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!

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