Thursday, 26 February 2009

Whoops... they did it again!

Does someone subbing for the Guardian (yes, it does happen!) harbour a secret love for Dumbarton? By some strange synchronicity, just after Sons View published my article mentioning their unfortunately false report that we had beaten Ross County in the Scottish Cup last year, I picked up the sports section for 23 February... and, lo and behold, the following result appeared: Dumbarton 1 Cowdenbeath 0. Regrettably the Blue Brazil had equalized around 32 hours before that was published, so the mighty DFC's title chase has probably been squashed. Still, though 10 points adrift of the leaders, we are very much in contention for the play-offs. And there's a game in hand... and football is all about sanguine optimism. Or possibly misreported dreams.

Tacky truck tricks

Last night I faced a difficult choice. Nip down to the pub for the Real Madrid versus Liverpool game (meaning my busy writing schedule would be interrupted) or continue working away with Middlesborough versus West Ham on in the background (thus having to endure ITV... the bane of the telly football fan's life).

This kind of dilemma is forced upon me by virtue of a household decision that having a crappy non-digital TV with an indoor aerial and nothing but terrestrial channels amounts to brave defiance of The Great God Tellyaddict. In reality it just means watching stuff you don't really want to see because you can't watch the stuff you do. IMHO. Anyway, I opted for the absorbing Euro-encounter via Sky (don't think this means I like you, either, Rupert Murdoch!) rather than an ITV shambles in an electrical snow storm.

There are thousands of reasons to hate ITV's football coverage. The recent technical glitches don't even begin to touch it. My greatest complaint is that after the climax of some emotionally intense game you won't get a chance to wind down naturally with a bit of banal punditry or the post-match interviews. You will be switched straight to some bloody insurance advert and completely 'lose the moment'.

That said, if ever I am feeling a sporting low coming on, I can always cheer myself up by recalling the iconic badness of the 'Tactics Truck'. This was the short period of insanity where ITV thought it would be a good idea to park a glorified transit van outside the ground of the game they were covering, fill it with dodgy equipment displaying pointless graphics, and make poor Andy Townsend wear his best "I know this makes me look a complete plonker, but I'm trying my best, OK?" expression.

In short, move over The Office. The Tactics Truck was the true precursor to, and inspiration for, the new comedy of embarrassment. When this gloriously dreadful feature went belly up, they replaced it with a couple of pundits (poor old Andy again, plus teflon Ally McCoist) lurking on the touchline with clipboards. This made them look like illicit reporters from a non-award winning student newspaper. Since then, of course, things have only gone downhill.... but oh, such joyful memories!

[Photo (c) and courtesy of the Tactics Truck blog, which sadly seems to have gone out to grass lately]

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Following the paper trail

First published in Sons View, 21 February 2009, Dumbarton -v- Cowdenbeath

When I started to follow the Sons nearly 40 years ago, communications operated more at the speed of pigeon post than a lightning fast Internet connection. Well, with hindsight. At the time it seemed fairly normal. Basically, if you missed the results service on the telly, you had to listen out for the radio (with no online ‘listen again’ facility). Either that, or it meant waiting for confirmation in the papers the next day.

What made me think about that was picking up a copy of the Guardian the day after Dumbarton’s Scottish Cup replay exit to Ross County at the end of last year. According to the Grauniad (as old school sub-editors still lovingly know it), the Sons won 2-0! If only. I have kept the cutting for posterity.

Years ago a mistake of this kind could have seriously scuppered me. I might well have taken a day off college and embarked on an exhausting and expensive round of celebrations… before discovering the terrible truth. These days, I have no such excuse. The BBC and other news outlets keep me up-to-date before, during and after the match. Friends fill in details by text. And the official DFC website has a match report and pictures available within 24 hours. Lucky, or what?

The problem now is a different one. Information addiction. Apparently, one enterprising soul is contemplating putting up Pro-Zone style statistics for every professional team and player on a website which would be available to any fan by subscription or a pop-up advertising deal.

Now I’d like instantly to say “no way” to the suggestion that I might start mainlining fitba facts to that degree… but I notice a slight hesitation before my inevitable denial. After all, being a football fan is essentially an affliction, and many would argue that being a Dumbarton fan is an extreme variant of this. So in principle, nothing can be ruled out in the “feeding the habit” department.

Much the same can be said about football programme collecting, of course. When I started writing this column, a Sonstrust luminary who will remain anonymous (at least until the drinks have been bought down the Counting House next time) urged me not to tackle this topic.

Or more precisely, he she or it (I’m giving no clues) said: “At least it’ll stop Robbo from going on about programmes.” How touchingly naïve! Is it really likely that a writer interested in penning some regular thoughts for the august Sons View would not have a large collection of paper merchandise on his beloved club?

By really serious Sons fan standards, my collection is probably rather modest – around half of the home programmes issued since the first one in 1968 (a friendly against Tranmere Rovers which we drew 2-2, as I’m sure you know), plus around 200 ‘aways’. Mind you, it’s been growing in leaps and bounds lately. When my wife looks disapproving about this, I plead “research needs”. If that doesn’t work, I suppose I could always try “diminished responsibility”. She’s a lawyer, after all.

Just before Christmas, I added one new treasure to my collection which I had been aspiring to own for years – the 6 August 1988 Centenary Challenge Match programme versus West Bromwich Albion. This was the day when ‘Big Ron Atkinson finally sat on the bench at Boghead. The encounter commemorated the ‘Championship of the World’ match won by Renton FC in May 1888, and also the fact that both West Brom and Dumbarton had won their respective national Cup competitions in that decade, in the Sons’ case 1882-3.

Sons did the business 21 years ago too, triumphing in the celebratory friendly. I should have mentioned that back in August last year, had I been paying proper attention to our glorious historical inheritance. So that’s my excuse for shoehorning it in now.

As for ‘one that got away’ in 2008, I’d have to cite an away programme: Dumbarton’s visit to now extinct Third Lanark on 3 December 1955 in the old ‘B’ Division. We lost 1-0 but at least finished 4th in the League. That particular ‘memory’ (two and a half years before I was born!) would have cost me over £26, incidentally.

All of which leads me to remind you to keep buying programmes and memorabilia from Tommy Hughes on eBay (his tag is dfc1872), since proceeds go to the Club’s important youth development work.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Ace from Hearts?

Young 21-year-old striker Denis McLaughlin has been signed by Dumbarton on loan from SPL-ers Hearts until the end of the season. He arrives in time to turn out against Third Division League leaders Cowdenbeath at the Rock tomorrow. He was loaned to Berwick Rangers for the first half of the 2006-07 season to gain experience, but rejected the chance of extending his stay at Shielfield in January 2007, instead choosing to move to Raith Rovers, again on loan. McLaughlin then joined Spanish club Gimnástica de Torrelavega on a 6-month deal in August 2007. He scored nine times in 15 appearances in 2007-8 (mostly coming on as a substitute), and he turned out against the Sons with Berwick. Hopefully he will find his level and his mettle at SHS and help us to keep up pressure for the top spot. Boss Jim Chapman was quoted earlier in February as saying: “Denis will bring mobility and strength to the squad, and he’s somebody who knows where the back of the net is.” Back in 2006 a Hearts observer commented about the wee front man: "There's no doubting he's got talent and [was] a stand out at under-19 level."

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Time for a break?

Some weeks ago, before the freeze set in, I raised the spectre of a winter break in my Sons View column. It's also been a discussion topic on the Sonsteam Yahoo group. Interesting to see, then, that Dumbarton assistant manager Alan Adamson backs the idea, after another postponement at the weekend. Andy Galloway, writing in The Lennox Herald, reports that Alan feels the time has come for a mid-season break after dire conditions in recent matches against Cowdenbeath and Stenhousemuir and postponements against Elgin and Forfar.

He said: “In our game at Central Park it was a meeting of, in my view, the two best footballing sides in the division. In the end it came down to who could kick the ball hardest in the wind and rain. Then it was similar against Stenny the next week, although we won that one. We like to get the ball down and play but you’ve got to give yourself a chance to do that. I would rather be playing twice a week during March and April, rather than playing in the weather we played those two games in."

The postponed fixtures have now been re-arranged (none at a time that would enable me to get two games in over a few days, unfortunately) and gaffer Jim Chapman has issued a call on the players to show what their made of against the league leaders at the Rock this coming Saturday. Hopefully the new Sonstrust backed director will be unveiled, too.

Picture (c) Down the Wing. Sons' celebrate a late win against the Blue Brazil on 20 September 2008.


Sunday, 15 February 2009

Passion and grace

Who said Italian football was defensive and dull? While not everything in Serie A compares to this, tonight's buzzing clash between Inter and Milan at the imposing Stadio Giuseppe Meazza provided a feast of entertainment and numerous discussion points - after a somewhat stop-go start laced with niggling fouls. Thankfully, though, the derby passion didn't boil over into long-term recrimination.

As a game, this was superior to almost anything I've seen in England's self-appointed "best league in the world" this season, notwithstanding sparkling moments from Manchester United and (earlier on) Arsenal. Fabulous technique, exquisite touches, robust challenges, flowing moves, really good goals, near misses and several fine saves. It had a bit of everything.

AC Milan can count themselves unlucky not to have claimed a point. They dominated periods of the match. But they were let down by a slightly square back four and failure to capitalise on neat build-ups from midfield. David Beckham was effective when he had the ball, but he had a relatively quiet night for Milan. He had to go off in the 57th minute with a hamstring complain, following his midweek injury. So that would be it, I guess.

Inter's first goal was clearly off Adriano's arm, which he was raising as the ball fell from his head. In my opinion it should have been disallowed. Pippo Inzaghi had three great chances for Milan. You would have expected him to claim one of them. The goal he 'scored' late in the second half was immediately ruled out by a yellow flag. This is a man who Alex Ferguson once described as "probably being born in an offside position." You can see why, and the AC support groaned. Not this neutral though. It was well worth the watch on BBC3 or (in my case) streamed online.

Frozen out... but warming up

Weather, eh? Today has been beautifully sunny here in the South West, but up in Scotland the freeze continues and Dumbarton's fixture pile-up gets bigger. The Sons' scheduled clash with Forfar Athletic yesterday was called off on Friday, with the snow and frost bound Station Park pitch giving the inspecting referee no choice but to postpone the game. In third place, with two or three games in hand over the sides around us (other than the Blue Brazil at the summit, who have played one more match but have garnered ten more points), we're still very much in the promotion mix. Indeed, at this juncture I'm going rashly to predict that the Mighty DFC will be third on 9 May, when we play our last game of the season at Annan.

Next week we take on the aforementioned Cowdenbeath at the Rock. A win, plus a further victory in our game in hand would reduce the gap to four points. It's a big ask, but not impossible. Jim Chapman looks to have made two more good signings in the shape of midfielder Ryan McStay from Partick Thistle and left-back Patrick Boyle from Everton's youth academy, via loan spells at Norwich and Crewe. Can Sons get the balance right? We'll see.

Meanwhile, I spent yesterday afternoon and last Tuesday night watching local heroes Exeter City garner six points from two good displays. Following the 4-0 trouncing of Macclesfield, last season's Conference champions Aldershot were always likely to be a tougher proposition. And so it proved. 1-2 down with ten minutes to go, the Grecians looked like they had thrown their chance away. But an own goal from the visitors followed by a superb curling free-kick from Neil Saunders clinched it for the home side. Next up it's Chester away (a game City should win) followed by a tough, crucial home match against promotion rivals Darlington (three points behind Exeter, with four games in hand.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A topsy-turvy old game

First published in The Grecian, 14 February 2009, Exeter City -v- Aldershot Town

What a huge tonic Exeter City’s sparkling display against Macclesfield was on Tuesday night. Not only did the lads win 4-0, the widest margin we have achieved since returning to League Two, but it was a fine performance as well. Smooth passing and good control in midfield were combined with exactly the penetration and finishing we need to consolidate that coveted play-off position.

Admittedly, the Grecians were facing what looked like a lacklustre and demoralised opposition. Though they enjoyed an FA Cup boost against Everton last November, losing 1-0 while gaining plaudits for determination, the Silkmen have subsequently experienced woes both and on off the pitch.

But nothing should detract from City’s midweek achievement, not least because (as gaffer Paul Tisdale revealed in his post-match interviews) Exeter have only managed one full training session at the Cat and Fiddle in the past three weeks of trying – due to the snow and icy conditions.

In a recent column, I noted that City had been struggling a bit in the goal-poaching department of late. But I also pointed out that we’d faced the same problem earlier in the season and had shown we can get back on track. Sure enough, eight goals in the last three games demonstrates that the determination is still there, even if we don’t yet have someone in the division’s ‘top twelve’ goalscorers table.

Today the Grecians’ finest face Aldershot Town, who have been using the transfer window to bolster their squad through short-term loan signings – most recently 22-year-old Brighton and Hove Albion Striker Jake Robinson, who will most likely start against Exeter this afternoon. He’s been with the Shots before, bagging four goals in ten appearances back in 2005.

Football being the topsy-turvy game it is, Aldershot were way ahead of the pack in the Blue Square Premier last season, with the Grecians sneaking up from behind to gain the second promotion place and Wembley glory. The Shots even claimed their deserved Conference title here at St James’ Park in April 2008, with a late equaliser in a storming match.

This term, however, it is Exeter who have been setting the pace and turning heads. Meanwhile, Aldershot come to us on the back of three maulings against Rochdale, Brentford and Bury. They have yet to record a win in 2009. That said, 13th place and 36 points in League Two is a sign that our opponents mean business. Their determination to reverse the New Year slump will be considerable.

On Tuesday night, the nearly three thousand fans who braved a cold but snow- and rain-free night enjoyed what turned out to be an absorbing, entertaining match. On Valentine’s Day there will be no love lost between the Grecians and the Shots, but we are all hoping for quality on the pitch.

Talking of ‘feeling the love’, two high-prifile football people who have been shunned rather than cherished recently are ‘Big PhilScolari and Tony Adams, abruptly shown the exit at Chelsea and Portsmouth respectively.

Of the two, Scolari’s sacking at Stamford Bridge attracted by far the largest number of pixels and column inches in a media hungry for the latest multi-million Premier League shenanigans.

Viewed from the saner reaches of the football pyramid, and from a team with a boss who has definitely secured a place in our hearts as well as on the bench, it is Adams who I feel most sympathy for. Pompey in transition, up for sale, short of cash, and with key players looking to move on was always likely to be a poisoned chalice, but it was one he couldn’t refuse.

Friend Peter Kay, with whom he set up the impressive Sporting Chance Clinic for people suffering from addictions, describes Adams as “relaxed, articulate, intelligent and funny.” A friend of mine who ended up chatting to him over breakfast after a Champions League final a couple of years ago agrees with that assessment. Tony’s also a fine coach with a natural, inventive football brain.

We need more, not fewer, people of decency and commitment at all levels in the Beautiful Game.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

In another galaxy

Poor chap. The sheer cruelty of having to pretend to support England for his entertaining book Union Jock: Sleeping with the Auld Enemy seems to have produced a sad mental confusion in dear Scotland on Sunday journo Aidan Smith. On STV last night he was talking tosh. “David Beckham’s PR and hype far outweighs anything he has achieved on the field,” he declared. Which apart from being wrong kind of misses the point. It's a bit like saying Buckingham Palace is rubbish because the Neverland ranch beats it on Googlefight.

In contrast to this strange denial, and to the whingers down here who peddle the same kind of stuff, A.C. Milan general manager Adriano Galliani points to the quality and commitment Beckham has brought with him. Fabio Capello still rates him after being persuaded by his Real Madrid experience. And so does Arsene Wenger after his time at Shenley. Then there's Ancelotti: “The scudetto race would be much easier for us if he stays. Beckham has given us a boost in quality and enthusiasm. He has given this team an added extra, in the way he plays, his focus, his quality of assist and in the goals that he has scored. He has made a great contribution.”

But what do they know, eh, Adrian? They must just all be PR dupes... as

You have to sympathise with LA Galaxy, mind. They have behaved with great propriety, and yet they could well lose their star investment in the next few weeks, to judge from comments he made after A.C.'s 2-2 draw against Rangers in Glasgow. But the idea of a world class player ending his days in MLS rather than competing in Serie A, given the choice, is frankly ridiculous.

Yes, I know Beckham's obscenely rich and famous. I wouldn't defend someone for that. But he's a decent guy, incredibly hard working on the field, he still has class, and he really does want to play football. Which is more than you can say for a lot of his daft detractors. Actually I don't think they really believe their own dismissals. They just don't want to eat their words.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Owen drinks up success with Burnley

Well done to Championship side Burnley and manager Owen Coyle for dumping Premier Leaguers West Bromwich Albion out of the FA Cup, thus setting up a fifth round tie against either Arsenal or Cardiff City. Most likely, the Gunners. I wish the Baggies well in their struggle for survival in the English big league. But with Owen in charge at Turf Moor, I have a prior loyalty.

I saw him at the beginning of his playing career, when he was what we would probably now call "an attacking midfielder", commencing his senior football outings with Dumbarton in 1985. There he played alongside his brothers Joe and Tommy Coyle. I think the Sons are the only team to have featured three brothers together in a first eleven, but I could be proved wrong about that. Owen played 103 times for Dumbarton from 1985 to 1988, netting 36 goals before moving on to then rivals (now a junior side) Clydebank.

Known as a bit of a "cup specialist" for his subsequent playing exploits with Airdieonians, Bolton and St Johnstone, Owen continued the success in 2008, when he guided his Turf Moor side to the quarter-finals of the Worthington Cup with victories over Fulham and Chelsea. They went out to Arsenal, but now hope for an FA Cup re-match.

Coyle is known for not drinking alcohol. When The Scotsman profiled him last year, they included this anecdote: When he was a young player at Dumbarton, [Owen] was invited to represent Celtic at an under-20 tournament in Switzerland, where Derek Whyte, Anton Rogan and Alex Mathie were among his team-mates. One night, when the squad were allowed out, Whyte bought a round of drinks, only to find Coyle point-blank refusing it. "Many a young player, away with Celtic, would have been easily influenced, but even at that age, I was quite single-minded, quite secure in my opinions."

Game off... again

After a busy couple of days, I was rather looking forward to Exeter's rescheduled League Two home game against Port Vale yesterday evening. Unfortunately it was a another victim of 'the big freeze'. Not that there was any problem with the pitch. After the purchase of a cover, the playing surface was fine, apparently. The problem was health and safety considerations effecting the stadium as a whole, and the travel conditions for away fans.

Some scorn this kind of thing, recalling the "orange ball" days when games went ahead in near-arctic conditions. I remember a match in the '80s at Dumbarton's historic old ground, Boghead Park [pictured]. I'd travelled up from London, and the final inspection, with snow on the pitch and the skies still dark with menace, was not that long before kick-off. The officials determined that there was no danger to the players and the match went ahead.

Having lost my diaries from that era, I can't recall who we were playing. But I know we lost! These days there's little chance that such a game would go ahead. We can moan, but we've also chosen to live in a more risk-averse and litigious society, it seems. So the caution is inevitable.

Monday, 2 February 2009

That's snow business

While chunks of Britain treat a bit of snow as if it was the new ice age and public transport stares into an icy abyss, minnows Inverurie Loco Works have gone down 0-1 down to SPLers Motherwell in the first minute of the game. Which pretty well sews it up, I guess. Not much of a connection there, you'd think. Except that this Homecoming Scottish Cup tie has been postponed four times (if I've counted right) due to bad weather. But now that everyone else is stockpiling baked beans and darning their gloves in anticipation of hibernation, some kind of Summery respite has appeared at Harlaw Park in Aberdeenshire. Oh, the (soft, flaky) irony. [Update: 'Well win 3-0... and, yes, it was snowing...]