Saturday, 9 May 2009

Watching the Sons shine upon us

So in the end it wouldn’t have mattered if Shire had scored 180 times in 90 minutes, let alone 18. Dumbarton’s well-deserved 3-1 win against Annan Athletic meant that we finally claimed the Scottish Third Division title today with points to spare and no thought of goal difference.

From the outset it was a carnival atmosphere. When I arrived in Annan just after 12.30pm, Sons supporters were all over town – apparently soaking up rather more than the pre-match atmosphere! After refreshments, photos, banter and some singing at the local social club (for whom Christmas had come earlier than expected), I joined the steady stream of supporters into the ground at 2.10pm.

Weather wise, the Borders microclimate decided to throw everything at us: wind, rain, sunshine, icy chill, warm spells, blue sky and menacing storm clouds. OK, I made the ‘warm spells’ bit up. It was decidedly nippy throughout. Nothing, however, could suppress the enthusiasm of the hundreds of Dumbarton supporters ringing three sides of the pitch (standing room only!) and filling the away allocation in the stand.

The Annan faithful bore the Sons party with remarkable good grace, given their own disappointment at having failed to secure a play-off place by losing 1-0 to Stenny at Ochilview last week. They’ve had a good first season in the SFL, having taken fated Gretna’s place with only days to go back in July ’08. The club has a strong community and family atmosphere, and they worked hard to provide the facilities for today’s match – even if the pitch, which was soaked and cut up before the game commenced – still needs a good deal of work on it. I wish them well.

As to the football itself on this august occasion, it was uneven, directed by the swirling winds, and dominated overall by Dumbarton. The Galabankies did far more than make up the numbers, but they couldn’t get a proper handle on the match to spoil Sons’ party, as they would surely have wished. It was 1-0 to the Mighty DFC at half-time, whereupon the queues for the portaloos and food outlets grew to bladder-threatening and stomach-distending proportions. My vegetarian lunch at the nearby social had consisted of John Smiths Bitter and crisps. In the ground itself I was able to extend that health-conscious diet with, er, chips and ketchup. No tasty Dumbarton macaroni cheese pies here, I’m afraid. Just the dead animal kind.

Then the heavens opened, and so did my brolly… after about ten minutes. I’m no southern softy! On cue, the second half commenced, Dumbarton scored a well-taken goal number two, the sun appeared and we conceded a scrappy one at this end – with more than a hint of a foul in Annan’s build-up. This put paid to the possibility of an eighth clean sheet in a row, but with the crown about to be passed into the hands of the Rock’s football kings, who really cared? Besides, a third and decisive Sons strike followed as a fitting finale, and the ground erupted as the final whistle blew.

Then Dumbarton fans cheered and bided their time through the presentation ceremony near the centre of the field (which involved a walk-on ovation for each player and the manager, before the captain finally lifted the trophy aloft)… and then the comparatively well-ordered pitch invasion began. Even law-abiding types such as myself succumbed, and only as the afternoon sun drew in did the gradual dispersal begin.

I haven’t yet heard how the bus-top parade back in Dumbarton went, as I had to hit the trains to Birmingham rather than venture further north. But I’m sure the celebrations continued in style at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. It’s a pity Annan and Berwick aren’t in Division Two, as they are my only SFL ‘day trips’ from the English midlands. But I’ll be back at the Rock again as soon as I can next term. As for today, it’ll keep those brain synapses busy for years to come.

Oh, and then there are the pictures. They’re fairly low-grade stuff from my mobile phone, I’m afraid; with more to come. The first shows Sons on the attack (or, rather, Annan on the defensive) in the first half. Then my rather rictus-style grin during the break was occasioned by the perils of performing a self-portrait by guesswork, while perched on one leg for elevation and good – or perhaps not so good! – measure. The third one shows Gordon Lennon sharing that all-important trophy with the assembled throng. G’night, fair world… it is for Sons fans, at last.

Here's to you, Mary

Last time I was at Galabank, just before Christmas, the hospitality was wonderful in the Annan Athletic club house, but the pitch and the football were dire... and Dumbarton lost right at the end of the game. Little did I suspect on that damp day that I would be returning in May 2009 to watch my beloved Sons being crowned Third Division Champions. (Yes, I know I keep going on about it, but moons are not often blue.)  Anyway, today the club house is closed to visiting supporters, I imagine for health and safety reasons, or possibly because the Annan faithful - who have their own reasons to celebrate a fine first season in the SFL - want a bit of peace and quiet! There's also going to be strict separation of supporters in the ground itself. This means that it is unlikely that I will get to say 'hello' to one very distinguished and venerable Galabankies fan. Mary Burns in a sprightly 95-years-old. I met her son, Michael, a JP, at the conference I was involved with in Sheffield two weeks ago. She attends as many home games as possible. Sometimes, however, she can't go because a friend of hers who is "much older" (97!) can be a little frail. Well, I hope you have a marvellous day, Mary.   Even if there are a lot of annoying Dumbarton supporters around going on and on about their triumph!

Friday, 8 May 2009

The biggest party of the year

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Preparing for what, for all Dumbarton fans, will be a wonderful day at Galabank tomorrow, as we (hopefully) end the season with a victory over Annan Athletic, and then -- almost whatever happens here or with East Stirling -- collect the Irn Bru Scottish Football League Division Three winner's trophy. I was too young to get to the '71-72 Second Division championship decider, and I was out of the country when we lifted the title again in '91-92, so this is a 'first' in my lifetime. And very, very special it is, too. When you support a small (read: real) football team, such occasions are rare delights and absolutely not to be missed. Transport providers and other logistical factors, please note! 

Meanwhile, I still haven't processed my mobile phone photos from last Saturday's 6-0 decisive and stunning  triumph over Elgin, or my reflections from that momentous day, and afternoon, and evening... and early morning. But they will follow, together with some more wonderful memories from 9 May 2009, I trust. Goodness, I'm well into my anecdotage already. The really good thing about being on the cusp of triumph for a whole week, with a virtually unassailable 18-goal difference, is that you get two huge bites at the celebratory cherry.  An uncomplicated outright win wouldn't have allowed that in quite the same way. 

Sadly, as I am committed to a rail 'away day' from Birmingham, I shall not be around when the  squad return to the Strathclyde Homes Stadium in the evening after being officially crowned Third Division Champions. There will be a bus tour, a Your Radio special, and yet another party. But Andy Galloway interviewed me, along with other ex-pats, on the phone for the Lennox Herald earlier today. So I might make it to the 'final cut'. That matters little compared to the shared celebrations. But it's good to be just a tiny part of football history, even so. 

[Photos (c) Donald Fullarton... please give him your business. The top one of Dumbarton captain Gordon Lennon and his baby is a particular gem.]

Rain on their parade? Nah...

I will not be in Exeter tomorrow to witness the Grecians' victorious parade around the town centre to celebrate second place in English League Two and automatic promotion to League One - in their first season back in the football league. That's because I have a prior loyalty and commitment to Dumbarton's Third Division title party at Annan. As a supporter for almost 40 years, I couldn't be anywhere else! But as an Exeter resident for nearly six years now, a strong backer of Trusts (I'm naturally a member of the Sons' one), a regular at St James' Park (when I don't have the time or money to get to Scotland), a writer for the superb programme (well done, again, Mike Blackstone), and someone who naturally cheers my 'local heroes'... well, I'm really chuffed for them, too. What a season it's been! So have a great day, City fans. Oh, and even though, as Pete Martin and the weather forecasts might suggest, there could be laden clouds in the southwest tomorrow, surely no amount of liquid sunshine will dampen the spirits there.  

Respect is a two-way street

Strange how football sometimes conspires to turn you against your most basic instincts. While deploring the moronic threats against referee Tom Henning Ovrebo following the Chelsea-Barcelona Champions League semi-final, I can't help feeling a bit sorry for the Blues. There, never thought I'd say that about the billionaires!  In truth, Barcelona are by far the better side, but on the night in question it's hard but to conclude that they would have lost if one of the two pretty solid penalty decisions had gone Chelsea's way. The referee did, I think, lack the experience needed for this particular sporting cauldron, and a number of his decisions - including the Barca sending off, too - were woeful. He was honest enough to admit that afterwards, and doesn't in any way deserve the calumny or abuse. 

That said, UEFA are being typically smug and aloof over the matter. Drogba and Ballack cannot finally be defended, but they are easy targets and are not the only problem to be tackled. You can't have players throwing abusive tantrums, but when the system itself, and the mistakes it makes or masks, seems immune to common sense, due humility and the exercise of proper discretion (no doubt for 'good' litigious reasons), the boiling point is bound to be reached more readily. Meanwhile, I very much hope that Scotland's Darren Fletcher is given a reprieve for the Champions League final, following his clearly erroneous red card and concomitant suspension in the Arsenal semi. This is one case where the 'no appeal' rule will result in a clear injustice if the officials do not relent. And no, I'm not a Manchester United sympathiser normally, either. I wanted Wenger's youngsters to win.  I doubt that decency will prevail in the Fletcher case, but this instance does give UEFA a chance to show that it can exercise a sense of natural justice. 

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Champions in all but name!

The Sons have done it! Not withstanding an 18-goal mishap next week, which, I confidently predict, is not gonna happen, the Scottish Third Division Title 2008-9 belongs to Dumbarton. But I'm too exhausted with celebrating to say anything informative, sensible or even downright silly. So you'll have to wait a wee while for that...   Meanwhile, hearty congratulations also to my 'local heroes' Exeter City, who have achieved a second promotion in a row by winning automatic ascent to English League One. 

Monday update:  (May the Fourth be with you, and all that...!) There are now some fine 'almost Champions' celebration photos by Donald Fullarton viewable here. I imagine he might just sell a few. Also, here are some snaps from the Elgin match itself, which, as an afterthought, we won 6-0, in case you didn't notice. I'm still in shock. I have some mobile phone pics of my own, which I will add when I get a moment. I managed to keep out of the frame myself, I think. I shouldn't be so camera-shy... 

Saturday, 2 May 2009

It's the big one. Well, the first of two

First published in Sons View, 02 May 2009, Dumbarton -v- Elgin

When the final whistle went at the Rock last Saturday, to rapturous scenes from Dumbarton fans, I was soberly answering questions from the platform of a conference in Sheffield. Then my mobile phone buzzed. Not too loudly, thankfully. I managed to sneak a glance at the all-important message from Denise Currie: “4-0 super Sons. Cowden lost 2-1. We’re top o’ the league and they’re no’!” it read.

I let out what I though was a quiet cheer, though according to the reaction of at least one startled punter in the front row it may have been nearer to the clearance signal on a jet airliner. Was I bovvered? Not remotely… Just momentarily distracted by dreams of glory, like every other Sons fan.

The cold sweat wasn’t long coming, mind. You don’t have to have been a Dumbarton supporter for many years – let alone to have witnessed the various ups and downs this season has offered during our gradual assault on the summit – to fear a latent capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Jim Chapman’s dressing room will also have included one or two pointed mentions of chickens and why they are not for counting, I’m sure.

But this is no time for negativity. Pack up your cynicism in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile as loudly as possible for the ensuing 90 minutes against Elgin. If you’re like me and always feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the team propping up the table (we’ve been there a few times and know what it’s like), suspend that goodwill until the points have been secured. Then be magnanimous in victory. Aw, go on, it won’t hurt…

The key thing is that Sons now have their destiny for season 2008-9 firmly in their own hands. I almost said ‘our hands’, because the fans are as much a part of the Club as anyone else. But only the select few will be required to demonstrate graft, guile and skill on the pitch. This is a good thing, overall. It leaves us shouting our advice from the sidelines, where it belongs. Because if anything depended on my footballing gifts, we’d be scuppered. So I’ll stick to terrace encouragement, having wheedled a long weekend north of the border so that I can grab a seat to perch upon … edgily.

Meanwhile, the Statistics of Destiny, which I’ve mentioned a few times this season, are not complex. Given goal differences, four points will almost certainly crown us Third Division champions, barring a goal spree by the competition that would defy most expectations. More baldly, two wins and six points guarantees it. So that’s what the aim must be. Relying on others to fail for you is the worst recipe for end-of-season hypochondria.

Right now, I’m sure we’ll make it. But whatever unfolds between now and the end of next week’s away game against Annan (which I also plan to attend in a ‘day trip’ from my intermediate Birmingham bolt-hole), this season has seen an extraordinary turn-around. What an achievement!

All football loyalists question the sanity of the manager and players at times, especially the four-pint pundits. But to be where we find ourselves at this stage could hardly be bettered. The great run all winning sides need has come at the right time, and we are all praying that recent form can continue to deliver what all the hard work surely merits: a title for the first time since 1991-92, when Dumbarton clinched the Second Division Championship.

Football writes its best scripts in blood as well as champagne. So the fact that we are also marking the 25th anniversary of Dumbarton reaching the Premier Division is bound to be part of our thinking. The top prize this year would certainly add a wonderful final note to the book on Sons in the SPL that your programme editor and I have been working on. But in terms of what we need to do this afternoon, it matters not a whit. Romance in football is a hopeful afterthought, not a blithe promise.

As for the play-offs, well the ‘p’ word is probably even more taboo than the ‘c’ one. But breaking the spell is no bad thing. Superstition, be damned. More games for a second prize would seem a bitter consolation now we’ve got this far, but it’s also a safety net which should take away just enough of the fear to leave the adrenalin we need. ’Mon Sons!


Yes, I know...

... I'm at least two programme notes behind (on the blog, anyway). Life has been busy. Fingers crossed for the Sons this afternoon. Also Exeter City, who need a win away against Rotherham to guarantee an automatic promotion place from English League Two. It's nail-biting time, folks.

Meanwhile, normal service on Only Just Offside will be resumed apres le excitement...

[Footnote: OK, the missing columns are now here and here, respectively]