Saturday, 31 May 2008

Verging on success

When you're a wee team, every blade counts. Donald Fullarton (who also took the (c) photo) writes: Dumbarton Football Club's grass-cutting machine has been sponsored by a local firm.

A new state of the art mower sponsored by blacksmiths Archibald McAulay & Sons Ltd., of Broadmeadow Industrial Estate, was unveiled at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium this morning.

Groundsman Andrew Melville is delighted with it, and was happy to pose with manager Jim Chapman and the sponsor, Harry McAulay. Said chief executive Gilbert Lawrie: “This is all part of a new and exciting season for the club. We are also currently undertaking major work on improving the pitch.”

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Friday, 30 May 2008

Keegans' run

Oh, I almost forgot. Dumbarton have also signed up Paul Keegans, whose last club was Partick Thistle (thanks, Kenny), to start his coaching career "with a hands-on role with our growing youth development programme," says manager Jim Chapman. The Dublin-born forward has also played for Motherwell and St Patrick's of the Irish League. Here he is in action for Bohemians, performing a rather nifty bicycle kick. Hopefully these will be second nature to Sons' forwards next season.


Thursday, 29 May 2008

Sons strike again

Dumbarton boss Jim Chapman's busy summer has continued with the recruitment of goalkeeper David McEwan from Derry City, together with striker Derek Carcary signed from Raith Rovers on a one-year contract. (The BBC site isn't quite right. Jim's first major capture was Mick Dunlop from Queens Park.) Robert Ryan - Big Rab - has drawn my attention to this video on his site. Carcary is the scorer of the second goal (around 2 mins 15 secs in) and provider of the third (2 mins 40 secs). As Rab says, "things could be looking up!" Time to reach for those season tickets...

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Freed: the Pellie One

How nice to report on a successful animal rights campaign for a rare cross-breed feared to have been made extinct. Pellie the Elephant, otherwise known as Dumbarton FC's legendary mascot, who was cruelly canned after a 2005 'incident' involving Morton supporters, some shorts and the moon (well, something like that) will re-appear at Strathclyde Homes Stadium next season, it has been announced. This is part of the Sonstrust's continuing and noble efforts to root the Club in the local community - whose love of young men masquerading as furry animals is well established.

Pellie (whose name, for the benefit of international readers, derives from the Scottish pronunciation of a world famous footballer) is believed to be dusting off his trunk as I write. According to a senior source formerly associated with West Dunbartonshire Council, in discussion with me some weeks ago, the lovable footie fur-ball was rather unjustly accused in his decisive indictment - recorded with loving attention to detail by The Times. His restoration to respectable society will be welcomed by all right-thinking people... and lets face it, some of the mascot opposition is, well, a bit rubbish. Pellie also features in an online BBC quiz (which, for the benefit of the less-than-lightning-witted, I should point out ended four years ago.)
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Quel surprise...

For ages, people in the know about FIFA have been advising England that they are potentially wasting vast sums of money on a 2018 World Cup bid which will go nowhere. This month, the FA are scurrying around trying to placate the spotlessly incorruptible CONCAF chieftain Jack Warner, who fearless investigative journalist Andrew Jennings (pictured) has suggested is less than worthy to star in a Dixon of Dock Green remake. Now we learn that the USA will launch a counter-bid. And, guess what? JW believes the best location for the World Cup in 2018 is... the Americas. Failing that, anywhere but England, I'd guess.
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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A triumph for the trusts

As Dumbarton's Sonstrust (of which I'm a proud member) has rightly noted on its website, the promotion of my locals Exeter City to League Two in England, and of Stockport County to League One -- the old Fourth and Third Divisions, respectively -- is great news for fans who are claiming a stake in their clubs through provident societies, otherwise known as supporters' trusts.

What's more, this season has been a great one for the "little teams" all round. Queen of the South put up a fine display at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final the other day, and will compete in Europe next season. Cardiff's Welsh wizards made it to the 'English' FA Cup final, losing out to Portsmouth who, while hardly small, are outside the self-defining elite of English football. AFC Wimbledon, who rose out of the ashes of "Franchise FC" (MK Dons - who correctly handed the rights to the '88 Cup win to AFC, and duly got promoted too) are now only two steps away from League Status. FC United of Manchester (the non-Glazer MUFC) are now just below the Conference, and fans of those other Reds who can't afford the ticket prices have formed AFC Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Aldershot are back in the English League again, 12 years after they dissolved and reformed; Accrington Stanley are surviving there (just); and Barrow are back in the Blue Square Premier following their depressing double demotion which began in 1972. The big bucks and publicity may still be with the favoured few, but the minnows are striking back. Next it's the Mighty DFC for the climb, I hope.

[Pic : (c) Sonstrust and Donald Fullarton - Dumbarton fans. What a handsome crew, eh?]

Monday, 26 May 2008

Preparing at the Rock

The summer's international football action is about to get underway - and the Sons have a role to play, as eatsleepsport.com reports: "The Scotland squad will train at Dumbarton this week and depart for Prague [to face the Czech Republic] on Thursday, with [manager] Craig Burley already without Rangers trio Barry Ferguson, Lee McCulloch and Allan McGregor, and Celtic's Scott Brown." It's going to be a tough one...
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Saturday, 24 May 2008

Football is harsh

The BBC's Phil McNulty, echoing Pat Nevin, has today's news from Chelsea well summed up: "It is a sign of the cut-throat nature of the modern game that a decent, dignified man [Avram Grant] is sacked three days after missing out on club football's biggest honour by the width of a post and on the Premier League title on the last day of the season." Next up, it'll probably be Gus Hiddink at Stamford Bridge, then.

Meanwhile, well done to Queen of the South for a superb performance in the Scottish Cup Final. After a disappointing first half, and back at 2-2, they might just have snatched it from Rangers. But it was not to be. Congratulations to Hull City, too, for nabbing next season's automatic relegation place in the English Premier League.

Life is harsh. Football no less, especially in the upper eschelons.
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Fickle fortune's finger

The very best of luck to Queen of the South at Hampden Park this afternoon. Apart from the blue half of Glasgow, just about everyone else in the world wants the Doonhamer's to pull off a shock Scottish Cup win against Rangers. Several fleeting ex-Dumbarton men are now at QoS, so that's me settled. Burns' bidding aside, it's a massive mount to climb. The 'Gers have had two major trophies clawed away from their grasp over the past ten days, so they will be in no mood to concede to First Division opposition, however brave. Queen of the South, for their part, haven't played a competitive match for a month now. Rested they might be, but a cup final is no sinecure.
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Thursday, 22 May 2008

One for Tommy

A very good performance from Aberdeen merited a 2-0 win over hapless Rangers at Pittodrie and meant that, in the event, Celtic's result was academic. They'd have won the title for Tommy Burns anyway, but snatched the win against Dundee United (pictured) anyway, to turn Tannadice sea green. Mark de Vries missed a great opportunity to spoil the Celtic script for United. But here were two determined games that did the SPL proud, with the evening being marred only by Nacho Novo's red card for an ugly and inexplicable challenge on Stuart Duff -- a misdemeanour made worse by defiantly kissing the badge and giving a victory salute to the fans.
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Going to the wire

Thankfully I'm staying in a household with Setanta tonight, so I will be able to see the climax of the Scottish Premier League season - Celtic away to Dundee United and Rangers to Aberdeen, both needing victory and the other to fail to grab the title. Personally, I hope that United and the Dons win the day and leave the big boys/bhoys red faced. With a larger than usual audience watching, it would be good if people saw that the SPL had a bit more to it than the Old Firm, dominant as they are. Supporters and onlookers alike will also be mindful of the sad loss of Tommy Burns (pictured) , one of the greats of the Scottish game, whose funeral took place a couple of days ago. Back in 1981, I recall, he won Celtic the title at Tannadice. It will be interesting to see if history echoes to that one.
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For the love of the game

Interesting Times article on ex-Sons loan player Stephen Dobbie, who will appear for Queen of the South in the Scottish Cup Final on Saturday 24 May, hoping to upset the Rangers applecart still further this season. He says he has fond (as well as less enticing) memories of his time at Dumbarton -- and might even return one day.

Dobbie is a footballer who lost his way; who went from rubbing shoulders with Barry Ferguson at training, to playing in front of 500 souls for Dumbarton in the Irn-Bru Scottish League third division. Now his stock is rising again, just like Queen of the South, and he is the perfect symbol for the first division side to prove that by upsetting the odds and leading them to their first significant honour in their 89-year history.

“I realised a lot of things about myself when I was at Dumbarton,” Dobbie, who has scored 24 goals in just 51 appearances for Queen of the South since joining them from St Johnstone in January 2007, said. “I went there on loan because I had been out with an injury at St Johnstone and needed games to get fit. Gerry McCabe had just taken over as manager of Dumbarton and he was the assistant manager when I had been at Hibernian.


“I really enjoyed my time at Dumbarton and maybe I’ll go back when I’m older, but I remember going to places like Stenhousemuir on a Wednesday night and thinking, no disrespect to Stenhousemuir, that I should be playing at a higher stage than this. Gerry was also on at me, saying that I should not be at that level.


“It taught me, however, that full-time footballers are lucky. At Dumbarton, I was sharing a dressing-room with part-time guys who turned up for training from their work on a building site. They are doing that for the love of the game and I took it all for granted
.
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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

United ascend those Russian steps

Much of the best and some of the worst of what the English Premier League has to offer was on display in the Champions League Final tonight -- passion, commitment, moments of great skill and high drama; but also clumsy challenges, niggling responses and a petulant sending-off as tempers boiled. Watching Bobby Charlton lead Manchester United up to the podium at the end provided a moving recollection of a past era of tragedy and triumph: one that somehow transcends the drumbeat of money to which the modern game all-too-often resonates. Oh go, on, call me a hopeless romantic. United merited their victory for the season and their history, if not particularly for their second half in Moscow.

Paddy Power lost a cool million on the first goal, apparently. But his firm won't be crying for long. There was poetic justice, too, in Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty miss, which left him relying on his team (and particularly Edwin Van der Saar) to bail him out. He told ITV immediately after the match that he'll stay at Old Trafford. Yesterday that would have been a scoop. Tonight no-one has picked it up.* There will be few tears for Didier Drogba, either. A great player, but he pretty much announced he was there for a trophy payday before heading off (possibly to Inter with Mourinho) and ended up with a red card and a loser's medal instead. Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Avram Grant, now unjustly destined for the chop, and captain John Terry, whose slip for his penalty cost his team a win, deserve genuine sympathy.

* In this respect, ITV's News At Ten promptly missed its own story... and also implicated Law in the '68 win he didn't appear in. A characteristic performance from them.
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Exeter's winner at Wembley

Some things don't change

... and one of these things, sadly, is that ITV's football coverage is spectacularly, mind-numbingly bad. No cliche or histrionic opportunity is left unexploited. The studio comment is dull and banal. The adverts ruin the flow of the moment and will, no doubt, steal the denouement, too. Clive Tyldesley witters on like some irritating pub bore. David Pleat can't even get the date of the 'George Best final' right (it was Celtic that one in '67, for goodness' sake). Even Gary Lineker's smugness is passable by comparison. Where is Alan Hansen when you need him...?
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Hoping against hype

Well, as we surely know: it's not just for champions and it's not actually a league. But the world 'final' is accurate enough. And even if the game does feature two of the most debt-ridden, over-hyped and annoyingly self-regarding teams in the world, we all hope that tonight's proceedings in Moscow will provide a dose of that top quality football entertainment that 'big occasions' have a tendency to fall flat on. In reality I don't much care who wins, but there are one or two heart-strings pulling in the direction of Manchester United rather than Chelsea -- because of their flowing football, the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster (just a month before I was born) and the 40th anniversary of the victory over Benfica in the '68 European Cup Final, as it was then. That was one of my earliest major football memories, even if I was heartbroken to discover that Denis Law wasn't playing.
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Sunday, 18 May 2008

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Welcome back to the FA Cup

The build-up to this year's FA Cup Final has definitely had some of the atmosphere that's been sorely missing in recent years -- including terrestrial TV coverage. Great to see the supporters of Portsmouth and Cardiff City taking it seriously and with passion, unlike some of the Prem big boys. As a habitual supporter of the underdog, and with many Cymru friends, I've got to go for the Welsh lads. Plus they're wearing black and yellow. But to be honest I don't really want either team to lose. On the Pompey side, David James certainly deserves a medal. I just hope it's a good match and that, as we're less accustomed to saying these days, the best team on the day wins.
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Friday, 16 May 2008

A gold scarf too far

Somehow mental colour confusion always sets in. As with last May, I was planning to wear some modest piece of Sons garb to Wembley on Sunday, this time fancying a quick picture under the Arch to match the (incredibly sad) snap I have from the Great Wall of China in late 2004. Though with a decent DFC scarf this time. For some reason I had it in my head that Cambridge would be wearing blue, so no problem. But of course, that's Cambridge City. As for United, they'll be in their customary gold and black against Exeter, my locals - whose red sea I'll be swimming in. Ah well. I'll just have to hope that my blue DFC away shirt (the Grecians' usual away colour too, though this time it's white -- er, are you following this?), courtesy of sponsoring now-departed Chris Gentile this past season, arrives in tomorrow morning's post. Somehow I doubt it. So I'll just have to sneak that atrocious piece of knit ware (left) into my bag and hope that if I quickly whip it out in the interests of photographic art (*cough*), it will not be held against me by anyone in red and white.
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Thursday, 15 May 2008

It's all about confidence

This article appears in the Exeter City souvenir brochure for the 2008 Blue Square Premier Play-Off Final, versus Cambridge United, at Wembley Stadium on 18 May 2008. Copies are available from the club shop.

EVEN after Wayne Carlisle side-footed the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of Torquay’s goal to confirm that Exeter really were going to Wembley again, most of us standing immediately behind the net still couldn’t quite believe it.

The Grecians’ fourth at Plainmoor, bagging the tie by two clear goals after we’d been two behind, was greeted on the terraces by an explosion of elation, relief, joy and amazement. Something extraordinary had happened. Just when it looked as if the play-off final had Torquay written all over it, a piece of football daylight robbery had been executed, with breathtaking aplomb. But how, exactly?

The answer involves skill, guts, organisation and determination from City’s finest on the park that afternoon, combined with some calm tactical shrewdness from manager Paul Tisdale. “Stay focussed, switch to 3-4-3, keep playing to your strengths and use the fresh energy of the subs,” he told them.

There was another ingredient too. The belief generated by the fans. Players need confidence, and they pick it up not just from each other and from the backroom team, but from the supporters as well. That’s why all of us have a key part to play in making this second-in-a-row visit to England’s national stadium one to remember for all the right reasons.

The energy generated by Exeter’s away support this season has had to be seen and felt to be believed. I caught a whiff of it on a dismally damp Tuesday evening in Crawley back in March, and found myself pitched right in the middle of the mayhem at Torquay.

Usually, you understand, I sit in the “polite seats” near the centre circle. Temperamentally, I’m more likely to stroke my (metaphoric) beard than yell and shout… and, well, I’m a bit of a practiced sporting pessimist. When the Gulls went ahead just short of the hour, a big part of me thought, “ah well, there’s always next season.”

But those standing around me didn’t allow that idea headroom. The players didn’t. The bench didn’t. Instead, they redoubled their efforts and kept the energy up, even when things looked grim. That’s the shared commitment out of which true confidence is born, and it’s the reason why getting behind the Grecians for their latest Wembley adventure is so vital – whether you will be in the stadium (hopefully), at home, or in a local hostelry.

I discovered what a vital commodity confidence is in football when I was a youngster. It happened the hard way. Never a great schoolboy player, and certainly never a goal scorer, one day I found myself, incredibly, standing in front of goal with the ball at my feet and only a yard to kick it. I froze. Completely. Totally. Every ounce of belief I had drained out of me, and the keeper simply doubled back to whip the ball humiliatingly away from me.

It was a crushing moment. Thankfully, a young team-mate picked me up, told me to forget about it and straightaway passed the ball to me, when others wouldn’t have contemplated anything so foolish. His name, funnily enough, was Jeremiah, that of a biblical figure known for being a bit of a doom-monger!

The lesson I learned, apart from the fact that I might need to maintain a day job, was that you can’t unleash the skill you’ve got unless the people around continue to believe in you.

Paul Tisdale showed that confidence in Paul Jones, after his unfortunate mishap against Torquay at St James’ Park. He kept him in the side, the fans cheered his name, and after Exeter’s thrilling Plainmoor fight-back, the young ’keeper came and shook the hands of what must have been a hundred delirious Grecian supporters.

It was a great moment; one that embodies the real spirit of the club. Make sure you’re part of it for Wembley. Keep the confidence flowing.
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A sad night in Manchester...

...both on the field, where Rangers struggled hard, but were deservedly beaten by a much better Zenit side; and off the field, where ugly scenes of violence both before the game and after it marred what had earlier been a 'carnival atmosphere'. Comment is unnecessary, really. The whole thing had a sickening inevitability to it and there will be the usual ritualised accusations and counter-accusations. The failure of the TV screen was a cock-up, but nothing excuses what followed. Alcohol, rage and grief is a potent cocktail and the fact is, 'Gers have a thuggish core in their following. Not the ambassadors Scotland needs.The one bright spot was the club's honourable response to the sad death of Celtic legend Tommy Burns.
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Wednesday, 14 May 2008

A day out at the Rock

Here's the picture from the 29 March 2008 Dumbarton -v- Stranraer game at Strathclyde Homes Stadium -- which I sponsored jointly with the Sonstrust to celebrate my 50th birthday. Unfortunately, Sons lost 1-0 and it wasn't a great game (it's been that kind of season), but the day as a whole was fabulous. Thanks to everyone involved. Left to right : Denise Currie (chair of the Trust), Tim Rhead (Dumbarton & Lomond Amnesty), Carla Roth (to whom I am married!), Simon Barrow, Stephen Lynch (DFC director - Sonstrust and commercial).

[Picture (c) DFC/Sonstrust 2008]
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Hoping it's a victory for Scotland...

Rangers' appearance in the UEFA Cup Final this evening, I mean. There are a number of concerns about this match, and not all of them are to do with the football. It would be a great shame if the sectarian bigots among the 'Gers support and some racists and ultra-nationalists in the Zenit St Petersburg camp stole the show. Both clubs are on warnings about the behaviour of their followers. Then there's the issue of the large army of travelling fans who haven't get tickets to the City of Manchester Stadium, because a combination of the relative smallness of the venue and the number of seats gobbled up by the corporates means that the allocation to Rangers, in particular, was way, way below the demand. So far the two sets of supporters are mingling OK. But it could be touch and go.

Above all, it would be good to get a decent game of football. Zenit are clear favourites and the 'Gers have scored only 5 goals in 8 matches to get to this Final. They have seen off superior teams like Fiorentina and Sporting Lisbon through a combination of sound tactics, grit and determination - with more than the odd flash of skill, to be sure. But I fear tonight could be another story. Zenit took apart both Beyer Leverkusen and (much more impressively) Bayern Munich. The real danger man is Pavel Pogrebnyak - but he's out, I gather. Though I wouldn't normally be cheering the Blues (I agree with Kenny), it would nevertheless be a great night for Scottish football and for the deserving Walter Smith if they could pull off a win. Provided it's done in the right spirit.

[Pic: (c) BBC]
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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

From Wembley to Hampden

My tickets for next Sunday's Blue Square Play-Off Final at Wembley arrived this morning, by recorded delivery. The poor postman said that his round was going to take him much longer today, as every third household required an autograph! Naturally, Exeter (the city and, er, City) is eagerly anticipating this visit to London... not quite so novel for me, as I am up there every couple of weeks. The hope is that the pitch will have recovered from the exertions of the FA Cup Final the previous day -- when one of the world's most famous trophies will either have gone to a Welsh side outside the top flight (that'll give the FA indigestion!) or to a "lesser" (but still, by most standards, very flush) Premiership side.

As for Wembley itself. Frankly, I found it rather shiny and soulless last year. And £6 for a burger? C'mon. Thank goodness I'm a veggie and had a beanfeast beforehand. It's a venue that soaks up money -- both the taxpayer's and the punter's. This year the Play-Off tickets have been hiked from £25 and £28 to £33 or £38, while the Conference and the stadium argue about who's taking the cut when asked about it (they're not sure?). Compared to other 'big events', that's quite reasonable, of course, though some will argue that this is still Non-League and the actual cost of two top price tickets is higher once the service charge and recorded postage is added. The latter is vital, because there are no replacements, even if you can prove you bought a ticket and its disappearance is demonstrably not your fault. Legally, this is probably an "unfair term and condition." Not that it has put many people off. One Grecians fanatic has shelled out for 336 tickets to help others out, apparently!

By contrast, the New Hampden looks quite a small and slightly unimposing venue when it's empty (I've done the tour a couple of times, while visiting the Scottish Football History Museum), but it's a cauldron when full. I also really like the continuing connection with the roots of the game, emblemized by Queen's Park (thanks for the new defender, guys). I hope to see Scotland take on Northern Ireland there in August, if I have the time and any money left. Which is far from guaranteed. Oh, and it only took £4 million or so out of the public purse when the Glasgae stadium was built, compared to the squillions lavished on North London. Or so I'm told.
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Sunday, 11 May 2008

Making peace with Ol' Big 'Ed

The Damned Utd is David Peace's mesmerising blend of fact and fiction, tracking the mental turmoil of Brian Clough as he embarks on 44 ill-fated days as manager of the club he hated most, Leeds United -- along with the torments and joys of his first coaching job. It's engaging, dark, funny, witty, provocative and numbing, all at the same time. Peace features on ITV's The South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg at 10.50pm tonight (or thereabouts, depending on your location). We are also promised a wider look at football writing. Peace was profiled in The Guardian yesterday.

Oh yes, while I think about it, congratulations to Nottingham Forest for making it back into the Championship (or Division Two, as some of us still call it). My Ekklesia co-director and friend Jonathan Bartley is a fan from his college days. I've always had a soft spot for the Forest, and indeed for dear, departed, delightful, despotic Cloughie. Back in my days as a current affairs editor, I once sent a photographer to take a picture of him down at the City ground. The poor bloke had long hair and an earring. That photo cost him a "right wigging" from Our Brian, as you might expect!
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Tight at the top

Yes, I know, I shouldn't really... being a 'real football' aficionado, the lure of the Big Four in England should be kept at bay. But I will shortly be down the pub watching the travails of Manchester United and Chelsea. Since Munich and '68 were among my earliest major football impressions, I want United to win the Champions League. But it would be quite satisfying if Chelsea pipped them for the Premiership, not least because I told my friend Jim Smith that they were still in with a shot weeks ago, and he dismissed the idea. {He was right. But only just}

Talking of the millionaire set, Rangers gained a mightily undeserved win over Dundee United yesterday, much as I shall be rooting for them in the UEFA Cup final against Zenit (managed by ex-'Gers boss Dick Advocaat) on Wednesday - my goodness, they're even showing it (a match featuring a Scottish team!) on telly down here in England. There's a refreshing change. Even if it is ITV, and something called "contractual obligation".

But I digress. I share Lorraine Kelly's phone-in outrage at the penalty and offside decisions going against Dundee United. Let's hope Hibs get a better rub of the green, so to speak, against Celtic. It's 0-0 on 13 minutes, as I write.

Now, back to fitba'-type football. Congrats to Dumbarton's U-15s. I'd rather be watching them. Honest.
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Saturday, 10 May 2008

Field of dreams?

While attention in southwest England turns to Wembley this coming week, some of us are looking forward to other pastures next season. Well, OK. I am. Let's hope the Strathclyde Homes Stadium (or the Rock, as Sons fans prefer to call it) proves more amenable to dreams than nightmares in season 2008-9. Fitba Daft has some good shots [scroll down] of the ground, taken on the occasion of the 1-1 home tie against East Fife on 22 September 2007: a match I was at,as it happens. These things are worth noting when you live the other end of the country - and, indeed, in a different country. Meanwhile, the Scottish Football Archive has a nifty arial photo, presumably sourced from Google Earth [Hat-tip to Freelunch for this thumbnail, too.]

Friday, 9 May 2008

Barrow 'til I die!

Well, it's kinda inevitable, isn't it? My surname is Barrow, after all.

But tonight I'm thinking of Barrow AFC from Cumbria, who have just won the Blue Square North promotion play-off against Stalybridge at Burton's Pirelli Stadium to claim promotion to the Premier Division - only one step away from the Football League proper, from which they dropped in 1972. Hearty congratulations to the Bluebirds! "Barrow's goals-machine midfielder Matt Henney found the net in the 58th minute after the blue-and-whites surged forward," says the ecstatic North-West Evening Mail, promising seven pages of coverage tomorrow. The final result was 1-0.

I can't claim to be a week-by-week follower of my namesakes, but when I was a youngster I used to look out for their results, in the way that kids do. The other connection was that my mother had a nursing colleague called Mansfield. Her son, Guy if I recall correctly, was a couple of years older than me and also a football fan. So the bi-annual tussles between the Bluebirds and the Stags, sadly relegated from League Two this season, were occasions of friendly family rivalry - something it will be possible to relive again this Summer, after 36 years.

In any event, I shall definitely make sure I get down to Holker Street at some stage next season. 'Mon Barrow!
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Thursday, 8 May 2008

In the top flight

People who know I support Dumbarton, but who know little about the Sons, are often a bit surprised to discover that we were briefly in the Scottish Premier League, in season 1984-5. I saw the last SPL match at Boghead, a 2-0 defeat to Dundee United. This YouTube footage is of an earlier match against Aberdeen. Given the enormous odds stacked against them, Sons had a creditable stab at competing - and let's not forget that these were the great Dons and Arabs sides who were turning heads in Europe as 'the New Firm'. Those were, as they say, the days...

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Looking to the youngsters

In spite of a difficult few seasons, one of the things that gives hope to Dumbarton for the future is its determination to invest in youth football. It's difficult to keep young talent when there are more attractive pastures available elsewhere, but getting 'em early will pay dividends in the end, I'm sure. So good luck to Sons' under-15s (pictured), who play unbeaten St Johnstone in a rescheduled fixture tomorrow, Thursday 8 May. The match is a 6.45pm kick off at Argyll Park in Alexandria.
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All the goals

So it's Cambridge United who Exeter City will face in the promotion play-off at Wembley on 18 May. I have my ticket secure. But it'll be a tough task. Cambridge are a good side and may be favourites, as the Grecians were last year. But they can still do it, having taken four out of six points off them already. Bad luck, Nigel Clough, by the way. Now, hat tip to Dean Lord for pulling together all five goals from the Torquay triumph here:

Great balls of, er, water...

My Geneva friend and correspondent Jane Stranz writes: "I saw this football floating at an unlikely angle in the sky the other evening but until receiving this picture from my colleague Theo Gill did not realise the strategic placing of the ball over Geneva's famous jet d'eau. Obviously the beautiful game is seeking the stars and becoming more heavenly by the moment. Now I'll just have to go into the centre of town in the evenings to see whether the ball lights up at night time like the jet d'eau does... It's actually tethered in place by large steel ropes cunningly hidden - clever isn't it?"
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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The beginning of the end

This via the Setanta live coverage: Exeter City's first, rather nicely executed, goal in the smash-and-grab play-off victory at Torquay. Four goals in 24 minutes when 3-1 down over the majority of two legs. Astonishing.

Heading for the top

... and while I'm on the YouTube kick (so to speak), here's Richard Logan's header that put stunned Exeter supporters in dreamland yesterday, taking the Grecians through to their Wembley promotion play off after being two goals down in the tie.

Dumbarton's crack at Cup glory

Here's a newish YouTube clip of Dumbarton's fifth round Scottish Cup exit earlier this season, a 3-0 defeat by SPLers St Mirren at Love Street.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Exeter make it to Wembley

Goodness, I'm almost too physically and emotionally exhausted to write after this afternoon's extraordinary last minute break-and-enter victory for Exeter City, taking them to Wembley on 18 May and another crack at getting back into the Football League. "Incredible" (Sporting Life) is indeed the word. Torquay fans must be in shock.

Usually I take my place in the sedate seats at St James' Park. But at Plainmoor I was in the stand right behind the goal where most of the crucial action took place. Exeter can count themselves lucky to have such passionate fans, and there wasn't a hint of a wavering in support when, after a cagey first half in which the Grecians had much possession to little effect, the Gulls took the lead just after the hour - meaning that City needed two goals just to take the Blue Square Premier play off (improbably) into extra time in the second leg.

Being a footballing pessimist who can normally pick a loser at a hundred paces (I'm a Sons fan, after all!), I confess I thought, "ah well, that's it." Torquay had the luck in the first leg, and one-team loyalist and veteran Kevin Hill, attaining the club record 473 appearances, seemed to have put the matter beyond dispute when he volleyed in from 12 yards on the hour. But shrewd Exeter boss Paul Tisdale instantly changed the formation to 3-4-3, the Big Bankers turned the volume back up, and within ten minutes substitute Ryan Harley had sneaked the ball through a bevvy of defenders to restore a bit of pride. Up to that point it was in doubt whether City could ever break through.

The atmosphere begun to change noticeably. It was still an uphill task though, and only when Richard Logan was carelessly bundled over by Torquay keeper Simon Rayner and last week's last ditch goal-poacher Chris Zebroski did the hope really flood back. Then, with extra time the anticipated next step, Wayne Carlisle (pictured) crossed superbly from the right and Logan beat the keeper at his far post, just in from of me. We could hardly believe it.

The Gulls flung everyone forward in a desperate attempt to salvage something from a tie which has seemed to be heading inexorably in their direction. It was agonising. Finally, well into time added on, City broke and landed the knock-out punch when Carlisle side-footed into the bottom-left hand corner to make it 4-1 on the day and 5-3 on aggregate. Pandemonium and ecstasy broke loose when the referee blew his whistle. "We're not going home!' roared the Grecian Army. They'll prize themselves away for Wembley, I'll bet. Extraordinary scenes.

I thought my match day programme columnist stints were over 'till the Summer now that Dumbarton and Exeter have played their last home games. But the Wembley Brochure deadline now beckons on Thursday. It'll be a pleasure...
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Just desserts?

The reporting angle from VitalFootball is "Sills in play-off misery" after today's snatched Exeter win over Torquay, occasioning no little schadenfreude from Grecians' supporters for whom the man is a bete noir, I've no doubt. (Sorry for that metaphorically clunky Franco-German conjunction!) Tim Sills, Gulls' top scorer with 22, and the player who put the first in against City last Thursday, was widely regarded as using gamesmanship to get Danny Seaborne sent off in the heated derby on 26 December 2007. Then in the first leg of the Blue Square play off semi he also got a yellow card for elbowing Exeter hero Steve Tully. The player and onlookers felt is should have been a red. The unsavoury incidents around the tunnel and in the dressing room last week added an unfortunate note of sourness to what is undoubtedly a local rivalry, but would be better for retaining a sense of proportion and some friendliness.
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City ready for the challenge

Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale is in ebullient mood ahead of today's crucial Blue Square Premier promotion play off second leg against Torquay United, which kicks off at Plainmoor at 12.30pm. There's a 1-2 deficit to overturn, but thankfully no 'away goals' rule. If things are even at 90 minutes, it's extra time and then penalties. I'll be there, biting my nails. The Grecians have no fresh suspension or injury concerns and will hopefully be boosted by the return of Steve Basham after a calf injury. More decisiveness up front is vital. City were clearly the better footballing team in the first leg, but were done in by lack of finishing, a disallowed offside goal that wasn't, and a goalkeeping goof.


Sunday, 4 May 2008

Getting the message across

Although Manchester City are finishing their season with two away games, it's good to see that Blues fans are very visibly telling Sven Goran Eriksson they want him to stay, and Thaksin Shinawatra where to go. Whatever the outcome, the Thai ex-PM can't have failed to get the message, which has been beamed around the world. The Swede showed his gratitude in a quiet and dignified way, as you'd expect. But he's not being drawn into the politics surrounding his likely sacking ahead of talks with the owner next month, believing that diplomacy rather than inflicted embarrassment is his only (slim) chance of survival.
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Worst case scenario

After a grim season at Dumbarton, I suppose it's good to be reminded that things could be worse. Today's Observer Sports Magazine, following in the footsteps of an earlier feature on daily stable mate The Guardian, gives one of our ex-bosses a perverse accolade for an "outstanding contribution in the field of failure". He's down from first out of six to tenth of ten, though. One championship in which sinking to the bottom may be preferable to finishing top.

Statistics are not the only way to judge a manager, but if they were, Dumbarton's Jim Fallon would have an unmovable grip on the worst manager crown. The club's 1995-96 record makes horrific reading: played 36, won three, drawn two, lost 31. Then consider that two of the wins came in the opening two games, before they appointed Fallon. A record of 0.147 points per match convinced the board he deserved another crack the following season. He's now a physio.

The Sons' losses are the (highly successful) National Stadium Sports Medicine Centre's gain. Good luck with the healing touch, Jim.

(Big Rab points out that there's a Fallon-'Bankies connection, too.)
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On the way to Wembley?

Chris Goodlad writes: "I managed to watch the match [Exeter versus Torquay] on TV last night in the comfort of Henry's Bar for the price of a J2O. I was one of two supporters who watched the game! So much for the mass of excited fans watching in the local pubs. They showed the disallowed goal on Setanta about six times and we both agreed that it was not offside. I remember Martin Rice doing the same thing as Paul Jones when he played for Exeter only Martin Rice managed to do it twice in one match! I hope Exeter get a bit of any luck going in Monday's match - enjoy the trip."

The irony of Jones' costly mistake in the first leg of the Blue Square play off last Thursday night was that in the Final last year (which the Grecians lost to Morcambe), Jones became the first person to save a penalty at the new Wembley.
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Friday, 2 May 2008

Good start for Chapman

There's no grass growing under the feet of Sons boss Jim Chapman. Ten out, one retained (player of the year Mark Canning) two contracts offered (to Andy Geggan and Mick O'Byrne, who will hopefully say 'yes') and now a very solid looking defender coming in to Dumbarton from the Second Division. Mick Dunlop is joining Sons from Queens Park, the club he signed for from Ayr United in August 2005. A left-sided defender, Dunlop, says Queens' website,"quickly established himself as a cult hero with the QP faithful. A totally committed tackler, Mick has stood out in a very impressive Spiders' defence wherever he has been asked to play."

At 26, Dunlop has made 28 appearances this season, had a good number of assists (including free-kicks) and claimed a goal against
Hibs in the CIS Insurance Cup - as per the video clip above. Looks promising. Chapman declared: "Michael was one of our very first targets and it's great to have him on board. We are building a team for the long term and others will follow." That will certainly need to include an effective strike force.
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City players threaten Sven strike

On paper, there's virtually no chance of a reversal of Thaksin's insane decision to sack Sven Goran Eriksson, but the revolt within the club is considerable. The Guardian ran an interesting story today saying that the Swede had counselled top players against various protest actions that would constitute a breach of their contracts, including a boycott of the upcoming close season tour of Thailand, where the Manchester City owner is up on corruption charges. He'll get off; he's the ex-PM and has an elaborate network of supporters. But his latest franchise isn't going to give him an easy ride. Meanwhile, the 'Save Sven' petition is clocking up over 4,000 signatures a day, the fans are holding firm, and the club officials are being predictably subservient - cancelling pre-match press conferences to avoid embarrassment. Ironically, the front page of When Saturday Comes from September last year has a picture of (loaned out) striker Ronaldo Bianchi holding a shirt alongside Sven. "Is he a fit and proper person?" asks the Italian's speech bubble, alluding to Thaksin. "Of course, he's a billionaire," replies Eriksson's.
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An amazing night for Rangers

I'm in (delighted) shock. Rangers are in the UEFA Cup Final after an extraordinarily resilient display against Fiorentina and a penalty shoot-out victory. Unsurprisingly, the superior Italians dominated for 120 minutes, reports Goal.com. But a mixture of poor finishing and heroic Blues defending allowed the Scots to hold on in extra time for penalties. Then substitute Nacho Novo struck home the winning spot-kick to take 'Gers through. Fiorentina star Zdravko Kuzmanovic had last night told the media that it would be "a disaster" if his club crashed out of the UEFA Cup to Rangers. The reaction since has been sour grapes. Heads will no doubt roll.

There's a dimension to the Glasgow side, associated with sectarianism, that I've never liked. Plus no-one should pretend that 'the best team won' in the semi. But there's no doubt, this is a great night for Scottish football. With Russian team Zenit St Petersburg surprisingly demolishing tournament favourites Bayern Munich 4-0 (5-1 on aggregate), the 'Gers will probably never get a better chance to lift this trophy than on 14 May 2008 in the City of Manchester stadium.
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Thursday, 1 May 2008

Not Plainmoor sailing for the Grecians

Well, it's not over yet, but tonight was a bitterly disappointing one for Exeter City, who lost the home leg of their Blue Square promotion play off tie 2-1 to southwest rivals Torquay United. The clincher was a disastrous goal right at the end, resulting from a howler by second string 'keeper Paul Jones. Kicking a relatively straightforward through ball directly into the Gulls' Chris Zebroski, he gifted the striker the winner. This sad denouement to a tense but hard fought game came after Grecians' Wayne Carlisle had equalised Sills' first half opener for Torquay with a fabulous strike.

Exeter managed to dominate large chunks of the game with good, passing football. But early on they lacked penetration in and near the box, and top scorer Richard Logan came on too late in the second half to make much difference. With Steve Basham injured and Adam Stansfield struggling in the air against Torquay's big back line, the options are constrained. City were also very unlucky to have a Carlisle goal ruled offside after a great break by young George Friend, when Setanta TV's replay (so I'm told) suggested that it wasn't.

So now Exeter have it all to do on Plainmoor on 5 May. Wembley is still within reach, but it's going to be a tough call and the team will need all the resources at their disposal. That will surely include goalkeeper Andy Marriott. In spite of his slip up against Aldershot, he has played very well all season, providing assurance, experience and solidity at the back.

I confess I was very surprised when Paul Tisdale dropped Marriott for tonight. No doubt keeping Paul Jones on board by giving him a spin of the turf was partly on the manager's mind, and presumably he's done well in training. But he lacks experience and first team match practice this season, and he looked nervous on and off all evening. His error was a mistake waiting to happen, it felt. But the Grecians will live to fight at least one more day.
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Success, failure and belief

First published in The Grecian, 22 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Torquay United (Blue Square Premier play off semi-final, first leg)

It’s been quite a season, but in the end Exeter City surprised even themselves by securing their play-off place with a whole game to spare. Now we need to put the 4-4 draw at Burton, the final table and the rest firmly behind us. It’s good to take momentum and confidence into this tie, for sure. But today is a different world to the league. It’s do or die time.

I’m sure the manager, players, staff and fans are all too aware of that, and what they need is not nervousness about what has been or what might be, but the belief, imagination and determination to coax the team into playing the way we know they really can – as a more than ‘aspiring’ League side.

The deal is success or failure, for sure. But these are far from straightforward commodities in modern football. Viewed one way, for instance, Manchester United and Arsenal are past masters at the failure game. Between them they have countless Champions League and Premiership contests that they didn’t win. They ended up second, third, fourth or worse.

Yet from where you and I sit at St James’ Park, this kind of ‘failure’ represents an unimagined pool of riches. Second in the Premier League? A semi-finalist in Europe (and the world’s) most prestigious club knockout competition? Yes please!

Likewise, there will be people looking at the Grecians today who will envy us even if we don’t make it to, or past, Wembley – which we will, I hasten to add. Those condemned to mid-table obscurity or worse would love to be in our position. Let’s not forget this.

Right now we can’t even contemplate not beating local rivals Torquay. It would be dangerous to do so. But in the broader scheme of things City have already triumphed, and that will remain so even as the Grecians move to greater things.

Bouncing back from last season’s almost-but-not-quite disappointment has been a tremendous achievement, for example. Let no-one tell you anything different. Others have wilted or disassembled under less pressure. The fact is, Paul Tisdale and those around him, including the supporters and the Trust, have engineered a desire to move forward, to achieve more, to do better, to go higher… and also to play football.

That last bit isn’t to be underestimated. The philosophy of today’s game can sometimes seem like little more than “it’s not the taking part, it’s the winning that counts”, or “don’t look at the match, look at the result.” But true football fans can only half believe in that kind of approach.

What makes this the game we love above all others is the beauty, the artistry, the skill, the cunning, the tactics and the endeavour. In the midst of a match that gives us these things, the rest, frankly, is for accountants and statisticians – people with a vital role to play, but not on the field.

So let’s hope that the game you are about to watch is not just one with the right result, but a memorable one too, as the decisive clashes with Aldershot and Stafford Rangers certainly were. It won’t be easy, because nerves will inevitably jangle.

That, however, is precisely the point. The team most likely to triumph is the one that can overcome the fear factor and play to their true strengths. Which is why winning and doing so with footballing verve are not polar opposites, as the pessimists like to think, but part of the same deal. The one we all crave for.

See you at Wembley, I hope. Believe.
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Local rivals go head-to-head

I'm looking forward to the Blue Square Premier semi-final play off at St James' Park (pictured) tonight, where Exeter City take on local rivals Torquay - headed up by former player and assistant manager Paul Buckle, and with three ex-Grecians on board. That'll add some spice. There should be over 8,000 there, with another packed house due at Plainmoor on Bank Holiday Monday. I have a ticket for that one, too. Everyone is hoping that Exeter can make it back to Wembley again, and this time finish off the job in order to reclaim a Football League place. But first there's the Gulls. It should be an absorbing contest. Exeter can play flowing football when they're on song, and Torquay tend to push the long ball down the middle. There's not much local election fever here, but a good deal of football anticipation.
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New broom for the Sons?

As he promised when he spoke to fans after the Stranraer game on 29 March, and as he warned the squad in the run-up to the 1-1 final game away to Forfar, Dumbarton manager Jim Chapman has shown himself ready to take tough decisions to get things moving again at the Rock. Ten players, including Chris Gentile (who I co-sponsored this season with Sonstrust chair Denise Currie) will not have their contracts renewed this season. But long-standing Sons favourite Wee Craigie Brittain (pictured) has been kept on, against some predictions, indicating that Chappie is looking for a blend of experience and youth. All will depend on who he signs over the next few weeks. There's apparently news about that on the way.
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Time to protest

Such is the corporate dominance of big league football now, it should come as little surprise that a rich, arrogant, human rights abuser should dismiss a clearly "fit and proper person" from his job. Nonetheless, there is outrage that manager Sven Goran Eriksson is being paid off (i.e. sacked) by owner and ex-Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra at Manchester City. And rightly so. I hope the petition sky rockets, and the protests are loud and long at Liverpool on Saturday. Why even the BBC's Phil McNulty admits he was wrong - and he still is about England under Sven, by the way.

Nor has support for the Swede ended with fans (including Noel Gallagher), ex-City boss Peter Reid and players. The League Managers' Association, appalled by the kind of precedent this situation sets, has spoken out, something they do not do lightly in such circumstances. Aside from his good record with the team, with minimal time for preparation and signings, Eriksson represents three things still in short supply in the game: dignity, intelligence and professional decency. Unlike his shabby nemesis.

The roots of the problem, of course, go back to the fact that the FA chose to deem Shinawatra a suitable person to own a controlling interest in a major football club, because money and power speaks louder than other factors - like the corruption allegations that have dogged the man, or the evidence put forward by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others in July 2007. Many supporters choose to ignore such things in their partisan footie enthusiasm, though not all. A fine source of ongoing thoughtful comment and linkage is Bitter and Blue, by the way.
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