we get at Exeter City. Paul Tisdale has instilled a sense of pride and responsibility in his side, and has gone with players who are here because they want to move forward with the club, not just to pick up a pay cheque and look good.

This season we have seen some good performances and an overall improvement in quality to match the all-round higher standards of League Two. That doesn’t come without trying. Likewise, when the team has struggled and mistakes have been made, I have never felt that the players have given less than their best. It can’t help, though, when supporters are getting on your back.

Perhaps the worst recent example of this was not a local one (thankfully), but the treatment meted out by Gunners fans towards under-fire Emmanuel Eboué at the Emirates earlier in the month. Having been brought on after 32 minutes against Wigan, the tired and nervy Ivorian proceeded to have what can only be described as ‘a shocker’. But the abuse he received was so venomous that Arsène Wenger felt the need to substitute him before the end and he came off shell-shocked and tearful.

Wenger has stood by the player and wants him to be strengthened rather than undermined by the incident. “In our job it’s very important that we don’t expect too much from other people, but that we do expect a lot from ourselves,” he commented level-headedly. Several friends of mine who follow Arsenal told me afterwards that they felt more than a little queasy about the “£1,000 a season” fans thinking that their cash gave them the right to treat another human being like that.

Here at St James’ Park there’s a great atmosphere and the more voluble abusers are in a distinct minority, but in quieter moments on a small ground they can make their presence known. The best response is not to start an argument but to really get behind the team. Winning sides have a winning ethos that extends to the terraces as much to the training ground, and that’s definitely what we all want to see at Exeter City.

Monday, 15 December 2008

A Cup full of memories

First published in Sons View, 15 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Ross County - Homecoming Scottish Cup Third Round Replay

Well, here’s one game most of us didn’t expect to be watching, if we’re honest. Like many Sons fans, my initial reaction when I heard the Homecoming Scottish Cup third round draw was: “Ah dear, away at Dingwall. That means a long journey to play the highest ranking side we could possibly face at this stage, with little realistic prospect of a result and not much money tipping back into the coffers either.”

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Dumbarton’s ability to surprise us, sometimes even in pleasant ways! Although the quest for promotion to Division Two and a regaining of the initiative following a couple of disappointing results is our absolute priority right now, a bit of Cup respite certainly won’t do morale any harm. Especially after the 7-0 whopping we took against St Mirren earlier in the season. Of that, I’ll say no more. I’m just glad that some of the loyalists who suffered at Love Street had something to cheer on the eve St Andrew’s Day. This afternoon, too, we hope.

No football supporter needs reminding that the balance of a game can twist dramatically in the last ten minutes. But Derek Cancary’s brace in the match against Ross County that produced this tantalising replay probably took the most starry-eyed Sons optimist (if such exists!) by surprise. You don’t go down 2-0 on the road to a side with its sights still fixed on the SPL and expect much change beyond a consolation goal. But Dumbarton pulled off a shock and we deserve this day in the sun… possibly wind, snow, rain, sleet or hail. The weather won’t matter a jot if we defy the odds again and make it to the fourth round.

When it comes to Cup exploits, a certain generation of Dumbarton fan finds him or herself inevitably contemplating two legendary occasions. They were moral victories, if not actual ones. I’m thinking of the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts in 1976, when we were initially within one header of glory. Just as remarkable were those two heroic games against Celtic in the 1970-71 League Cup semis, when Sons drew 0-0 with the Bhoys and then went down 4-3, fighting ’till the end of extra time, in the return match.

Even some of the English-based newspapers remembered Dumbarton’s existence then. I still have the cutting from The Times somewhere in my possession. I’d been following the Sons for less than a year, and along with the 1972 promotion season to follow, it probably gave me a false prospectus for what turned out to be some wilderness years from then on. But what would football be without its dreams and its dreamers, not to mention sticking it through thick and thin?

Apart from some Stirlingshire Cups, the Scottish Second XI trophy (1881/2) and the 1951 Quaish (if that counts), Sons have not been lavish in our acquisition of silverware through knockout tournaments in the past. Our opponents today, however, notched up a total of 18 Cups of different shapes and sizes during their 65 years in the Highland League, before persistence finally paid off with expansion of the Scottish League in 1994 and their ascension to the higher echelons. Those trophies were four League Cups, two Qualifying Cups. Four North of Scotland Cups and eight Inverness Cups, for those of you who like to keep track of such things.

Mind you, it hasn’t all been glory. That Scottish Premier League target has eluded Ross County so far, while their dearly beloved rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle, in addition to accruing probably the best ever Cup headline (“Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious!”) have already made it to the top flight ahead of them. Just remember not to say that too loudly around SHS.

All this is pretty much irrelevant this afternoon, however. Despite the gap between the teams, County know that Dumbarton are ambitious, obstinate, and have one or two experienced campaigners in our ranks as well as youngsters keen to prove themselves. You can’t chuck the formbook out of the window exactly, but Cup competitions are always the opportunity for someone to prove somebody else wrong. Is it time for Sons to do that? No-one in yellow and black will say anything else today. Hopefully because they’re too busy singing their hearts out for the lads, whatever the weather.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Not when, but weather

First published in Sons View, 13 December 2008, Dumbarton -v- Forfar

After the disappointing postponement of last Saturday’s away game at Cowdenbeath, and the adrenalin of Cup football against higher league opponents on Tuesday night, it’s back to solid League action with the visit of Forfar to the Rock this afternoon.

Stenhousemuir and Montrose both did us an unlikely favour in dropping all three points against Berwick and East Stirlingshire respectively last week. This means that a win over the Loons today would keep Dumbarton firmly in the promotion mix.

With the half way mark in the season hoving rapidly into view, it’s tight at the top. There’s a small gap emerging between the two halves of the Division. But as we know, two or three results can make a big difference – especially as Sons have six games coming up (including today’s) with sides in the lower half of the table, punctuated by a visit from the current League leaders on 17 January. By then, we’d certainly like to be safely ensconced in play-off zone, edging for the top spot. That will require a lot of hard work and consistency.

Of all the factors that will shape the Sons’ destiny over the next month or so, the weather will play a large role. When the cold really bites it can hit training and match fitness. It can also contribute to the accumulation of a fixture backlog. It’s certainly no fun for the fans, either. That’s without even beginning to think about the economics of postponements, especially when hospitality has to be cancelled.

Looking in from the outside (in my case, the relative warmth of southwest England, where it’s still pretty icy, I can assure you!), the fact that Scotland, along with England and Portugal, remains the only major European league without a winter break seems rather odd. I have a vested interest in thinking about that right now, as I have just forked out money on a return rail ticket from Birmingham to Annan on 20 December, in order to join Dumbarton fans for that away venture. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It will be a long day, but it’ll go a lot quicker if there’s some football and banter!

The reality is that postponements have long been part and parcel of the Scottish game between November and February – sometimes a bit before and after, too. A few years ago the SPL tried a break in January, but the result was a logjam in December and no-one ended up being particularly happy. Now the issue is back on the agenda again at the end of this month.

From the perspective of the lower leagues, gates can be up over the Festive season and no-one wants to lose precious pounds at the turnstiles. Then again, the cost of games called off, especially at the last minute, can outweigh that, and coaches rightly worry about the increased chances of injuries on bone hard pitches and games that end up being lost as much to the conditions as to the opposition.

If there was an obvious solution, it would be good to think we’d all take it. I’m tempted by the break notion. But a cold or wet spell can occur when you aren’t quite expecting it. Weather is no respecter of sporting schedules. Some say that good ground maintenance and well-gritted teeth are still the best defenders against Jack Frost. But there can be no guarantees. Winter breaks work well where climes are slightly more predictable and when they are embedded into the culture. But in Scotland…?

No doubt the argument will swing to and fro for many years to come, unless UEFA decides to try to persuade their members into another ‘common policy’. Frankly, there are too many other controversial issues ahead of winter in the decision-making queue (finance, rules and transfers among them) to make that likely. It’s those who fund, run, play and watch the game in each country who have to find a way through the fog.

Which brings us back to this afternoon’s game. Forfar are five points behind us and they’re only three off Dumbarton’s goal difference. But their form away from home this season has been very strong. They’ve lost only once in seven games on their travels, taking four victories. At Station Park in September Sons held them 2-2. This time we need more than a point. It’s going to be tough, though.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Jim Chapman's assessment...

The Sons manager tells it as he sees it...

Drawing the right conclusion

First published in The Grecian, 06 December 2008, Exeter City -v- Lincoln City

In a strange way, you could say that being on the wrong end of a painful FA Cup giant killing a month ago (from a team several levels below us) is a positive measure of distance travelled for the Grecians.

After a number of seasons outside the League, some spent fighting for our very existence, Exeter City is now a scalp worth having. We may not be quite in Theatre of Dreams territory, but we’re a class apart from simply trying to reclaim “our rightful position”. But the further forward City go, the more the teams we have passed will want to cause an upset.

Thankfully, that disappointing game against plucky Curzon Ashton is already history. Of more concern now is only 2 points out of a possible 9 in the last three games, the quest to maintain our purchase on the League Two play-off zone, the need for a good home performance against Lincoln City, and the hoped-for satisfaction of walking off with three points.

While there’s plenty of time after Christmas to press upward (the Grecians have certainly unleashed a few important ‘late bursts’ in recent years), as many goals and wins as possible before the New Year will set the tone for the all-important second half of the season.

Football watching, both on the park and across the acres of coverage now available online, on telly and in the paper, is all about searching for patterns. Sometimes they’re plain to see. A remorseless slump or a continual rise gets tongues wagging, pens scribbling and (in the former case) the team’s many unpaid advisers turning out in force on Exeweb!

Exeter City’s season has been less clear-cut than that, at least in terms of results. No-one in their right mind could possibly complain at seventh or eighth place at this stage in our first term back. Along the way we’ve recorded some significant victories and taken a couple of salutary hammerings – just to remind us not to take anything for granted. The pay off for these highs and the lows has been a number of other games where City have ground out a result even though we haven’t been anyway near the top of our game.

But while determination to ‘keep on keeping on’, especially when the going feels tougher, is the backbone of success, moments of decisive action are also indispensable. As Paul Tisdale observed, we missed several recently against Rotherham. Drawing the right conclusion from the season means more than drawing a spate of games. Especially at home.

The difficulty at home is that the teams Exeter are playing now realise that they are dealing with a side capable of open, creative football. We have become a ‘known quantity’. For many the answer will therefore be to pack behind the ball, try to wrestle control in the middle of the park and look for opportunities to break when we are coming forward.

For all the technical skills and tactical niceties of this wonderful game (and there are many of them), some things remain simple, but not easy to achieve. You only need one mistake or a couple of unintended cracks in the best-laid plans for things to go awry. That includes set-plays, where positioning, awareness, quick reactions and knowing you can rely on your team-mates is crucial.

Another priority is not letting things slip in the final quarter of the game. When limbs tire and nerves start to jangle, that final whistle can seem further away rather than nearer and woodenness can start to undo you. A dramatic example was Portsmouth’s loss of an incredible and deserved two-goal lead against AC Milan in the last six minutes of their UEFA Cup tie at Fratton Park the other week.

With all due respect to Lincoln, Pompey were facing one of the finest sides in Europe. There will be fewer excuses for the Grecians this afternoon. Hopefully we won’t need any.