Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An unfolding drama

First published in Sons View, 03 March 2009, Dumbarton -v- East Stirlingshire

If anyone had said at roughly this time last year that “one of Dumbarton’s main promotion rivals this time next season will be East Stirlingshire”, they might well have found themselves getting some distinctly quizzical or ‘sympathetic’ looks on the way back to the bar.

Back at the end of February 2008 the Shire were in the process of hitting the bottom of Division Three, where everybody frankly expected them to be, with us not that far above. We had beaten today’s opponents 3-1 at the Rock in our previous encounter, and then in March the Sons had to be content with a deadening 0-0 away draw.

The agenda for the latter half of the season for both clubs then became avoiding the wooden spoon – which we both managed to do, though it seemed like a scant achievement at the time. Sons had hoped for much more, though we knew we were up against it from the start.

How fortunes wiggle and wander. In both camps, the rebuilding has been substantial… but remains unfinished. This evening we and East Stirling find ourselves face-to-face for the second important game against each other in only four days. It’s an encounter that could significantly boost or deflate morale as we chase a play-off place for May ’09 – the dates for those games now having been set by the SFL between the 13th and 23rd.

I was going to say “play-off place or better”, but realistically the loss of two home points against high-flyers Cowdenbeath on 21 February, when John Dempster secured an equaliser for the Fife side after Pat Boyle’s opener, makes title claims an outside chance for the Sons now – though not an outright impossibility.

As for the all-important 2008-9 finishing line, it might still seem a long way off from where you are seated right now, but the rest of the season is about to hit us with a frightening intensity.

After a period of forced inactivity at the end of the winter, Dumbarton will come out of tonight’s match with just three days in which to prepare for welcoming Albion Rovers to the Rock… which in turn will be the first of five games in 14 days, and part of a sequence of seven matches in one month.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s going to be quite a battle. At the midpoint, on the eve of the Ides of March, appropriately enough, we are away to Montrose – who were early contenders for the top spots, have dropped off quite a bit of late, and will be scrambling over the next few weeks to try to get back into promotion contention.

As is always the case in football, quite a few imaginative scripts and scenarios could be written for the next few weeks. It’s not just at the Oscars that people like to prepare their speeches on the basis of what might be! But the only stories that will count are those that work themselves out definitively on the park.

So by the time the Sons welcome Berwick Rangers to SHS for the first home game in April, we fans will either be licking our lips, gritting our teeth or holding our breath. No wonder we are usually seen as… well, mouthy.

Part of the joy of this game is that, within some fairly clear parameters, you get to make up the plot as you go along. And while it’s always the case that the pundits and scribes will try to look back and authoritatively pronounce on where “the turning point” was, for either good or ill, the truth is that at the time no-one quite knows. Not even the know-alls.

The job of the good football coach, indeed, is to turn the minds of his players away from the kind of idle speculation I am indulging in here, the sort which keeps us supporters merrily occupied in lingering moments between match action. His task, by contrast, is to get them to focus on the fact that it is here and now that they can grab the opportunity before them. Fortunes can be turned in an instant on the pitch. Glory and despair are rarely more than a kick away.

This, of course, is what keeps us cheering and sighing, hoping and wondering, praising and moaning… but above all, coming back to the Rock for more.

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