Saturday, 29 August 2009

Contrasting football fortunes

First published in The Grecian, 29 August 2009, Exeter City -v- Milton Keynes Dons

It’s amazing how one result can change your mood. Last week’s away victory at Carlisle has given a real boost to the Grecians, after three matches in which some fine football had been played against good teams, but with only two points gained.

With a further three points in the bag, the task for Exeter City now is to build momentum. Paul Tisdale has made little secret of the fact that he is after one more striker before the transfer window closes. Fans will echo the feeling that the achievements of the team on the park are not yet being matched by the goals we deserve.

Following today’s game against Milton Keynes Dons, who lie in sixth place and look to be strong contenders for one of the top spots, we have tough away trips to Gillingham and Leyton Orient, before entertaining Tranmere here at St James’ Park on 19 September. There will be no let up, no easy games this year.

After the on-pitch lull of the close season – during which time the back-room staff remained very busy, of course – the matches seem to come thick and fast at this early stage of the season. But it will be around the ten-game mark that judgements will really be formed about how the League One campaign is going.

Predictions in football are for fools, it is often said. Then again, we all enjoy having a go! My own sense is that we will see a mid-table finish for the Grecians this term – though that is hardly a daring call.

It is clear, however, that Exeter City is aiming for much more than security or ‘mid-table obscurity’. With resources still tight, there is neither the talk nor the millions to match Notts County’s bold bid, from one division below us, towards Championship success within five years.

Even so, the aim is clear. The Grecians want to move into the second level in English football’s top flight for the first time, and the foundations for such an extraordinary achievement are being put in place at every level within the Club.

That doesn’t mean that the big time will come quickly or easily, of course, Indeed, the game is now littered with famous victims of the illusion that ‘going for bust’ is the way to realise your dreams. So it’s the right time City are aiming at, not a quick fix.

In one sense, the trauma that forms the backdrop to the emergence of Milton Keynes Dons is a lesson for us all. The 2004 move from Wimbledon to Buckinghamshire opened up a huge and bitter controversy that resonated way beyond the London Borough of Merton.

Finance-driven wrangles and what turned out to be the peremptory selling-off of a ground that would have been difficult to adapt to the safety requirements of the Taylor Report, following the Hillsborough tragedy, led to the demise of Wimbledon FC and the rise of what became dismissively known as ‘franchise football’.

Those who have stayed loyal to the Dons naturally don’t like to be reminded of all this. They dissent from the majority verdict on their ‘project’, and they point to the fact that the Club agreed to entrust the trophies and memorabilia of Wimbledon FC to the Borough of Merton in 2007, and to make no further claims to this history.

This move was taken in part to ensure the recognition of the MK Dons Supporters Association by the Football Supporters Federation, but it was also an attempt to bury the past and look to the future – which is what both the players and supporters with us this afternoon understandably want to concentrate on.

The ‘new story’ in Buckinghamshire saw its first significant victory on 30 March 2008 (my 50th birthday, it so happened), when the Dons won the Johnston’s Paint Trophy at Wembley by beating Grimsby Town 2-0. The club then took the League Two championship, and last year narrowly missed out on a return to the Championship, losing in the play-offs.

Following a difficult spell as manager of Blackburn Rovers, Paul Ince is once again in the dug-out at the Dons’ new 22,000 seater home – which is seeking consideration for expansion as one of 15 stadia for England’s putative World Cup hosting bid… though there are warning bells around that idea, too.

This afternoon, many will see the match as an encounter between two teams that represent quite different routes to football survival and success. Grecians fans will have no doubt as to which side they are on, and what result they want.

Sons keep on moving

Despite a difficult start to the season and some ongoing injury worries, Dumbarton are marching to Brechin today on the wave of two optimistic new signings. First, Denis McLaughlin finally concluded a one-year deal with Sons, having impressed during his on-loan spell from Hearts. Then, 27-year old 'keeper Jan Vojacek from the Czech Replublic received international clearance to sign for DFC from SK Sigma, who beat SPLers Aberdeen 8-1 on aggregate in the Europa League, before being humbled 5-1 by Everton.

Sorry Arsene, you’re wrong

I have always had tremendous admiration for Arsene Wenger. His deep passion for the game is matched by Gallic intellect, humanity, wit, genuine commitment to youth development and a concern for truly artistic football. But as he admitted in a recent interview, one of his weaknesses is that he sometimes allows a commendable loyalty to his players to overcome professional judgments about fair play. Consider UEFA’s decision to take action over Croatian international Eduardo’s exceptionally dubious penalty claim for Arsenal against Celtic (what to all intents and purposes looked like a dive) in the Champions League qualifier earlier this week.

Wenger says this decision “disgraceful” and “a witch-hunt”. That is nonsense. As the experiment in Scotland has shown, the only way to tackle cheating is to allow retrospective action over blatant examples. Either that, or to introduce the technology that makes better decisions possible. The Gunners’ manager says he fears that UEFA’s intervention compromises the long-held ethic that “the referee’s decision is final.” Well, the goal his team gained through Eduardo still stands, whatever the outcome of the decision about a match ban. And along with other English Premier League managers. Wenger has frequently questioned and criticised referees in a way which suggests that, when the circumstances suit, he views their decisions as decidedly less than sacrosanct. You cannot have it both ways.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Men versus Bhoys

No joy for Celtic this evening. At times it looked as if Arsenal were treating the game as a training match. Indeed, given their team selection and substitution, it was almost boys versus Bhoys. Eduardo's penalty was fortuitous, to put it politely. The replay showed no contact by Boruc. Celtic tried to push forward after Arsenal's opener, but with the exception of an offside goal from McDonald and a stunning (if intended) consolation strike by Donati in time added on, it was mainly a case of punt and hope. At 3-0 to the Gunners the tie was pretty much over at half time, sadly. The 5-1 aggregate result was a fair reflection of the gulf in class, even if three of Arsenal's goals had elements of fluke or deception in them. Next year, there will be no automatic SPL entrant to the group stages of the Champions League. It could be a long drought for Scottish football on the European stage.

Almost a sigh of relief

Ah well, it could have been worse. Dumbarton's scrambled 3-3 draw against fellow-strugglers Clyde at least means we have a point, even if we are propping up Division Two at the moment. After falling two behind inside 25 minutes, I feared the worst. Thank goodness for Clyde 'keeper Calum Reidford's red card. And the largeish home gate got a bit of entertainment with the goals -- not that the performance appeased Jim Chapman. Meanwhile, the signing of former Rangers youth defender Ross Harvey (pictured) looks hopeful, if my contact at Brechin is right.

As for the local lads, Exeter City clocked up an away win at Carlisle on Saturday, thanks to a Marcus Stewart penalty and a fair bt of hard work, by the sound of it. I'll catch the home game against MK Dons this weekend. That'll be the first time I've seen "Franchise FC". I'm told their new home is "soulless" and "a dump... Too symmetrical. Horrible place." The trip down to the southwest will be a refreshing change, then.

The second leg of the Champions League qualifier between Arsenal and Celtic will be on telly at my local this evening. I'll take a gander to reward myself for all the hard work I've done today -- but it could be painful. Supporting one of the Old Firm because, in this context, they're the underdogs: that's a strange business, too.

Tony Mowbray
wants the Bhoys to grab an early goal at the Emirates in order to have any chance of reversing the 2-0 deficit, achieved by the Gunners at Parkhead by two slightly lucky goals (though no-one could deny their embarrassing superiority overall). Frankly, they'll be lucky to stop Arsene Wenger's men grabbing a hatful. Still, Arsenal are a team whose ethic and footballing splendour I have great respect for - "the acceptable face of the big four" (if such a thing is possible). It would be really good to see them grab the English Premier League title this season. Won't happen, though. Still not enough staying power, I fear.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Getting back on track

First published in Sons View, 22 August 2009, Dumbarton -v- Clyde

For most of us connected with Dumbarton Football Club, there has been something almost unreal about the summer period. We have experienced tremendous highs and unfathomable lows, an incredibly tough pre-season run in, and issues way beyond football pulling us together.

It would be surprising if all this had not also taken our minds somewhat off the immediate task in hand – digging into SFL Division Two. It’s clear that Jim Chapman and the boys have done their level best to focus. But they (and we) are only human, and to some degree the initial difficulties of the new season are at least partially accountable to all that has been happening off the field, let alone on it.

Now it’s back to the bread and butter stuff of Scottish league football. And after the visit of Alloa to SHS and the trip to windy Arbroath, both ending in 3-1 defeats, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go for the Sons.

Any team that gains promotion has a big job on its hands re-shaping the squad for the challenge of higher division football, getting new signings to gel with existing players, and adapting to the fresh tactics that will be needed for different opposition.

After a few years in any league (as we were in the Third Division), a certain pattern of responding can set in, amid all the inevitable personnel changes. A mental attitude that tells us who we are and where we belong, if you like.

But the kind of stability this represents is not necessarily appropriate for the new situation. Indeed it almost certainly will not be. A new type of solidity will have to be achieved for the relatively fresh pastures of the Second Division.

Getting the team to take on board new ideas and possibilities while holding on to the best of what they have developed as individual players and as a squad can be tricky – especially when you are learning “on the job” against different opponents, and when you are having to look hard at where the gaps are and how they might be filled.

The boss has indicated that he sees weaknesses as well as strengths in all departments. In particular, Sons have leaked more goals than they should have in recent weeks, and there is a need for more ruthlessness up front. The higher you go in the game, the more important it is to grab rather than squander opportunities to clinch a goal or to out-manoeuvre the opposition.

Perhaps all that seems obvious, but in this game a lot of what works in theory doesn’t work in practice, and vice versa! That’s what makes football such an endlessly absorbing (and frustrating) sport to watch… and even more so to play, or to guide from the touchline and the training field.

Meanwhile, today we are welcoming one of the legendary sides of Scottish football to the Rock. As well as being local rivals, Clyde, founded five years after the Sons, in 1877, match Dumbarton with a proud history and solid aspirations. Their story is also joined to ours by a river that has been a site of struggles large and small over the years.

Recently I was re-watching a fine DVD called The Story of Scottish Football (Green Umbrella Sport & Leisure, 2003), partly narrated by that stalwart historian of the game, Bob Crampsey. I picked it up a couple of years ago on one of my periodic pilgrimages to Hampden and the Scottish Football History Museum – thoroughly recommended, if you haven’t ventured there yet, incidentally.

Suffice it to say that the men of Clyde are well recorded in this visual summary of the annuls of the game. In particular there is some good footage of the 1939 Scottish Cup Final, a match played at lightening pace and won 4-0 by the Bully Wee against Motherwell.

Clyde then held on to the famous trophy (less than willingly) for a total of six years, until the enforced hibernation of the Second World War ended, and normality could return to the disrupted domestic and international game.

Overall, our opponents have won the Scottish Cup on three occasions, and in the 1950s they were genuine challengers to the dominance of the Old Firm. Recent years have been much leaner of course, with the struggle for survival in the light of relegation temporarily eclipsing hopes of further glory.

Today both sides are hoping for a favourable twist in their fortunes and a boost to the 2009-10 Second Division campaign at this early but formative stage.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Phoenix Nights trumps Dallas

Naturally I'm waving the flag for Burnley this season -- not just because they are a model of local football propriety in a money-mad Premierbollocks world, but also because ("as any fule kno", says Molesworth) their boss Owen Coyle has achieved managerial greatness entirely as a result of his apprenticeship as a player at mighty Dumbarton.

It was a particular pleasure to see the Clarets beat a ramshackle Nearly-in-Manchester United 1-0 last night. Well, I say "watch", but I really mean "look at someone dementedly shouting at me from a Sky Sports News TV screen". Had I but known it, the game was actually showing in a pub next door. Plus the beer would have been a hundred times better. Bad research, Barrow.

Anyway, hearty congrats to the Turf Moor faithful. Even ex-New Labour toady Alastair Campbell [I'm being generous, and at least he's not a Tory], with whom I enjoyed a brief Twitter exchange about Burnley earlier in the year, on the edge of last season's promotion triumph. I'd dearly love them to stay up. Who in their right mind doesn't prefer Phoenix Nights to bloody Dallas, with or without the repulsively talented Cristiano Ronaldo?

[Picture: Peter Kay...? no, hang on, it's Owen looking pensive]

Good football will bring results

Exeter City played some good football against Yeovil on Tuesday night: the first league meeting of the two sides, incidentally. The first half performance was strong and there were flashes of inspiration, as well as plenty of determination, from City in the second period -- in spite of a significant revival from the Glovers. The concerns are a lack of first-touch sureness and consistency in the final third, the way the Grecians let their Somerset opponents back into the game immediately after the break, and the confidence factor for 'keeper Paul Jones. He is a very good shot-stopper, but sometimes his handling and assertiveness in the box can be uncertain, and his kicking is clearly inadequate. That was the root cause of Yeovil's (exceptionally well taken) equaliser. I'm sure boss Paul Tisdale can sort these and other problems out as the season progresses. He is putting together a side than can and will play attractive football, and that has its own rewards. But it only pays off if the finishing is good.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The complexities of a simple game

First published in The Grecian, 18 August 2009, Exeter City -v- Yeovil Town

My American friend was getting very confused – and who could blame him? “So you’ve already played Derby County recently, in a ‘friendly’, despite the fact that they took one of your best players off you. And now you’re saying this game on Tuesday night is called ‘a derby’, even though it’s against Yeovil – not Derby at all.”

Ah, dear. I maybe didn’t help much by commenting that playing Yeovil Town is “what you could probably call a derby, given the football geography of the southwest – even though they’re actually an hour away on the train, and in a different county, Somerset.”

I could tell by the expression on Andy’s face that this might be an apposite time for another pint! Whether things would be any clearer after that, I couldn’t predict. But I did manage to explain that the Grecians (“why on earth are they named after another country?”) couldn’t play Torquay United this season, because they’re a league below us – unless we draw them in a cup competition.

Likewise with the dreaded Plymouth Argyle, who are a league above us. And no, viewed one way, we don’t want them to be relegated because we’d like to go up ourselves and beat them next season. Well, except that most City fans would actually be delighted to see the Greens come down, and Exeter go up.

“Which means”, concluded Confused Andy in triumph, “that you wouldn’t get to beat them after all!” Well, yes, unless we drew them in a cup competition – but that could happen this season too, technically.

“So none of this promotion and relegation stuff is really relevant, then?” he responded, somewhat stunned. “Er… it’s very relevant, Andy. But not to cup competitions.”

At this point, I realised that I was about to be asked whether you got a cup for winning the league, and if so why that didn’t merit the league being called a cup. Or something like that. So instead, I suggested that a glass (or possibly two) of the very, very strong local scrumpy would be an ideal aid to football – not ‘soccer’ – comprehension. This brought the conversation to an end. As far as I can remember. (I had the cider, too.)

Seriously, though. Football, though essentially simple, can be confusing. There’s one thing that isn’t at all complicated about this fixture, however. And that is Exeter City’s need of three points, a good performance and hopefully a few goals off our local rivals tonight.

Once again, it’s going to be a big ask. Norwich, whom we came up against on Saturday, recently put four goals past the Glovers in the Carling Cup, while the Grecians were getting tanked 5-0 by QPR. So both sides have a lot of pride to recover, a ‘regional interest’ at stake, and a desire to get some real traction in League One.

Last term Yeovil survived in the division thanks to a good run of form with two wins and two draws against tough opposition, including a final 1-1 result against Tranmere Rovers. They needed every ounce of practical wisdom from their Club motto “Achieve by Unity” – and I imagine that this sentiment will be close to the heart of Reds’ boss Paul Tisdale, too.

But hang on, is this game a derby or not? Well, there are no strict parameters for local rivalries, and given that our region is spread out geographically and relatively thin on Football League sides (compared to some other areas we could mention), most will say “yes”. It certainly feels like a rivalry worth having, though thankfully without the rancour these things can occasion – never something I’ve really appreciated.

Meanwhile, it won’t surprise you, me or Confused Andy to know that there is no definitive answer to the question, “Why is a match between two local sides called ‘a derby’?”

One theory is that that it originated from The Derby horse race, founded by the 12th Earl of Derby in 1780. Another is that the ‘derby match’ arose with Liverpool and Everton, because their grounds were separated by Stanley Park, owned by the said Earl.

The most quoted possibility is that the term came from an early ‘all-in football’ game contested annually on Shrove Tuesday between the two halves of the town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

Whichever theory is correct, Grecians fans know what they want to go down in history as the outcome this evening. A win for Exeter City.

Looking for a break

Both Dumbarton and Exeter City are looking for their first league wins of the 2009-10 season. The situation is better for the Grecians, who take on Yeovil Town tonight after an impressive away display against Leeds United (though they lost 2-1 in the final seconds) and a 1-1 home draw against Norwich City.

Sons, on the other hand, have fallen 3-1 in their first two games and have to wait until Saturday for a crack at Clyde at SHS, where they really need a morale-boosting break. The Bully Wee have also had a disappointing start to the new term. But DFC manager Jim Chapman remains hopeful overall, in spite of the gloomy results.

In the modern game you can't lose matches without the grumble machine grinding into action, but I think we should have faith in Jim. Reassembling a part-time squad for the comparative rigours of Division Two isn't an easy task (unless you're commenting from the sidelines), but I still reckon Dumbarton can survive this year. Could be sticky, though.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Searching for winning ways

First published in The Grecian, 15 August 2009, Exeter City -v- Norwich City, League One

Well, that was the Carling Cup and Queen’s Park Rangers, then. A burst of anticipation, tension, excitement and disappointment in the August evening sun. Having a go at a trophy run is one thing; something that has eluded Exeter City for a fair few years. But these days it’s the League that’s seen as the real test of a football team’s mettle.

This is why Paul Tisdale and his talented squad will have moved rapidly on from dissecting Tuesday night’s performance and result in order to prepare, in some detail, for this afternoon’s fixture against Norwich City.

Though they’ve fallen on hard times lately, the Canaries are a still a notable example of a so-called ‘provincial’ side made good. To have ascended the heights of English football from a modest starting point is no mean achievement, but these days the price of getting into the Premier League and then seeing yourself ejected from it can be high indeed – what with the financial chasm that opens up through relegation.

Leeds, Southampton and Charlton are other examples of the downward trend of the once mighty – ones that make League One a particularly fascinating and challenging enterprise this season, along with the return of lost heroes from the lower reaches of the game.

In their first outing at Elland Road, City did the fans proud. The game and the points slipped frustratingly away in the dying embers of the match, but the effort, skill and guile the team showed on the pitch was extremely encouraging.

Indeed, to judge from the fans’ comments and from the media coverage the Leeds game attracted, you would almost think the Grecians had scored a famous victory, or walked off with not less than a point.

There’s a bit of a parallel here with City’s most famous recent FA Cup exploits, when it was two outstanding performances against Manchester United in 2006 by a then Conference side which the watching world remembers most, not the fact that the tie eventually went against Exeter at St James’ Park.

That was then. Today’s game is quite different, but it’s still going to be very competitive. The Grecians are back in the football’s third tier and on home soil for the first time this term. We need a win to show the bookmakers and other sceptics that we are no one-off (or indeed two-off) Devon wonders, but are here to stay… and to progress.

With one or two injury concerns and Barry Corr’s unfortunate three-match suspension, the onus may once again fall on younger players, alongside the backbone of experience embodied by a certain Mr Edwards. Whoever makes the final line-up, there will be no problem with motivation. And the seven-substitute role is offering a deserved chance to those rising through the ranks, as well as providing the flexibility the manager needs at this level.

Norwich, meanwhile, have a great deal of pride to restore after their unexpected 7-1 pasting against Colchester. All kinds of reasons have been advanced for this result, from bad luck to a wee bit of complacency, from key absences to an unfortunate combination of under-performance and the twist of the green.

One thing is certain though: Exeter will not be granted a free ride by the Canaries today. Quite the opposite. It is wise heads, good tactics, careful play and just the right amount of adventure that is most likely to decide the outcome of this afternoon’s encounter, with any rash moments or fits of unfettered optimism as liable to create opportunities for the other side as to seal them for your own.

That said, it’s as important not to put too much stress on the outcome of today’s game as it is to avoid early slippage. The season is a long one, and the dark winter months, the spring showers and the final sunny stretch will be just as important as the early part of the campaign. Peak too early and you fall away. Peak too late and you fail to fulfil your potential.

It’s boring to say, but overall consistency is the key. Which is one reason why Paul Tisdale is, and will continue to be, highly effective. He believes in winning and (as Brian Clough would have put it) “winning well”. But he doesn’t get carried away with particular moments of success or moments of failure. His aim is to keep moving forward, whether the momentum is with you or whether you feel as if you are being dragged down.

Let’s hope the Grecians are seen to be on the rise today.

Friday, 14 August 2009

More silverware for the Sons?

It may 'only' be the Stirlingshire Cup, but another piece of silverware for Dumbarton, hot on the heels of last season's Third Division Championship triumph (followed by a harrowing and tumultuous summer), would undoubtedly be a welcome boost for Sons. Unfortunately I won't be able to get to the Final against Stenhousemuir at Ochilview on 13 October - even though it would have enabled me to take in two DFC games in three days - because I have an existing work commitment. Fingers crossed, though.

Meanwhile, we're away on the coast at Gayfield for a tough match against Arbroath on Saturday. It's the first on-the-road fixture of the Division Two campaign, and will test Dumbarton both for consistency (in the sense of 'gelling' as a team) and strike-power. The elements could also provide some severe defensive challenges. Once again, Alan Findlay has compiled a good Match Preview on the official website.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Carling Cup fails to refresh City

Exeter got well and truly tanked by QPR in the first round of the Carling Cup the other night. The final result was 5-0. After a promising first half and signs of hope towards the beginning of the second, everything started to unravel after the first Rangers goal. The nadir was nigh (so to speak) when Scott Golbourne was sent off for handball just after the hour.

The Hoops played some superb, flowing football when the pressure was off, and Wayne Routledge was thoroughly deserving of his hat-trick. For some reason he reminds me of Danny Wallace. It was good to see Grecian fans in the stand applauding their tormentor-in-chief when he was substituted, and even better to hear the Big Bank cheering relentlessly even as City stared a mighty beating in the face.

Some of QPR's play in the final third of the game was a joy to behold - but Exeter manager Paul Tisdale was not smiling. He remains upbeat about the challenge of League One, though. Next up are Norwich City, who have just canned their boss Bryan Gunn after seven months (and a relegation and a 7-1 thrashing) in charge at Carrow Road. His last result for the Canaries was a 4-0 win over Yeovil Town, who come to Exeter next Tuesday night.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Why Grecian eyes are smiling

First published in The Grecian, 11 August 2009, Exeter City -v- QPR (Carling Cup)

Well, the wait is almost over. Following a momentous trip to Elland Road, Exeter City’s first home game of the new League One season against promotion hopefuls Norwich is only a week away. But first we have some important Carling Cup business against Queens Park Rangers.

A Championship side today, two of the toughest League One teams in rapid succession, and the likes of Southampton and Charlton still to come. Talk about a baptism of fire. As Grecians’ highly experienced back-up goalkeeper Andy Marriott commented recently: “The whole division reeks of class.” He added: “You have a number of teams who have all been in the Premier League. I don’t think League One has ever been so strong. There are no bad grounds to visit, no poor teams to play against.”

Given the strength of the opposition, City’s chances this season have already been downgraded by the bookmakers, and gaffer Paul Tisdale is far too wily to be offering his own predictions. As he said when we got into League Two last term, he hasn’t managed there before so he’s taking it on a case-by-case basis. The last thing you need to do when faced with a new challenge is to make a one-size-fits-all guess.

Instead, the Grecians have been testing themselves against the best in the pre-season. Spurs, with whom the Club has a strong relationship, proved predictably daunting, running out 3-0 winners. Derby County, now with added Deano, looked strong in their 3-1 win at St James’ Park, too. Now we face another much-fancied Championship side with wealthy owners, a new manager (Jim Magilton came in at the beginning of June), a strong history and big plans for the future.

The Grecians might be tempted to think that with the Premier League their number one target, the Hoops will not be so focussed on the Carling Cup. But that would be to misunderstand them entirely. QPR will relish a crack at silverware, and like us see this game as a good opportunity to try out new ideas and players. There will be no easing off on either side this afternoon.

As a measure of their ambition, two weeks ago Rangers re-signed Spurs midfielder Adel Taarabt on a season-long loan. The 20-year-old is a Moroccan international. He made seven appearances at Loftus Road last season, having moved to White Hart Lane from Lens in 2007. He also made 14 substitute appearances for Spurs, but naturally fancies more regular starts.

Jim Magilton commented: “Abdel's a match winner on his day and will bring added competition.” There will be plenty more QPR talent in all areas of the park today, but the Grecians will seek to match them for ingenuity and pace. Tisdale is continuing to build a side that can play attractively and think round corners. They’ll need both attributes against the Hoops.

So what can we expect from City? Well, against Derby, there were plenty of flashes of inspiration. The Grecians could even have had a couple more goals if split second chances and the odd deflection had gone their way. At the beginning of the second half, in particular, they took the game to a strong Rams’ defence and looked dangerous.

But there were plenty of spells where the gulf between League One and the Premier aspirants was strongly in evidence, in terms of technical skill, cunning, and the ability to break into the box without warning. 5-2 to Derby wouldn’t have been an unfair score. So the Reds know they have to up their game further this afternoon, and believe they can do so. Confidence (not over-confidence) is something the talented backroom crew have inspired in our players.

One last curiosity about QPR before we all sit back and enjoy the game. Telly star and City fanatic Adrian Edmondson has an interesting link to today’s visitors. In the BBC comedy series ‘Bottom’ he played a chap called Edward Hitler, who was a QPR supporter.

In his local pub, Ade’s character asked the landlord (one Dick Head) if it was true that he’d had a trial at Loftus Road. He said he had, and he’d floored Les Ferdinand in a sharp defensive ploy – only to discover it was an own goal.

The Grecians are unlikely to be able to rely on comedy antics to get them a result today, but we still hope to be smiling at the final whistle.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Young at heart

First published in Sons View, 08 August 2009, Dumbarton -v- Alloa Athletic

A quick calculation tells me that it is fifteen years since I last kicked a football in anger – that is, in a competitive match. If you think Sons’ 5-0 drubbing by Dunfermline last week was bad enough, you should have seen that.

I was in my mid-30s at the time, and I hadn’t done much by way of training for several years, but something in my over-optimistic brain nevertheless thought it would be fine to join a London 5-a-side league team that turned out to be stacked with youngsters. I blame my friend Paul. I lasted one game and could barely walk for a week!

Young at heart I might have been, but the ‘old in body’ bit let me down. Unlike the genuine youngsters who are coming through Dumbarton’s ambitious and hopeful Youth Development Initiative. If you follow the Club website, you’ll see regular updates on how the under-19s, 17s, 15s, 14s and 13s are doing. It’s inspiring stuff.

Organised youth football is a way to encourage the upcoming generations into the game, to keep Dumbarton’s profile up in the area, and to invest in our own future. Against the ’Shire in the Stirlingshire Cup recently we saw the benefits of all that hard work.

Manager Jim Chapman observed after that game that the youngsters had done well, and fans commented that they had played a major part in turning the game around – claiming back a two-goal deficit and winning on penalties.

They showed a lot of character, desire, and a first class attitude, declared Jim. “I'm a great believer in the phrase if players are good enough then they are good enough. But I don’t want to heap too much pressure on our kids. It’s all about development. The players know we look after them at Dumbarton Football Club.”

Keeper Michael White retained his place for what turned out to be a really tough Co-operative Insurance Cup game. But the gaffer was clear: “The lad has done very well since he re-joined us and I know have three great choices for the No 1 jersey… a great problem to have.”

Its important that we as fans do all we can to encourage the youngsters, both on the park and off it. Turning up to watch the youth teams and appreciating the work of the coaches and volunteers who help make it all happen is one way. There’s also fundraising through the Sportsmans Dinner, Walk to the Rock, and buying old programmes through Tommy Hughes on eBay.

The one thing I don’t advise, if you’re a crock like me, is pulling on a jersey and thinking you can take ’em on!

Playing the long game

When you’ve just lost the first league game of the season 3-1, at home, to one of the sides you might not instantly fancy to be ‘contenders’, emotions are bound to be mixed. More so if your pre-season has been a series of tough matches against superior, higher league opposition (plus one of the sides you left behind last year, who you only beat on penalties). Mix in triumph-turned-to-tragedy (the Division Three Championship, then your young captain’s terrible death) and a blend of upcoming youth and incoming experience which has yet to gel, with obvious gaps at the back and at the front, and… well, there’s an awful lot to contend with, and much less to go on than you’d like.

Suffice to say that Dumbarton manager Jim Chapman has his work cut out in the coming weeks. Alloa stung, undoubtedly. But it is only the first game. As a friend commented to me in an email yesterday: "We had seven clear cut chances and scored only once. They had three and converted them all. But no panic. 35 games to go..." What's more, we doubted many times last year, before that stunning seven-match run-in to glory. I stick by my judgment. Jim’s the right man moving towards the right blend on and off the pitch. We’ll finish mid-table. Or better. Then again, as Arsene Wenger commented earlier this week: “Football is unpredictable” – unless you’re the Old Firm in Scotland or the top few in England, perhaps, and even then…

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Pipped at the post

So near and yet so far. Realistically, Exeter City should be pleased with going to Leeds and coming away having lost 2-1 only in the last few minutes -- and with a man short, after a sending-off. A couple of seasons ago, a fixture and a result like this would have been unimaginable. And on the day it could so easily have been a draw away at Elland Road. But Paul Tisdale is probably still disappointed and dissatisfied, albeit with no intention of losing his cool or getting it out of perspective. It’s exactly those qualities that have made him such an immensely successful manager with the Grecians since he arrived (on a wave of mild scepticism) from Team Bath, of course. If City can play like this against a side fancied as Championship contenders, it ought to be a fair term for them. But it’s far to early for chickens and their counting.

On and in the box

In between work and a lunch appointment I caught Sky Sports News on a friend’s TV on Friday, and suddenly found myself looking at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. Once again the Scotland national squad were training in Dumbarton, this time in preparation for the vital World Cup qualifier clash in Norway on Wednesday 12 August.

It was good (and slightly surreal) to see Craig Gordon between the sticks at the Castle Road end of the ground. In the regular Sons View feature on particular supporters (‘Fan of the Week’), one of the questions concerns who they’d bring into the Club if money was no object. Many of the outfield ‘dreams’, though fun to contemplate, probably wouldn’t work – since a quality player is, in part, only as good as the positioning, anticipation, speed, skill and understanding of those around him. But having a top-notch keeper, though not to be disconnected from overall defensive capabilities, can make a huge difference in its own right.

That said, Sons have a solid man between the sticks, and I imagine he will be well tested in SFL Division Two this season.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

No team like the Sons

First published in Sons View, 08 August 2009, Dumbarton -v- Alloa Athletic

Ah, Alloa … what better way for Sons to kick off the 2009-10 season in SFL Division Two? OK, I can see you counting the possibilities on your fingers. But I’m sure you’ll still be welcoming the Wasps with customary Dumbarton good cheer – while hoping that they return to Recreation Park with their stings unused after a journey that proved pleasant but, well, pointless.

Actually, I have one resoundingly good memory of playing Athletic in recent times, which will hopefully set a precedent for today’s encounter. Back on 15 May 2004, Sons played the Wasps, in Division Two, in the last game of the season at SHS. Coincidentally, the last home game had been against Morton: though in a league rather than a cup match.

It turned out to be a gloriously sunny day. Sons had an outside chance of promotion, though we needed Hamilton Accies to ship at least four. That wasn’t ever going to happen. And it didn’t. Nevertheless, it was a good Dumbarton performance and we ran out deserved 3-1 winners to end the term in style.

After the game there may have been some regrets at silly points dropped earlier on that year, but the mood on the pitch, in the dressing room and on the terraces was very positive – as it will be this afternoon, with Sons celebrating our historic Division Three Championship in real style.

That Alloa encounter five years ago was special for me in another way. Partly because of life and work circumstances (not to mention 400 miles) it had been several years since I’d seen the Sons in action. Missing the last game at Boghead and the first at SHS had been a big disappointment (I was out of the country on both occasions) and I was feeling very much on ‘the far post’. Beyond it, in fact.

So that day I was reconnecting with my longstanding (at that point, 35 year) passion for the Sons; and that is exactly how it turned out. Just after midday I turned up at the Rock just to have a look at the ground. I was then planning to go to the Castle and have a pint before the game. But as I walked through the car park a friendly voice asked if he could help. It was Alan Findlay. Perhaps he thought I was dubiously casing a motor?

Anyway, we introduced ourselves and Alan immediately invited me to lunch on the Sonstrust table in the directors’ suite. I was gobsmacked. Here I was, a strange Englishman he’d never met before in his life, and certainly not dressed for the occasion. I was head to toe in faded denim. That caused one or two odd stares over a very good and well-oiled lunch! But it was a fabulous occasion and a great day, rounded off with that victory.

I left having signed up for the Trust and I haven’t looked back since. In fact in the last three or four seasons I’ve been upping my ‘business trips’ from the southwest or the Midlands to the Strathclyde region, and even made four straight home games in a row up to and including our friendly against St Mirren earlier this month.

Undoubtedly the greatest occasions, however, were those matches against Elgin and Annan Athletic that rounded off the 2008-9 season in title-winning triumph and ecstasy. It cost me and arm and a leg to be at both, but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. Winning 6-0 in our last home game and knowing that, barring a 17-goal lapse, we were champions for only the third time in my lifetime… this is the stuff football dreams are made of.

I must have watched those goals dozens of times of Sons TV by now (the poor Black and Whites defence fell for the same attacking ploy again and again!). That goes for the victory, trophy-lifting and celebrations at Galabank, too. I was on a high for many days afterwards, like many of you, I’m sure. Then tragedy struck. It’s been a sober summer of grieving, punctuated by heart-warming support for those who feel Guido’s loss so greatly. We will not forget.

But now is the time to celebrate once more: to feel thankful that we are back in Division Two, proud of this marvellous Club, thrilled to be a Dumbarton supporter – and, just to remind you if you haven’t signed up yet, a member of the incomparable Sonstrust.

All roads lead

It’s an exciting weekend for my locals, Exeter City. A trip to Elland Road is a fascinating and demanding way to kick off the Grecians’ first season in League One after back-to-back promotions. Whereas last term it took a little time to adjust from the Conference to League Two, this season there will be little room to manoeuvre, and ground lost in the opening weeks could be decisive in the long run. Maybe it works in City’s favour that they have been tagged as relegation strugglers. Leeds United, miles from former glory but with big ambitions, will not underestimate them. But few would put money on anything other than a clear Leeds win. Let’s hope the Grecians can pull off more surprises this year, sneaking past the guard of the big boys.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Singing from the same hymn sheet?

Given that we Sons fans are still smarting from yesterday's 5-0 thumping by Dunfermline in the Co-operative Insurance Cup (happy to give that yet another a plug, as I'm a great supporter of the co-operative movement), it was gently ironic. The second hymn at St Mary Arches in Exeter this morning, I mean -- which I couldn't help but notice was sung to the tune 'Dunfermline', in common time, from the 1615 Scottish Psalter. Not sure if we'd be able to work something up to Midge Ure's 1978 anthem, "The Sons We're The Ones"... which graced (if that's the right word) the old Boghead Park and is now heard on a regular basis at Strathclyde Homes Stadium. Football songs are generally proof that the diamond formation doesn't have all the best tunes... but Midge's tune does tend to get stuck in your head. Gimme a bottle of Ballantines, quick, somebody... to, er, keep my spirits up!

The ingredients for success

First published in Sons View, 02 February 2008, Dumbarton -v- Dunfermline Athletic (Cooperative Insurance Cup

Last year my local side, Exeter City, had a pre-season trialist who I gather had passed through the ranks of Dunfermline. He didn’t stay around long, but even so I spent a good few weeks explaining to baffled Devonians that, no, it’s Dumbarton I passionately support, not the Pars. And yes, they play in gold and black, not monochrome. All Scottish teams sound and look alike to the English, it seems.

Not that Exeter’s match day magazine editor needs that kind of discrepancy pointing out to him. A veteran football researcher, Mike Blackstone maintains a lively interest in all aspects of the game – not least developments in Scotland, where he takes in matches from Annan to Brechin and beyond, in the SFL and also in various junior leagues. He’s also been charitable enough to include a Sons logo in the Exeter programme on at least one occasion.

I’m sure Mike, who has yet to visit the Strathclyde Homes Stadium (I’m working on it) would instantly be able to relay a few key facts about the Pars, in between swigs of some fine ale or other – a further subject on which he is able to wax lyrical on his blog, Dark Rock Diaries ( Indeed, with a title like that, you’d almost mistake him for a Sons fan!

Suffice to say, as Mike would tell you (if you needed telling), the East End Parkers have a proud track record in this fine game of ours, not least in Cup competitions. In one of their strongest eras they claimed the Scottish Cup in 1961 and 1968, reached the quarter finals of the old inter-city Fairs Cup twice (1962 and 1966) and then got to the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1969 – three years before Rangers won it. In 2004 and 2007 they made it to the second qualifying round of these competitions’ successor, the UEFA Cup, but have yet to reach the first round proper.

Once seen as a natural top-flight side, the Pars were relegated from the SPL in 2006-7, after seven years there and a momentous struggle. Still a household name anywhere Scottish football is lived and breathed, Dunfermline are now keen to try to regain their past glories and status, in spite of the financial and other difficulties of securing sustainable success in the modern game.

When the Sons last met the Pars at SHS (their first visit here, on 21 July 2007) they ran out 5-1 winners, the Dumbarton consolation goal coming that day from David McFarlane. It was a friendly. In the previous competitive game, an April 1996 First Division match in the season Dunfermline won the title, we again lost 4-1.

Today will be undoubtedly be another tough outing. The Pars fancy a good run in the Co-Op Insurance Cup as a spur to the term ahead, and will see a tie against Dumbarton as a winnable proposition. Jim Chapman’s men, on the other hand, with the Morton Alba Cup game and several hard pre-season matches behind them, will be keen to get into gear to secure a firm foothold in Division Two.

Oh, and one other thing. I’ve been trying to think of something Exeter programme editor Mike Blackstone probably won’t know about the Pars… and I’ve come up with a bit of information that the Sons View supremo almost certainly will. Dunfermline’s steak bridie was judged by no less an authority than ground-hopping author Gary Sutherland to be “frankly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.”

The accolade occurs on page 176 of Sutherland’s Hunting Grounds: A Scottish Football Safari (Birlinn, 2007), a book that Graeme Robertson has been known to quote and extol in bars the length and breadth of the land. The Pars bridie even won the Scottish Football Pie Chart award, despite not actually being a pie.

I cannot pass further comment on this culinary delicacy myself, because I am a vegetarian, and therefore unwilling and unable to ingest its prime ingredient. What I can tell you is that Dumbarton’s macaroni cheese pie is usually a very satisfying complement to my day out at the Rock… and that it will be most palatable if the Sons are able to pull off a good performance this afternoon.

Best of all would be an upset of the footballing (rather than the stomach) variety.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Dumbarton out of the Co-Op Insurance Cup

Well, the precedent wasn't good anyway. But it's still sad that the Mighty DFC got whopped 5-0 at home to Dunfermline Athletic. Not so much of a "football family fun day" as we might have hoped, then. Presciently (as ever) my Far Post column in Sons View for this game -- which I'll post here tomorrow, when everyone has recovered a bit -- was entitled 'The ingredients for success'. In the longer run, I hope - though not too long, as we have Division Two to negotiate from next week, and we definitely want to stay there for a bit. Until we go up again, that is.

Making a return to Strathclyde Homes Stadium this afternoon, as Alan Findlay reminded us, was former Sons boss Gerry McCabe, now assistant to Pars manager Jim McIntyre. Gerry held the Dumbarton managerial reins in season 2007-8. Also back at the Rock with the opposition was midfielder Graeme Holmes, who spent eight months with Sons in 2004-5, pulling on the famous gold jersey on 12 occasions.

Today "David Graham opened the scoring early for the Pars, with Andy Kirk finding the net twice and Alex Burke and Steven Bell also scoring," writes Alan. "Sons also had Iain Chisholm sent off for a second bookable offence on an afternoon to forget."

Farewell, dazzler Bobby...

Sad though not unexpected to hear of the death of Bobby Robson, after his long, repeated and brave battle with cancer. The tributes have been fulsome, but in this case rightly so - with many noting the great personal qualities of the man... some of which seem sadly lost on a number of his successors in the management game. The Guardian summed it up by noting that he "became the heart that English football wore on its sleeve." Sir Bobson Robson (as he was once referred to on Japanese TV, I'm told) was a person formed by the mining community he grew up in, by football, and by a certain old-fashioned working class civility and humour. Some old fashions are great, it should be noted!

He thought long and hard about the game, too, though this didn't always come across in his public statements, which could be gloriously prone to those amusing little slips beloved of hacks and Private Eye's Colemanballs. One of my favourites (I can't recall the exact occasion) was when, during a piece of extempore TV punditry, he declared: "If our lads can get ahead and keep it that way to the end of the game, I'm convinced we can win."

Other classic and affectionately remembered word fumbles that have made it to the web include: "We didn't underestimate them. They were a lot better than we thought" - after England nearly lost to Cameroon at the World Cup in 1990; "Football's like a big market place and people go to the market every day to buy their vegetables" (don't mention turnips!); "If you don't score you are not going to win a match"; "The first 90 minutes of the match are the most important"; "If you count your chickens before they have hatched, they won't lay an egg"; "Don't ask me what a typical Brazilian is because I don't know what a typical Brazilian is. But Romario was a typical Brazilian"; "Jermaine Jenas is a fit lad. He gets from box to box in all of 90 minutes"; "Yeading was a potential banana blip for Newcastle"; "He's very fast and if he gets a yard ahead of himself nobody will catch him"; "There will be a game where somebody scores more than Brazil and that might be the game that they lose"; and finally... "We don't want our players to be monks. We want them to be better football players because a monk doesn't play football at this level."

Dumbarton's keeper is nicknamed The Monk, by the way. And he's not doing too badly... Well, OK, Saturday wasn't great.