Sunday, 29 August 2010

Six of the worst?

Limbering up before the storm
What to say after your team has just been humped 6-0 and looked all over the place in the process? For the fan it's painful but not too difficult. You whinge a lot, call for somebody or other to be fired, and then speculate how it might all be different if you were picking the team, running the dressing room and controlling the transfers. Then again, you're not. Nor are you taking all the crap that goes with that when things are proceeding badly on the pitch.

After yesterday's day out at Methil, Dumbarton boss Jim Chapman commented, according to the Daily Record :  “I won’t comment on my team’s performance as they don’t deserve one. I want to praise to East Fife who showed great willingness, hard work and quality.” No doubt that will attract a lot of criticism, though it seems not unreasonable to me. Fans went away saying much the same thing. We complain when modern bosses come out with contentless media-speak. But when they're forthright, we don't much like that either.

Dumbarton press forward at Methil
After a performance like Sons gave yesterday, you can't possibly say something isn't wrong. But angry remonstrations, immediate demands to 'sack the manager', and quick-fix solutions aren't the answer. I've seen eight cup, friendly and league matches since last month, and this was by far the worst performance so far (though I missed the second half collapse at Forfar, which may have been the first manifestation of the symptoms we saw at New Bayview). Sometimes we've played good, flowing football while lacking bite in the final quarter - especially in the area. Defensive frailties have been evident at crucial moments. Dumbarton have some good players, some young promising players, some players who are clearly struggling. Points have been thrown away against Livingston and Ayr. Yesterday, everything that could go wrong went wrong and the Fifers took their opportunities well. The chasm looked to be one of confidence and cohesion.

Throughout the game, which was obviously dire from a Sons point of view, most of the away support got behind the team. But a minority used the occasion to unleash a torrent of abuse - not least at the manager as he came off the pitch at half-time and full-time. If they'd received so much as a wagging finger or cross word back, they'd probably have been complaining to the SFA that they'd been "offended" and demanding disciplinary action. Sorry, I don't buy it. Constant heckling does nothing to help the side. Quite the reverse. Nor is it evidence of a superior loyalty... just a lack of maturity and self-control. We've all been there. Hopefully we've grown out of it.  

What unfolded on the park yesterday wasn't a true and definitive measure of Dumbarton for 2010-11.  It's precisely four matches into a 36 game term. It took seven games before we won last season. Peterhead and Stenhousemuir are struggling at the moment too, it's not as if we are irreversibly adrift. We also have new signings who need to bed in. Gary Smith and Mark Gilhaney look promising. I've liked what I've seen of Creaney and Wilson, too. Derek Carcary and Andy Geggan have undoubted grit and flair.  The 19s are doing well, but lack experience. Tough times are an invitation to resolve, not panic. And no, that's not complacency. It's realism.

With the international break next weekend and the experimental opportunity of the Stirlingshire Cup the the squad and the manager have some time to sort out their difficulties and come back for a fresh attempt at getting the league campaign kick started on 11 September. I hope they get the chance to do so. We've taken a bad beating. Giving each other six of the worst won't make anyone feel better.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Up for the Cup once more

Nicky Devlin launches Sons onto the attack again
A youthful Dumbarton team got back to winning ways on a sunny evening in Larbert tonight, claiming a place in the Stirlinghsire Cup semi-final courtesy of goals either side of the break against Stenhousemuir. The Warriors hit back just before the final whistle with a finely taken strike, but by that time Sons had done enough to ensure victory. On occasions the match ebbed and flowed pleasingly across Ochilview's synthetic surface. But for much of the time both sides struggled to maintain possession and to impose a lasting shape on the match.

Dumbarton certainly owe a debt of thanks to 'keeper Michael White, who pulled off two exceptional reaction saves in the second half. His reward was loud applause from Sons' fans ... and one wry shout of "hold it next time!"  Ryan Metcalf and Tony Wallace got their names onto the score sheet for the visitors, with Iain Chisholm being the provider on each occasion. Overall, this was an enjoyable evening of  football following the results misery of the last few weeks.

Credit also to Stenhousemuir for producing a programme to mark the occasion. This includes a report of the Under-19s match between the two sides on Sunday, which Dumbarton won 3-2, details of previous Stirlingshire Cup encounters, and a complete list of winners since 1883/4. Sons joined the regional association and hence the Cup in the 1939/40 season, and have won the tournament on 14 occasions since then - including a purple patch between 1980 and 1990 (six titles) and last year's triumph (again versus Stenousemuir).

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Nothing in the Ayr tonight, sadly

Somerset Park?  Goodness, I must be back in the southwest again. Well, not exactly... more like the late 1960s, and that's not meant in a disparaging way. Measured by the standards of "the modern football experience" Ayr United's home is definitely a throwback to an earlier era, but that suits me fine. Being able to stand and wander around three sides of a terrace is an unheard of luxury these days. At least, in the places I've been living recently in Another Country. That and a good local pub lunch beforehand set me up well for the match.

The game itself it didn't exactly set the world on fire. In reality there wasn't a great deal separating the teams, other than the slip that created an unfortunate own goal for Paul Maxwell. Dumbarton had more of the possession, and thwarted the Honest Men in midfield. But we were left wondering where the breakthrough might come from - and in the end, once more, it didn't. Derek Carcary was held back as a super-sub, to the annoyance of many of the fans, and it almost (but didn't quite) pay off. A double strike from Del brought out an equally impressive double save from Ayr's Alan Main.

This is the third Sons defeat in a row as far as the league campaign is concerned. It should have been a point this afternoon, as against Livingston at home. You get the feeling that when the team gets a result there will be a turnaround, but it is needed sooner rather than later if morale is not to drag Dumbarton down further.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

A very small moment in history

If you look at the little be-scarfed figure third from the aisle on the right-hand side of the back row, in this characteristically fine picture  (c) by Donald Fullarton, you will be looking at a man enjoying his first Dumbarton home league game as a season ticket holder. That's me, after a 41 year wait. OK, the result wasn't quite what I would have wished for. Sons played some good football, but lost the game (to ex-DFC man Iain Russell - of course) some 12 minutes from full time. Frankly, it should have been a draw, and it would have been no injustice if Dumbarton had edged the match, having enjoyed superiority for major chunks of it. But this is fitba not Hollywood. Annoying. But still, for one supporter, a great day out, with hopefully many more to come.

Time to get going again

First published in Sons View, 14 August 2010, Dumbarton -v- Livingston

Over the past couple of seasons, Dumbarton have been slow starters – but have still ended up in strong positions, winning the Third Division title in 2008/9 with an extraordinary run of victories, and claiming a pretty respectable sixth place in our first season back in the Second Division last term. Things could have turned out even better in May with just a few improved results, illustrating that the margin between triumph and trial is as small as it is crucial.

The temptation to predict how things are going to turn out after just one or two games is strong in modern football, but can prove as illusory as false optimism. It’s worth bearing that in mind as we try to gain some perspective on recent events in anticipation of the first game of the new campaign at the Rock.

For sure, last week’s 4-1 defeat away at newly-promoted Forfar in the opening game of the 2010/11 season was obviously a huge disappointment to Sons fans, especially following that 5-1 Co-Operative Insurance Cup humbling by Queen of the South at Palmerston. But the performances against Morton in the Alba Cup, and against Partick Thistle and St Mirren in pre-season friendlies, show that Dumbarton have the capacity and the potential to be an attractive, competitive side.

The last two games have obviously posed serious defensive questions, which Jim and the boys will have been working on over the past few days. The quest for more decisiveness in the box is another challenge for a side bristling with youth, capable of pushing the ball around well in midfield, and galvanised by the flashes of inspiration summed up in Derek Carcary’s last three goals – which have all been top class.

With the arrival of Livingston here at SHS this afternoon, the league campaign will feel well and truly underway. Sons undoubtedly face a stiff test from the team who many pundits have been confidently predicting will work their way through the divisions and back to the SPL once more. As Alloa showed against Livi last Saturday, however, this will be no one-team league. Indeed, it may prove to be the toughest Second Division in several years.

From the outset it looked as if last term’s Third Division Champions were going to run away with the match at Recreation Park, following a two minute opener headed in by Kyle Jacobs, and former Sons’ man Iain Russell’s doubling of the Lions’ lead on 21 minutes. But the Wasps epitomised the ‘never give up’ spirit which is essential at this level of the game, and in the end they snatched what observers say was a well-deserved point at the impressive Almondvale Stadium.

Today, both sides will be highly motivated to go out and find their initial victory (and in Dumbarton’s case first point) of the season. For Iain Russell it will be another return to the stadium where, as a Sons striker, he claimed 27 goals in 92 appearances between 2003 and 2006.

A close season signing for Livi, we last saw him here on 3 April, when Sons recorded a 2-1 win over eventual champions Stirling Albion. Hopefully that’s a good precedent for this afternoon. Incidentally, ex-Son Allan Moore gave Iain a championship medal in acknowledgment of his contribution, even though he hadn’t technically played enough games to qualify for one. We hope there will be no prizes for anyone but Dumbarton today, though.

I’m anticipating this game with particular relish, as it will be my first at SHS as a season ticket holder: the realisation of a 41-year ambition achieved by a family decision to relocate from way down south to Edinburgh a month ago.

Since my arrival I’ve managed to take in four Dumbarton friendly and cup games. I also took a quick mid-week trip to Tynecastle to see Hearts get canned by Wolves, and as I was working in London last weekend I substituted that Forfar debacle for watching Fulham beat Werder Bremen 5-1.

That’s definitely a record number of friendlies for me, and the records are bound to keep tumbling every week at the Rock after I get past the ‘five home games’ stage – the most number of Sons games I’ve managed to see in one season before, due to restrictions of geography and finance.

Naturally I’m as keen as anyone for Dumbarton to show real progress in 2010/11. But even in tougher times it’s going to take a long while before the sheer pleasure of getting to see Sons play on a regular basis fades. Fingers crossed all round for this campaign, then.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Farewell, Adam Stansfield

It's important to remember that beyond the hype, banter, bile and bollocks that often surrounds modern football, what really matters is human life in all its glory and messiness. So my thoughts and wishes are particularly with Exeter City fans this week, following news of the tragic death of striker Adam Stansfield on 10 August 2010. He was 31 years of age, and had been suffering from bowel cancer. It all happened remarkably quickly: abdominal pains in March, a dagnosis in April, a young man's future snuffed out within four and a half months. How precious and frail life is.

I saw Adam in action on numerous occasions over the past few years, the Grecians being my local side until I moved first to Birmingham and now to Edinburgh. He also featured several times in my regular matchday magazine column, naturally. 'Stanno' also made over 110 appearances for Yeovil Town and Hereford United between 2001-6, prior to his Exeter move.

The English Football League Division One game that Exeter would have been played on Saturday 14 August against Dagenham & Redbridge has been understandably postponed while people come to terms with the loss. Up at Dumbarton, we are unfortunately well acquainted with grief, following the awful death of Sons' captain Gordon Lennon in a road accident on 6 June 2009. I'm sure everyone associated with the Club would join me in sending sincere condolences to all Adam's family and friends, near and far.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Fulham fill their boots

Fulham press forward again
It's not often that Alex Ferguson gets to share the same stadium as me. But he did so today at Craven Cottage, where I ventured in the midst of a London work trip to watch the pride of Fulham ease to a 5-1 pre-season victory against top German side Werder Bremen. The Bundesliga team struck first and looked well in control during an uneven first half. But after the break the floodgates opened for the West London side, with chants of 'Bobby Zamora for England" apparently reaching Three Lions' boss Fabio Capello's ears. I'm not much concerned with the fate of Ingerland, but I'm certainly glad for Bobby. I remember him back in his Brighton & Hove Albion days, and since then he has worked his way up the football pyramid with a considerable amount of hard work and application. He deserves the limelight.

This afternoon, as crashing rain gradually gave way to some bursts of sunshine before the grey set in again, Zoltan Gera scored an elegant second-half hat-trick while Mark Hughes' new charges came from behind in an impressive, if not over-taxing display. It was Zamora who had evened things up eight minutes after the restart, however, and he added to his credit rating with some fine one-touch assists. Fergie had come to watch Mesut Ozil, by the way. He never really shone for Bremen, but Claudio Pizarro's opener was stunning.

Stars in the afternoon, that's what you want to see. Especially if your main diet is the Scottish second division.  Nice programme, too - if a little 'corporate'. As for that nearby pub sign; well it spells out just how friendly it is down by the River Thames... unless you're on the receiving end of a five goal humbling, that is.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Hearts of darkness

Peering through the gloom at Tynecastle
Living in Leith (natural Hibernian territory), as I now do, sneaking off to Tynecastle is not something you do without a few furtive looks over your shoulder. Or a pair of dark glasses. Well, it was a sunny evening when I set off for Gorgie. By the time I got in to the ground to watch Hearts take on English foes Wolverhampton Wanderers in a pre-season friendly, however, my mood was definitely darker.

After 50 minutes or so being made to hang around outside, waiting for an unnecessary queue to evaporate, I'd missed the first 19 minutes of the game and the only two goals (Wolves won 2-0, with embarrassing ease). Thanks to a 'family friendly' 7pm start and the daft decision by the Club to stop home supporters getting tickets on the gate, we all had to hang around while ticket-office operators slowly scrolled their computer screens to find numbered seats. Yes, for a non-packed friendly. Away fans, I later discovered, had been able to hand over their hard-earned cash at the turnstile. As a result they got to see Wolves claim two cheaply conceded goals, including a penalty, in the first half - while hundreds of locals were left outside. Not a good way to encourage people to come back or bring friends and family along. So, hello Tynecastle; and farewell. When I'm not watching Dumbarton and have the chance, I'll be down Easter Road instead.

As for the part of the match I did get to see: it was pretty but poor - an all-too-typical training game in which, much as they huffed and puffed, a slightly under-strength Heart of Midlothian could not get anywhere near the stratosphere occupied by a side that finished just above relegation in the EPL last season. Not a great testimony to to the SPL, I'm afraid. There wasn't a great deal of goalmouth action, either. And what there was I strained to see: because after making me hang around for the best part of an hour, the Hearts admin kindly put me behind a pillar in the 'main' stand. Pity, because the rest of the ground is great, and there was acres of space across the way on the cantilevered side.

(Oh, and it was good to have the kids on the pitch at half-time, to receive some applause and encouragement. That was definitely the bright spot of the occasion.)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Handy win for the Doonhamers

Famously, Queen of the South are the only football team whose name appears in the Bible. It's a synonym for the queen of Sheba. As far as Dumbarton are concerned, however, Queens certainly didn't appear to have read the script, romping to a 5-1 victory on an intermittently sunny and rainy Saturday afternoon in Dumfies.

This really was a stroll in Palmerston Park for the First Division side, who were two-nil up at half time and claimed another three after the break, punctuated by a beautifully worked and very well-taken goal from Sons' Derek Carcary.

At the beginning of the second period, Dumbarton started to play some, attractive flowing football, but could not find a way through the Doonhamers' defence. After conceding the third goal to Queens they powered back, and following Carcary's fine strike on 58 minutes (shades of his two wonder goals in the friendly against Dunfermline)  it looked for a short while as if a revival was in swing. But number four from Kenny Brannigan's side was definitely 'game over', and the fifth goal almost academic.

This is the third season in a row where Sons have taken a pasting from higher league opposition in the the Co-operative Insurance Cup. The real controversy in this one surrounded the penalty given against Dumbarton on 27 minutes, which effectively killed the game off. According to the BBC this was for a trip. But the referee clearly signalled a handball, and it seems that Ben Gordon was the culprit. Then again, Sons fans with an unimpeded view (myself included) were sure they saw a Queens player get his mitt to the ball - and Derek Holmes looked duly sheepish for a moment, before sweeping the ball into the net for his brace. It's safe to say that referee Brian Winter will not be on any Dumbarton Christmas card lists this year. He enjoyed a distinctive line in verbal encouragment from the Sons' faithful for the rest of the match.

The photograph, by the way, shows Dumbarton warming up before the game. It was only after the kick-off that things started to go downhill. 

Ah, well. We all hoped the season would start with a flourish in Dumfies. We were wrong. It really kicks off against Forfar Athletic at Station Park on Saturday 7 August. I'll be down in London that weekend, sadly, but duly re-installed at SHS for the opening home game against Livingston the following week. Can't wait.