Saturday, 27 March 2010

Another toast to the Sons

First published in Sons View, 27 March 2010, Dumbarton -v- Peterhead

Following the crunch midweek clash with Stenousemuir on Tuesday night, the manic March action continues at Strathclyde Homes Stadium today with the second visit of the season from the small but vocal Blue Toon army.

Back in December the Sons claimed a 1-0 victory over Peterhead, thanks to a Scott Chaplain goal. But away from home in Aberdeenshire things have not gone so well for us – with two 2-1 defeats in a row, the last at Balmoor on a cold Tuesday night at the beginning of the month.

This afternoon’s action on the pitch will be followed later in the evening by some fun and celebrations off it, with the sell-out comedy dinner raising funds and spirits in equal measure. I’d hoped to make it myself, especially as my 52nd birthday falls in three days hence. But the promise I’d made to the family was I’d only fork out yet more dosh to follow the Sons in March if there was a rescheduled game on the 30th – which unfortunately from my point of view (and very happily for the players and staff, I’m sure!) there isn’t.

Still, I did get up to see two good performances and one fine win against Alloa Athletic and Brechin City on the 6th and the 9th, so I can’t complain. As a result of that visit from the wilds of the English midlands I’m now also the proud possessor of a Sons football presented and signed by the very fine people of the Sonstrust and other friends at Dumbarton. It was cutely dedicated to my ‘hat-trick of postponements’ – the three games I made the haul to see that got called off due to the Big Freeze.

The match ball sponsorship I was planning to celebrate 40 years last December as a Sons fan will now have to wait till next term, however. Talking of which, if you and some friends, work colleagues or family haven’t thought of taking that package before, why not have a word with the industrious Alan Findlay about it? A great day out, a bargain, and funds to back the Club. The perfect combination.

My ‘trio ball’ now has pride of place amidst the bookshelves at home, of course. When I was given it, someone in the Community Suite wryly commented, “Ah well, at least someone’s got a hat-trick for Dumbarton then!” Aye, and wouldn’t it be even better if one of those could be earned by a Sons striker on the pitch today. Yes, I know, “a win would do well enough”, but you never hit high by aiming low.

Indeed, it seems to a number of us who have been observing the Sons’ fortunes from near and far this season that the lads are owed a few more goals to honour their endeavours. In a number of games there have been periods of solid possession, domination and flair – combined with the frustrating inability to get the ball into that square of turf between the posts when it’s really needed.

It’s a commonplace of football wisdom that if you keep playing well, things will come right for you in terms of goals and results in the end. That’s often true, but equally when the end product is diminished you have to keep trying out new things to make the key work. Not dramatic changes necessarily, but little twists and variations.

Everyone has a theory about this kind of thing, naturally. Managers know more than most that if the outcome is favourable, their tactical switches will probably be seen in a good light, and if not they will be condemned as hapless or misguided. A wise-cracker once remarked: “Scientists reckon that seven out of ten ideas don’t work. Fair enough. So why don’t we just use the three that do!”

Ah, if only life was like that… wouldn’t it be boring and short. The gap between what works in theory and what works in practice, what you intend and how it actually turns out, is just one of the infinite number of variables that makes football the inspiring, annoying, wonderful, infuriating game we all love it for being. And that’s well before we factor in the particular joys and jolts of following Dumbarton.

Overall, then, I’m sure this is a game we can win. I thought that about the Stenny match too. You have to go on believing – especially when the ingredients for a positive ending to 2009-10 are clearly there. Whatever the outcome today I’ll be raising a birthday toast to the Sons from The Far Post this coming Tuesday. A win and a few goals would make that drink even sweeter – and possibly longer.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Finding the route up the table

First published in Sons View, 23 March 2010, Dumbarton -v- Stenhousemuir

Last week I was on typical match day (or in this case, match evening) duty from The Far Post, which at the moment means Birmingham. When I can’t get to see the Sons, irrespective of whether its another game, work or domestic duties I’m supposed to be paying attention to, half-an-eye and half-an-ear will always be somewhere else: namely, waiting for my mobile phone to bleep with DFC text updates, monitoring Dumbarton FC ‘tweets’, and probably hoping the BBC football website will let me know what’s happening, too.

That last one can be a bit hit-and-miss. Sometimes the Beeb’s instalments about goals and cards are prompt and accurate. On other occasions, every match seems to have something notable happening in it except the one at SHS, or whichever away ground we’re visiting. Then, suddenly, you’ll be notified of two goals, a sending off and a booking all in a couple of seconds.

Neurotically punching the ‘refresh’ button on my mobile phone or computer is scant therapy if I think I’m being kept in the dark… but at least it doesn’t produce one of those annoying pop-up screens with a message saying, “calm down, calm down!” Not yet, anyway. Technology is always finding fresh ways to nag us, mind. So you never know.

Anyway, though the same digital pattern will undoubtedly have been repeated for me on Saturday against Cowdenbeath, the update I was most eagerly awaiting before penning this column was from Broadwood. Thankfully, in the midst of Sons’ up-down season, it was good news.

As my phone beeped, those two David Winter goals against Clyde really cheered me up. I got a good sight of our latest signing in the flesh when I was up at the Rock for the consecutive home matches against Brechin and Alloa earlier this month. The second of those games, a 3-1 triumph, finally got us the result we had been threatening for long periods against the Hedgemen. Sadly, though, the Sons were the ones who hedged against City, before our opponents eventually clinched the match.

Hopefully tonight’s game against Stenhousemuir will be much more like the visit of the Wasps, whose sting we well and truly drew with a performance that included some delightful touches and moves – as well as a fifteen minute period after Sons’ third goal where it looked as if we might contrive to clutch defeat (or at least an unwanted draw) from the jaws of victory.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But then exactly the same team managed to lose away to Stenny in a manner that had everyone scratching their heads once more. After four defeats on the trot, following a draw against Stirling back in December and then two wins, Dumbarton seemed to be bobbing back and forth between hope and despair even more rapidly, while occasionally playing the kind of football which indicates that we could just as well be competing for promotion as lurking in the shadows – if only a bit more consistency and punch up front could be achieved, alongside regular lockouts at the back.

The lockout scenario may not be what makes instantly compelling football viewing (though I enjoy a really good tackle as much as a sharp pass or a well-taken chance), but as coaches have observed from time immemorial, “if you don’t let the opposition score, the worst you’ll come away with is a point”.

My hope is that as you take your seat this evening, the Sons – with Winters and Dennis Wyness starting to gel into an effective strike duo – will be coming into this game off a decent performance and result against the Blue Brazil at Central Park. But let’s face it, the Second Division this year is predictable only in its unpredictability. Or at least, that’s how it seems.

Rather like the belief that buses mostly come in bunches of three after half-an-hour of you hopping from one foot to the other, trends in football often look as they feel – even when a bit of forensic examination may reveal a different picture. I’m convinced that teams that win promotion as champions often struggle more than those who go up via the play-off route (or in Cowdenbeath’s case, via the misery of Livingston). But that isn’t really a scientific observation. It’s just what I notice at a particular moment like this.

As for this evening, there’s only one thing any of us want to see. That’s another Sons win.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Wondering as they wander

First published in The Grecian, 17 March 2010, Exeter City -v- Bristol Rovers

Rovers. There’s a name to entice the football emotions of men (or women) “of a certain age”. Roy of the Rovers, the cartoon soccer hero some of us remember from our youth, has undergone a bit of an unexpected resurgence over the past year or so – with a 64-page “collectors edition” on the newsstands last April, a Guardian facsimile appearing more recently, and two ‘Best of’ books, featuring successive runs of strips from the 1980s and 1970s, being published in June 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Roy Race and his Melchester Rovers side have appeared in various British publications since 1954. An attempt by a group of dedicated fans to revive the publishing tradition that still leaves football commentators referring to “a Roy of the Rovers moment” (when something spectacular happens) didn’t quite come off in 2009. But aficionados still live in hope of a comeback.

Meanwhile, the legendary (if imaginary) striker has survived takeovers, buyouts and a host of traumas including a helicopter crash where he lost his foot in 1993. Right now Exeter City fans are feeling sore over the decidedly real-world loss of new signing Troy Archibald-Henville, ruled out for the remainder of the season after sustaining a cartilage injury. Very bad news. But at least it isn’t anything as drastic as the wandering Rovers hero’s mid-air collision!

The Rovers that the Grecians face today are also far from fictional, and bear little resemblance to the Melchester crew, hailing instead from the fair city of Bristol. “Well, it’s fair from this distance, anyway!” an Exeter supporter said to me the other day. With cracks like that, and, er, a ‘fair few’ flying back the other way, you know you’re in for a solid bit of local rivalry tonight – bolstered by a sell-out all-ticket crowd at St James’ Park.

Following the visit of lowly Stockport County to Devon on Saturday, for a game which the Grecians very much wanted to signal the start of a revival in our own League One fortunes, the arrival of the Gasmen this evening signals another challenge on the path to securing our foothold in this division. As the Rovers wander, City wonder: how many points do we need to feel safe, and when will we secure them? As soon as possible has to be the answer, starting now.

As it happens, I caught a glimpse of Bristol Rovers in action on the television just over a week ago, while visiting my local hostelry in search of some football entertainment after a very hard day’s work.

The match in question was the Gas against Charlton Athletic, who I coincidentally saw live when losing out to Leyton Orient in a great game at the Valley on 25 January – before their trio of 1-1 draws and then the 2-1 defeat at the Memorial Stadium. Bristol looked tight and determined against the Addicks. But City already know what they are up against, following the lessons absorbed by Paul Tisdale and the boys after a 1-0 away defeat in Horfield on 1 December.

That evening the BBC described the Grecians as “unlucky Exeter”, with City losing out to an opportunist Darryl Duffy goal in the first half, following a half clearance from Jo Kuffour's initial low shot. Richard Logan, Alex Russell and Ryan Harley also came incredibly close to getting on the score sheet for the Grecians, with the latter’s noble 25-yard effort at the end just being denied by the woodwork.

Since that encounter Bristol Rovers, previously known as the Pirates (for acts of robbery like that?), have had mixed fortunes. At the beginning of December 2009 they were in the play-off zone. Now, twelve games on, they are ten points behind the pack chasing the automatic promotion places. But that will only increase their determination to take something from this game.

I was not able to get to the Memorial Stadium for the Grecians’ away game there last year, but I have seen Rovers once before this season, in circumstances that ought to give City a bit of encouragement. On 2 February, Bristol visited Leyton Orient, where I go with my friend Kevin Scully when I’m working in London. Leading 1-0 at half time, the Os scored an incredible 5-0 win over the Gas. What a match it was!

Our visitors are exceedingly unlikely to be as generous again in Exeter this evening, but the evidence of those two games in London is that you need to compete with Bristol Rovers for good, flowing football and then hit them hard when the opportunity arises. That is what the Grecians will be aiming to do tonight.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Back on the road again

First published in Sons View, 06 March 2010, Dumbarton -v- Brechin, and -v-Alloa on 09 March 2010 (double issue)

With eight games to be negotiated this month and at least six in April, ahead of that season-concluding trip to Clyde on May Day, the deflating ‘big freeze’ we have had to endure in the first two months of 2010 is now rapidly giving way to Dumbarton’s nine-week ‘long March’.

Forget those past few weeks – as we’d probably all wish to do anyway – this third segment of the year in the Gregorian Calendar, appropriately named after Mars, the Roman god of war, is the one which will determine whether we are smiling, grimacing or merely blinking numbly come the end of this odd footballing campaign.

Prior to the Peterhead trip on Tuesday night, Sons were pretty much as near ‘dead centre’ in Division Two as you could plan to get. In spite of two desperately disappointing recent home and away results against sides from the top and bottom end of the table, Stirling Albion and Arbroath respectively, we had still managed to cling onto fifth spot – six points away from the play-off zone and another five away from the relegation area.

Where we find ourselves right now is an adequate reflection of an incredibly up-and-down seven months. It began with six winless games that saw Dumbarton rooted to the foot of the table. Then that first, precious 2-1 victory was secured at Balmoor on 26 September, thanks to goals from crowd favourites Stevie Murray and Derek Carcary.

After once more grasping defeat from the jaws of possible victory against the Binos at Strathclyde Homes Stadium the following week, Sons engineered a general upturn in form and results from mid-October 2009 through to early February this year. Now we have a chance to bury a difficult past couple weeks with strong performances at the Rock against promotion contenders Brechin and Alloa. At least, that’s what everyone at the Club is hoping and looking for.

So what are the prospects for a merry (if mad) March? Well, following the shut-down over Christmas and the New Year, Sons showed considerable resilience in securing a 2-1 home win over a better prepared Cowdenbeath on 23 January. That was followed by a 3-2 victory against East Fife at Methil on 6 February, after yet another enforced weekend off.

The warning signs were apparent, however: bursts of energy and high performance giving way to the same symptoms that Jim Chapman called “implosion” at Gayfield last Saturday. It’s almost as if the infuriating ‘stop-start’ in the fixture list had replicated itself in terms of ‘on-off’ on the pitch.

Without a doubt, the unpredictability and frustration brought about by the kind of weather disruptions we have had to put up with recently makes the consistency required at this level of the game difficult to achieve – though the gaffer has made it clear that he will be accepting no more excuses for throwing games away.

From now on, moreover, the problem is not going to be heel-kicking layoffs, but a continuous, mounting pressure to perform. The difficulties in facing two competitive matches a week should not be understated, but viewed and prepared for in the right way, there’s an upside to our situation, too.

If you start to find winning ways when one match follows another in rapid succession, the momentum and adrenalin can help you along even when your limbs start to ache. Likewise, if you fall in one game, there are thankfully only a few days before you have the opportunity to pick yourself up again. For the brave, it’s an opportunity more than a trial.

I’ll certainly be cheering the lads on with an extra dose of enthusiasm in these matches against the Hedgemen and the Wasps if – as I hope – I find myself in attendance for both games. I hesitate to mention this, since on the past three occasions I’ve attempted to get to SHS from down south, the match has duly been called off!

The upshot is that, after many miles of travel and even more pounds invested in the rail companies, I still haven’t seen the Sons kick a ball in anger since the pre-season friendlies against Partick and St Mirren.

But my winter woes, yours and those of the staff and players will all be consigned to the “c’est la vie” of memory if Dumbarton can get back on form over the next four days. Then it’s a further three away trips in seven days before we can even stop to take breath. As they say, “game on!”

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Digging for victory

First published in The Grecian, 06 March 2010, Exeter City -v- Oldham Athletic

According to the popular aphorism, “If you find yourself in a hole, just stop digging.” That makes perfect sense in most departments of life, where further excavation will inevitably make the dreaded pit even larger. In football, however, finding yourself in or near the relegation zone is precisely the time to get those shovels polished, into action and working extra hard!

There, I’ve mentioned it. The ‘R’ word. Not because I’m pessimistic, but because there’s little point in denying the scale and difficulty of the task Exeter City face, viewing the League One table from twenty-second out of twenty-four teams in the division. To do so would be sheer denial of reality… something that never, ever helps you to turn things around.

A prompt about-turn is precisely the Grecians’ task this afternoon – right through until the final whistle. No, not the one at around ten to five today, but the one we will hear on 8 May, against Huddersfield. There are exactly thirteen games left for City to dig for safety and victory. Some regard that as an unlucky number – but they are the ones who have already abandoned themselves to an unnamed fate. By contrast, the teams still playing at this level next year, or going on to higher things, will be the ones who have chosen to take fate into their own hands.

I have no doubt that the Grecians have the capacity to do that. But there is little time to lose (literally!), and there is therefore no point in looking back in grief or disbelief at the current poor patch of results: three wins in the last nineteen, if you must know, and no three-pointers since that euphoric 2-0 victory over ‘famous Leeds’ at St James Park on Saturday 16 January.

All that’s history. What really matters is what lies ahead. And the most important aspect of Exeter’s future is the grass beneath our feet and the goal right in front of us today. The manager and staff at Oldham Athletic will be thinking exactly the same thing, of course. For the Latics lie just one point in front of us, with the extra cushion (and incentive) of two games in hand.

There’s also a strange symmetry attached to this fixture, and it contains a ghost we definitely need to bury. When City travelled up to Boundary Park back on 12 December last year, we lost 2-0, following a level first half. The previous week, the Grecians’ opponents had also been Brighton & Hove Albion, and the result – like the match at the little-loved Withdean Stadium last weekend, ended in disappointing defeat… albeit by one rather than two goals.

In every sense, then, the task facing Exeter in this game is to disconnect themselves from the “what happened last time” and generate fresh momentum for what lies ahead. On paper this is entirely achievable. But it’s what happens on the pitch that counts, more so in the result than in the type of football played.

For most of the season, even when things have not been going well, City have done themselves credit with some attractive, flowing play. What we have lacked is consistency, concentration at the back (particularly when facing counter-attacks) and the ability to translate dominance and movement into balls striking the back of the net.

As pundits often observe, the line between success and failure in the professional game is incredibly thin. A kick, a touch, a well-timed run or a refereeing decision can make all the difference. That and the confidence to take get to that challenge first, to spot the gap, to take necessary risks, and to pounce on half-chances.

If City can win today and follow up with another good couple of performances, our prospects will start looking very different. The table remains tight, the results around us are not stacking up evenly, and we have Southend, Wycombe, Leyton Orient, Brentford, Tranmere and Hartlepool among those still to come. None of these are sides it will be easy to beat. But they are all within reach of our position and they are all teams we would rightly hope to take points off.

So it’s a going to be a challenging couple of month, undoubtedly. But there is no reason to start giving ‘bad luck’ a foothold. If the players can keep digging, the results will start to come. Stop for a breather, and the earth is likely to fall around them. Meanwhile, we in the stands can do our part to ensure that Exeter City are where they deserve to be next term: here in League One again.