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.

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