Saturday, 20 February 2010

Building the next generation

First published in Sons View, 20 March 2010, Dumbarton -v- Clyde - MATCH POSPONED

So the New Year transfer window has come and gone. For many smaller clubs who live as much by loans as by purchases (because they simply don’t have the cash to splash) this is always a strange period in the football calendar.

With the recession biting hard at budgets, the market has turned over more slowly than ever at the beginning of 2010, and even the big boys have been limited in their transfer adventures.

Now managing at Bolton, one of the smaller EPL contenders, ex-Dumbarton man Owen Coyle is among those who have complained again about the system. Even if you can afford to spend, he says, “When clubs pick up injuries and suspensions in the transfer window, you end up top heavy with players.”

Summer is where the majority of the horse-trading is done now, unless your team is in desperate trouble after Christmas. And in the lower reaches of the Scottish game the “emergency loan” has come into its own for dealing with that.

Here at the Rock we have recently seen the fruits of trying to live on a limited outlay, but with a forward-looking and creative edge. Much of the media publicity has inevitably been taken up with the signing of Dennis Wyness – whose SPL and First Division credentials have been creating hopeful expectations among Sons supporters, too.

An injection of firepower and guile up front is just what Chappie ordered for what is going to be a demanding and exciting run-in to the ‘stop-start season’. We have plenty of fixtures backed up, and as well as securing the defensive line and getting the midfield moving, a cutting edge will certainly be needed around the area to secure the goals and points we need. That isn’t about one player, but finding the man who can help the attacking jigsaw fit together.

For a club like Dumbarton, quality players who are into their thirties but still have a lot to offer a little further down the SFL can be a lifeline. A respected manager, a good set up and strong desire from players, fans, Trust and boardroom makes the Sons attractive to those who have arguably lost a tiny bit of youthful pace, but whose skill and ambition is as strong as ever.

Equally important, however, and more so in the long run, is the cultivation of youth. The current squad has six ‘graduate’ youngsters in first team pool, and three of them (Alan Cook, Dale McSorley, and Liam Mushet) have already been picked for international duty at Under-18s level. That’s really good going.

Dumbarton Football Club now possesses a very well organised youth policy, and it is clearly paying dividends. The signings prove that. Only a few days ago, Sons under-19s also produced a stunning performance at Glenhead Park, winning 4-0 against East Stirlingshire.

The endeavours of the coaching staff and volunteers deserve a huge round of applause from all of us. During some of the enforced winter break, Jim Chapman has also impressed people in community with his dedication to encouraging the youngsters. But none of this could have happened without an immense amount of effort on the part of people in the Sonstrust.

I’m proud to be a member of the Trust, though I live too far away to be much involved (other than in print, with a bit of money, and by encouragement). However, this also means I can blow a trumpet for those responsible without being accused of praising myself!

That said, all who have joined the Trust and supported it in one way or another share at least a tiny part of the credit for the Youth Development Initiative – though the lion’s share should go to the people who make it work week in and week out.

So if you haven’t handed over your Sonstrust membership fee (it’s only a tenner!) or bought into one of the fundraising events – like the fantastic Comedy Dinner on 27 March – now is a great opportunity to do so. Tommy Hughes or anyone on the Trust table in the Community Suite will be pleased to have your custom. Or go online to the Trust site.

Meanwhile, we have important business on the park today against Clyde to attend to. The fact that we are playing the side rooted to the foot of the Second Division at the moment should fool no-body. It’ll be a tough encounter and another chance for Sons to build their 2010 surge.

Exciting the football passions

First published in The Grecian, 20 February 2010, Exeter City -v- Stockport County

Somehow you get the feeling that the milk of human kindness doesn’t flow freely when football passions are at their most intense. Fans love to kick a team when they’re in trouble, and around this time of year chants of the “You’re going down!” and “You’ll be sacked in the morning!” variety start to resonate more regularly around terraces up and down the land.

Exeter City have had a few of the former serenades over the past few weeks, but we’re determinedly ignoring them. Losing away to Millwall at the last gasp was hard to take, and one that didn’t do credit to the effort put in by our players. But it did illustrate the toughness of grabbing points at the New Den these days.

At this stage of the season there’s no point in looking back and grumbling, however. Every Club in the country would have an extra 15 points in the bank if all those near misses, unlucky losses and “we wuz robbed” moments had gone the right way. But they didn’t, and we are where we are.

The important thing this afternoon is to retain focus and to go for a convincing win – against opponents who, in a close and high quality third tier, are still seen as the closest thing to whipping boys… but who will have absolutely no intention of living up to that reputation at St James Park.

Stockport County took an important point off fourth-placed Colchester United at Edgeley Park last weekend, indicating in the process that they are willing to fight for every inch of turf this term, in spite of major difficulties on and off the pitch.

That said, the Hatters have a pretty grim away record, as their basement status and overall 31-goal deficit confirms. ’Keeper Owain Fon Williams will also want to forget the moment that let United’s David Prutton's innocuous free-kick slip through his grasp and in for the opener last Saturday. A classic “comedy goal”, though the man between the sticks certainly won’t be laughing!

Things got worse when Colchester then went two in front from Anthony Wordsworth on 18 minutes. But County showed tremendous courage in clawing themselves back from the brink of destruction, and Jabo Ibehre’s brace, completed with thirteen minutes to go, secured them a deserved draw. It might even have been a win if substitute Ian Henderson's shot hadn’t hit the post… but we’ve already observed that football teams cannot live by “if” alone.

Incidentally, it was a redemption moment for Islington-born Jabo, too. The well-travelled front man is on his second loan spell at Stockport from Milton Keynes Dons, after being released by Walsall last year. This follows a less-than-auspicious end to eight years and 209 senior appearances from 2000-2008 at Leyton Orient – where I put in terrace appearances when I’m in the vicinity of East London these days.

Stockport County could do with every bit of fortune passing their doorstep right now. In March they are appearing as a featured team in the excellent When Saturday Comes magazine, though not exactly for the reasons they would choose.

‘County caught’ is the headline for David Meller’s article about the web of financial, legal and municipal woe surrounding the Hatters at present. What follows is an all-too-familiar litany of money mayhem. Football is in a crazy state economically, and the government’s recent announcement that it plans to take action on governance, debt and regulation within the game has not come a moment too soon.

There’s another dimension to this story, however – one that rarely reaches the tabloids. So David Meller (no relation to a certain Chelsea-supporting ex-Tory MP, who spells his second name with an ‘o’) also reports on the solid action Stockport supporters have been taking to highlight the crisis that has gripped their club, and to try to get them out of it.

It’s not the first time this season that Exeter City are welcoming to their Devon home a football team whose fans have had to channel passion on the terraces into a practical concern for how their club is run and how it can be salvaged from destruction. Brighton and Hove Albion also come to mind.

What the financial shenanigans have demonstrated at Stockport, says Meller, looking on the positive side, is “a determined and loyal supporter base worthy of investment” from the right sources. Though the Grecians badly need to pile the agony on County from a football point of view today, we should wish them all the best in their efforts to stay afloat. Another needless casualty is not what the game needs.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

On the head again, my Sons!

First published in Sons View, 16 January 2010, Dumbarton -v- Stirling Albion

The question it’s difficult not to ask yourself, after two heartening wins at home to leaders Cowdenbeath and then away last week at East Fife in a five-goal thriller, is surely: “Can we make it three in a row against Stirling Albion?” The logical answer is, “it’ll be a hard game, but there’s no reason why not.” However, a sports psychologist will probably tell you that’s the wrong thing to speculate about.

I know, I’ve mentioned ‘fitba shrinks’ a couple of times in this column already. Short of the action on the pitch there’s nothing more fascinating than watching the tricks we allow the Beautiful Game to play on our heads. Well, okay, there’s the endless gossip and speculation at every level of the game, now fed to us by a 24/7 media – but that’s basically the same thing!

One theory says the “three in a row?” thought can be unhelpful, if you’re a player, because it’s nudging you to question yourself rather than to focus on the adjustments, improvements and changes you and your teams-mates can make to help it happen. Depending on your personality type, adding up wins and wondering if they’ll be repeated next time sows the seeds of doubt rather than resolve. Turn it into a target with reward and it might just do the trick, however.

Indeed, if you were developing the fabled ‘a winning mentality’ you’d probably be saying to yourself, “Of course we can win. Now let’s figure out how and make sure we do!” When I was playing I got into far too much self-questioning, and I know for sure it didn’t assist my game. Being rubbish didn’t help much, either.

The other thing you have to watch for is one of those probability misapprehensions we all fall for at some time or other. Leaving aside the possible impact of the law of mechanics, if you toss a coin again and again, each time there’s a 50/50 chance as to whether it will be heads or tails. But if you get three ‘tails’ one after another, it feels ‘natural’ to suspect that somehow there’s less chance that it’ll be tails again next time. Wrong. The overall odds don’t change. They just tend to even up in the long run.

If you’ve ever watched ‘Deal or No Deal’ on the telly you’ll see people getting caught in this trap again and again… and a few others, besides. I’ve had to stop watching that show. Apart from the irritating rituals around it, I find myself wanting to scream “it’s just random numbers!” all the time. But no-one’s listening.

Meanwhile, here’s a quick psychological test you can try on yourself at home. Do you reckon Dumbarton good enough for the Second Division play-offs? Yes, I know, that’s a matter of football judgement. But if we win this afternoon I’ll wager that you’ll be more inclined to believe “we can do it”… and if not, you’re more likely to start doubting again.

That’s because – unless you’re the stoically resolute editor of Sons View, say – the emotional state of most football supporters operates on a constant and rather unstable seesaw. The psychologists say that the stimulation this uncertainty, anxiety and anticipation causes (including regular reward and denial) is one of the things that makes the game so compelling. Yup, football fandom is basically a disease of the psyche. (Just don’t admit it to your family, okay?)

But back to the Sons’ prospects. On the squad and the coaching staff, compared to what we’ve seen elsewhere in this division, I reckon we can exceed initial expectations – which for many of us were 8th or above. Moreover, given our slow start, more recent form has been better than our present position (three points off fourth place with a game in hand) shows. The recovery from the cold snap has also been impressive.

But there’s another factor we haven’t mentioned so far. That’s the tough run of games Sons face in March. At the time of writing, the fixture additions haven’t been announced, but we know what to expect. It’s especially hard on part-time players. Then again, you can build momentum. Just look at what happened in the run-in last term.

One thing’s for sure. A point or three against the Binos at SHS today can only make our aspirations more achievable. ’Mon Sons!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Dennis will be a menace

Well, that's what Dumbarton supporters are hoping from the latest signing to arrive at SHS, to complement two graduates from the club's youth initiative. Thirty-three year old Striker Dennis Wyness looks to be an excellent addition to the Sons squad -- coming to us via Queen of the South on loan, but with very good credentials from the SPL with Aberdeen, Inverness Caledonian Thistle (where he was a top scorer), Hearts and most recently St Mirren. He should give Second Division defences a torrid time, and that's just what we need. The Scotsman today followed boss Jim Chapman in speaking of 'ambitious Dumbarton', while the Glasgow Evening News reckoned that Dennis could indeed menace the Binos in tomorrow's clash with Stirling Albion. Wyness struggled a little in his second season with Gus MacPherson's Buddies side, but he obviously still has a lot to offer.

In a show of club solidarity, Chappie declared: “I think it is a testament to the directors of Dumbarton that they are managing to attract these kind of players. They have supported me fantastically." Meanwhile, chair Colin Hosie has started a weekly column on the official DFC website -- and in the latest installment he defended the gaffer against disappointment from some supporters that the Sons have not appeared too active in the transfer window. The cynics will say that it all looks too cosy (that's what cynics are for), and sparks could yet fly over ground relocation plans. But trying to pull together never did a football club any harm. Just ask... well, loads of 'em, frankly. [Thumbnail picture by Jon Leino].

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Football saints and sinners

First published in The Grecian, 06 February 2010, Exeter City -v- Southampton

No doubt about it, this afternoon’s match against Southampton at St James Park is going to be seen as one of the ‘big games’ of the League One season for Exeter City, at least as far as the fans are concerned. Then again, the prestige or otherwise of the opposition counts for little if it’s not worth three points at the end of 90 minutes. Some recent results have taught us that hard lesson.

Points, of course, are precisely what the Grecians need right now. Letting things drift further is not an option. Attractive football may be what we all hope to witness after parting with our hard-earned pounds at the turnstile, but skill alone is to little avail when the drop zone lurks menacingly behind you.

After the midweek results, City now stand four points above that forbidding relegation line, but with Gillingham, Brighton, Oldham and Tranmere holding one, two, four and two games in hand over us, respectively.

The situation is manageable, but only if we starting winning again. Thankfully the creditable point in the 2-2 draw away against promotion-chasers Milton Keynes Dons last Saturday ended a five-game losing streak for City and has hopefully regenerated the confidence of Paul Tisdale’s men.

An added boost came a few days ago from the signing from Spurs of admired 21-year-old defender Troy Archibald-Henville, who is now with us on a permanent basis. The deal was clinched right at the end of the January transfer window.

Not only does this amount to the Grecians’ first formal transfer fee in seven years, it also secures the permanent services of a player whose 19 games last term helped to guarantee Exeter automatic promotion from League Two, and whose 17 appearances this season have amply demonstrated the talent, effort and determination Troy brings with him.

That little transfer statistic is also a reminder of the way City are trying to leave past troubles behind. The same is true, in a rather different way, for Southampton. The sequence of wheeler dealing and speculation around the club between April and Summer 2009 led one local paper to headline the saga, “From the brink of extinction to a billionaire.”

Overall, Southampton’s current League position (twelfth, on 33 points) belies their actual level of accomplishment on the field of play and the £3 million they have spent in the transfer window. Docked ten points in April 2009 for going into administration, and then ten with relegation, Saints fans will have their own ideas about who the chief ‘sinners’ are: that is, who is most responsible for leaving them in the third flight for the first time in 50 years.

The fact remains, however, that without that deduction they would be on the edge of the play-offs with games in hand over two of the other contenders. That is a fair measure of their quality this season, notwithstanding one or two blips and blemishes. Promotion is far from ruled out.

Meanwhile, although this encounter is hardly what most people would class as a ‘derby’, the relative isolation of the southwest lends all south coast encounters at least a bit of added spice as far as the Grecians are concerned – as does Saints’ recent acquisition of Exeter's Danny Seabourne.

I’m glad to say that I’ll be back at St James today. Having moved recently to the West Midlands I shall have more of a ‘commuting’ relationship with Exeter City for the rest of the year, but thankfully there are Devon friends and interests to keep me coming back from time-to-time.

As for Saints, well I remember them well from the 1970s, from 1980-81 when they finished sixth in the old Division One (with Alan Ball, Phil Boyer, Mick Channon, Charlie George and Ted MacDougall on board), and from the 1983-4 season when they achieved their highest ever top flight finish, second place. Now a friend of mine even lives in ‘Channon Court’ in Southampton, named after one of their legends!

I last saw Saints play here on 12 August 2008, when Dean Moxey was the Grecians’ 85th-minute goal hero in a midweek 3-1 defeat in the first round of the Carling Cup. Southampton looked quite comfortable in the end, but if two near misses by Adam Stansfield had gone the other way it might have been a different story.

At that time, just 18 months ago, Saints were a Championship side and City were the League Two new boys. Now we meet ‘on the level’, and Exeter have a chance not only of reversing Cup and friendly defeats at the hands of our visitors from St Mary’s, but also easing our current League concerns.

Those magic words

I refer to the term "game on" for Sons at Methil this afternoon, where we hope to take some points off East Fife. As for the re-arranged fixtures for March or (presumably) April, no further news. Blimey, it'll be mid-February soon!

Meanwhile, of today's encounter, Alan Findlay writes: "[I]t's honours even between the sides this season with one win each, although the last meeting was not a good day for Dumbarton as Jim Chapman's men lost 3-0. Since that day, Dumbarton have only played a further two league matches and face a pile-up of fixtures in the next month. The gaffer should have a full squad to choose from as skipper Michael Dunlop is fully rested from a recent niggling thigh injury."

Fingers crossed all round. Oh, and welcome to Liam Mushet to the first-team squad.

England's ex-pecs

The choice of 'Football saints and sinners' as the headline for my column in the Exeter City v Southampton issue of The Grecian was chosen before all the tabloid fuss about a certain Chelsea footballer. And the behaviour I was referring to was financial rather than sexual -- the former being a bit of ethics-free zone in The Beautiful Game, it seems.

Anyway, the BBC's Phil McNulty is basically right in his assessment of the sacking of John Terry as England captain. The likely impact of his much-publicised personal life on media coverage and team morale seems to have been at the core of it, rather than any moral judgement. Fabio Capello is also understandably puzzled by all the local hype surrounding the captaining of club and country, since he values shared responsibility above the cultivation of iconic individualism.

Besides, who is England's new "role model" and "leader of men"? Welcome to JT replacement skipper Rio Ferdinand: someone who is currently serving a three-match ban for violent conduct, who was previously banned for 8 months for failing to turn up for a drug test, who has endured a year-long drink-driving ban, and who also featured in an alcohol-fuelled post-season trip to Ayia Napa in Cyprus which surfaced in Sunday papers showing him and other players filming themselves in a sex orgy.

Even his disguise is a bit rubbish, as you can see...