Saturday, 31 July 2010

A day out in the borders

Football is not just about arriving, it's about the journey. That's inevitably true for away games in the lower leagues - especially the ones where you end up getting tanked. But that's another story (above). This one is about a very pleasant day out in the Scottish Borders, courtesy of the three person Edinburgh Sons' Supporters club and an enjoyable armchair-bound light lunch at the Aston Hotel on the outskirts of Dumfies. Definitely recommended. As you can see (top picture), our mode of transport was a bit more comfortable than the trusty Dumbarton bus, though presumably the view, with its heather, sheep and rolling hills, was equally scenic. This is not a part of the world I have much familiarity with, but it really is stunning. I shall be back.

As for Queen of the South's Palmerston Park ground: it's a tidy little 6,412 venue (3,509 seated), and the pitch is very good indeed. Bowling green perfect on this occasion. I was required to relinquish my plastic water bottle before entry, but the steward was suitably polite and apologetic. Not what you'd get south of the border. He explained that a couple of years ago a few away fans had decided to, um, "re-fill" their empty bottles and discharge them at the home side; hence the restrictive rule. Welcome to the First Division, eh?

Thankfully the hospitality inside was rather more congenial. The QoS programme is attractively produced, and the all-seater single tier Galloway News stand on the east side of the ground affords good shelter for the away support and no lengthy queues for refreshments. Apart from the result, it was a most enjoyable outing, and another Scottish senior ground ticked off my list. 

As for an omen for the rest of the Sons' season, what better visual encouragement could you ask for than the sunset over the bus stop at Hunter's Tryst in Edinburgh, for the last leg of my journey home? "Every cloud has a multi-coloured lining just waiting to burst through," I told myself determinedly, as I recollected that fifth and final Doonhamers' goal...

(Those seeking even more trainspottery information about Palmerston Park could consult the estimable Scottish Football Ground Guide, presumably while waiting for their life to arrive in the morning mail. *Cough* Only kiddin'. )

Off to Palmerston

The tidings that Dumbarton have signed 19-year-old St Mirren striker Jon McShane on a 6-month loan deal, and that he's going straight into the squad to face First Division Queen of the South in the opening round Co-operative Insurance Cup tie this afternoon, is good news. As I mentioned in my Clydebank match comment, Sons have created very little in the box during the pre-season friendlies, even when beating the likes of Partick Thistle 2-1. Hopefully McShane, though young (and that's a theme with this squad) will sharpen things up front. On my way...

Friday, 30 July 2010

World Cup memories

No, not the recent affair in South Africa, which was a spectacular occasion (though not so much for the footbal), but the first ever such occasion, when Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 to win the Jules Rimet trophy on this day 80 years ago in 1930. The match turned out to be a repeat of the Olympic Final in 1928. Apparently some team from Britain won in 1966 on the 30 July, too. But I'm hazy on the details.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Not banking on it

The first meeting in nine years between Dumbarton and the re-tread version of Clydebank at SHS last night was a pretty low-key affair on a pleasant, sunny evening. The aspirant juniors showed some purpose, however, and things began to look more interesting in the second half after the Bankies' Mark Hailstones latched on to a penalty strike from Steven Dymock which had been blocked by Sons 'keeper Michael White.

From that point on Dumbarton pressed harder and grabbed an equaliser courtesy of a fine 25-yard strike from Martin McNiff - whose home shirt I am sponsoring this season. Clearly a vital factor. Following the break, both sides had predictably started to bring on the substitutes. Sons' three trialists were among the first to leave the fray, having not made a huge impact.

Overall, the game was rather directionless - with occasional flashes of skill, but neither side coming up with a plan to break down the other. Dumbarton were unable to turn their general superiority into territorial or penetrative advantage. Neither side managed more than a couple of half-hearted shots on goal, and as on  previous friendly outings, Sons created nothing of significance in the area. In theory, this should have been men versus boys. In practice, it was boys versus slightly older boys.

These are still early days for the reshaping Dumbarton. There have been good performances against St Mirren and Morton. The players moving in from youth development looking promising, but relatively untested. They've done well coming on later in the match, but have struggled to impose themselves when coming on from the start. The real test is to come.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Back on home turf

First published in Sons View, 25 July 2010, Dumbarton -v- Morton

‘The Far Post’ (as in: the title of my column in Sons View) is no more. As of Wednesday 14 July 2010 it just got a whole lot closer. Edinburgh, in fact. For me, 40 years, 7 months and 2 days of being a Sons supporter based down in the south of England (not counting a short sojourn in the Midlands) came to an end as I crossed the border by train at around about 9.45pm that evening.

So here I am – finally living in Scotland, clutching my shiny new Dumbarton season ticket, and finding myself the newest member of the Edinburgh Sons supporters’ club, along with noble proggie editor Graeme Robertson and Glencorse golf-pro legend Cliffe Jones. Just imagine, all those opinions in one small car. Frightening!

Seriously though, being a Sons regular has been a life-long ambition for me – albeit one I never seriously expected to fulfil until retirement, which is technically 13 years hence… though the way things are going, many of us will be struggling for a crust way beyond the age of 65.

But life is constantly surprising. Six months ago we had no immediate thoughts of moving. Then Carla and I spotted just the place we were looking for while staying with friends in March. We realised we had loads of Edinburgh contacts, both personal and professional, and that it was where we most wanted to be. So we decided to ‘go for it’. Four months later, and here we are.

For me the distant Scottish roots on my mother’s side have always tugged strongly at the heartstrings, and I’ve long hankered to live north of the border. It feels like a homecoming already, but there are still adjustments to be made – and I’m not just talking about the Scottish-English dictionary! In football terms, things look pretty different, too.

My beloved (who has barely a fiba bone in her body) already has to acclimatise to a rather different regime to my ‘Far Post’ one. That involved regular but infrequent forays up to Dumbarton – the cost of each trip being roughly equivalent to the price of my new season ticket – plus maybe a dozen trips to my local team: in recent years, Exeter City.

Now I’m close enough to the Strathclyde Homes Stadium not to need a ‘local interest’. But on the downside, from the family viewpoint anyway, there are 18 home fixtures already in the diary, plus the looming attraction of that hitherto uncharted territory known as ‘away games’. Some of them will be nearer than the home ones, of course. The others will depend on domestic and work commitments.

Today’s Alba cup-tie with Morton is one that I couldn’t fit onto the calendar, unfortunately. But I’ll be following the text and Twitter updates loyally – just like the old days. After a positive pre-season build up, it’s the first big test for Sons ahead of next month’s Division Two opener at Station Park against newly promoted Forfar.

Jim Chapman’s freshly assembled squad will take some time to bed in. But there have been some positive indicators in the friendlies, especially that highly creditable 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle, and a 5-2 win in a ‘closed doors’ encounter with Queen’s Park.

My arrival in Scotland happily coincided with the visit of Oxford United, and to add to the English connection, I found myself parked next to Dean King – a fellow Englishmen who’s been a regular at the Rock for the past few seasons. There’s a growing little band of Sons Sassenachs at SHS.

Unfortunately, Dumbarton ended up on the end of a 2-0 defeat against the ‘Us’, a well resourced full-time outfit who are determined to make their mark in the English Football League after returning there (following four seasons’ absence) on the back of a blaze of Conference play-off glory at Wembley.

After a shaky start, with the wind unsettling them all over the park, Oxford soon showed their class, dominating the first half. They then faced a spell of Dumbarton pressure at the beginning of the second period. In truth, however, United could easily have claimed another couple of goals, as Sons failed to pose any substantial threat up front and looked occasionally disjointed at the back.

What you notice about lower league English sides is that they’re fast, fit, well-built and constantly pressure the ball. Plenty of lessons for Jim and the boys there, then. Hopefully Sons will have moved up a further gear after the visit of St Mirren. A Cup win isn’t essential, but it would be a great tonic for the campaign ahead.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Being friendly everywhere but the pitch

First published in Sons View, 13, 17 & 19 July 2010, Dumbarton -v- Partick Thistle, Oxford United, St Mirren

So the South African summer football extravaganza has come and gone, with England dipping out of the cup faster than my teabag this morning, and here we are again watching Dumbarton limber up for a new season via an interesting bunch of friendlies.

I say “limber up”, in a way that suggests mild exercise, but the July schedule actually looks pretty packed. There are seven games this month, five of them here at the Rock, plus one closed-doors outing. That includes the Challenge Cup encounter with local rivals Morton (almost a tradition now!) and a Co-Operative Insurance Cup tie away at Queen of the South.

Following pre-season training, where the new lads have a had a chance to get the feel of Sons set-up, things got underway with a trip to Annan Athletic, now well settled in the Third Division and looking to make a bid for progress up the League. That sets the scene for what is going to be a challenging trio of games against top opposition – Partick Thistle, who will be hoping that 2010-11 will see a revival in their quest for SPL status; Oxford United, back in the English Football League following four years’ absence; and Premier boys St Mirren, who we know all-too-well from Cup and friendly exploits in recent years.

Then in the midst of Dumbarton’s trophy-hunting games comes a visit from former rivals, neighbours and indeed guests (the old Bankies outfit spent six years playing ‘home’ games at Boghead Park, followed by Cappielow), Clydebank. Billy McGhie’s outfit, re-formed in 2003, claimed a play-off spot in Scottish Junior Football Association West Region Division One last term. They also ended up Central League Cup Winners in front of an impressive 8,122 spectators at Rugby Park.

With the Jags and the Buddies in the friendlies roster, gaffer Jim Chapman has gone for some continuity with the shape of previous pre-season outings. But there are changes, too – including top-and-tail matches against lower level (though not to be underestimated) opposition.

Last year, Sons endured a torrid July after the terrible loss of captain Gordon Lennon, and then a deep dip at the beginning of the Second Division campaign. Those events framed a raft of top-level ‘friendly’ opposition resulting in 5-0 drubbings by Dunfermline and Middlesbrough respectively, fifteen goals conceded and none scored in five matches, plus two defeats in the Annan Cup. Our minds were naturally elsewhere, on Guido and his family, but it wasn’t exactly a morale-booster.

This time our English opponents are from way down south and League Two, rather than a newly-relegated northern EPL side stuffed full of foreign talent. Having spent all of my 52 years in England so far (though that will hopefully have changed by the time you read this), I’ve seen Oxford United quite a few times – and make no mistake, the U’s will be tough opponents.

Though they have been languishing in non-league football for the past four seasons – far longer than anyone predicted – Oxford United are a club with a proud history and a large infrastructure. In 1985-6 they were in the top flight of English football, won the League Cup at Wembley (beating Queens Park Rangers 3-0) and would have qualified for the UEFA Cup the following season, had it not been for the ban on English teams resulting from the previous year's Heysel Stadium disaster.

So when the U’s crashed out of League football in 2005-56, following a defeat to Leyton Orient which saw the London club win promotion (I still have the T-Shirt, as Orient are a team supported by several of my friends), they not only saw the end of 44-years continuous presence among the professional elite, but were also the first team to have lost League status having previously won a major trophy.

Oxford draw much of their support from the local town, but they are also boosted by university students, too. Their 12,500-seater Kassam Stadium has hosted between 5,000 and 7,000 people for Blue Square Premier games on a pretty regular basis, breaking Conference attendance records on the way – at least, before the arrival of Luton Town.

Now the Headington outfit, who have survived a range of financial and management turmoil, are back where they and their followers believe they belong, and they’re determined to make the most of it. A good showing in Scotland is no doubt part of their current plans. Dumbarton will give them a warm welcome, but Sons fans will be hoping that this does not extend to an excess of generosity on the pitch!