Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Unto us, the Sons - a blizzard

A very happy Christmastide and New Year to you all... courtesy of a festive greetings image nabbed from the worthy Sonstrust, with fulsome acknowledgments.

It's been a bit of a down Festive Season for Dumbarton so far, football-wise. The home game against Alloa Athletic (which I had travelled from Birmingham to see) went down to a frozen pitch, and then the away match against Clyde was called off -- another predictable victim of the cold snap. It's fingers crossed for Stenhousemuir at the SHS on 2 January 2010 now... though no-one would put a huge amount of money on that surviving, given the forecasts. The Winter chill will no doubt re-enliven the perennial debate about a December-January break in Scotland. The difficulty is that more than a couple of weeks off is too disruptive, and in any case games can be imperilled at other times, as well. November and February can be pretty dicey, for example. We even lost a game against Forfar at the beginning of April 2008, though that was partly due to drainage problems with the pitch (since resolved).

So summer football, anyone? That would be theoretically possible in the lower divisions, unlike the SPL. But it would throw Cup competitions into difficulty, unsettle fans, clash with holidays and create further continuity problems with the top flight, who are still driven by the Europe agenda -- even if the chances of entry or success in the Europa and Champions Leagues seems to be receding all the time. It's a fair conundrum. But despair not, good Sons fans. I still think we can have a positive second half of the season!

Monday, 28 December 2009

Orient need three kings or so

Another good day out at the football for me today, albeit one that unfortunately did not end positively for my O's-supporting friend Kevin Scully and his companions. Leyton Orient now find themselves awkwardly planted in the League One relegation zone after throwing away a valuable lead against relative high-flyers Southend.

This is not the first time the O's have suddenly buckled after gaining the advantage -- far from it -- and bad footballing habits can be difficult to unmake. First, Adam Chambers put the home side ahead on 57 minutes at Brisbane Road, with a very well-taken opportunistic strike from a loose ball. But within a minute or so the first of two unfortunate defensive slips was punished by Southend captain Adam Barrett. Orient's game then seemed gradually to disintegrate, and after another 15 minutes midfielder Alan McCormack pounced on Lee Barnard's blocked shot to make it 1-2. Barnard is an ex-O himself, though that will be of no comfort to the home fans.

Ironically, Orient played some good football, especially in the opening spell. However, it is errors at the back and a lack of incisiveness up front which often do the lasting damage at this level. Patulea, who I saw score for Orient against Brighton in the Carling Cup earlier this season, had a stinking first half and was rightly replaced by the much sharper looking Pires. Young Townsend, on loan from Spurs until January 2010, was by far Orient's best player, and McGleish and Chorley turned in solid performances overall.

There was little other inspiration in the O's side, however, and with the aforementioned Seagulls (who they drew with 0-0 on Boxing Day) coming back from two behind to trounce Wycombe Wanderers 5-2, they slumped to 21st spot and will struggle to survive on current form. Mind you, so will my (until recently) local side Exeter City, who are losing regularly on the road and could only grab a home point against Gillingham, with three tough games about to hit them. It's crunch time.

And yes, I know, it should be Os rather than O's. But the greengrocer's apostrophe has some helpful differentiating uses...

In Trusts we trust

First published in The Grecian, 28 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Gillingham

So Exeter City's neighbours Plymouth have secured one of the coveted places as a potential World Cup venue in England’s bid to host the 2018 competition. This news (not so new now!) has generated a mixed response among the Exeter faithful… unsurprisingly, given the not-always-friendly sense of football competition between the two cities.

Personally I hope a sporting response will win out over instincts towards rancour when it comes to anything connected with our green rivals. After all, there’s justifiable pride in Devon and southwest at stake here, together with tangible benefits for both Exeter and Torquay in terms of related facilities.

There’s also the more fragile promise of economic benefit and a tourism boost for the region if Plymouth survive the final hurdle – Bristol are their more favoured competitors for a regional venue – and if England win the bid.

That’s two big “ifs” already. A further one concerns the longer-term viability of a 45,000-seater stadium for the Pilgrims. A ground share with the Grecians, perhaps? Don’t worry, I’m only kidding!

Nevertheless, as the situation at Everton demonstrates, even big clubs may have to think the unthinkable in terms of resources and development as the financial noose around the game becomes even tighter in our credit-crunched and environmentally threatened world.

In other European countries fierce rivals sometimes share grounds, and many clubs hire or share facilities rather than owning them outright. In Britain that seems culturally odd and out of synch with the way the game has evolved. But it will be interesting to see where we are in 25 years time.

Talking of proprietorship, I hope football fans across the country will be making New Year’s resolutions to back even more Trusts with a stake in owning and running their clubs.

The Trust movement and Supporters Direct are still thriving, in spite of recent difficulties and resistance from some of the ‘old guard’. It is a source of pride in Exeter that we are now the only fully Trust-owned club in the Football League. But I still wish there were many more.

The sad mess at Notts County ought to serve as a solid warning to those who think that provident societies are just a temporary phase for a team seeking to avert a crisis before they move on to “bigger and better things” – that is, finding a gold-rich benefactor to hand over the millions which will ensure their success.

In truth, leaning on the super-rich is a highly fallible process, and often downright dangerous. Rather than keeping a club close to those who care about it most, the supporters, megacorp ownership makes it prey to the whims, fortunes and debts of wheeler-dealers.

This is a problem for football aristocrats too. Liverpool’s possibilities of winning the Premier League, for example, are now ransomed to the debt-servicing needs of their American owners. And only Manchester United’s massive global market is preventing them from having similar problems. But where did that £80 million for Ronaldo go, we might ask ourselves?

This is a different universe to the one inhabited by Exeter City. But perils lurk in our territory too. Some fans on Exeweb and elsewhere think that our Trust will need to sell out to a sugar daddy in order to secure a dream of regular Championship football. Notts County fans thought that too, and gave away everything they had built up for a pittance in exchange for Munto’s empty promises. Now they are hoping that Sven and his friends can do some more magic.

The real danger is that if a wealthy way forward is found for County (which in football terms we all hope will be the case) it will breed complacency among others about the tycoon route to ‘success’. It shouldn’t. We need to grow up and realise that not every team can aspire to the highest level. It is the game as a whole that we should be seeking to benefit. The best way to do that is for fans to be more involved – and more realistic in their expectations.

This principle also applies to the web-based MyFootballClub experiment, too. Ebbsfleet looked to have cracked this a couple of years ago when they were chosen as recipients of the largess of the £35 punters. Now that, too, is unravelling.

So my hope for 2010 is that the Trust movement will gain fresh traction. Exeter City has been offering a lead. Hopefully that’s also what we will have secured at the end of 90 minutes against Gillingham. Enjoy the game and happy New Year!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A Boxing Day outing to Loftus Road

Staying in Bethnal Green over Christmas, and hosted by a Leyton Orient fan who had decided that a 1pm away kick-off in Brighton (at the unappealing Withdean Stadium) was too much for Boxing Day, we instead found ourselves proceeding down the Central Line in search of alternative football entertainment. White City it was, then: the nearest tube stop to Queen's Park Rangers' famous Loftus Road ground. The assignment was a Championship match pitting QPR against Bristol City (also poised tantalisingly outside the play-off zone, with both sides eyeing the ultimate prize: a Premier League spot).

The ground itself is pleasantly comfortable, if archetypally boxy. A not-insubstantial thirty quid purchased seats with a great site-line at the corner of the ground. The tea was the best I've tasted at a football match for some time -- though the cheese and onion pasty is better passed over. Unusually, the PA system was crystal clear (if a bit deafening when music was booming out of the speakers), and the ground also boasts video replay screens. Not one for hard-line puritans and purists, I guess; but, for me, a welcome bonus.

To the game itself. The first fifteen minutes were tentative and lacking in shape and quality. Then things took off, with both sides making penetrating runs and developing a fast passing game. On the half hour QPR took the lead after Fitz Hall (who rejoices in the nickname 'One Size') crossed in for Jay Simpson to score with a sweet strike after an uncertain first touch. The home side were in the ascendancy now, and nine minutes letter added a second goal from Mikele Leigertwood, with a well curved twenty yarder.

Following the break, QPR started to lose the plot. Some 12 minutes into the second period Bristol City's Nicky Maynard pulled one back for the visitors with a stunning strike -- surely the goal of the day. Gratifyingly, the Rangers fans around me responded with generous applause. Who says good grace has gone out of the game altogether? City had now found their pace and continued to torment their opponents until QPR's new manager Paul Hart (this was his first home game) decided to shut up shop, bringing on two left backs and throwing six across the back.

The home fans reacted with fury, throwing "You don't know what you're doing" and "We're supposed to be at home" back at the gaffer. The last quarter of an hour was full of tension, as the Robins pressed forward and QPR looked uneasy on the back foot. After a torrid time at Premier League basement side Portsmouth, and inheriting a Rangers team with big ambitions but no wins in five games, it seems that Hart was desperate for victory. And that he achieved, if only to leave the field with louder boos than cheers ringing in his ears. Queens Park Rangers fans want positive football as well as positive results, it seems. (However, their subsequent attempt to combine both ended up with a 3-0 thumping at Ipswich, so they may have to adjust their expectations).

Altogether this was a good, if not cheap, day out for the neutral observer. For me it was also the second time I'd watched a side with "Queens" and "Park" in their name inside ten days. One for the curiosity file, that.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Football in extremis

Since Dumbarton's home tie against Alloa was called off, a few Sons fans decided to make the trek to Hampden Park in Glasgow instead, to catch the only surviving lower league game of the day last Saturday -- Queens Park against Montrose. My compatriots were not mightily impressed by the game, though I've seen far worse myself. You could certainly see why both sides are struggling in the lower reaches of the SFL Third Division at the moment. Indeed, the Gable Endies have not won a game all season so far and are rooted firmly to the foot of the table. That didn't change on 19 December 2009, as Queens came out 3-2 victors in a match which lacked much shape or inspiration, but which thankfully benefited from several pretty good goals --- including a wondrous 25-yard last-minute strike from the Angus visitors' Daryl Nicol. That gave the home side a bit of a late panic, but Montrose ran out of time and in any case never looked like capitalising on the fleeting sight of a point.

As you'll see from the picture, the match was conducted in freezing conditions and at times it was rather like watching a two patterns of ants chasing an orange pea through a green maze. Shortly before kick-off, which was delayed by 15 minutes, there was a sudden snow flurry which almost put the fixture in peril. A wilder storm from the same weather configuration led to the last-minute abandonment of Hamilton Accies versus Dundee United in the SPL, apparently.

Meanwhile, of the 50,000 seats available at Hampden, only 397 were occupied for this fourth level encounter. Davie, Denise, Tommy (pictured below) and I were in what was in theory the 'away end', though segregation is hardly rigorous. My huge rucksack wasn't even searched when we went through the turnstiles. Unthinkable down south. As the game reached its denouement I calculated that we Sons fans amounted to getting on for 20 per cent of those present in the away section of the ground! Surreal. The half-time tea and pie were much needed as the cold began to bite, too. I was fortunate enough to be able to sneak into the loo during the break to put on my thermals. It was still extremity freezing for the next 45 minutes. Altogether a "real football experience" of the sort that those not enchanted with the game often fail to understand, but which those of us with it coursing through our veins somehow manage to relish in a perverse way.

For me the additional interest of the match was that it was actually the first live game I'd seen in the new(ish) national stadium. I've been to Hampden on several occasions to take in the Scottish Football History museum and the stadium tour, but I've never got to a Scotland game or cup event there: or indeed a Spiders home match until this one. That in spite of knowing at least one Queens supporter, a former college room-mate called Paul Bladworth. (If you happen to chance across this post, Paul, do drop me a line, as I have lost your address.) I must say I greatly prefer New Hampden to New Wembley, which is architecturally splendid but rather soulless. I duly resolved to try to get to a Scotland home game under new boss Craig Levein, who I believe is going to do as well as anyone could reasonably expect given limited resources and the sorry state of the Scottish game at the moment.

As a footnote, I should add that, at £2 a go, Queens Park's programme is undoubtedly one of the best in the lower leagues these days -- both in colourful presentation and in well-written and well-edited content.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Becoming a fair weather fan

Ah well, two games called off in a row for me: the (non) luck of the draw. The upshot is that I'm seriously thinking of becoming a fair weather Dumbarton fan. Not in the usual listless sense of the term. More in terms of resolving rather more carefully to travel several hundred miles only when there's a realistically high chance of getting a game - i.e. not in pitch winter!

Several days beforehand I'd already figured that the Alloa Athletic game at SHS on 19 December was likely to be frozen out, and indeed it was. By the time the news came through, however, I was already on the train... and in any case, travel has to be booked weeks in advance unless you want to fork out a fortune. Thankfully, I'd already switched my ball sponsorship (marking my 40th anniversary of supporting Sons) to 20 February next year, versus Clyde. Not that this is any climactic guarantee. In effect the 'football Winter' in Scotland is November to March -- which is one of several reasons why a seasonal break, while highly desirable in theory, isn't very practical in the lower divisions.

However I'm not complaining, I should hasten to add. I still had a great time. First, on a trip to Hampden for Queens Park versus Montrose, the only game that survived the weather in the second and third divisions (that's me sporting DFC colours in the national stadium). Then an evening out in Dumbarton with Sons fans -- a fantastic bunch! -- which lasted well into the early hours. Everything but the game... Ah well, next time.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Digging in for victory

First published in The Grecian, 19 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Southend

In recent years, Exeter City’s seasons have often grown stronger as they have progressed. That has certainly been the case under the tutelage of Paul Tisdale, and while they may have given Grecians’ fans a few jitters along the way, the past two terms have ended up being a cause for celebration rather than trepidation.

Unsurprisingly, League One is proving a really tough proposition, and following three straight defeats against Oldham, Brighton and Bristol Rovers, in which City have also failed to score, the determination of the home side to turn the tide today, so that we can get into a proper Festive swing again, will be very strong – as our visitors from Southend are bound to be aware.

As the cold sets in, the challenge for the Grecians is to ‘dig for victory’ and not to let a debilitating climate get to them too much. I’m thinking of the league table (which, as is often said, does not lie) as well as the obvious climatic conditions!

The approaching New Year is necessarily a time to look forward rather than back, but that isn’t automatically a source of consolation either. On or before 16 January 2010, Exeter face some massive fixtures. We come up against Southampton and Norwich away from home, and then Leeds United at St James Park – a mouth-watering prospect that one, and unimaginable only 18 months ago. The solid performance at Elland Road back in August (when we lost 2-1, but were unlucky not to come away with a point) shows the team have nothing to fear, but much to achieve.

Being a skilful side, the Grecians sometimes find their feet better against the really demanding opposition than when taking on what some might consider ‘journeyman’ teams. But whatever the opposition, the right frame of mind and the correct preparation remains vital. And that is in our hands, not somebody else’s.

Over the past few weeks it seems that we have lacked a killer touch in the final third once more. That appears to come and go with us. At Boundary Park we failed to take early chances. Opponents now know very well that City can keep the ball on the deck and move it around effectively, so they tend to sit back and close down spaces – waiting for chances to break away, for the occasional mistake from us, or for a loss of momentum in the game.

This means its important not to be predictable. Hopefully City will have one or two surprises up their sleeves (or should I say, “at their feet!”) for Southend this afternoon, away at St Mary’s on Boxing Day, and then for the visit of Gillingham to the southwest two days later.

It’s a demanding winter schedule, and one not made any easier by the realisation that the Grecians sit only a couple of points off the relegation zone. That said, the division as a whole has stayed pretty tight, and a few good results could alter the complexion of the situation significantly.

What is certain is that our 2009-10 campaign will go the full distance, that more than a handful of teams will find themselves caught up in a struggle for survival and better, that there will be no easy games, and that many of those we face will have considerably larger financial and other resources at their disposal than we do.

What Exeter City possesses in greater abundance, however, is community spirit and determination – together with some of the best coaching staff in the division. Things are difficult at the moment, for sure. But that’s precisely why it is desirable not to put yourself under any more pressure than you already face from your opponents on the pitch.

Equally, it is important to gain insight from the inevitable setbacks, rather than to wallow in recrimination or to allow division to set in. That includes the relationship between players and fans, as well as what goes on in the dressing room.

Overall, given the swings and roundabouts, it seems to me that Exeter City are continuing to hold their own commendably in an unyielding segment of the Football League pyramid. As the season progresses, and as more lessons are learned, so more opportunities will be opened up for consolidation and progress in our different performance ‘departments’, from front to back and all stations in between.

Right now, it’s the team’s morale that needs a boost – and that is something the fans can help to provide. Taking a glance back over the club’s recent history there’s a huge amount to be grateful for, and even more reason to go on cheering the current red and white’s squad into 2010.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Seeking a bit of festive cheer

First published in Sons View, 19 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- Alloa Athletic - POSTPONED DUE TO A FROZEN PITCH

Ask any Dumbarton fan what they want for Christmas and it’s a fair bet that a haul of points from our next three games against Alloa Athletic, Clyde and Stenhousemuir will be high up the list – especially after the bitterly disappointing start to the Festive season at SHS last Saturday.

Sons’ performance against East Fife, which denied us the possibility of slipping into the Division Two play-off places and battered our goal difference by three, will have been thoroughly dissected in the dressing room before that tough trip to take on the high-flying Binos on Tuesday night.

I hate to say it, but it could have been worse. Over in Germany, while the Sons were being whipped by the Fifers, Hanover 96 managed to score six goals and still lose by two to Borussia Moenchengladbach. They did this by putting three into their own net. The moral for us long-suffering fans is that there’s always someone with more to moan about than you!

At this time of year, though, we’re all trying to look on the bright side. So what we need for these two home games is some loud seasonal cheering for the Mighty DFC, and a couple of Rock-like performances on the home pitch – which will hopefully hold up against the vagaries of the weather.

I’m especially keeping my fingers crossed for Alloa, as my last visit from down south was for the game against Peterhead that got called off at the last minute. Not that it was wasted. There was plenty of socialising to brighten a damp afternoon, and it was a special privilege to meet Sons goalkeeping legend Laurie Williams – a fine man, as well as a fantastic servant of the Club.

This month I’m celebrating 40 years as a Dumbarton supporter. I’ve just figured out that it’s only another eight before I get to apply for my concessionary bus pass, too… though it’ll probably be changed from 60 to 65 by the time I arrive, and it won’t quite propel me to the Rock on a routine basis unless I can wheedle a relocation to Scotland.

Quite a number of you will have a purchased Sons’ third strip this season, and there may even be a few being delivered by Santa. I recently splashed out on a Toffs ‘classic’ white + single gold-and-black hoop 1970s home shirt – also the design for the 1997-8 away strip, if I recall correctly.

It really is an attractive design. I admit that I prefer the one without advertising (sorry Ballantyne’s, I’d better be quaffing you later!), and mine has an additional feature: ‘Barrow’ and a number 9 on the back. This should enable you to spot me more easily in the Community Suite if you fancy a drink or a chat.

On reflection I could have made that number 40, I guess. But the romance of the old-fashioned centre forward is hard to resist. Actually I used to play as a centre back. Fast, not particularly skilled, but able to hassle and harry for all I was worth. Those are the kind of attributes Sons still need (plus the skill and a decent crop of goals, of course) in order to ensure a good finish to the season.

Meanwhile, my mind drifts back to the 1969-70 term. Sons finished 7th in the Second Division and Laurie Williams began his famous Sons career away to Queen of the South on 28 March – two days before my twelfth birthday. The 9 shirt for most of that season was with another legend, Kenny Jenkins, sadly recently departed.

Kenny had been a centre forward at his previous club – Alloa Athletic, as it happens – and started in that role for Sons, before switching to right back the next season. That was the position he took against Celtic in the famous replayed Scottish League Cup semi-final at Hampden in October 1970. His successor was Roy McCormack, who had stepped in for him at number 9 from mid-January until Laurie’s League debut.

That was then, this is now. Today, the Wasps are more-or-less where Dumbarton would like to be in the second division, while opening up a gulf between ourselves and those below us – including the Bully Wee and the Warriors – has got to be the seasonal priority.

Have a good Christmas, whatever you are doing, and I’m sure our thoughts will especially be with Kelly, Kai and the Lennon family at this time. It’s been a year of triumph, trial and tragedy. Good things for all in 2010, we hope.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sons bounce back

By all accounts Stirling Albion had the lion's share of the near misses last night -- but Dumbarton lead twice through Chris Craig and Derek Carcary [picture], and would have snapped all three points but for a late Binos' goal from Stewart Devine. 2-2 is a respectable result in the circumstances, and points on Saturday against Alloa would see Sons set up for a decent set of Christmas and New Year results. Hopefully. Good luck to Albion in their ownership quest, incidentally. 2,000 trust members is impressive. Given the ongoing farce at Notts County (which should also give due warning to a few at Exeter City who talk about selling out the fans' control for Championship-sized gold if a cash-rich owner came onto the horizon), Stirling Albion Supporters Trust chair Paul Goodwin is very sensible to say, according to the BBC: "The club has become disenfranchised from the community for a long, long time. We would want some boardroom recognition before we parted with any money."

Monday, 14 December 2009

How much agony for the ecstasy?

A dose of good sense from Robert Ryan on Sonsteam: "Saturday was rubbish, of course, but anyone who thought we weren't going to get a few days like that when we got promoted was surely in denial. If following Sons for nigh on 40 years has taught me anything it is that no matter the owner, no matter the manager and no matter the players, neither a good performance nor a victory is ever to be taken for granted and that is the same for any provincial club. However the corollary of that is that a defeat or bad performance is never assured either. If we finish mid-table that's progress."

Quite. Though as I observed in my response, living miles away and getting to see Dumbarton comparatively rarely, I'm in the distinctly Pythonesque position of craving any game -- even a bad one that we lose, frankly... though preferably something much better. Please. On the 19 December against Alloa, for example...? (Not forgetting the Binos tomorrow.)

Footballing loyalty, eh? It wobbles yer heart and turns yer brain to mush.

Anyway, here's a picture to sum it all up. Strathclyde Homes Stadium floodlit, but still decidedly murky -- exuding "a deep but dazzling darkness", as Henry Vaughan might have put it, if he'd have had the first clue about the Beautiful Game.

Jim takes it on the chin

Dumbarton boss Jim Chapman has been pretty forthright in deflecting the blame from his players for Saturday's extremely disappointing 3-0 home defeat, at the hands of East Fife, and taking it upon himself. There seems to be a trend among supporters in modern football that a bad result or an uninspiring run is some kind of global catastrophe that calls for desertions, resignations and shamings. Passionate though I am about the game, and the Sons, I've never shared that philosophy. As Ken Loach remarks in a recent documentary, "football is a real gym of the emotions", but not letting them carry you away is (as in life) a difficult but worthwhile art to learn. So is perspective. In this case, Sons are still in a pretty good place in the second division. A point away against Stirling Albion and a win against Alloa on Saturday (I'll be there for that one) would put a very different complexion on things. The Binos and the Wasps will both be tough, however. The games against Clyde and Stenhousemuir are probably even more important, because these teams are below us - and we definitely want to keep it that way.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Measuring football devotion

First published in Sons View, 12 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- East Fife

Have you ever spent time trying to figure out precisely how much of your life you spend contemplating the wonders and weirdness of football – most particularly the ins and outs, why and wherefores, and ups and downs of Dumbarton FC? If so, you have my sympathy. For a small consideration I can even give you the name of someone you could consult professionally over this problem.

But seriously – who says there’s anything wrong with thinking about football? Some years ago a psychologist came up with the well-broadcast (but probably not very scientific) fact that most men are supposed to think about sex every eight seconds. What that means, when you think about it (yes, I spend far too much time thinking, most of it unpaid!) is that on average one eighth of your life is spent this way, not that you are suffering from some kind of salacious mental tic that kicks in every few seconds.

Similarly, while most human beings spend roughly one-third of their lives sleeping, it doesn’t follow that all their sleep occurs in one continuous session starting at birth and ending around the age of 25. Well, OK, this seems to happen with some students… but you get my point.

Now the reason that these statistical distinctions are significant is that non-football initiated partners and friends of those devoted to the Beautiful Game, not least loved ones of those drawn inescapably to the Sons, have been known to suggest to us that we “go on about football all the time”.

It is therefore important to be able to point out to them, with a fair degree of authority, that this isn’t true. We only go on about football – oh, I don’t know, say once every nine seconds? But not literally once every nine seconds. We merely “go on about it” for periods of time that, if you divided them into any reasonable unit, would be about a ninth of our lives. Which is quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Indeed the upshot is that, actually, we spend eight-ninths of our lives as Dumbarton fans not talking or thinking about football at all! Put that way, it seems, does it not, that we are devoting massively insufficient cerebral resources to the game! Perhaps we should be dedicating even more of our aural and visual cortex to understanding things like the latest revisions in the offside rule, the reversible diamond formation, the inner workings of Jim Chapman’s tactical brain, the impact of popular Scottish breakfast foods on Dumbarton players’ match-day preparations. Or whether and how we are going to take three points off East Fife this afternoon.

Armed with such arguments, we can all now present ourselves as entirely reasonable folk who spend only a modest amount of time focussing on the game we love and the team that enthrals and torments us. But, if provoked, we might reasonably point out that we could, in fact, be spending much more time thinking about football while leaving most of our lives in tact – “so best not to mention it, dear.”

Well that’s my theory, anyway. My wife sees things differently. As we all know, there are some things in life that work OK in practice but don’t fare so well in theory. Trying to persuade your non-footballing beloved to look benignly upon your extensive football interests happens to be one of them.

But we, the DFC faithful, are not dissuaded. The fact that you are sitting in the stands at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium today, eagerly transfixed on the latest instalment of the sporting soap opera that is the Mighty Sons, proves the point. It tells your own personal story of dedication.

Or maybe you weren’t here at all, but asked a friend to pass this programme on to you afterwards. Then again, perhaps you acquired it thanks to the fine work of Sonstrust membership secretary Tommy Hughes, in his noble efforts to raise money for Dumbarton’s Youth Development Initiative on eBay.

However you came across this copy of Sons View, my point is proved. The fact that you are reading it this carefully means you are by definition a dedicated follower of football and of the Sons, and will continue to be so, I’m sure. Good on you – and enjoy the game this afternoon. Let’s hope it’s another DFC victory for us all to “go on about”.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Changing of the guard?

Good BBC opinion piece by Jim Spence on the 'old guard' in Scottish football. Inter alia, he comments: "[H]ighly intelligent managers and highly qualified fans alike face some serious opposition. They are often too sharp and too clever by half according to those who currently run the game and whose power is threatened by those inclined to a more open, democratic and accountable approach."

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Just missing out on Celtic

Brave performances at Cappielow last Saturday and the Strathclyde Homes Stadium yesterday ended in Scottish Cup disappointment for Dumbarton, as Sons missed out on an attractive fourth round home tie against Celtic by losing to first division Morton through a single headed goal from the Greenock side’s substitute Brian Graham in the last 15 minutes or so of the tie. We also went a player down a couple of minutes later, with already-booked Scott Chaplain being sent off.

From what I hear, it sounds as if DFC spent a fair bit of time on the defensive, looking for a goal on the break. But it was an encouraging Sons performance against higher league opposition (and near rivals) over the two games all told – contrasting somewhat with the pre-season humblings I witnessed against Dunfermline and Partick Thistle. The team has been strengthening and improving, and now the aim has to be as decent a finish as possible in Division Two.

The publicity and cash from a meeting with the Bhoys would have been really good though, and throughout the game I was watching down in the southwest I was pretty obsessively checking for BBC 'live score' updates and text messages on my shiny little iPhone. Pity the Beeb updates missed the ’Ton goal altogether, leaving me momentarily thinking we’d made it through the 90 minutes – until Denise Currie messaged me otherwise! I was just trying to figure whether it was extra time or another replay; or even penalties. Ah, well…

[Photo from the first game (c) and courtesy of Tommy Hughes]

Straining at the train

It was a disappointing end to an altogether damp afternoon and week for the West Country zyders yesterday. Also, for me, the last Exeter City home game in a fair while, I imagine, with proper relocation to the West Midlands now immanent. I may take the opportunity to take an occasional look at a number of sides, high and low, which are reachable from Birmingham. But my priority will be to maximise the opportunities to get up to Dumbarton when I have the time and money. It's about three or four games a season at present.

What I really need is one more Virgin train back from Glasgow to Birmingham after the current last one at 17.40 - which, frustratingly, is about 15 minutes too early to be viable for a round 'day trip'. Mad, yes - this being football. But viable. (I know, a sprint for the 16.57 from Dumbarton East would be technically possible... but it would mean missing the last minutes of the game, with no room for error. And call me a purist, but that would be a pretty high price for twelve hour round trip!)

Found wanting up front

It all started so promisingly. Having squandered quite a few chances midweek in the 1-0 away defeat against Bristol Rovers, Exeter City began yesterday’s home encounter with Brighton & Hove Albion at a lively pace. For a chunk of the first half it looked as if this was going to be a high quality encounter. But somehow things got bogged down, and once again the Grecians were found lacking up front.

As I had predicted in my programme note, Brighton play better than their lowly league status suggested they would, and after City missed a crucial penalty the Seagulls dug in and eventually found ecstatic reward for the 670 travelling support (out of a decent 5,400 crowd) with a well-taken winner two minutes into the three allocated for time added on.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Looking for a bit of glory

First published in Sons View, 05 December 2009, Dumbarton -v- Morton [Scottish Cup third round, replay]

So here we are back at Strathclyde Homes Stadium a little earlier than originally planned, following the disappointing last-minute postponement of the Peterhead league game on 21 November, and our encouraging Cup exploits at Cappielow last Saturday.

A hard-fought draw against our First Division Greenock rivals has kept Sons in the frame for the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, and this afternoon we welcome back Morton for what should be another fair old tussle.

Dumbarton ’keeper Jan Vojacek and our defenders played an important role last week, and manager Jim Chapman will be hoping that the strikers can repay their continued efforts this time.

Sons have already picked up some silverware this season, with the Stirlingshire Cup final win over Stenhousemuir ensuring another prize-winning term – but a decent Scottish Cup run has eluded us for a while, in spite of that grand day out at Celtic in 2006.

The rivalry between the two sides on display at the Rock today is long-standing, though in recent seasons it has more often been renewed in friendly games and in Cup-ties than in the Scottish Football League, given our different positions.

After a difficult start, the ’Ton have undergone something of a revival in recent weeks, with a 4-2 away win at Airdrie United keeping the North Lanarkshire side firmly rooted at the foot of the table.

That followed an impressive 5-0 victory against mid-table Raith Rovers – which puts Sons’ achievement last week in an even better light. League points and goals over the next few weeks are undoubtedly the most coveted prize for those with Dumbarton hearts, but we wouldn’t say no to a bit of Cup glory either.

Though consolidation in 2009 is what both sets of supporters are looking for, it’s hard for those of us with longer memories not to let an occasion like this cast our minds back to past achievements.

Morton fans were recently reminded of the successes of their 1979-80 side – both in the Premier League and in trophy exploits against Kilmarnock (in the League Cup) and Aberdeen (in the Scottish Cup). At a special celebratory dinner, and in his BBC column, football writer Chick Young waxed lyrical about their then star player Andy Ritchie – one that Jock Stein surprisingly let go – and manager Hal Stewart.

Back in February 1980 the now defunct ‘Soccer Monthly’ magazine declared ’Ton to be a team “to strike fear into the hearts of the Old Firm.” Since that time, however, the Cappielow side have plummeted down to the Third Division before bouncing back to the Second and now the First – something Dumbarton are hoping to emulate, though without all those intervening traumas.

In 2000, you will recall, it took a local council intervention to stop the sale of Morton’s famous ground to a supermarket chain in a development move that could well have ended the club’s proud history, which goes back to 1874 – two years after Sons came into being.

Given the growing number of small clubs in financial trouble across Britain at the moment, it’s important that proper football ambition is matched by equally hard headed business thinking at this level of the game. Everyone wants success, but based on realism not pie-in-the-sky – or ground-in-the-air.

Talking of the earth beneath us, let’s hope it’s a lot more solid today than it was at the Rock a fortnight ago. I had made my way from down south for the Peterhead game, so was disappointed that it didn’t go ahead – but at least I was well into a good lunch (as a grateful guest of the Sonstrust) before the sad news broke.

I also managed to get some good socialising in, including a long pub chat with Sons’ legendary ’keeper Lawrie Williams – who had come up for the game from Cardiff with a friend. Among other things he was recalling team-mate Kenny Jenkins, also part of that fantastic 1971-2 Second Division Championship winning side, who sadly died earlier this month, and who will be remembered fondly again today.

But back to this afternoon’s proceedings. There are two reasons why we all want to see another solid Dumbarton display against Morton. One is the chance to extend our run in the Cup, but the other is to add further confidence to the side for the tough Winter period of our all-important League campaign. ’Mon Sons!

Hoping for a brighter future

First published in The Grecian, 05 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Brighton & Hove Albion

Today will be the second time I’ve seen Brighton and Hove Albion this season. Back in October I watched them play a spirited game at Leyton Orient, losing to a last minute goal from Adrian Patulea. A week or so before that, the Seagulls had achieved a 1-1 away draw in League One away to Bristol Rovers. Unfortunately this Tuesday night the Grecians couldn’t quite get that all-important equaliser at the Memorial Stadium. But we live to tackle another day.

Actually, there’s another Bristol connection which has become rather well known in Brighton’s history. Back in 1973, when iconoclastic manager Brian Clough briefly went down to the south coast between his sudden departure from Derby County and his apocalyptic arrival at Leeds United, he oversaw two dramatic Seagulls defeats. One was 4-0 against non-league Walton and Hersham in an FA Cup replay, the other an 8-2 televised pasting against the Rovers – shared in the dugout with sons Simon and Nigel (now of Burton and Derby fame).

This afternoon Exeter City and Brighton and Hove Albion meet each other on the back of mixed fortunes in League One and in the Cup. Up until that reversal against Bristol Rovers, the Grecians had not lost in five league outings, while the Seagulls have struggled – most recently with heavy defeats away at Norwich (4-1) and home against the aforementioned Leeds (3-0). But in the FA Cup they secured consecutive victories over Wycombe (2-0) and, last weekend, Rushden and Diamonds (3-2)… while City were crashing out 4-3 at Milton Keynes Dons, having led 3-1.

For different reasons, then, both sides will be eager to get back on track. Exeter’s home form makes them favourites with the bookies, but Paul Tisdale and the boys will not be taking anything for granted. The Seagulls may be struggling for points this season, but they have still managed to play some attractive football.

My own connection with Albion has been a curious one. I lived in Brighton for five years from 1999, two years after they nearly slipped out of the Football League altogether (a second half equaliser in a crucial final game sent Hereford down to the Conference instead) and around the time when their ground chaos was at its height. They remain one of the few ‘local sides’ I have lived near but not followed on a regular basis. This is partly to do with the goings on during that era.

A discredited old regime had sold the Goldstone Ground in Hove to developers without securing a viable alternative home, and in 1997 a ground share with Gillingham (round trip, 150 miles!) had to be arranged before a still less-than-satisfactory interim solution was arrived at in the shape of their temporary home at Withdean Stadium.

During that period, ’Gulls fans showed terrific determination to survive, and indeed Brighton thrived on the pitch with two back-to-back championships in 2001-2 (their centenary year, under Micky Adams) and 2002-3, before slipping back again to League One in 2005-6.

Then a huge planning battle took place over the site of a new stadium at Falmer, not far from the University of Sussex, one of the places where I studied in the late ’70s. After rejections, a final granting of permission and further delays, it now looks as if the project Brighton fans have been longing for will be completed in 2011… though no-one is holding their breath.

Few groups of supporters have fought harder to secure the future of their club, including the formation of a ‘Fans United’ network, petitioning the government and local council, and organising demonstrations across the country. I wish them all the very best for the future. In honesty, though, in spite of my longstanding football loyalism, I was one of those who thought the Falmer site was wrong on both civic and environmental grounds, and I still do. It would have seemed hypocritical as well as awkward to watch them when that was my genuine (and deeply unpopular) view.

However, that is now n the past, the new stadium is on its way, and Brighton and Hove Albion are rightly looking to secure a brighter future (that’s where the city gets its name from, after all!) after years of turmoil. Whatever the disagreements, they deserve it.

Today however, I’ll be looking to my more recent ‘locals’, Exeter City, to resume their good form and secure a result that pushes them that bit closer to safety – and better, we hope – in League One. So I hope the Seagulls flourish and that their supporters enjoy a good day out in the West Country. Not too good, mind!