Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Unto us, the Sons - a blizzard

A very happy Christmastide and New Year to you all... courtesy of a festive greetings image nabbed from the worthy Sonstrust, with fulsome acknowledgments.

It's been a bit of a down Festive Season for Dumbarton so far, football-wise. The home game against Alloa Athletic (which I had travelled from Birmingham to see) went down to a frozen pitch, and then the away match against Clyde was called off -- another predictable victim of the cold snap. It's fingers crossed for Stenhousemuir at the SHS on 2 January 2010 now... though no-one would put a huge amount of money on that surviving, given the forecasts. The Winter chill will no doubt re-enliven the perennial debate about a December-January break in Scotland. The difficulty is that more than a couple of weeks off is too disruptive, and in any case games can be imperilled at other times, as well. November and February can be pretty dicey, for example. We even lost a game against Forfar at the beginning of April 2008, though that was partly due to drainage problems with the pitch (since resolved).

So summer football, anyone? That would be theoretically possible in the lower divisions, unlike the SPL. But it would throw Cup competitions into difficulty, unsettle fans, clash with holidays and create further continuity problems with the top flight, who are still driven by the Europe agenda -- even if the chances of entry or success in the Europa and Champions Leagues seems to be receding all the time. It's a fair conundrum. But despair not, good Sons fans. I still think we can have a positive second half of the season!

Monday, 28 December 2009

Orient need three kings or so

Another good day out at the football for me today, albeit one that unfortunately did not end positively for my O's-supporting friend Kevin Scully and his companions. Leyton Orient now find themselves awkwardly planted in the League One relegation zone after throwing away a valuable lead against relative high-flyers Southend.

This is not the first time the O's have suddenly buckled after gaining the advantage -- far from it -- and bad footballing habits can be difficult to unmake. First, Adam Chambers put the home side ahead on 57 minutes at Brisbane Road, with a very well-taken opportunistic strike from a loose ball. But within a minute or so the first of two unfortunate defensive slips was punished by Southend captain Adam Barrett. Orient's game then seemed gradually to disintegrate, and after another 15 minutes midfielder Alan McCormack pounced on Lee Barnard's blocked shot to make it 1-2. Barnard is an ex-O himself, though that will be of no comfort to the home fans.

Ironically, Orient played some good football, especially in the opening spell. However, it is errors at the back and a lack of incisiveness up front which often do the lasting damage at this level. Patulea, who I saw score for Orient against Brighton in the Carling Cup earlier this season, had a stinking first half and was rightly replaced by the much sharper looking Pires. Young Townsend, on loan from Spurs until January 2010, was by far Orient's best player, and McGleish and Chorley turned in solid performances overall.

There was little other inspiration in the O's side, however, and with the aforementioned Seagulls (who they drew with 0-0 on Boxing Day) coming back from two behind to trounce Wycombe Wanderers 5-2, they slumped to 21st spot and will struggle to survive on current form. Mind you, so will my (until recently) local side Exeter City, who are losing regularly on the road and could only grab a home point against Gillingham, with three tough games about to hit them. It's crunch time.

And yes, I know, it should be Os rather than O's. But the greengrocer's apostrophe has some helpful differentiating uses...

In Trusts we trust

First published in The Grecian, 28 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Gillingham

So Exeter City's neighbours Plymouth have secured one of the coveted places as a potential World Cup venue in England’s bid to host the 2018 competition. This news (not so new now!) has generated a mixed response among the Exeter faithful… unsurprisingly, given the not-always-friendly sense of football competition between the two cities.

Personally I hope a sporting response will win out over instincts towards rancour when it comes to anything connected with our green rivals. After all, there’s justifiable pride in Devon and southwest at stake here, together with tangible benefits for both Exeter and Torquay in terms of related facilities.

There’s also the more fragile promise of economic benefit and a tourism boost for the region if Plymouth survive the final hurdle – Bristol are their more favoured competitors for a regional venue – and if England win the bid.

That’s two big “ifs” already. A further one concerns the longer-term viability of a 45,000-seater stadium for the Pilgrims. A ground share with the Grecians, perhaps? Don’t worry, I’m only kidding!

Nevertheless, as the situation at Everton demonstrates, even big clubs may have to think the unthinkable in terms of resources and development as the financial noose around the game becomes even tighter in our credit-crunched and environmentally threatened world.

In other European countries fierce rivals sometimes share grounds, and many clubs hire or share facilities rather than owning them outright. In Britain that seems culturally odd and out of synch with the way the game has evolved. But it will be interesting to see where we are in 25 years time.

Talking of proprietorship, I hope football fans across the country will be making New Year’s resolutions to back even more Trusts with a stake in owning and running their clubs.

The Trust movement and Supporters Direct are still thriving, in spite of recent difficulties and resistance from some of the ‘old guard’. It is a source of pride in Exeter that we are now the only fully Trust-owned club in the Football League. But I still wish there were many more.

The sad mess at Notts County ought to serve as a solid warning to those who think that provident societies are just a temporary phase for a team seeking to avert a crisis before they move on to “bigger and better things” – that is, finding a gold-rich benefactor to hand over the millions which will ensure their success.

In truth, leaning on the super-rich is a highly fallible process, and often downright dangerous. Rather than keeping a club close to those who care about it most, the supporters, megacorp ownership makes it prey to the whims, fortunes and debts of wheeler-dealers.

This is a problem for football aristocrats too. Liverpool’s possibilities of winning the Premier League, for example, are now ransomed to the debt-servicing needs of their American owners. And only Manchester United’s massive global market is preventing them from having similar problems. But where did that £80 million for Ronaldo go, we might ask ourselves?

This is a different universe to the one inhabited by Exeter City. But perils lurk in our territory too. Some fans on Exeweb and elsewhere think that our Trust will need to sell out to a sugar daddy in order to secure a dream of regular Championship football. Notts County fans thought that too, and gave away everything they had built up for a pittance in exchange for Munto’s empty promises. Now they are hoping that Sven and his friends can do some more magic.

The real danger is that if a wealthy way forward is found for County (which in football terms we all hope will be the case) it will breed complacency among others about the tycoon route to ‘success’. It shouldn’t. We need to grow up and realise that not every team can aspire to the highest level. It is the game as a whole that we should be seeking to benefit. The best way to do that is for fans to be more involved – and more realistic in their expectations.

This principle also applies to the web-based MyFootballClub experiment, too. Ebbsfleet looked to have cracked this a couple of years ago when they were chosen as recipients of the largess of the £35 punters. Now that, too, is unravelling.

So my hope for 2010 is that the Trust movement will gain fresh traction. Exeter City has been offering a lead. Hopefully that’s also what we will have secured at the end of 90 minutes against Gillingham. Enjoy the game and happy New Year!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A Boxing Day outing to Loftus Road

Staying in Bethnal Green over Christmas, and hosted by a Leyton Orient fan who had decided that a 1pm away kick-off in Brighton (at the unappealing Withdean Stadium) was too much for Boxing Day, we instead found ourselves proceeding down the Central Line in search of alternative football entertainment. White City it was, then: the nearest tube stop to Queen's Park Rangers' famous Loftus Road ground. The assignment was a Championship match pitting QPR against Bristol City (also poised tantalisingly outside the play-off zone, with both sides eyeing the ultimate prize: a Premier League spot).

The ground itself is pleasantly comfortable, if archetypally boxy. A not-insubstantial thirty quid purchased seats with a great site-line at the corner of the ground. The tea was the best I've tasted at a football match for some time -- though the cheese and onion pasty is better passed over. Unusually, the PA system was crystal clear (if a bit deafening when music was booming out of the speakers), and the ground also boasts video replay screens. Not one for hard-line puritans and purists, I guess; but, for me, a welcome bonus.

To the game itself. The first fifteen minutes were tentative and lacking in shape and quality. Then things took off, with both sides making penetrating runs and developing a fast passing game. On the half hour QPR took the lead after Fitz Hall (who rejoices in the nickname 'One Size') crossed in for Jay Simpson to score with a sweet strike after an uncertain first touch. The home side were in the ascendancy now, and nine minutes letter added a second goal from Mikele Leigertwood, with a well curved twenty yarder.

Following the break, QPR started to lose the plot. Some 12 minutes into the second period Bristol City's Nicky Maynard pulled one back for the visitors with a stunning strike -- surely the goal of the day. Gratifyingly, the Rangers fans around me responded with generous applause. Who says good grace has gone out of the game altogether? City had now found their pace and continued to torment their opponents until QPR's new manager Paul Hart (this was his first home game) decided to shut up shop, bringing on two left backs and throwing six across the back.

The home fans reacted with fury, throwing "You don't know what you're doing" and "We're supposed to be at home" back at the gaffer. The last quarter of an hour was full of tension, as the Robins pressed forward and QPR looked uneasy on the back foot. After a torrid time at Premier League basement side Portsmouth, and inheriting a Rangers team with big ambitions but no wins in five games, it seems that Hart was desperate for victory. And that he achieved, if only to leave the field with louder boos than cheers ringing in his ears. Queens Park Rangers fans want positive football as well as positive results, it seems. (However, their subsequent attempt to combine both ended up with a 3-0 thumping at Ipswich, so they may have to adjust their expectations).

Altogether this was a good, if not cheap, day out for the neutral observer. For me it was also the second time I'd watched a side with "Queens" and "Park" in their name inside ten days. One for the curiosity file, that.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Football in extremis

Since Dumbarton's home tie against Alloa was called off, a few Sons fans decided to make the trek to Hampden Park in Glasgow instead, to catch the only surviving lower league game of the day last Saturday -- Queens Park against Montrose. My compatriots were not mightily impressed by the game, though I've seen far worse myself. You could certainly see why both sides are struggling in the lower reaches of the SFL Third Division at the moment. Indeed, the Gable Endies have not won a game all season so far and are rooted firmly to the foot of the table. That didn't change on 19 December 2009, as Queens came out 3-2 victors in a match which lacked much shape or inspiration, but which thankfully benefited from several pretty good goals --- including a wondrous 25-yard last-minute strike from the Angus visitors' Daryl Nicol. That gave the home side a bit of a late panic, but Montrose ran out of time and in any case never looked like capitalising on the fleeting sight of a point.

As you'll see from the picture, the match was conducted in freezing conditions and at times it was rather like watching a two patterns of ants chasing an orange pea through a green maze. Shortly before kick-off, which was delayed by 15 minutes, there was a sudden snow flurry which almost put the fixture in peril. A wilder storm from the same weather configuration led to the last-minute abandonment of Hamilton Accies versus Dundee United in the SPL, apparently.

Meanwhile, of the 50,000 seats available at Hampden, only 397 were occupied for this fourth level encounter. Davie, Denise, Tommy (pictured below) and I were in what was in theory the 'away end', though segregation is hardly rigorous. My huge rucksack wasn't even searched when we went through the turnstiles. Unthinkable down south. As the game reached its denouement I calculated that we Sons fans amounted to getting on for 20 per cent of those present in the away section of the ground! Surreal. The half-time tea and pie were much needed as the cold began to bite, too. I was fortunate enough to be able to sneak into the loo during the break to put on my thermals. It was still extremity freezing for the next 45 minutes. Altogether a "real football experience" of the sort that those not enchanted with the game often fail to understand, but which those of us with it coursing through our veins somehow manage to relish in a perverse way.

For me the additional interest of the match was that it was actually the first live game I'd seen in the new(ish) national stadium. I've been to Hampden on several occasions to take in the Scottish Football History museum and the stadium tour, but I've never got to a Scotland game or cup event there: or indeed a Spiders home match until this one. That in spite of knowing at least one Queens supporter, a former college room-mate called Paul Bladworth. (If you happen to chance across this post, Paul, do drop me a line, as I have lost your address.) I must say I greatly prefer New Hampden to New Wembley, which is architecturally splendid but rather soulless. I duly resolved to try to get to a Scotland home game under new boss Craig Levein, who I believe is going to do as well as anyone could reasonably expect given limited resources and the sorry state of the Scottish game at the moment.

As a footnote, I should add that, at £2 a go, Queens Park's programme is undoubtedly one of the best in the lower leagues these days -- both in colourful presentation and in well-written and well-edited content.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Becoming a fair weather fan

Ah well, two games called off in a row for me: the (non) luck of the draw. The upshot is that I'm seriously thinking of becoming a fair weather Dumbarton fan. Not in the usual listless sense of the term. More in terms of resolving rather more carefully to travel several hundred miles only when there's a realistically high chance of getting a game - i.e. not in pitch winter!

Several days beforehand I'd already figured that the Alloa Athletic game at SHS on 19 December was likely to be frozen out, and indeed it was. By the time the news came through, however, I was already on the train... and in any case, travel has to be booked weeks in advance unless you want to fork out a fortune. Thankfully, I'd already switched my ball sponsorship (marking my 40th anniversary of supporting Sons) to 20 February next year, versus Clyde. Not that this is any climactic guarantee. In effect the 'football Winter' in Scotland is November to March -- which is one of several reasons why a seasonal break, while highly desirable in theory, isn't very practical in the lower divisions.

However I'm not complaining, I should hasten to add. I still had a great time. First, on a trip to Hampden for Queens Park versus Montrose, the only game that survived the weather in the second and third divisions (that's me sporting DFC colours in the national stadium). Then an evening out in Dumbarton with Sons fans -- a fantastic bunch! -- which lasted well into the early hours. Everything but the game... Ah well, next time.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Digging in for victory

First published in The Grecian, 19 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Southend

In recent years, Exeter City’s seasons have often grown stronger as they have progressed. That has certainly been the case under the tutelage of Paul Tisdale, and while they may have given Grecians’ fans a few jitters along the way, the past two terms have ended up being a cause for celebration rather than trepidation.

Unsurprisingly, League One is proving a really tough proposition, and following three straight defeats against Oldham, Brighton and Bristol Rovers, in which City have also failed to score, the determination of the home side to turn the tide today, so that we can get into a proper Festive swing again, will be very strong – as our visitors from Southend are bound to be aware.

As the cold sets in, the challenge for the Grecians is to ‘dig for victory’ and not to let a debilitating climate get to them too much. I’m thinking of the league table (which, as is often said, does not lie) as well as the obvious climatic conditions!

The approaching New Year is necessarily a time to look forward rather than back, but that isn’t automatically a source of consolation either. On or before 16 January 2010, Exeter face some massive fixtures. We come up against Southampton and Norwich away from home, and then Leeds United at St James Park – a mouth-watering prospect that one, and unimaginable only 18 months ago. The solid performance at Elland Road back in August (when we lost 2-1, but were unlucky not to come away with a point) shows the team have nothing to fear, but much to achieve.

Being a skilful side, the Grecians sometimes find their feet better against the really demanding opposition than when taking on what some might consider ‘journeyman’ teams. But whatever the opposition, the right frame of mind and the correct preparation remains vital. And that is in our hands, not somebody else’s.

Over the past few weeks it seems that we have lacked a killer touch in the final third once more. That appears to come and go with us. At Boundary Park we failed to take early chances. Opponents now know very well that City can keep the ball on the deck and move it around effectively, so they tend to sit back and close down spaces – waiting for chances to break away, for the occasional mistake from us, or for a loss of momentum in the game.

This means its important not to be predictable. Hopefully City will have one or two surprises up their sleeves (or should I say, “at their feet!”) for Southend this afternoon, away at St Mary’s on Boxing Day, and then for the visit of Gillingham to the southwest two days later.

It’s a demanding winter schedule, and one not made any easier by the realisation that the Grecians sit only a couple of points off the relegation zone. That said, the division as a whole has stayed pretty tight, and a few good results could alter the complexion of the situation significantly.

What is certain is that our 2009-10 campaign will go the full distance, that more than a handful of teams will find themselves caught up in a struggle for survival and better, that there will be no easy games, and that many of those we face will have considerably larger financial and other resources at their disposal than we do.

What Exeter City possesses in greater abundance, however, is community spirit and determination – together with some of the best coaching staff in the division. Things are difficult at the moment, for sure. But that’s precisely why it is desirable not to put yourself under any more pressure than you already face from your opponents on the pitch.

Equally, it is important to gain insight from the inevitable setbacks, rather than to wallow in recrimination or to allow division to set in. That includes the relationship between players and fans, as well as what goes on in the dressing room.

Overall, given the swings and roundabouts, it seems to me that Exeter City are continuing to hold their own commendably in an unyielding segment of the Football League pyramid. As the season progresses, and as more lessons are learned, so more opportunities will be opened up for consolidation and progress in our different performance ‘departments’, from front to back and all stations in between.

Right now, it’s the team’s morale that needs a boost – and that is something the fans can help to provide. Taking a glance back over the club’s recent history there’s a huge amount to be grateful for, and even more reason to go on cheering the current red and white’s squad into 2010.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Seeking a bit of festive cheer

First published in Sons View, 19 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- Alloa Athletic - POSTPONED DUE TO A FROZEN PITCH

Ask any Dumbarton fan what they want for Christmas and it’s a fair bet that a haul of points from our next three games against Alloa Athletic, Clyde and Stenhousemuir will be high up the list – especially after the bitterly disappointing start to the Festive season at SHS last Saturday.

Sons’ performance against East Fife, which denied us the possibility of slipping into the Division Two play-off places and battered our goal difference by three, will have been thoroughly dissected in the dressing room before that tough trip to take on the high-flying Binos on Tuesday night.

I hate to say it, but it could have been worse. Over in Germany, while the Sons were being whipped by the Fifers, Hanover 96 managed to score six goals and still lose by two to Borussia Moenchengladbach. They did this by putting three into their own net. The moral for us long-suffering fans is that there’s always someone with more to moan about than you!

At this time of year, though, we’re all trying to look on the bright side. So what we need for these two home games is some loud seasonal cheering for the Mighty DFC, and a couple of Rock-like performances on the home pitch – which will hopefully hold up against the vagaries of the weather.

I’m especially keeping my fingers crossed for Alloa, as my last visit from down south was for the game against Peterhead that got called off at the last minute. Not that it was wasted. There was plenty of socialising to brighten a damp afternoon, and it was a special privilege to meet Sons goalkeeping legend Laurie Williams – a fine man, as well as a fantastic servant of the Club.

This month I’m celebrating 40 years as a Dumbarton supporter. I’ve just figured out that it’s only another eight before I get to apply for my concessionary bus pass, too… though it’ll probably be changed from 60 to 65 by the time I arrive, and it won’t quite propel me to the Rock on a routine basis unless I can wheedle a relocation to Scotland.

Quite a number of you will have a purchased Sons’ third strip this season, and there may even be a few being delivered by Santa. I recently splashed out on a Toffs ‘classic’ white + single gold-and-black hoop 1970s home shirt – also the design for the 1997-8 away strip, if I recall correctly.

It really is an attractive design. I admit that I prefer the one without advertising (sorry Ballantyne’s, I’d better be quaffing you later!), and mine has an additional feature: ‘Barrow’ and a number 9 on the back. This should enable you to spot me more easily in the Community Suite if you fancy a drink or a chat.

On reflection I could have made that number 40, I guess. But the romance of the old-fashioned centre forward is hard to resist. Actually I used to play as a centre back. Fast, not particularly skilled, but able to hassle and harry for all I was worth. Those are the kind of attributes Sons still need (plus the skill and a decent crop of goals, of course) in order to ensure a good finish to the season.

Meanwhile, my mind drifts back to the 1969-70 term. Sons finished 7th in the Second Division and Laurie Williams began his famous Sons career away to Queen of the South on 28 March – two days before my twelfth birthday. The 9 shirt for most of that season was with another legend, Kenny Jenkins, sadly recently departed.

Kenny had been a centre forward at his previous club – Alloa Athletic, as it happens – and started in that role for Sons, before switching to right back the next season. That was the position he took against Celtic in the famous replayed Scottish League Cup semi-final at Hampden in October 1970. His successor was Roy McCormack, who had stepped in for him at number 9 from mid-January until Laurie’s League debut.

That was then, this is now. Today, the Wasps are more-or-less where Dumbarton would like to be in the second division, while opening up a gulf between ourselves and those below us – including the Bully Wee and the Warriors – has got to be the seasonal priority.

Have a good Christmas, whatever you are doing, and I’m sure our thoughts will especially be with Kelly, Kai and the Lennon family at this time. It’s been a year of triumph, trial and tragedy. Good things for all in 2010, we hope.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sons bounce back

By all accounts Stirling Albion had the lion's share of the near misses last night -- but Dumbarton lead twice through Chris Craig and Derek Carcary [picture], and would have snapped all three points but for a late Binos' goal from Stewart Devine. 2-2 is a respectable result in the circumstances, and points on Saturday against Alloa would see Sons set up for a decent set of Christmas and New Year results. Hopefully. Good luck to Albion in their ownership quest, incidentally. 2,000 trust members is impressive. Given the ongoing farce at Notts County (which should also give due warning to a few at Exeter City who talk about selling out the fans' control for Championship-sized gold if a cash-rich owner came onto the horizon), Stirling Albion Supporters Trust chair Paul Goodwin is very sensible to say, according to the BBC: "The club has become disenfranchised from the community for a long, long time. We would want some boardroom recognition before we parted with any money."

Monday, 14 December 2009

How much agony for the ecstasy?

A dose of good sense from Robert Ryan on Sonsteam: "Saturday was rubbish, of course, but anyone who thought we weren't going to get a few days like that when we got promoted was surely in denial. If following Sons for nigh on 40 years has taught me anything it is that no matter the owner, no matter the manager and no matter the players, neither a good performance nor a victory is ever to be taken for granted and that is the same for any provincial club. However the corollary of that is that a defeat or bad performance is never assured either. If we finish mid-table that's progress."

Quite. Though as I observed in my response, living miles away and getting to see Dumbarton comparatively rarely, I'm in the distinctly Pythonesque position of craving any game -- even a bad one that we lose, frankly... though preferably something much better. Please. On the 19 December against Alloa, for example...? (Not forgetting the Binos tomorrow.)

Footballing loyalty, eh? It wobbles yer heart and turns yer brain to mush.

Anyway, here's a picture to sum it all up. Strathclyde Homes Stadium floodlit, but still decidedly murky -- exuding "a deep but dazzling darkness", as Henry Vaughan might have put it, if he'd have had the first clue about the Beautiful Game.

Jim takes it on the chin

Dumbarton boss Jim Chapman has been pretty forthright in deflecting the blame from his players for Saturday's extremely disappointing 3-0 home defeat, at the hands of East Fife, and taking it upon himself. There seems to be a trend among supporters in modern football that a bad result or an uninspiring run is some kind of global catastrophe that calls for desertions, resignations and shamings. Passionate though I am about the game, and the Sons, I've never shared that philosophy. As Ken Loach remarks in a recent documentary, "football is a real gym of the emotions", but not letting them carry you away is (as in life) a difficult but worthwhile art to learn. So is perspective. In this case, Sons are still in a pretty good place in the second division. A point away against Stirling Albion and a win against Alloa on Saturday (I'll be there for that one) would put a very different complexion on things. The Binos and the Wasps will both be tough, however. The games against Clyde and Stenhousemuir are probably even more important, because these teams are below us - and we definitely want to keep it that way.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Measuring football devotion

First published in Sons View, 12 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- East Fife

Have you ever spent time trying to figure out precisely how much of your life you spend contemplating the wonders and weirdness of football – most particularly the ins and outs, why and wherefores, and ups and downs of Dumbarton FC? If so, you have my sympathy. For a small consideration I can even give you the name of someone you could consult professionally over this problem.

But seriously – who says there’s anything wrong with thinking about football? Some years ago a psychologist came up with the well-broadcast (but probably not very scientific) fact that most men are supposed to think about sex every eight seconds. What that means, when you think about it (yes, I spend far too much time thinking, most of it unpaid!) is that on average one eighth of your life is spent this way, not that you are suffering from some kind of salacious mental tic that kicks in every few seconds.

Similarly, while most human beings spend roughly one-third of their lives sleeping, it doesn’t follow that all their sleep occurs in one continuous session starting at birth and ending around the age of 25. Well, OK, this seems to happen with some students… but you get my point.

Now the reason that these statistical distinctions are significant is that non-football initiated partners and friends of those devoted to the Beautiful Game, not least loved ones of those drawn inescapably to the Sons, have been known to suggest to us that we “go on about football all the time”.

It is therefore important to be able to point out to them, with a fair degree of authority, that this isn’t true. We only go on about football – oh, I don’t know, say once every nine seconds? But not literally once every nine seconds. We merely “go on about it” for periods of time that, if you divided them into any reasonable unit, would be about a ninth of our lives. Which is quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Indeed the upshot is that, actually, we spend eight-ninths of our lives as Dumbarton fans not talking or thinking about football at all! Put that way, it seems, does it not, that we are devoting massively insufficient cerebral resources to the game! Perhaps we should be dedicating even more of our aural and visual cortex to understanding things like the latest revisions in the offside rule, the reversible diamond formation, the inner workings of Jim Chapman’s tactical brain, the impact of popular Scottish breakfast foods on Dumbarton players’ match-day preparations. Or whether and how we are going to take three points off East Fife this afternoon.

Armed with such arguments, we can all now present ourselves as entirely reasonable folk who spend only a modest amount of time focussing on the game we love and the team that enthrals and torments us. But, if provoked, we might reasonably point out that we could, in fact, be spending much more time thinking about football while leaving most of our lives in tact – “so best not to mention it, dear.”

Well that’s my theory, anyway. My wife sees things differently. As we all know, there are some things in life that work OK in practice but don’t fare so well in theory. Trying to persuade your non-footballing beloved to look benignly upon your extensive football interests happens to be one of them.

But we, the DFC faithful, are not dissuaded. The fact that you are sitting in the stands at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium today, eagerly transfixed on the latest instalment of the sporting soap opera that is the Mighty Sons, proves the point. It tells your own personal story of dedication.

Or maybe you weren’t here at all, but asked a friend to pass this programme on to you afterwards. Then again, perhaps you acquired it thanks to the fine work of Sonstrust membership secretary Tommy Hughes, in his noble efforts to raise money for Dumbarton’s Youth Development Initiative on eBay.

However you came across this copy of Sons View, my point is proved. The fact that you are reading it this carefully means you are by definition a dedicated follower of football and of the Sons, and will continue to be so, I’m sure. Good on you – and enjoy the game this afternoon. Let’s hope it’s another DFC victory for us all to “go on about”.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Changing of the guard?

Good BBC opinion piece by Jim Spence on the 'old guard' in Scottish football. Inter alia, he comments: "[H]ighly intelligent managers and highly qualified fans alike face some serious opposition. They are often too sharp and too clever by half according to those who currently run the game and whose power is threatened by those inclined to a more open, democratic and accountable approach."

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Just missing out on Celtic

Brave performances at Cappielow last Saturday and the Strathclyde Homes Stadium yesterday ended in Scottish Cup disappointment for Dumbarton, as Sons missed out on an attractive fourth round home tie against Celtic by losing to first division Morton through a single headed goal from the Greenock side’s substitute Brian Graham in the last 15 minutes or so of the tie. We also went a player down a couple of minutes later, with already-booked Scott Chaplain being sent off.

From what I hear, it sounds as if DFC spent a fair bit of time on the defensive, looking for a goal on the break. But it was an encouraging Sons performance against higher league opposition (and near rivals) over the two games all told – contrasting somewhat with the pre-season humblings I witnessed against Dunfermline and Partick Thistle. The team has been strengthening and improving, and now the aim has to be as decent a finish as possible in Division Two.

The publicity and cash from a meeting with the Bhoys would have been really good though, and throughout the game I was watching down in the southwest I was pretty obsessively checking for BBC 'live score' updates and text messages on my shiny little iPhone. Pity the Beeb updates missed the ’Ton goal altogether, leaving me momentarily thinking we’d made it through the 90 minutes – until Denise Currie messaged me otherwise! I was just trying to figure whether it was extra time or another replay; or even penalties. Ah, well…

[Photo from the first game (c) and courtesy of Tommy Hughes]

Straining at the train

It was a disappointing end to an altogether damp afternoon and week for the West Country zyders yesterday. Also, for me, the last Exeter City home game in a fair while, I imagine, with proper relocation to the West Midlands now immanent. I may take the opportunity to take an occasional look at a number of sides, high and low, which are reachable from Birmingham. But my priority will be to maximise the opportunities to get up to Dumbarton when I have the time and money. It's about three or four games a season at present.

What I really need is one more Virgin train back from Glasgow to Birmingham after the current last one at 17.40 - which, frustratingly, is about 15 minutes too early to be viable for a round 'day trip'. Mad, yes - this being football. But viable. (I know, a sprint for the 16.57 from Dumbarton East would be technically possible... but it would mean missing the last minutes of the game, with no room for error. And call me a purist, but that would be a pretty high price for twelve hour round trip!)

Found wanting up front

It all started so promisingly. Having squandered quite a few chances midweek in the 1-0 away defeat against Bristol Rovers, Exeter City began yesterday’s home encounter with Brighton & Hove Albion at a lively pace. For a chunk of the first half it looked as if this was going to be a high quality encounter. But somehow things got bogged down, and once again the Grecians were found lacking up front.

As I had predicted in my programme note, Brighton play better than their lowly league status suggested they would, and after City missed a crucial penalty the Seagulls dug in and eventually found ecstatic reward for the 670 travelling support (out of a decent 5,400 crowd) with a well-taken winner two minutes into the three allocated for time added on.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Looking for a bit of glory

First published in Sons View, 05 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- Morton [Scottish Cup third round, replay]

So here we are back at Strathclyde Homes Stadium a little earlier than originally planned, following the disappointing last-minute postponement of the Peterhead league game on 21 November, and our encouraging Cup exploits at Cappielow last Saturday.

A hard-fought draw against our First Division Greenock rivals has kept Sons in the frame for the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, and this afternoon we welcome back Morton for what should be another fair old tussle.

Dumbarton ’keeper Jan Vojacek and our defenders played an important role last week, and manager Jim Chapman will be hoping that the strikers can repay their continued efforts this time.

Sons have already picked up some silverware this season, with the Stirlingshire Cup final win over Stenhousemuir ensuring another prize-winning term – but a decent Scottish Cup run has eluded us for a while, in spite of that grand day out at Celtic in 2006.

The rivalry between the two sides on display at the Rock today is long-standing, though in recent seasons it has more often been renewed in friendly games and in Cup-ties than in the Scottish Football League, given our different positions.

After a difficult start, the ’Ton have undergone something of a revival in recent weeks, with a 4-2 away win at Airdrie United keeping the North Lanarkshire side firmly rooted at the foot of the table.

That followed an impressive 5-0 victory against mid-table Raith Rovers – which puts Sons’ achievement last week in an even better light. League points and goals over the next few weeks are undoubtedly the most coveted prize for those with Dumbarton hearts, but we wouldn’t say no to a bit of Cup glory either.

Though consolidation in 2009 is what both sets of supporters are looking for, it’s hard for those of us with longer memories not to let an occasion like this cast our minds back to past achievements.

Morton fans were recently reminded of the successes of their 1979-80 side – both in the Premier League and in trophy exploits against Kilmarnock (in the League Cup) and Aberdeen (in the Scottish Cup). At a special celebratory dinner, and in his BBC column, football writer Chick Young waxed lyrical about their then star player Andy Ritchie – one that Jock Stein surprisingly let go – and manager Hal Stewart.

Back in February 1980 the now defunct ‘Soccer Monthly’ magazine declared ’Ton to be a team “to strike fear into the hearts of the Old Firm.” Since that time, however, the Cappielow side have plummeted down to the Third Division before bouncing back to the Second and now the First – something Dumbarton are hoping to emulate, though without all those intervening traumas.

In 2000, you will recall, it took a local council intervention to stop the sale of Morton’s famous ground to a supermarket chain in a development move that could well have ended the club’s proud history, which goes back to 1874 – two years after Sons came into being.

Given the growing number of small clubs in financial trouble across Britain at the moment, it’s important that proper football ambition is matched by equally hard headed business thinking at this level of the game. Everyone wants success, but based on realism not pie-in-the-sky – or ground-in-the-air.

Talking of the earth beneath us, let’s hope it’s a lot more solid today than it was at the Rock a fortnight ago. I had made my way from down south for the Peterhead game, so was disappointed that it didn’t go ahead – but at least I was well into a good lunch (as a grateful guest of the Sonstrust) before the sad news broke.

I also managed to get some good socialising in, including a long pub chat with Sons’ legendary ’keeper Lawrie Williams – who had come up for the game from Cardiff with a friend. Among other things he was recalling team-mate Kenny Jenkins, also part of that fantastic 1971-2 Second Division Championship winning side, who sadly died earlier this month, and who will be remembered fondly again today.

But back to this afternoon’s proceedings. There are two reasons why we all want to see another solid Dumbarton display against Morton. One is the chance to extend our run in the Cup, but the other is to add further confidence to the side for the tough Winter period of our all-important League campaign. ’Mon Sons!

Hoping for a brighter future

First published in The Grecian, 05 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Brighton & Hove Albion

Today will be the second time I’ve seen Brighton and Hove Albion this season. Back in October I watched them play a spirited game at Leyton Orient, losing to a last minute goal from Adrian Patulea. A week or so before that, the Seagulls had achieved a 1-1 away draw in League One away to Bristol Rovers. Unfortunately this Tuesday night the Grecians couldn’t quite get that all-important equaliser at the Memorial Stadium. But we live to tackle another day.

Actually, there’s another Bristol connection which has become rather well known in Brighton’s history. Back in 1973, when iconoclastic manager Brian Clough briefly went down to the south coast between his sudden departure from Derby County and his apocalyptic arrival at Leeds United, he oversaw two dramatic Seagulls defeats. One was 4-0 against non-league Walton and Hersham in an FA Cup replay, the other an 8-2 televised pasting against the Rovers – shared in the dugout with sons Simon and Nigel (now of Burton and Derby fame).

This afternoon Exeter City and Brighton and Hove Albion meet each other on the back of mixed fortunes in League One and in the Cup. Up until that reversal against Bristol Rovers, the Grecians had not lost in five league outings, while the Seagulls have struggled – most recently with heavy defeats away at Norwich (4-1) and home against the aforementioned Leeds (3-0). But in the FA Cup they secured consecutive victories over Wycombe (2-0) and, last weekend, Rushden and Diamonds (3-2)… while City were crashing out 4-3 at Milton Keynes Dons, having led 3-1.

For different reasons, then, both sides will be eager to get back on track. Exeter’s home form makes them favourites with the bookies, but Paul Tisdale and the boys will not be taking anything for granted. The Seagulls may be struggling for points this season, but they have still managed to play some attractive football.

My own connection with Albion has been a curious one. I lived in Brighton for five years from 1999, two years after they nearly slipped out of the Football League altogether (a second half equaliser in a crucial final game sent Hereford down to the Conference instead) and around the time when their ground chaos was at its height. They remain one of the few ‘local sides’ I have lived near but not followed on a regular basis. This is partly to do with the goings on during that era.

A discredited old regime had sold the Goldstone Ground in Hove to developers without securing a viable alternative home, and in 1997 a ground share with Gillingham (round trip, 150 miles!) had to be arranged before a still less-than-satisfactory interim solution was arrived at in the shape of their temporary home at Withdean Stadium.

During that period, ’Gulls fans showed terrific determination to survive, and indeed Brighton thrived on the pitch with two back-to-back championships in 2001-2 (their centenary year, under Micky Adams) and 2002-3, before slipping back again to League One in 2005-6.

Then a huge planning battle took place over the site of a new stadium at Falmer, not far from the University of Sussex, one of the places where I studied in the late ’70s. After rejections, a final granting of permission and further delays, it now looks as if the project Brighton fans have been longing for will be completed in 2011… though no-one is holding their breath.

Few groups of supporters have fought harder to secure the future of their club, including the formation of a ‘Fans United’ network, petitioning the government and local council, and organising demonstrations across the country. I wish them all the very best for the future. In honesty, though, in spite of my longstanding football loyalism, I was one of those who thought the Falmer site was wrong on both civic and environmental grounds, and I still do. It would have seemed hypocritical as well as awkward to watch them when that was my genuine (and deeply unpopular) view.

However, that is now n the past, the new stadium is on its way, and Brighton and Hove Albion are rightly looking to secure a brighter future (that’s where the city gets its name from, after all!) after years of turmoil. Whatever the disagreements, they deserve it.

Today however, I’ll be looking to my more recent ‘locals’, Exeter City, to resume their good form and secure a result that pushes them that bit closer to safety – and better, we hope – in League One. So I hope the Seagulls flourish and that their supporters enjoy a good day out in the West Country. Not too good, mind!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Controversy, technology and fair play

First published in The Grecian, 24 November 2009, Exeter City -v- Millwall

Love them or loathe them (and today’s opponents attract strong emotions of both kinds!) welcoming Millwall to St James’ Park tonight is the nearest to a guarantee of a tough, competitive game as you could possibly get – in this or any other division.

One of the few lower division sides to have made an appearance in top-level European competition, thanks to an FA Cup final appearance a few years ago, the Lions’ 2004 UEFA Cup dream ended disappointingly against Ferencvaros, losing 4-2 on aggregate in Budapest.

At that time Millwall were in the Championship and seeking to recapture some of their past football glory, which has sadly been mired in an altogether less desirable reputation based on the unseemly behaviour of some who have attached themselves to the south-east London side.

Now they are one of several illustrious teams seeking an escape route from League One, and they sit just on the edge of the play-off zone in seventh place. This means Millwall will be determined to take more points off Exeter City this evening, just as the Grecians will be keen to build on the good results and performances of the past few weeks.

Among the Lions’ achievements already this term is a 2-1 victory over title favourites Leeds United: a real declaration of intent for their continuing 2009-10 campaign. That said, Brentford, who we beat at home recently, managed a 2-2 draw with them, and City will be trying their best to go one better.

Though for a brief time I used to live on the edge of Bermondsey, I cannot recall ever making it to a game at the Den, or to Millwall’s new ground. But you certainly used to hear a lot about them in the area! The word ‘controversy’ has rarely been absent in their recent history.

In the 24/7 media environment, what happens in the span of 90 minutes is only a fraction of the time the modern game occupies in the public consciousness. Indeed, a millisecond of action on the pitch can produce hours or even days of coverage.

That is definitely the case with Thierry Henry’s blatant handball last week, which saw the Republic of Ireland undeservedly denied the opportunity of penalties against France for the possibility of a place in the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa.

Usually “the luck of the Irish” is something you would happily wish upon your favoured side, but there will not be many Exeter City supporters craving it right now after what transpired on Thursday night.

By the time you read this, FIFA will presumably have had a chance to respond to all the fuss, but no one is predicting especially bold action.

Just as it is unfair to judge Millwall entirely on the behaviour of a minority of their fans, it would be very sad indeed if the skill, ingenuity and inspiration demonstrated by Thierry Henry over the years was to be besmirched by just one mad moment. It is therefore in his interest, as well as the game’s, that he is suitably punished. My own view is that he should be banned from the group stage of the World Cup.

Regrettable as it is in the circumstances, I can see why the world footballing authorities would not accede to a replay request based on a refereeing error. That would very likely open the (legal) floodgates.

But where a misdemeanour of this seriousness has been clearly identified by the cameras, strong post-match redress is essential if the genuine attempts to re-instil fair play at every level of the game are going to be taken seriously.

What the France-Ireland incident also illustrates is that the to-and-fro debate about the use of technology in the top echelons of the game is out of touch with reality. The issue is not whether technology should play a role in sorting out on-field misdemeanours and controversial decisions – it is already playing a role. The real question is how to respond to that fact.

Even if FIFA continues to insist that regulating matches should remain firmly in the domain of officials for the 90 minutes (to avoid extensive disruptions, and out of regard for the evenness of the game at all levels, low to high), the truth is that they cannot – and do not – ignore television evidence afterwards.

If players knew that there would be really serious consequences for being caught out ‘after the fact’, not just a quick ban, fine or proverbial rap around the knuckles, it would hopefully contribute to more discretion and honesty on-field.

That’s certainly what we all want to see in Exeter this evening, together with another positive outcome for the Grecians and en enjoyable night for both sets of fans.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Summoning up some good fortune

First published in Sons View, 21 November 2009, Dumbarton -v- Peterhead [Match postponed and to be rescheduled]

The man sitting behind me at the match a few weeks ago sounded more than a little exasperated. As another goal went in against his team, he suddenly exclaimed: “Sheesh… Every time I tell myself I’m not at all superstitious, something seems to go wrong!”

We all laughed. But I know how he feels. It’s patently ridiculous to suppose that the incidentals of your life and thought have any effect on your football club’s fortunes, but even the least spooky among us end up entertaining these slightly deranged notions from time-to-time!

In a weird way, therefore, a bit of me (the bit that’s had one too many gulps of Dutch courage, maybe!) thinks that there could be an upside to Sons’ otherwise disappointing outing at Cowdenbeath last Saturday. Namely, there’s no growing ‘unbeaten record’ for us all to get anxious about losing against Peterhead this afternoon. Instead, it’s a case of picking up momentum again in front of the home support.

Each Saturday I eagerly wait for news of how the Sons are getting on, knowing that the rest of the weekend is liable to be just that bit brighter or gloomier depending upon how things turned out in the all important 90 minutes. Sad, isn’t? But that’s what being a fan is all about.

Today I care just that wee bit more than usual, because I’m in the stand here at SHS myself. A work-related trip to Newcastle on Friday has happily given me the chance to make another visit from deep down south to the lush pastures of the Rock.

Now I don’t wish to sound, well, superstitious… but last season I inadvertently did rather well at picking out for personal attendance the odd few games when Dumbarton’s championship form was being most sorely tested. I also came up for the pre-season friendlies against Partick Thistle and St Mirren, when we shipped five goals and got none.

But before you decide to bar me from the ground altogether, I should point out in my defence that I was also present (and cheering like mad) at those historic matches against Elgin and Annan when the Sons triumphantly claimed the Third Division title and scored a hatful into the bargain.

Besides, as we’ve established, there’s absolutely no connection between the match you are about to witness and whether someone brought their ‘lucky bobble hat’ along with them, or whether they remembered to give the cat an extra spoonful of food before setting out for the game. It just feels like there might be!

According to some recent research, there has been an overall decline in superstitious rituals and match-related beliefs among professional footballers over the last 25 years. Unsurprisingly, this has accompanied the increasing use of proper sports psychology in the dressing room and on the training field.

Unlike the lurking suspicion that my attendance may make things worse, this correlation makes perfect sense. It’s been long established that what human beings think will or will not happen does indeed play a role in what actually happens, because appropriate levels of confidence (not too much, not too little) play a massive part in sporting achievement, alongside technical skill, tactics, team awareness and the rest of it.

Similarly, though crowds can’t win games on their own, they can encourage or dissuade players at critical moments on the pitch – though a way of accurately measuring, quantifying and applying all of that has not yet been found.

If and when it is, and ‘crowd-zone’ computer stats are studied as eagerly as ‘pro-zone’ ones by those who can afford them, you can expect stewards to be given the unenviable task of muzzling some negative mega-mouth three rows in front of you, because he or she (most likely he) has just been calculated to have played an 0.0027 per cent role in your centre forward’s hopeless miss last week – rather than because, say, his creative choice of expletives has caused a delicate descendant of the Anglo-Saxons to blush.

Hmmnn… Nope, I don’t think it’s going to happen either. And if it did, it wouldn’t change that much. Football is and always will be about human foibles, both on and off the pitch. If goal-line technology is finally introduced into the upper echelons of the game, it won’t stop managers and officials arguing. It’ll just give them something else to argue about.

As for today’s game against the Blue Toon. Well, let’s hope that any luck going spare heads in the Sons’ direction. Three points please, lads!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Irish eyes... not exactly smiling

What the Sun newspaper has dubbed 'The Hand of Frog' incident looks set to rumble on. Thierry Henry gave a pretty fulsome apology for the double-handball that, unsighted by the match officials, unjustly sent France through to the 2010 World Cup Finals this week, at the expense of the Republic of Ireland. I was watching the game in my local pub, and unsurprisingly everyone was pretty appalled. Only the bitter and twisted Roy Keane seems to have written the episode off as unworthy of concern.

Both Henry and his former manager and fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger agree that a replay would be appropriate. FIFA are unlikely to relent on this, having made it clear by deciding to seed the playoffs (something they had not previously announced) that they want to see the biggest sides qualify for South Africa in order to fill their coffers and those of their sponsors. In this context, talk of "fair play" is a hollow sham.

Actually, there is a precedent here. Uzbekistan and Bahrain replayed a World Cup qualifier with FIFA sanction in 2005, after the referee encroached into the area when the Uzbeks had a first half penalty, and then gave a free kick to Bahrain. The difference is that the Henry incident concerns a wrong decision by an official, and the team who might be detrimentally effected are one of the 'big boys'. In football as in life, there's one law for the rich and one for the minnows.

Meanwhile, my admiration for Henry as a player remains undimmed. But his claim that his deliberate handball was 'instinct' and that it is up to the referee to see it not him to come clean at the time will not wash. Again, I doubt that he will receive more than a two- or three-match ban and a censure. By rights he should be barred from the group stage of the World Cup finals. A just punishment would be in his interests to, as this incident should not besmirch an otherwise deserved reputation for beautiful football and fairness.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Thanks for the memories

First published in Sons View, 14 November 2009, for a special memorial match for Gordon Lennon.

“In this obsolescent society in which we live, age and tradition are to be dearly cherished”, writes Jim McAllister in his fine one volume history of Dumbarton FC. How right he is. And here is another significant day in the life of our small but distinguished Club. We are taking time out from our league schedule, and from the many activities involved in sustaining a modern football team, in order to remember with gratitude and pride the contribution of Gordon Lennon – who will go down in the annals as a Sons legend.

Memories are inevitably a blend of the happy and the sad, the joyful and the poignant. Today is a powerful example of that, but with the emphasis firmly on celebration – which is what Guido himself, full of life, would have wanted. Over the past weeks many words have been spoken and more than a few tears shed over the way Sons’ captain for the showcase 2008-9 season was tragically taken from us. For those closest him, there remains a gap that can never be filled.

But this gap is not a void. Far from it. As time moves on, so do our recollections. This afternoon’s game may be a memorial, but it is a forward-looking one, dedicated to the energy that animated Gordon and made him a special person, as well as a committed footballer. It is also a chance to recall the happiness he brought to us, not least on the field.

Much of what Guido embodied, and how he deserves to be remembered, is summed up in the picture that adorns the cover of Sons View this term. It captures his moment of sheer, unalloyed joy in lifting the Scottish Football League Third Division Championship trophy in front of 1,343 people at Annan Athletic on 9 May 2009.

Like many of you, I was there. That day will stay with those who made the trip for the rest of our lives. Indeed, it was a week of euphoria, with the extraordinary six-goal victory over Elgin at the Rock the Saturday before all but ensuring a title-winning day on the borders. As someone commented, it was theoretically possible for Sons to lose a 17-goal advantage in 90 minutes, but the outcome would have been one of the biggest legal investigations in Scottish football history!

That trip to Annan was therefore made in expectation, not just hope, and Gordon Lennon’s delight, shared generously with fans young and old as the celebrations spread onto the pitch at the end of a fitting 3-1 victory, was a key part of what made the afternoon, and the man himself, irreplaceable.

Of course it would not have been possible without the equal generosity of Annan Athletic, who enabled our party rather than spoiling it (as happens in the meaner rivalries of football). Similarly, for today, the Dumbarton Champions Select comprising players who won the third division championship are giving of their time and effort along with a Gordon Lennon Select made up of players Guido knew and worked with at other clubs like Harmony Row, Albion Rovers, Stenhousemuir and Partick Thistle.

In moments like this, human solidarity is seen to be the essence of this beautiful game of ours. There’s fierce competition in football, to be sure. But that would not be fulfilling if it wasn’t for the other side of the pitch – the one where ‘sport’ means not just athletic and technical prowess, but also the capacity to grow as people.

Liverpool managerial legend Bill Shankly, as proud a Scot as you will find, is widely credited with having once said on a TV show that “football isn’t a matter of life and death… it’s more important than that.” Those were not his actual words, and he tried on several occasions to set the record straight – because he understood, as do all who remember Gordon Lennon, that they are not true.

Nevertheless, football can and does reflect for us what is wonderful about life, as well as what is most difficult about it. And what is wonderful is that it brings us together and gives us a glimpse of something extraordinary in the midst of the mundane.

That’s what remembrance does, too. To re-member well is to experience a ‘joining together’ across the normal boundaries that separate us; to generate a spirit that goes beyond what divides, and instead enables us to overcome enmity.

Gordon Lennon was ‘just a man’ and football is ‘just a game’. But what a man, what a game… and what a Club!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Knowing where you're going

First published in Sons View, 02 February 2008, Dumbarton -v- Elgin

Dumbarton supporters are a pretty well travelled lot. Well, the ones I know are. Judging from the reports in Sons View’s regular ‘Fan of the Week’ slot, there’s a fair degree of mileage involved in being a really dedicated follower of the Mighty DFC. Ross County’s ground is one of those more often mentioned as an exception to the ‘been there, seen that’ rule, I note – but certainly not Glebe Park, home of this afternoon’s opponents, Brechin City.

My own geographical distance from Dumbarton (getting on for 400 miles), and the fact that I’ve mastered neither time travel nor great wealth in my 51 years on this planet, means that I get to far fewer games in Scotland than I’d like to – and when I am here naturally the priority is a trip to the Rock, or in a previous era good old Boghead.

On a rough estimate, I reckon I’ve notched up visits to about a dozen of the 40 other senior grounds north of the border, and quite a few more in England, obviously. The last time I made it to Brechin was over twenty years ago. It was a journey by coach on 17 September 1988.

I can’t quite recall where that trip started out, but it took a couple of hours and my then girlfriend wasn’t too impressed to discover that we had a nice long walk to the ground from our dropping off point. But it was a holiday, and a brisk hike on a sunny day is all part of the deal, right? Well, yes. Though it helps if you get there in time for a relaxing meal and a drink beforehand. The hospitality in Brechin is fine and I have some affection for the ground, but veggie-friendly pies were not on the menu that day so we had to make do with tea and a leftover half packet of peanuts that had been festering in my pocket!

The match itself ended in a 1-1 draw and I was quite satisfied. To date that season, Sons had won only one of their first six games (they lost the others), and if they had been mauled in Angus I would have been in even more trouble from my companion! The omens were not great. Bertie Auld had just been sacked as Dumbarton boss and morale was low. But a determined if not inspired performance against Brechin earned us a point, with 23-year-old striker Benny Rooney getting the goal.

That season was a tough one for us in the Second Division. Dumbarton finished 12th but, crucially, stayed up. Having lost to the Hedgemen in December that year, Sons finally claimed revenge at Boghead in April 1989 with a 1-0 victory.

Today we receive the players, staff and fans of Brechin to the Strathclyde Homes Stadium with a good deal more confidence than we displayed during our last outing to Glebe Park on 29 August, when a 3-1 defeat was watched by just 470 spectators.

Sons’ win against Arbroath at the Rock last Saturday has finally “got the monkey off our back”, as Jim Chapman likes to put it. Indeed, with three away victories on the trot, plus the Stirlingshire Cup triumph, Dumbarton haven’t lost a match on their travels since that reversal in Angus.

The aim today is to put that right and to start to make the Rock the kind of football fortress that its name and neighbouring Castle suggests it should be. This isn’t going to be easy. Brechin lie in second place in the division, with a perfect home record. However they have lost four out of six games away so far, indicating a certain brittleness in the travel department. The upshot is that both sides are vying for continuous improvement.

Sons then have to get on the bus themselves for the next two games against Stenhousemuir and Cowdenbeath, the rivals we beat to the Third Division Championship last term. A couple of wins before we next face the Binos on 5 December could mean that we will find ourselves in the play-off zone rather than worrying about the drop.

But such notions can be deceptive. In a division with only ten members there is barely anything called ‘mid-table respectability’. If you are not at the summit you are always either on the brink or on the ledge, so it’s best to focus on the immediate challenges than to speculate about where they might leave you. One thing is certain: points and goals all tally up and push us in the right direction.

Football can never be captured by celebrity

First published in The Grecian, 31 October 2008, Exeter City -v- Brentford

Exeter City and Brentford both come to this afternoon’s match needing a good result to help take them out of the lower reaches of the League One table. If last season’s encounters are anything to go by, supporters of the two sides can expect a competitive and absorbing game.

While the Grecians were securing a last gasp draw at St James Park to basement team Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday, the Bees were claiming a 2-0 home victory over Stockport County (who have exactly the same number of points and precisely the same goal difference as City) thanks to goals from Charlie MacDonald and Myles Weston.

Brentford’s two previous outings have resulted in a defeat at Leyton Orient and a goalless draw hosting Hartlepool. The upshot is that the two sides are now separated by just four places, three points and seven goals. This division continues to be very tight indeed.

At the end of this season, I remain pretty confident that both teams will be safe. They have good players and a positive attitude, though their respective qualities are being tested robustly by football in a higher division. So there’s much hard work to do before either can breathe easily.

Neither the Grecians nor the Bees could be described as ‘fashionable clubs’ these days, but both have had their curious brushes with fame and celebrity. Exeter fans will probably look back rather ruefully on that extraordinary day when a certain illusionist produced now departed music superstar Michael Jackson to parade around the pitch. But whether you blinked or not, it happened.

Similarly, Brentford supporters will have been puzzled when it was rumoured that they had come to the attention of a number of Hollywood stars a few years ago. I’m not sure that they can match ‘the King of Pop’, but for a number of years rock keyboard legend Rick Wakeman was known to be a keen Brentford follower.

I happen to know that there’s even a dedication to the Bees on the inside cover of the 1977 Yes album ‘Going for the One’ – an obscure fact which might come in useful for pub quiz question hunters, if nothing else!

These days Rick’s affections seem to have migrated to Manchester City, following a mysterious falling out with his old Brentford pals. Fandom can be as movable a feast as marriage in the celeb world, but the constancy of the bedrock support at both Griffin Park and St James’ is something that will undoubtedly weather both time and fashion.

When the fixtures for this season were announced, this was one I marked with a big red pen in my diary. As a child I lived a decent stone’s throw away from Brentford, and my late paternal grandfather was a long-term supporter. Indeed it was a trip to Griffin Park with him at the age of nine that really confirmed me in my love of all things football.

That said, the schedule has not been kind to me as far as Grecians versus Bees tussles are concerned. I missed both matches last season, and this week pressing work and domestic commitments mean that I will be on my way from London to Birmingham as you settle into your seat or take your place on the Big Bank.

Would I have had divided loyalties? Not really. I want Exeter to grab those points, though I wish both clubs well overall and find myself keeping my grandfather’s memory alive through a watchful eye on what the Bees are up to.

Similarly, I found time a few weeks ago to go and watch my namesakes Barrow in action away against Crawley Town in Exeter’s old stomping ground, the Conference. They snatched a 1-0 win, haven’t lost since, and are making an impressive fist of securing their place in the Blue Square Premier for a second season.

The year the Grecians won promotion back to the League I made the away trip to Broadfield Stadium on a freezing midweek evening to watch a 2-2 draw along with 841 other people who had decided to abandon the Champions League on the telly in order to experience ‘real football’.

There certainly weren’t many celebrity fans to the inch in Crawley that evening, and after Exeter’s triumph in the Wembley play-off final I never particularly imagined myself heading back to Broadfield again. But then I found myself less than an hour away with a chance to catch the Bluebirds, and couldn’t resist.

That’s football for you. Quite apart from the loyalties we develop, there’s a breadth, passion and interest to the game that makes for unexpected treasures. You never quite know when something special is going to happen. Let’s hope it’s today.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Life's a beach, then United fry

So Liverpool managed to win 2-0 in spite of my backing. And a gritty game it was, too. Mind you, at the beginning of the second half I commented to some fellow pub watchers that if I'd wagered on this one it would have been for a nil-nil draw. As Fernando Torres struck, magnificently, I thought to myself: "That's why I don't bet!"

The pre-match festivities saw the Anfield pitch festooned with balloons and beach balls -- from the Kop end. Manchester United fans had threatened to bring the offending items to celebrate Sunderland's extraordinary goal-that-shouldn't-have been last week. But Liverpool said they'd search away supporters before they entered the ground. So instead they satisfied themselves with Eric Cantona masks to settle a much bigger score. Weird old game, football.

As well as taking three points this afternoon, Liverpool have now struck lucky in selling out those £10 'beach sets' from the club shop. Just when the winter is about to set in. I think it's called 'having the last laugh'.

Right, I'm off to watch Ken Loach's 'Looking for Eric' on DVD, while my friend Kevin Scully texts me from West Ham, who were pulling back from an early pasting from stylish Arsenal last I heard. Then it's back to some work.

I've been gently chided by Kenny Macaulay, Dumbarton's inimitably colourful (Partick Thistle supporting!) 'Piscie priest for not heralding Sons' glorious first home win at the Rock yesterday yet. Don't worry, Kenny, a full update will follow. And a bit about Gambia, too. See you in the First Division next season, eh?

Battle of the Reds

I'll be backing Liverpool over Manchester United in the much-touted 'battle of the Reds' this afternoon -- though as a young kid, like many others, I had my flirtation with post Busby-babes United... not least on account of my boyhood football hero, Denis Law. It's hardly an insight to note that the game has changed out of all recognition since then, and what was once a clash of sporting titans is now as much a confrontation between corporate giants, their brands and their ridiculously paid on-field representatives. Without wishing to be backward looking or overly sentimental, this is a great pity. Money has both regenerated and compromised the modern game beyond all calculation. But I confess that it is sheer romance that keeps me on the side of Liverpool: the spirit of Shankly, the Merseybeat, Hillsborough, 'You'll Never Walk Alone', and so on. Plus several good people I know have them as their EPL team, including friends at Dumbarton - who happily stole my heart from MUFC back in '69.

Today is in certain respects a trial of Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez, too. If there are question marks against him, many of them reside in his questionable purchasing decisions under the £10 million mark (an observation that is bound to make us 'lower league' fans laugh out loud!) Rafa's a private, somewhat distant man, and is subject to the occasional fits of pique and arrogance that seem to go with the ego territory needed to sustain a club at the more stratospheric levels of football. But he also appears to have genuinely imbibed 'the Liverpool spirit' and he has rebuffed various financially loaded attempts to lure him to Spain. Loyalty of any kind is a rare commodity in the game these days. I hope it wins out, both ways. Meanwhile, here's Liverpool Kop offering some "critical realism" on developments on Merseyside.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The power of three

First published in Sons View, 23 October 2009, Dumbarton -v- Arbroath

It’s now three games since the Sons last made a match day appearance at the Rock, and boy don’t we feel better! Three wins in a row - including lifting the Stirlingshire Cup against Stenhousemuir – has provided a tremendous boost after a very difficult start to the season. It would be foolish to say that all is now well. You can never stand still in modern football. But at last we’re heading in the right direction.

After last week’s convincing 3-1 victory against Alloa Athletic (who had beaten us by the same score on 8 August), I found myself thinking further about the provenance of the number three for the Sons this season. Apart from the stats I’ve already mentioned, seven of our league matches this term have involved one or other of the teams scoring three goals. Only three haven’t. We’ve also recorded victories on each of the last three away trips.

What would be good now would be three home wins in a row to rectify the displeasing ‘zero’ on that front, starting this afternoon against Arbroath – who also beat us 3-1 at Gayfield back in August, you will recall. Obviously that means we owe the Red Lichties three back, starting as soon as possible after 3pm today. By my reckoning we also have a quartet of players who are on the threshold of notching up their first three goals this season, and naturally we await the first Dumbarton hat-trick. I suppose that should have come on the third Saturday in October rather than the fourth, but you can’t have it all.

Not everything about this three lark ends up going your way, you will have noticed. We’ve lost three games at home so far, for example. That said, there’s always a compensating factor. Like being only three points short of the trio of play-off places, for example – and not finding ourselves wholly fixated on the other end of the table. We are also grouped with three other teams on 11 points.

Thinking in threes can start to warp your mind in other ways, too. When I was retuning the radio last week I winced as I found myself accidentally listening to a track from a less-than-stellar album called ‘The Power of Three’, put out a few years ago by a reformed version of the old prog rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer (known to their detractors as ‘cumbersome, fake and trauma’), featuring Cozy Powell on drums. I’m not sure that it lasted three minutes before I made it to the off button! Just in case I’ve offended someone in this regard, I should mention that one of ELP’s best efforts is called… yup, ‘Trilogy’.

Right, back to the action this afternoon. Our opponents from Tayside will share with Sons a desire to put further points and goals in the bank and navigate towards a more secure position in the Second Division, which is proving very tight at the moment. Apart from leaders Stirling Albion, who are five points clear, and Brechin and Cowdenbeath, who are chasing hard, the other seven teams in the league are all covered by just four points. So a couple of matches can make a big difference, as we have already seen over the past fortnight.

After ten years rising up to the First Division and then sinking back to the Third (they sank to the basement in 2005 after being beaten by Dumbarton – yes, you guessed it, 3-0), the Red Lichties consolidated themselves in seventh place in the Second Division last year. They won promotion to this level the season before the Sons, while we were busily trying to avoid the wooden spoon.

Arbroath now come to the Strathclyde Homes Season on the back of a 1-0 defeat to the Blue Brazil, who they beat in the first stage of the 2007-8 play-offs, as it happens. Like Dumbarton, their fragile form this season means that they have been better on the road than performing on home turf. Apart from the hard-fought 2-2 draw against the Binos on 10 October, the Lichties have endured eight defeats in their last nine outings, so they will be very keen indeed to try to reverse their poor form. It should be a strongly contested game.

OK, I’ll see some of you on the third Saturday in November, when Peterhead visit us and I’m next able make a trek up to SHS from The Far Post.