Saturday, 3 October 2009

The toughest job in football

First published in Sons View, 03 October 2009, Dumbarton -v- Stirling Albion

A week is a long time in politics, declared one prime ministerial Harold. Asked what made the job of leading the country so demanding, another famously replied: “Events, dear boy. Events.” Even so, Messrs Wilson and Macmillan never had to run a football club, and for the most part they didn’t have to face a highly vocal group of supporters on a regular basis, either. Remember, theirs was the era before the circus of televised parliamentary questions and news replays.

What’s the toughest job in football? On a rainy day it’s probably an even split between being a long-suffering manager and a long-suffering supporter. When you have power, the cost of responsibility is high and every decision or utterance invites unforgiving scrutiny. When you watch from the stands, every downturn feels like a kick in the guts and the multiplicity of solutions on offer all look deceptively clear. For both parties the tide of fortune can shift radically from one Saturday to the next.

A week ago, Dumbarton defied mounting despair at the Rock with a gutsy performance and a vital last minute 2-1 win away to full-strength Peterhead, who were benefiting from the momentum of a victory on the road at Arbroath. It was a tremendous achievement for the Sons. Just the fillip Jim Chapman, the players and the fans had been willing.

So the course of events has swung Sons’ way again. But hold on. We now face league leaders Stirling Albion. The pundits would give us credit for a point. But it’s three that the team and the boss will be aiming at, to banish a torrid start to the season and chart us towards Second Division safety, at least.

When Jim responded to what he saw as negativity creeping into the club in the wake of a grim pre-season and a disappointing opening to the new campaign, not everyone was happy. Personally, I like managers who speak their mind, and who also listen. After all, we supporters are pretty vocal. But if it’s going to be a useful conversation, there has to be some hearing at our end, too.

Before heading for Balmoor, the gaffer made it clear that what he wants is not silence but solidarity. He declared: “I completely understand how everyone is feeling because I feel the same way. We are all in this together… Everyone, and I mean everyone, is working very, very hard to turn things round. Encouragement is important when times are tough. The players really do appreciate the backing they get.”

Some years ago I heard similar sentiments from one Brian Clough – but with a bluntness that makes the rhetoric of the modern game look more like, well, ‘management speak’! Wearing his heart (and mouth) on his sleeve was one of Cloughie’s characteristic traits, earning him respect and opprobrium in equal proportions.

Back in 1989, when I was a journalist on a small labour movement newspaper, I foolishly spurned the opportunity to interview Old Big 'Ead. I don’t know what possessed me. Still, I dutifully fixed up an agency photographer to accompany our young reporter – who had sensibly seen the gap and darted in to score!

The camera wielder in question liked to sport a spiky hairdo and ponytail. Needless to say, Mr Clough was not impressed, and the poor boy returned with a flea in his ear as well as a picture or two.

As a distraction from Dumbarton’s woes, I recently forked out for the DVD of ‘The Damned United’. It brought this minor incident – and the many more serious trials of football – back to mind. The film is a much warmer (and fairer) portrait of Clough than David Peace’s dark, psychological novel.

Tom Hooper’s movie captures a man whose complexity issued in a surprisingly straightforward and idealistic approach to the game, and whose flawed ingenuity could veer between angular wisdom and breathtaking foolishness in considerably less than a week – especially without the more prosaic accompanying skills of Peter Taylor.

Here at Dumbarton we are not without our dramas, past, present and (no doubt) future. None of these quite matches the highs and lows of the cinematic Brian Clough. But they matter to us. And if there’s one clear lesson from the film – and from football over the years – it’s that when a club is divided, it falls.

This afternoon everyone connected with Dumbarton FC will be as one in urging the team towards another solid performance and, we hope, a good result against Stirling. That’s the kind of spirit we need not just for one match, but for the rest of the season.

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