Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Strangle that parrot, someone

First published in Sons View, 25 April 2008, Dumbarton -v- Forfar

Successful football teams don’t have half-hearted fans. By that measure alone, Dumbarton FC certainly deserves the prize we all covet: an unassailable place at the top of the table come the end of this season. Will we do it? Jim and the lads are taking it one step at a time, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, you can say many things about Sons fans: we cheer, we moan, we celebrate, we complain, we drown our joys and sorrows. But a casual shrug and a nonchalant “whatever” doesn’t really come into it. Especially if the Apache Army have their way!

The players and manager are going to need all the verbal encouragement and positive lungpower you can muster this afternoon. Understandably, there will be a mixture of excitement and nervousness as we face Forfar, who have their own significant agenda. The Loons are pressing hard for a play-off place, while we would like to do everything we can to avoid one – by going up as champions.

There, I’ve said it. The dreaded ‘C’ word. Well, the main one that Chappie has probably banned from the dressing room and training pitch, anyway. For Dumbarton’s task is clear. Dreams alone won’t suffice, we need maximum points from the next three games, and then we have to hope that others fail to hold their nerve in the same resolute way. That’s why sticking together is so vital.

Naturally there was some disappointment at yet another shutout (the fifth in a row) against Cowdenbeath at Central Park last weekend. A win would have put us securely in the driving seat for top spot. But looked at another way, it makes no difference to the challenge we face right now, at home against Elgin next week, and for the visit to Annan on 9 May. We have to go on winning. Full stop.

The good news is that the Sons emerge on the pitch this afternoon undefeated in their last five games. The lads haven’t conceded in that time and have claimed four 2-0 victories in a row since 31 March. That’s quite a tiger in the tank for this encounter.

Remember that old expression? It’s almost as ancient as the ubiquitous “sick as a parrot”, which you used to hear from managers and players after some cruel twist of football fortune. Or did you? The parrot was actually invented by Private Eye magazine in the 1960s, and like a lot of football clich├ęs went unchallenged until somebody noticed that it had fallen virtually into disuse.

The past few seasons have been tough for Sons, but as the climax to this season nears we finally have a chance to strangle that bloody parrot! Metaphorically, of course. Meanwhile, a different kind of football phrase has made its way into the sporting lexicon: “Squeaky bum time.” This is something all teams, managers and fans on the threshold of success or failure are said to be experiencing right now, while we perch anxiously on the edge of our seats.

Poor Rafa Benitez got a complicated psychological explanation when he expressed puzzlement at the term in a Liverpool press conference on 2 April. But according to linguist Gary Martin (who contributes regularly to the online Phrase Thesaurus), the saying first made it into print on 18 March 2003, courtesy of Sir Alex Ferguson and The Daily Express.

Of course, “squeaky bum time” could only find its way into our language in an era when a majority of fans actually are seated. Whatever you think of the continual demise of terraces, in the lower reaches of Scottish football too, you’ve got to admit that it’s a bit less of an uncomfortable experience than “wet step time.” Enough said.

It so happens that the estimable Dr Martin, who is tracking football lingo and much else beside, hails from Sheffield. And that is where I shall be this afternoon, while you hopefully watch the Sons steaming to victory. I’d wanted to make it up from Exeter for both the game and the noble ‘Walk to the Rock’, but work has intervened.

Wild horses won’t keep me away from SHS next weekend, however, and I’ll probably end up forking out a small fortune on the train to Annan via Birmingham and Carlisle, too. A day trip, theoretically, and worth every penny. Because whatever choice words you use to express what you’re feeling right now, the Sons are in with a shout – and they need you.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

One more big push

First published in The Grecian, 25 April 2009, Exeter City -v- Morcambe

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief. Not at that freak goal we gained in the last few breaths of the away game at Lincoln City last week – though that was extraordinary enough. No, it’s the fact that we are almost at the end of the season that I’m still having difficulty taking in.

Where did it all go? When City kicked off their first term back in the Football League after a five-year absence and a good deal of turmoil, I was imagining a good, safe mid-table position to ‘steady the ship’. A play-off place or better wasn’t really on my radar. Maybe I’ve spent too many years following football minnows.

But the management, fans and playing staff here at St James’ Park were not so un-ambitious. So I hold my hands up. You were right Pete Martin (even if you have been living in Plymouth!), and Ron, Richard, Chris, Pauline and the others I enjoy sitting with. A top six finish wasn’t out of the question. Nor is League One next season. Indeed it’s agonisingly close.

This is why Paul Tisdale will have been reminding his dressing room that nothing has been secured yet. Not the title (that’s Brentford’s to lose), not automatic promotion (though that is in the Grecians’ hands now) and not a third trip in a row to Wembley – the one we are all hoping to avoid this time. Except as a consolation prize.

Whatever happens over the next two games, no-one can deny that this season has been an outstanding success for Exeter City, and a tribute to all who have been involved in projecting this Club back towards the footballing heights that it isn’t ever right to say you ‘deserve’ – it has to be earned by skill, craft and sheer guts.

Which brings us back to the match against Morecambe this afternoon. Unfortunately, work commitments mean that I am missing what we all hope will be the last home game of the campaign – even if that means just a little less live action before the summer break. I will be checking my text alerts, though, as will many others. The crowd for the match against Wycombe was fantastic. This time round it will be even larger. But don’t forget the thousands across the country (and indeed the world) who “follow the City” through radio, the web and other media.

Our opponents today are no strangers. They are welded to us by history. Memories of 20 May 2007 would be rather more painful if the Grecians had not grabbed their subsequent Wembley promotion opportunity in 2008, but even in defeat that first ‘big outing’ against the Shrimps prepared City for what was to come. So in a strange way we have to be grateful for what at the time seemed like a last ditch failure.

Football is like that. The shadows can be dark, but if you learn to respond to them appropriately you can have your day in the sun – and not just once. So the aim this afternoon is nothing to do with ‘revenge’ for that loss two years ago. Morecambe got into League Two ahead of us, and they deserved it. Good luck to them… but not today. Right now, Exeter need three points very badly, and if they have to come through the equivalent of a “Rob Burch moment” in the 88th minute (sorry Lincoln!), so be it.

All football sides, even the best, need a bit of luck at the right time. The Grecians have had their knocks and their breaks this term. But all have them have been outweighed by the fine football that has been played, by courage and determination. Over the course of the next 180 minutes City will need every ounce of those qualities, together with your support. 

But remember, this isn’t a dream. It’s possible. One more big push and the next rung on Exeter City’s ladder to the top beckons.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Another Wembley let-down

I'm not talking about bombastic Chelsea sneaking it over cultured Arsenal, either. I'm thinking of the lumpy pitch and the empty corporate seats. As Arsene Wenger observed, the turf was in a gruesome state even before the FA Cup semi-final began. Why semis should be played at the national stadium anyway (other than to grub some more money), I've no idea. But the fact that this overrated, over-hyped, overpriced, over-budget gleaming barn of a structure can't even provide a decent playing surface tells you all you need to know about post-Thatcher England's inability to do anything more competent than line the pockets of private interest groups when it comes to undertaking major projects. I can't imagine the FA World Cup bid will be aided by today's show, either.

When I first went to the 'New Wembley' two years ago, it was the first competitive professional game there - Exeter City versus Morcambe in the Conference play-off final. The Grecians got the opening goal, lost 2-1 and then came back in May 2008 to win promotion to Football League Two by beating Cambridge United. Its conceivable that they might be back in '09, but the hope is for one of the three automatic spots to go into League One this time.

Anyway, first time round the pitch was poor, but that was put down to insufficient time for the grass to 'bed in' and to successive waves of re-planting. Since then there have been repeated problems and multiple relayings. It turns out that the micro-climate created by the stadium's design, its lack of sun and its permanent shadows are the enduring problems. The BBC tried to interview the head ground keeper about the situation this morning, but he had been instructed not to speak to the media. Another fine mess.

As if that wasn't enough, when the second half of today's high-profile match got under way, the corporate area which sits smack in the main camera's eye-line was a sea of red plastic, being two-thirds empty. Twenty minutes later there were still massive gaps. Presumably the fat cats were too busy quaffing champagne, sorting out their next bonuses and celebrity networking to actually watch the football that others would have given their right arm to grab a seat for. The argument is that the big bucks hospitality keeps prices down for the ordinary punters. But the tickets are hardly cheap and the catering is of the usual rip-off variety.

The actual stadium is a splendid edifice, it has to be said. But the atmosphere is anodyne compared to some of the other big grounds. Give me Hampden Park any day.

The big match... live

Nah, not the FA Cup, the Champions League, the English Premier League, the Old Firm, or some such nonsense... I'm talking Dumbarton versus Cowdenbeath, which kicked off a few minutes ago. Can Sons go top? My nerves are killing me, and I'm 367 miles away! Right now, I'm perched in front of the computer watching the BBC text update, gin to hand for nerve-steadying, kettle poised to boil for further comfort, waiting from any additional news via the mobile from Denise Currie - who very sweetly keeps me in the picture when I'm not around. It's an away fixture. I gather my friends Tim and Margot Rhead are there, too... I gather it's a really good DFC turnout. I'd be there myself if it wasn't for that £155 rail fare. What we all want to see (or hear about) now is a goal celebration like this one, snapped by the ever-watchful lense eye of Donald Fullarton (for all your photographic needs, etc etc.) Meanwhile, 'mon Sons!

Updates: 15.19 and Annan and Elgin have scored already, I see. No goals at Central Park yet. (Incidentally, fellow writer Jack Deighton conveys the many agonies and occasional ecstasies - we hope - of being a Dumbarton fan very well on his blog. Like me, he's not able to be present regularly. As for Campbell Yule, he was in apocalyptic mood last he scribed.)

15:27 Near competitors Shire have grabbed a goal against Montrose. Meanwhile, in League One, with leaders St Johnstone not playing today, Partick have taken the initiative against Morton... which will please Kenny Macaulay, and Sons fans because of the long-standing local rivalry with 'Ton. Cowden's Sheilds booked on 19 mins, I see. (Big swig of, er, tea.... If I smoked, I'd have a cigarette break. Instead I'll just gnaw the carpet, like a normal person.)

Stenny are a goal up now, too. The Sons game is the only one in the Third Division without a goal at the moment. (If I go to the loo, will something crucial happen, and will it be my fault if it's not good?) Just remembered Exeter away at Lincoln - which is why I am not at any kind of match today, though I shall cheer on Arsenal in the pub at 5.15. Nil-nil for the Grecians. They need all three points for the automatic promotion chase, too.

15.45 (Have just returned from my comfort break. Nothing too exciting or worrying seems to have happened. But the sun is streaming through the window, and I am crouched before a computer screen. Strange, strange existence, Barrow.) No change in Scottish League Division Three. Exeter need a goal, because Brentford, Wycombe and Bury are all ahead. Do your magic, Pete Martin.

15:49 The Bees are two up against Accrington. They are odds on to win the English League Two championship, I reckon. My late grandfather's side, and the first professional team I ever saw, in 1967. So good on 'em. Nearly half-time, and late lunch time for me...

15:54 Cowdenbeath 0 -v- Dumbarton 0 at the break. Denise texts me with the sad news that Stevie Murray, of all people, missed a penalty for the Sons. Agghh! Still, it's a game of two halves... and hopefully second chances. For us. Give 'em a good (positive) talking to, Chappie. Exeter gridlocked, too. ("All to play for," he says... in full fitba cliche mode. Unavoidable, really. More tea and a Marmite sandwich.)

We're off again. Janet Lynn Kroeker kindly writes to me on Facebook at 3:49pm April 18: "Raising a glass just for you. (oh wait, it's only 7:40AMPST - hmmmmm)." The wi-fi has gone a bit wonky. More tea. This is a sad thing I am doing, but at least it proves I don't work all the time, right? 0-0 everywhere that matters...

16.17 I am contemplating the beam in my own eye. Specifically, I have often mocked Sky Sports News for broadcasting live pictures of blokes looking at pictures you can't see on screens and telling you what's happening. Now I'm doing it myself - minus the pictures. Forgive, me Jeff Stelling. (And while you're about it, please, stop making near-pervy comments to the delightful Rachel Riley at the end of Countdown. It's creepy, and you really should know better.) Nothing happening goal-wise, so I'm digressing.... as you can see.

16.24 When you note that nothing's happening, isn't that a cue for something to happen? Not this afternoon, it seems. Also, nothing happening is less fun when you're not there. But I see that Brentford have added a third goal and Bury a second. Plus Stenny are two up. Time for the Sons and Grecians to show what theyre made of. Provided it's reinforced steel.

16.27 This is a bit like American Football, in the sense that I am immersed in data and have no interesting sporting action to look at. It's always puzzled me, has American football. A game which involves throwing a ball is named after another body part. People in armour assault each other and call it a game. Plus there are more stoppages than would be needed by an incontinent at a dinner party. Not that I can ever really have claimed to get to grips with the whole thing, as you can tell. I can't get past the nicking of our monicker for what gets called soccer. (Must buy that WSC book on real American football - Football in a Soccer World. Great title.)

16.39 'Final Score' on BBC1 adds to the stat blur. "Stoke have scored. It may help them to stay up, but not mathematically." Eh?!? I love the way football scrambles the brains of commentators and pundits alike. I think they mean "until the game's over".

16.45 Not such good news for Kevin Scully, as Leyton Orient are 2-1 down at home. But they should avoid relegation. Tougher overall for my colleague Jonathan Bartley's side, Nottingham Forest. They are one up, but still in trouble at the bottom of the Championship. Bury have three now. Exeter really need a last-minute goal. So do Dumbarton.

16.48 Yey! Troy
Archibald-Henville, the stylish Spurs youth loan player, has scored for Exeter City against Lincoln. That's vital for the Grecians, given the other results around them.

16.51 Time running out and no sign of a winner from Dumbarton. 'Mon Sons! Meanwhile, commiserations to Charlton Athletic (and my friend Stephen Lyon). They have been relagated to the third tier of English football for the first time in 28 years, and only two seasons after being in the Premiership. How are the not-so-mighty fallen.

16.54 Lennon (60 mins) and Gordon (89 mins) have been booked for Dumbarton. Three Cowdenbeath players in the book. No goals. Time added on.... frustrating. My Midlands locals Wolves are up to the Premier League, though I think ex-Sons captain Neill Collins is out of the picture at Molinieux these days. Result at Lincoln. Well done again, Grecians!

16.58 Nil-nil for Dumbarton at Cowdenbeath. That Murray miss cost us dearly, evidently. Ordinarily a draw at Central Park wouldn't be bad, but this keeps the Blue Brazil top, and East Stirling have come within three points of Sons, Montrose having failed to pull level there. If my calculations are correct, Dumbarton are almost guaranteed a play-off place, unless they lose by silly amounts in each of the next three games. But it isn't certain, and we really want that Champions place and auto-promotion in this, the 25th anniversary of gaining our one and only season in the SPL. The play-offs are a lottery.

17.02 My namesakes Barrow grabbed a precious point today, 3-3 after being 0-2 down. They are three points clear of the Conference relegation zone. Really hope they can do it. Go, Bluebirds (and up, not down). Stoke have survived in the PL. Well done, them.

17.12 Denise Currie has the right attititude: "They're [Cowdenbeath] more likely to drop points than us though, so no worries." Me? Worry about my beloved team? Perish the thought. Also, Pauline Goodlad says of Exeter, "The title is still on." Correct again - just. OK, I'm off to the pub to watch Arsenal thump Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, I hope. After writing about football all afternoon, I actually need to see some. Albeit on a small screen. Have a good rest of the weekend, y'all...

Monday, 13 April 2009

Going for the one

So that's a total of four 2-0 victories on the trot, with the latest at home to Berwick Rangers (an 'international' win!) and three coming on the road. Dumbarton are now just one point off Cowdenbeath, who drew against Albion Rovers, and remain serious contenders for the Third Division championship. That is in part due to slip-ups around us, of course. When I last saw Sons at the Rock, against Annan Athletic on 21 March, nothing went right. It was a shocking performance. Since then, nothing serious has gone wrong. Well, apart from Derek Carcary being stretchered off at Berwick, that is. The villain was one John Dillon, an ex-Sons man whose shirt I used to sponsor. Naughty, naughty JD. He was rightly red carded.

If you're a longtime Sons fan, this record run of wins (for 2008-9) is as unnerving as it is encouraging. I will be around for the last two matches of the season. The final one is away at Annan again. Having seen the Mighty DFC lose twice to the Galabankies this season, I think Sons owe me one. Either that, or having me there at all is the kiss of doom. Fingers crossed... keep going, lads! We can still celebrate the 25th anniversary of our ascendancy to the SPL in style. I hope. The accompanying snap, purchasable from (and copyright of) the fine Donald Fullarton, is Ross Forbes' opener against Berwick, from a free-kick.

A kick up the table

Sticking to the rule laid down by Exeter City boss Paul Tisdale, I'm not officially supposed to mention the League Two position that the Grecians find themselves in this evening, but it can be estimated as somewhere between first and third.

I've just returned from another quality tussle down at St James' Park. City came away with three points after a deserved win against Wycombe Wanderers. Following a nervy start and an uncertain first half performance, the Grecians came flying out of the stalls in the second period. Only the crossbar (three times) and some outstanding goalkeeping from Jamie Young stopped Exeter adding at least one more goal.

It might have been a very different story if they had conceded early on. But two scrambled goal-mouth clearances in the first two minutes kept honours even until the break. Steve Basham looked slightly off pace up front and Stuart Fleetwood kept getting caught fractionally offside throughout the game. The difference came from the decision to bring on Richard Logan and Craig McAllister just before the restart.

then just after the hour, Matty Gill (my tip for player of the season, along with Dean Moxey) volleyed home at the back post after Logan had flicked on Ryan Harley's deep cross. An eruption of joy and relief resounded around the packed stadium - 8,183 being a record attendance this year, even if some of the 'visitors' around me were decidedly moany!

City now have their destiny in their own hands. With Bury dropping two points today, Brentford looking unassailable (the 1-1 draw at Griffin Park on Saturday was a good result) and Wycombe holding a game in hand, if the Grecians can win their three remaining fixtures they will go up to League One next season automatically. Otherwise, those around them will need to slip up.

The fall-back will be the play-offs and a possible third trip in a row to Wembley, unless something goes badly awry. (Indeed, according to my calculations, Exeter are mathematically in the play-offs as a minimum.) But if that's they way it goes, avoiding Chesterfield, the division form team, would be a good trick at this stage.

On other fronts, a word of consolation should go to Luton Town fans, after their side dropped into the Conference. Staying up after a 30 point Football League deduction for illegalities and maladministration always looked on the margins of possibility. It's a grim situation, and the supporters are paying the penalty while others get away.

I'm also really hoping that my namesakes Barrow can stay in the Blue Square Premier. They might have hoped for better than a 0-0 home draw against relegation zone York City. It's going to be a nail biting finish.


Recovering from a really good game

First published in The Grecian, 13 April 2009, Exeter City -v- Wycombe Wanderers

Yes, you read that right. It’s not just the downers that can sap the energy out of you, but those strain-every-fibre matches where you emerge triumphant in the end – and then realise over the next few days just how much it took from you to achieve it.

Exeter City recovered magnificently from a hard-fought, first-rate win over Port Vale on 31 March, when reduced to ten men from early on, and then went on to claim an equally tough victory against Dagenham and Redbridge last Saturday. As Paul Tisdale observed afterwards, there was some evidence of tiredness in the camp (perhaps that partly explains the errors that led to conceding), but Stuart Fleetwood lifted the side with two magnificent strikes that would have graced any division.

From the spectator’s point of view, both encounters were superb games of football. I’ve seen a few League One fixtures on my travels this season, but nothing to match the skill, guile and determination that went into those Grecians’ performances. The gaffer responded to the news that City had moved to second in League Two by banning them from talking about such things. A pipe-and-slippers sense of entitlement is not what’s needed with four games to go. But the auguries are surely good if a fabulous season can be topped with another promotion.

It’s a huge ‘if’, though – as this Easter Weekend emphasises. It doesn’t come harder in this division than a trip to top club Brentford and a visit soon after from high-flyers Wycombe Wanderers. I’m no crystal ball person, but I will say that a point or more from the Bees will have been a great achievement and that whatever the outcome, it is certain to have been a bruising encounter.

Fatigue finds itself head-on against adrenalin when you’re in the thick of the struggle. At Exeter City last week we welcomed back some Grecians legends from 1963-64. But the the team this year have been heroes, too. They will be more than that in the annals of history if we make it into League One, but whatever the final table they cannot be less. They deserve every cheer of encouragement we can muster. As the manager also told the BBC last weekend, the final few games are all about pulling together.

Meanwhile, new blood also has a vital role to play. The bar talk is about our Charlton loan star at the moment. But the quality performances this term have all been about a balance between solidity and flair, with Paul Tisdale fusing a tough core to the team with canny rotation and tactical flexibility. This is taking us to the edge of the next level in footballing prowess that many were hoping for several seasons ago. But the job isn’t done yet, and there will be knocks as well as spurs on the way.

Our opponents this afternoon know all about that. Since their home win against Lincoln on 3 March and a gigantic 3-3 tussle at Griffin Park not long after, the Chairboys (so called because they play in Cambridge and Oxford blue quarters) have had a frustrating time, sitting on the edge of the automatic promotion spots but suffering a string of losses and draws. Taking points today would be a huge boost for them, and it as much part of City’s aim to further deflate our rivals as it is to stack up the wins ourselves.

Meanwhile, a parting thought for those at the other end of the table. If it’s tough at the top, the fight against relegation is sheer torment. Luton are putting up a huge effort against what, minus 30 points from the outset, must seem like an inevitable fall into the Conference. Last week they won the Paint Trophy with a fabulous display at Wembley. Triumph in the midst of adversity: that’s football legend at its best. Meanwhile, there’s another dream to be kept alive here at St James’ Park this afternoon.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

You'll never walk alone...

Moving scenes at Liverpool today, on the nearest Saturday at Anfield to the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster that claimed 96 lives. It is unusual to see a full minute's silence on television, but that was what was shown on BBC1's 'Football Focus'. As I write, Fernando Torres has scored for the Reds against Blackburn - whose players commendably joined in a memorial event by laying a wreath before the game.

There is a report on what unfolded from 15 April 1989 here in the Liverpool Echo. Though Lord Taylor's report led to vital safety changes within the football world generally, friends and relatives are still pressing for a further investigation into Hillsborough itself. Anne Williams, whose son Kevin, aged 15, died that day, is challenging the official coroner's inquest ruling that all the victims were dead or brain dead by 3.15pm after suffering “traumatic asphyxia”.

At the Hillsborough ground today, Sheffield Wednesday are playing Derby County. The respective managers, Brians Laws and Nigel Clough were both in the Nottingham Forest side that was playing Liverpool in the Cup on that fateful occasion.

The Sun "newspaper" is still boycotted on Merseyside because of its disgraceful coverage of the tragedy, seeking to pin the blame on supporters with allegations subsequently disproved by film and video evidence (and the Taylor report). But this is one animal that doesn't change its spots. In December 2006 then editor Kelvin Mackenzie told a business lunch in Newcastle: “I went on the World At One the next day and apologised. I only did that because Rupert Murdoch told me to. I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now." That's not the only reason for despising the rag, of course. But it's a start.

The picture above shows the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough stadium during the disaster.

The view from the seat next door

First published in Sons View, 11 April 2009, Dumbarton -v- Berwick Rangers

Unless you are a more occasional visitor to the Rock, the chances are you’ll be sitting next to people you know for today’s match against Berwick Rangers. When I make the trek from way down south I like to spread out a bit, chat to new people, and get a feeling for how things are at the Club from a variety of vantage points.

There’s no one way of taking in a game of football. In a certain spot you might be swayed by optimism, in another equally submerged in despair. Besides, being a Sons fan can involve spanning a whole gamut of emotions in fewer than 15 minutes.

When Annan Athletic came calling on us at the end of March (a match and a result best banished from memory, to be honest), I found myself perched next to somebody who recognised me from the picture on this page. Hello there, Gordon. I confess that you were correct. It wasn’t all going to come right in the last ten minutes.

However, given that my wife says she sometimes doesn’t entirely recognise me after my footballing forays north of the border (a cynic would say she’s just trying to make a point!), I was naturally pleased to learn that the pixelated version of my face in this programme bears some passing resemblance to the real thing – especially since it was taken two years ago… in a good light.

Most of us don’t end up in conversation with the Dumbarton fan on our left or right purely for identification purposes, though. We do it for solidarity, to discover who owns that surprise elbow in our pie, and occasionally to find out whether what we thought we just saw on the pitch really did happen, or whether we (like that match official) might simply have been “seeing things”.

According to a newspaper article I’ve been reading, there could be other motives at work, too. If you are seated next to an unknown, inquisitive member of the opposite sex and out of the blue they ask, “Do you play football yourself?” the chances are they have been mugging up on Lucy Ann-Holmes’ new book, Fifty Ways to Find a Lover.

Apparently, Ms Holmes reckons that a football match is one of a number of ideal places to meet the right man. I presume this is because she’s going on fable rather than experience, but I could be wrong. (She is 32, charming, lives nowhere near Dumbarton, and is now in a steady relationship, in case you were wondering.)

So if your eyes first met those of your beloved as you both cast them heavenward in an attempt to figure out where that scrambled clearance went in the opposition final third, you have a story which I am sure the editor of Sons View will be delighted to recount… and which might even make it into the (inevitable) follow-up volume to Lucy-Anne’s treatise. It’ll be called A Life of Two Halves, I’m guessing.

Incidentally, the most common response to that enquiry about your personal football prowess apparently goes something along the lines of: “Yes, I nearly went professional at one stage, but I had to give up because of an injury.” To which the prospective suitor is advised: “Look fascinated”. Or in the case of a match at the Rock like that Annan one: “That’s no excuse, get some boots on and get out on that pitch straight away. I’m never going to marry you… but we’re desperate!”

As for my own memories of conversations with Dumbarton fans, they are of a less romantic tone. On one occasion, making my way to dear old Boghead Park, I got talking on the train to a fitter from Clydebank, whose name also turned out to be Simon, curiously enough. He spotted my Sons scarf and presumably saw few enough of those adorning strangers that he must have thought it worth finding out who I was… especially as I had a strange English accent.

Anyway, the train was delayed a bit and we arrived on the terraces a few minutes after the game had begun. “You’re late,” a mate of his noted, observantly. “Aye, points failure,” he explained. “Here too” came the riposte. It was already shaping up to be that kind of game, apparently. But not this afternoon, I hope. Love match or no, we need three points!

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Three in a row

Super Sons consolidated their position just one off the top of Irn Bru Scottish League Division Three at Station Park this evening. A brace of goals by Ross Clark (pictured) in the 55th and 73rd minutes gave Dumbarton victory over Forfar Athletic. That's the third 2-0 win in a row. It's important for two reasons. It stalls the Loons' own push into the play-off zone and it means Sons are now just three points behind leaders Cowdenbeath. We face the Blue Brazil (who have only won 3 in 9 since we drew against them on 21 February) away on 18 April and Forfar once more at SHS a week later. But first it's Berwick at home on Easter Monday. Can we make it four in a row? That really would up the stakes. A finish as Third Division champions in the season that marks the 25th anniversary of Dumbarton's promotion to the SPL will still be a tough call, but it isn't out of the question...

The problems of success

Having supported a small team virtually all my life, I'm much more attuned to the vicarious realities of failure than the exotic problems of success. So having both beloved Dumbarton and my locals Exeter City perched in second place* in their respective leagues is a bit worrying.

Sons secured a good 2-0 away win at Stenhousemuir on Saturday, following midweek success at Elgin. But the real test is tonight - and three victories in a row. Forfar have been creeping up the table and will be a tough proposition. I still can't see Cowdenbeath slipping up sufficiently to let us win the title, though they have had their wobbles. No-one in the top half seems to have been consistent or reliable this season, and that certainly includes the Mighty DFC. My spies tell me that Jim Chapman is settling for a more solid 4-4-2 approach after a sticky patch, which seems sound at this level. I'll be up for the last two games of the season... or not the last two, if we make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Grecians put in another fine display against Dagenham and Redbridge. It wasn't without its flaws, but it made for compelling viewing, and Stuart Fleetwood's sweetly struck goals from 35 and 40 yards respectively would have graced any division. I won't be at the match against Brentford, because it falls on Good Friday (I've written more about football and the unhelpful 'Easter row' here), but I will be in the stands - as we like to call the seats these days - for Wycombe on Monday. An automatic promotion place for Exeter is a genuine possibility. Should I hold my breath?

* Exeter dipped to third after Wycombe grabbed an added-time winner tonight.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Being tested against the best

First published in The Grecian, 04 April 2009, Exeter City -v- Dagenham and Redbridge

The midweek game against Port Vale at St James’ Park was a rollercoaster of an affair – and exactly the kind of solid football entertainment that secures more than 4,000 people coming out on a coldish Tuesday evening… the lifeblood of the success we all want for the Grecians.

The fact that Exeter won 1-0 was the clincher, of course. We might have felt quite a bit different if Vale had squeaked an equaliser or edged a victory. That they did not was down to the sheer guts, determination and organisation of City after the early dismissal of defender Danny Seaborne.

As I’ve said before (and you don’t have to be an expert to notice it!), these are just the qualities the Grecians need to see through this season to a successful conclusion. And right now, things are looking good. With 65 points, we are in fifth place and just one point adrift from second. There is enough of a cushion for minor slippage and a real opportunity to forge further ahead and secure a promotion place with a few decent results.

Today’s game against Dagenham and Redbridge (four points below the play-off zone with a game in hand) is crucial, and the away match at Brentford will be a huge test. We are matching ourselves against some of the best in the division, with Wycombe, Lincoln, Morecambe and Rotherham still to come.

But back to other night for a moment. Before Danny’s rather unfortunate dismissal (it might have seemed harsh, but the rules leave little room for discretion over dissent), the Grecians were pushing hard for a goal. Valuable new addition Stuart Fleetwood looked menacing then and throughout the game, though he may have been missing just a tiny bit of match-timing on the finishes.

Then City were down to ten men. In some instances, teams become uneasily cautious at this point, by instinct if not design. But Tisdale’s troopers were not bowed in the least. The attacking fervour continued, and was rewarded by a gifted goal that ended up securing all three points – after a dogged display that extended right into the fourth minute of the three given as overtime, according to my watch!

Incidentally, by some strange coincidence, the own goal here at St James’ Park occurred at almost exactly the same time as one for my team Dumbarton playing away in the wilds of Elgin on an even colder night up there. And by a player wearing exactly the same shirt number, too.

I keep in touch with my friends in Scotland by text if there’s a match happening at the same time there while I’m at St James’s. This one started 15 minutes earlier, but the symmetry of those much-needed goals at virtually the same point on the clock couldn’t have been better.

Commenting after the Port Vale game, Paul Tisdale noted that City looked the better and more threatening side with ten players. Why does this so often seem to be the case? It is one of the abiding mysteries of football … and is probably as much to do with being required to really think and concentrate in every area of the pitch as anything else. When there’s no room for error, you make fewer mistakes.

Mind you, Port Vale came close on a couple of occasions, with some astute keeping from Paul Jones playing an important role late on. But the Grecians might have nicked two or three more goals overall, the gaffer proclaimed, hailing the victory as “one of the biggest and best performances in almost three years.”

Few who witnessed it would disagree, and that is exactly the kind of spur that the players need heading into the all-important final furlong of the 2008-9 League Two race.

What mustn’t happen is any relaxation of pressure on sides coming to the Park, or on those who face us away from it. Because it is precisely that relentlessness, together with a well-paced passing game, tightness at the back and good finishing that is needed to get us where we want to be. One division higher.

Meanwhile, back on planet moonbeam

... the last-chance Messiah has arrived at St James' Park. Not down here in Exeter, but up in Newcastle. Well, Alan Shearer seems a level kinda guy, but I can't say he's ever struck me as having a massive amount of football nous. Then again, I wouldn't put myself in charge of an under-3s eleven. As glorious Russell Brand says this morning, regarding the Geordie Pope, "The gods of football like a good narrative." That's no guarantee of winning, mind. The G20 has just attempted to save the world in eight hours. Wor' Alan has gone for an only slightly less ambitious task in trying to salvage the Magpies in eight games, so the logic goes. Hmmnn. Given the trouble less-resourced Stoke and Hull are in, it's far from impossible. I don't think Newcastle will go down (famous last words!), but in many respects Shearer is on a no-loser. Stay up and he's a hero. Go down and he can bail or nod towards the treachery of the past (or the experienced bloke sitting next to him in the dugout). Meanwhile, the incomparable Barney Ronay is already helping out with Al's resignation note. Shemozzle, apparently. After all, "the sooner Newcastle's new manager leaves, the sooner we can start wondering when he will come back."