Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sons back on the winning trail again

This match summary was first published as Dumbarton hit four against East Fife on the Dumbarton FC website.


Tussle at the Rock
Dumbarton's first game with Alan Adamson in charge ended in a morale-boosting 4-1 victory over East Fife after an incident packed match yesterday.

The opening minutes were very anxious for Sons, with two goal line scrambles and a probing free kick from the visitors' Bobby Linn being tipped on to the bar by Stephen Grindlay. The Dumbarton keeper was in action again minutes later, with a well timed sliding save at the feet of fast-breaking striker Craig Johnstone.

Sons tried to move forward, but were forced to clear their lines time and again as the confident Fifers pressed them hard. On 11 minutes Steven Hislop spared the blushes of the home side by missing a clear chance on the right.

Then when East Fife's Kurtis Byrne blazed a shot towards Grindlay's left post on 17 minutes it looked as if Sons were going one down, but a sharp rebound off the woodwork kept the game goalless.

On the half hour, quite against the run of play, Dumbarton were suddenly rejoicing as John McShane broke through and struck a sweet shot past East Fife's Baillie from inside the area.

More hard work from Sons nearly paid off on 38 minutes, when Martin McNiff hit the ball over from close range. But moments later the Fifers were level at 1-1, via a simply taken goal through the middle from impressive Hibs loanee Byrne.

As Sons came back again, Jon McShane struck the bar with a header minutes before half time. After the break Sons found themselves in front again almost immediately, thanks to an own goal from Scott Durie, as he attempted a pass-back under pressure.

Sons' somewhat charmed life was built on hard work though, with Keiran Brennan narrowly failing to latch on to a fine long cross from Nicky Devlin on 57 minutes.

East Fife's keeper Stewart Baillie was sent off just short of the hour for handling outside the area (pictured), as Dumbarton pressed forward again. But the home side were unable to capitalise on the resulting free kick. The Fifers were down to nine men on 68 minutes, when Stewart Murdoch was red carded for a second offence of kicking the ball away after a stoppage.

The visitors' substitute keeper then made a fine high save from a Kiernan piledriver, and suddenly Sons were in the ascendancy. Devlin almost scored the goal of the season on 74 minutes, threading artfully through the East Fife defence in Brazilian style, before pushing the ball harmlessly wide.

As full time drew nearer Stephen Grindlay pulled off a remarkable point blank range save following an inswinging Fifers corner.

Substitute Iain Chisholm almost made it three for Sons at the end, before Mark Gilhaney finally did so, confidently rounding the keeper to clinch an invaluable victory at the Rock — and then producing another to make it even more remarkable 4-1.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Being a chip off the old Rock

First published in Sons View, 30 October 2010, Dumbarton -v- East Fife

Sometimes it’s more enjoyable to write about football than to watch it. Then again, there are moments when the thought or the word is just as painful as the sight – perhaps more so. No-one connected with Dumbarton FC is having a good time of it at the moment, but as three o’clock nears in this vital home match against East Fife, we have to put all that behind us and let the passion fill our lungs once more.

There was an air of near resignation among some of the Sons’ away faithful last Saturday, as that final indignity, a fourth Stenhousemuir goal moments before full time, hit the back of the net. It was as if the hope had drained right out of us. Eight defeats in the first ten games of the season, 24 goals conceded and only five scored is enough to knock the stuffing out of most football fans.

But on-pitch disappointments and upheavals on the bench aside, the strange appeal of this game is built on unexpected results, hard-worked-for revivals and the possible ‘new dawn’ that each weekend provides for us. It’s what makes predictions so perilous, much to the joy of the bookmakers.

Right now, you’d get some pretty good odds against Dumbarton avoiding the drop. If you’re that way inclined, I’d take them on. There are 26 games and 78 points still up for grabs in this League, and while you wouldn’t stake your life on the Sons bagging a whole lot of them right now, by next year we could be talking in quite different terms. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.

The problems Dumbarton have at the moment are not, I’d contend, a significant difference in class between the sides that make up the 2010-11 Second Division. They’re based on the continual ebbing away of confidence in recent weeks, the inability to gel as a team on the pitch, and flaws at crucial points in matches which are frustrating (as much for the players and staff as for any of us) but resolvable. Above all, we supporters want the players to show real guts and collective spirit, and they want exactly the same from us in the stands.

In the interests of raising morale, it’s tempting to ransack Dumbarton’s long and illustrious (if sometimes tortured) history to think of one or two examples of Great Escapes and Determined Turnarounds. But it’s now and tomorrow that really counts. The past can drag you down as easily as it can lift you up – except when it’s used as a means of learning from mistakes, rather than blindly repeating them.

Which brings us to today’s opponents. The Fifers are fellow strugglers. They are one of four sides, including ourselves, who have yet to win on the road this term. Seven of their nine points (five more than Sons, as if you needed telling) have come from six home matches. Dumbarton, on the other hand, have only played four times at SHS in the League since August, and the first three of those performances were by no means bad. It was silly mistakes that cost us another two points.

So if we can, for the moment, put that painful 6-0 away drubbing at New Methil to one side (it was two months ago, after all), there are grounds for thinking that a turning point is possible from here in. But a change of attitude as much as approach is needed.

That’s where passion comes in once more. It might not be a substitute for technical ability, tactical acumen and cunning, but it’s still the lifeblood of football: the elixir that gets all the other ingredients working together and pumps the team up to take on the world... or in this case, one of the four senior clubs based in the Fife region!

It’s often said that “seeing is believing”, but there are many times in professional sport where it’s equally true to say, “if we hadn’t believed, we’d never have seen it.” This is not so much about ignoring the facts (those are plain for all to view in Dumbarton’s case), or putting a glossy ‘spin’ on a dire situation, or being blandly optimistic. It’s about the kind of shared determination, self-confidence and willpower that enables you to set the agenda before you, rather than just accept it on someone else’s terms.

So this game against East Fife is another opportunity to get the fight-back against the relegation threat underway. Not the only one, not the last one, but the one Sons have the chance to grasp right now. To show, if you like, that they’re a ‘chip off the old Rock’.

A new configuration for Sons

Come in, number two...
UPDATE: On 3 Nov 2010, Dumbarton FC announced: "Derek Ferguson will not now be joining interim manager Alan Adamson as his assistant at SHS. Ongoing media commitments have meant that Derek could not commit the time required for the position and therefore will not be part of DFC's interim backroom staff."

Events have moved quickly at Dumbarton, following the resignation of Jim Chapman as first team manager, and his move into a post aimed at further developing youth and community initiatives. Allan McManus has joined Alan Adamson, who is now in the managerial role, as a player-coach. The  experienced Derek Ferguson has also come on board as assistant manager - though other commitments mean that he will not be on the bench for the game against East Fife today.

Derek signed for Rangers as a midfielder the day after his 16th birthday, and later played for Dundee, Hearts, Sunderland and Falkirk, among others, as well as winning two Scotland caps. His recent experiences on the bench haven't been easy. Nor will his strong 'Gers connections be universally popular. But Sons fans will still be hoping that he can add another chapter to his autobiography, Big Brother... one that documents Dumbarton's dramatic turnaround in the 2010/11 season.

The new team on the DFC bench certainly deserves our support and encouragement this afternoon, and in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Life, Jim - but not as you've known it

The last 'meet the manager' session at SHS
There was a double announcement from Dumbarton FC about under-pressure Jim Chapman yesterday. First, that he had stepped down as first team manager. Second, that he would be continuing as Director of Community and Football Development. The cynics will say that it's a money-driven decision, and that is bound to be part of the picture. But my first reaction is to think it's a wise move, all aspects of the situation considered. Jim picked up the Sons at a really low point, won a championship trophy in his first full season, consolidated us in the Second Division and won the Stirlingshire Cup last term. He deserves credit, respect and thanks for that... But this time, unfortunately,  it's gone decidedly pear-shaped nearly a third of the way in.

The sad thing is that the youth and reserve teams are going great guns. That is the other key dimension of this move. Jim has demonstrated a huge interest in, and capacity for, the roles that will now absorb all his attention, and that can only be good for the club. As to the substantive issue, I'm always in favour of giving managers the time they need to turn things around when they are going badly. The instant hire-and-fire culture that's taken over the game at many levels is daft. But sometimes you know that, with the best will in the world (and I'm sure there was plenty of that), it's just not working. So a change of dynamics or a fresh injection of energy is needed.

After the past three games, it really isn't clear how Dumbarton are going to move up a league in which they now sit rooted to the bottom. But a consolidated effort is certainly needed to ensure that Sons, if at all possible, don't enter 2011 well adrift. That, I'm sure was part of the decision-making on all sides. We have no idea what things have been like in the dressing room. Supporters always speculate, of course. But personally I am glad that Jim Chapman will still be contributing to the development of the club for a while more.

It's difficult enough to see how we could afford a full-time manager given our resources, let alone two posts. So it will be interesting to see how things pan out from here. Alan Adamson merits strong backing for his first outing as interim manager against East Fife on Saturday. And whatever upheavals there have been, I also hope the fans give Jim recognition and a good berth to continue the vital youth and community side of things. As for the "further announcement regarding an Assistant/First Team Coach" that we are promised "in due course"... Ah well, that'll keep a few jaws well exercised, at least!

Not much chance of another New Firm

Tonight I got my first opportunity, since moving up to Scotland, of getting to see a full 90 minutes of SPL level football - albeit on television, and a Co-operative Insurance Cup tie. Inevitably it involved an Old Firm side. Frankly, I'd rather have watched Dundee United versus Motherwell or Aberdeen versus Falkirk yesterday, but that would have been as likely as the emergence of another New Firm to challenge the green and blue duopoly.

As it happens, St Johnstone versus Celtic at McDiarmid Park turned out to be pretty absorbing in the second half, with a noble fightback from the Perth club almost taking us into extra time. They came back from 3-0 down, before eventually losing 3-2. It didn't start that way, though. Some feeble defending had the Bhoys three up inside 13 minutes. Thankfully, a very sweetly struck response from St Johnstone's Sam Parkin, albeit from another defensive lapse, recaptured some interest and possibility in the game. The BBC studio must have been mightily relieved to have a talking point (they tried bravely to portray the match as an uncertain contest)... other than pundit and Dons captain Paul Hartley's strange inability to find a shirt that fitted him for his latest TV appearance.

Murray Davidson's header also gave Saints cheer, but they missed vital scoring opportunities late on. Credit also goes to incredibly hard-working Collin Samuel, incidentally. Overall, though, this was too often like watching a League One or lower level Championship match in England - which given the absurd gulf in resources and population is not surprising, but is nevertheless sad. Up here the SPL is the big bad wolf for lower league supporters. Down south, I would have very much liked some coverage - especially as English football is compulsory on Scottish television, while our own game goes neglected because of the self-fulfilling prophecy of "lack of interest". That and the Old Firm resource-sucking machine.  Yes, I know, they generate considerable revenue too, but the distortion of the market is palpably negative overall. Thus the scrabbling around for some semblance of a credible SPL restructuring idea.

My instincts in Scotland are to support anyone playing Rangers and Celtic, and not really to care when they play each other. In European competition, everything is suddenly reversed, and the Old Firm are the plucky minnows - complaining, with no sense of irony, about the imbalance created by the Euro billionaires. Anyway, I was strangely pleased that the 'Gers defied Manchester United in the Champions League.

As a BBC message board poster succinctly put it at the time: "Possibly the best example of the chasm between both teams lies in the fact that Manchester United played a player in defence for whom they paid a sum which is almost as much as Rangers all-time record signing and worth more than all of Rangers's signings in the past four years. Sadly, the player in question was Chris Smalling, not Rio Ferdinand, which sort of underlines how impressive the result was from a Rangers perspective." Indeed.

Time for the Rooney tax

I've been a keen public supporter of the so-called Robin Hood Tax (a micro-levy on global financial transactions to invest in development and poverty reduction), but Aditya Chakrabortty, the economics leader writer for the Guardian, has come up with another good idea. The Wayne Rooney tax on over-valued, uneconomic footballing assets.

Ol' Money Bags
Writes Aditya: "Pug-faced footballers interest me about as much as conveyancing solicitors, who have had far more impact on my life. There was even a brief period at school when I thought this Man U everyone else was talking about was actually a Burmese military dictator....

"What interests me is how a striker who has only scored one goal this season, who had a terrible World Cup, who is in what's widely described as the worst form of his career, can command a weekly wage reportedly between £200,000 and £250,000. And for that, economists have some answers. Even better, whether left or right, Chicago or Cornell, their arguments yield some common suggestions for what can be done about it. Best of all, in these austere times, those suggestions involve imposing higher taxes on the people who earn such huge amounts. We can even call it a Rooney tax, and demand that George Osborne introduces one in his next Budget." Read the rest here.

Do Newcastle deserve Chris Hughton?

More managerial shenanigans. No, I'm not talking about Jim Chapman at Dumbarton (I'll come to that later), but the media-fuelled rumours swirling around Newcastle United that manager Chris Hughton might be forced out. There has always been a phalanx at NUFC who, with an inflated sense of their own importance, believe that - in spite of the incredible job Hughton did in delivering them from the second division, and his creditable consolidation of the side in the English Premier League - they deserve a "bigger name" to produce Champions League Football. Probably by the week after next.

This is little short of pathetic. Chris Hughton is a skilled, hard-working and decent man. His team are ninth in the EPL, just four points off the top five. That's a very solid achievement indeed. The Newcastle board have tonight come out with an uninspiring statement of support for their gaffer - one which simply says that he remains their manager (you don't say!) and that... wait for it... his contract will be reviewed at the end of the year. No hint that he can stay longer term. So, after all he's done, the poor chap is still on probation.

If they do get rid of him, the club will sink even further in the estimation of those who think that a sense of perspective (let alone gratitude to a manager who rescued them from their last two, disastrous, "star appointments") is part of what makes a football club deserving. Not an overweening sense of entitlement. Do Newcastle United deserve Chris Hughton?  That's what's really at stake here.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Nothing Roo under the sun

Wayne shares his thoughts...
For a fleeting moment I thought that there might be something more interesting than manipulation and greed behind Wayne Rooney's media ploy to wheedle something between £150-250 thousand-a-week out of debt-ridden megaliths Manchester United. As an embodiment of the triumph of realpolitik over any semblance of decency and dignity at the top of the game, that gurning image of Alex Ferguson and El Wayne, following Roo's "shock decision" to line his pockets after all, will take some beating. It was right out of the North Korean school of spin-doctoring.

But back to the nugget of interest. The original claim from Rooney's ex-vacuum cleaner salesman agent, Paul Stretford, was that "the boy" wanted to move on because he had not received assurances that the club could secure enough big signings to keep silverware dropping into their hands. The press pack immediately interpreted that as a "lack of ambition" accusation, which is obviously ridiculous. More serious is the thought that MUFC's debt servicing burden, leveraged in courtesy of the Glazers' overall £769 million millstone, will continue to constrain the purse strings and threaten the financial stability of even such a giant club as this.

One journalist and diligent student of football's ins and outs who continues to tell the underlying story of United's glistening goldmine is the estimable David Conn. Always worth reading. Earlier this month he lanced MUFC chair David Gill's feeble attempt to bypass debt-pile facts, by pointing to the club's operating profit, thusly: "With the interest payments, plus interest at 14.25% on the £202m 'payment in kind' hedge fund debt, and the £13m paid to banks for United to issue that bond, the cost of the Glazers' financial chicanery last year alone was £123m. The total cost of the Florida-based family's takeover of United, done with mostly borrowed money in 2005, which was then loaded on to the club to repay, has since been £583m, in interest, bank fees and other charges."

This story still has a lot of mileage in it. As for the dismal Rooney, Ferguson should have thanked him for his "change of heart"... and told him to take a hike. If only life was like that.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Avoiding Rock bottom

Limbering up at Larbert
Well, OK, we are bottom. But not down and out yet - though it is very hard to 'take the positives' from Dumbarton's outing to Stenhousemuir this afternoon. Given that Sons' record this season is 10 played, eight lost, one won and one drawn, we are actually fairly fortunate to be only five points adrift at the foot of the Second Division. A couple of wins and a draw or two could yet take us out of the morass, provided others continue to struggle. The problem is that there are few signs that this is going to happen.

Looking at goals conceded (24) and the comedy errors for the first and final blows in Sons' 4-0 defeat at Larbert today, you would most naturally assume that the real problem is at the back. But I'm not so sure. The mistakes come partly from lack of confidence, and that in turn relates to the lack of prowess up front. With Derek Carcary out, Dumbarton look toothless in attack. Two penalties and two wonder-strikes from Del account for four of our five in League football so far this season. Where is the industry going to come from? Today no-one  came particularly close to scoring, save Martin McNiff (whose home shirt I sponsor, and who has put in some fair performances, though he lacks experience). Moreover, not holding onto the ball, or not showing signs of breaking through and doing something with it, puts a defence under more pressure, psychologically as well as physically.

To add to the chagrin of away supporters today, the Stenny 'Man of the Match' was (deservedly) awarded to Ross Clark, who previously wore a Dumbarton jersey. Arguably, Stevie Murray was even better. It's easy to ask why we let one or two of our more experienced players go last term, but bygones are bygones. The difficulty right now is that an effective looking playing structure is being established at the Club, the reserves and the youth are doing very well indeed, but the first team looks frozen by fear and rather confused and indecisive in its shape and communication. Unlike some, I think we have players who can do a job for us, but they're not performing to their potential and gelling on the pitch.

How to play Derek Carcary is another conundrum. Before his injury, he was often being used as an 'impact' substitute on the hour. Then he was given a couple of starts, against Brechin (where he scored) and Airdrie United. That choice could run and run. Derek appears to be a confidence player, but that can lean both ways in terms of when to deploy him. The main issue, it seems to me, is that, while highly skilled and dangerous to opposing defences, he is slight of stature and needs back-up against the hefty central defenders who populate this division.

Dumbarton fans stare into the fading light
Boss Jim Chapman is an able coach, of that there's little doubt. But at this stage in the season, something pretty substantial is needed to stem the decline. In the past, when difficulties have arisen, we have gone back to basics. That may be what's needed now.  At this level, 4-4-2, a more stable starting 11 and securing players' best positions can help restore the foundations and build morale. We will also need more experience come the New Year. The emphasis on cultivating youth is absolutely right. Highly desirable, in fact. But if the dividends don't start to come through at the top level in the next few matches, the project is in serious peril.

For supporters, it's also a testing time. This afternoon there was a half-time volley or two of complaint. But more worrying, at every level, is the sense of resignation. Giving up with less than a third of the season gone isn't what we want or need. But you know you're in trouble when the opposition's goals start to receive ironic applause. (The genuine kind for Ross when he was announced as MOM was more heartening). A huge effort to get behind the team is going to be needed at the Rock on 30 October. 

Talking of which: next up, it's East Fife at SHS. Our last encounter, at New Bayview, was that dreadful 6-0 thumping in August (though it feels more recent than that). A decent home result this time would do a lot to repair the lingering wounds. I'm not sure how it's going to happen, but 'mon Sons!

Reality check

Sons' decline goes on

First published as Sons' misery continues and as the match report (with pics by Donald Fullarton) on the Dumbarton FC website
Dumbarton failed to lift themselves out of the doldrums against Stenhousemuir this afternoon, losing 4-0 on what began as a blustery afternoon at Ochilview

Stenny first half corner
After an edgy start, the home side's Paul Quinn opened the scoring on 4 minutes with a goal sneaked in at the near post after a defensive mix-up.

Six minutes later a nervy Dumbarton defence almost conceded in identical manner, as Stenhousemuir started to dominate possession.

Martin McNiff hit a good 35-yarder across the face of Stenny's goal just short of the quarter hour, as Sons began to push back.

Then on 21 minutes ex-SHS man Ross Clark put the Ochilview side two up from the penalty spot following an infringement from Ben Gordon.

Alan Cook replaced Stirling Smith for Dumbarton on 37 minutes, shortly after a strong effort from Mark Gilhaney on the edge of the box brought out a good flying save from the Warriors' keeper.

Just before half time Clark added further to Sons' misery, slotting in number three past a despairing Stephen Grindlay.

Sons try to throw off the shadows
Dumbarton began the second half with fresh energy, and had two goal efforts and a corner forced away.

In an attempt to pile on yet more pressure, Sons brought on John McShane and Gary Smith in a double substitution shortly afterwards.

The game swung back and forth for the next half hour, with neither side managing the necessary sharpness in the final third.

Then, as if out of nowhere, Stenhousemuir's Grant Plenderleith rounded keeper Grindlay to make it four for the home side.

So another frustrating and deflating afternoon for Dumbarton, with a 4-0 defeat to fellow strugglers keeping Sons firmly rooted to the bottom of the Second Division.

Searching for some Larbert fizz

The last encounter at SHS
So today it's Stenny again. The trip to Larbert, after a quick stop over for a cuts protest in Edinburgh, is only an hour or so - pretty much a 'home game' for a Leither. There's a funny psychological twist to playing Stenhousemuir again on their plastic pitch, mind. Dumbarton won there 2-1 (well, the youngsters did) in the Stirlingshire Cup back on 24 August. Then the Warriors visited SHS on 11 September and we won our only League game of the season thus far. So in spite of seven defeats out of nine in the first quarter of the season and only five goals scored, two of them penalties, we have a 100% record against this afternoon's opponents. That's a bit worrying. Still, I'm hopeful (when am I ever not?). Plus, the manager is apparently still in bullish mood. The reserves remain unbeaten. The under-19s are filling their boots. We are in another cup final, against Falkirk (the aforementioned Stirlingshire Cup), and could theoretically win silverware for the third season in a row. But the first team just can't seem to translate themselves into a coherent unit. A win in Larbert might help to change that. I hope so, for all concerned. Better bring a hip-flask, though.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Happiness envy

Mixed signals?
And so to Peterhead, in eager anticipation that dear Dumbarton might relieve themselves of their current, er, ‘foundational’ position in Irn Bru Scottish Football League Division Two. No such luck, but how were we possibly to know?

The journey to Balmoor (capacity 4,000 – 1,000 seated, it says optimistically in my ground guide) turned out to be a 330 mile round trip – my earlier  iPhone-fuelled calculation having proved exaggerated. It was not without incident. No, I didn’t say ‘excitement’, I said ‘incident’. When events on the field are as they are for Sons at the moment, even a throw-in is ‘one for the diary’. The very same principle applies to the preceding pilgrimage.

Thus the woman in the queue at the Strathcathro motorway café fixed me with her puzzled stare. “Is that a football team?” she asked, pointing to the black and gold crest on my fleece. Given our current plight, a number of possible answers crossed my mind. But as my mouth opened I thankfully found that I had swapped “allegedly” for a rather wan “yes”. She was a stranger, after all. Fitba grief is best kept private in such circumstances.

Road to nowhere
Coincidentally, the supporters’ coach from Dumbarton had arrived in Strathcathro at the same time as the Edinburgh crew. I say “coincidentally”, but given that our ever-focused driver, Graeme Robertson, gleefully announced that we were “only three minutes over-schedule” on the way back, I suspect it might have been carefully planned.

Anyway, having been diverted by an earlier accident and bridge closure, I conspired to eek a few more precious seconds from Robbo’s log by forgetting to use the word “takeaway” when ordering two coffees and a tea. Since “latte” hadn’t worked, I guess I figured that crockery wouldn’t come into the equation, either. But I was wrong. So Graeme, Cliffe Jones and I found ourselves socialising briefly with our DFC festooned fellow-sufferers. No-one mentioned the match directly. We kind of knew, I think. My official prediction remained 2-1 to Dumbarton. Well, I got one of those goals right. But not one of ours.

Mr Robertson was keen to be on his way after this accidentally lengthened pit stop. As he swung our vehicle round in the service area (while I was still wondering whether we should have made a bid for the café shop’s five foot stuffed black horse, just as a terrace talking point) some supporters were milling outside. You could see from the glint in his eye that he was wondering, “is that five or ten points for getting a Sons fan?” Not really. It’s just foot-of-the-table mental catharsis.

Meanwhile, the growing strangeness of “going north” manifested itself some minutes later, when a keen young driver decided that it would be a good idea to try and overtake us, starting from the slow lane, at about 50 miles an hour in the very small gap between our car and a rather large lorry. Sensible. It turned out to be an L-Plated local Stirling Moss on a comedy death-wish, I think. At times like this I feel glad to be a non-driver. Knowing what’s going on doesn’t really help.

The look says it all...
We made one more stop, at a gas station (my wife’s American, that’s how we say it in our household.) I rather wish I’d taken a picture of the big poster opposite the pumps. “You can’t be too careful!” it warned us – above a picture of a woman with a giant oil gauge and a rag. “Is that how family planning works around here?” I found myself asking. Only joking, dear Aberdonians. Your honoured birthright is not in peril.

And so to the Peterhead ground. A neat little affair, I must say, with a very friendly bar and social club. Dumbarton director Alan Jardine’s gesture of lunch for a number of us was much appreciated. The vegetarian option was duly negotiated: macaroni cheese, quiche and garlic bread. Delicious, and the Guinness was superbly poured and finished with the traditional shamrock nozzled onto the head. I texted a picture of the delicacy to my beloved’s mobile phone, since I knew she would be amused. “Look, not a veggie in sight!” I observed drolly.

It went wrong after the warm-up
As to the game itself, I’ll leave that to the match report below. It was fairly grim stuff, but I still believe we can dig ourselves out of this footballing grave. Always believe, Barrow. Mind you, there was what could well have been a 'signifier' (as old Jean Baudrillard might have put it) on the way. The ‘Coma’ guest house. Yes, really.

Curiously, given the disappointment of yet another defeat, the return journey went quickly. Sleep does that. And we were only three minutes off schedule, as I mentioned. Pity about the game.

As time goes by

Silent scream
Seriously, he’s a really nice guy, but this is a man you don’t want to mess with on match day!

Very loyal Dumbarton supporter Cliffe Jones, whose day job is to be the Edinburgh Glencorse golf club professional, is here engaged in an activity which produces enough steam to heat the stand for around ten minutes. Solo. That’ll come in very handy when the winter really sets in.

Yup, he’s reading the team sheet. And yes, around that mild demeanour, the air you see is indeed blue, even though it looks white in my picture. Don’t worry, Cliffe. The season starts next week. Honest. And thanks for the Peterhead ticket – much appreciated, in spite of the result.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

PM on the penalty spot

The Prime Minister was given the opportunity to back a supporters’ bid for a football club facing liquidation today. He ducked it, except in the most generalised terms.

The issue concerns Ilkeston Town FC, which is in liquidation, but could be brought back from the brink by a fan initiative with small business backing. The time of judgement comes later this month. I've written about the Ilkeston challenge, and some wider issues of football governance and finance, over at the Sonstrust  site in a piece entitled Reforming Football Ownership and Funding

You can sign the petition to back the fan buyout here.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Disappointment at Peterhead

First published on Dumbarton FC's website as Sons beaten again, with Donald Fullarton. Slightly adapted.


It had been dubbed Dumbarton's 'must win' game, but in an intense tussle today with Peterhead at Balmoor, Sons lost 1-0, failing to secure the breakthrough they so badly needed. They now sit marooned at the foot of the Second Division table with October only half over.

A nervy start saw the home team's no. 9 Martin Bavidge miss an early chance after the Blue Toon broke through on just four minutes.

Peterhead looked more comfortable on the ball in the early exchanges, as Daniel Moore flashed a header past Stephen Grindlay's left post.

But Dumbarton held their 3-5-2 shape in spite of the pressure, and on 20 minutes, after beginning to take possession again, Iain Chislom almost broke through on the right-hand side for Sons.

When former Dumbarton striker Dennis Wyness gave way to Scott Ross on 26 minutes, Chisholm had another half chance before Keiron Brennan almost deceived Toon 'keeper John Bateman inches away from his goal.

Peterhead pinned back the visitors with three corners shortly after the half hour, but then Andy Geggan's free kick five yards from the home side's area signalled a fresh bout of energy from the Sons.

Towards the end of the first period, Dumbarton began to thread together a number of promising moves, but could not capitalise on them in the box - though Ross Campbell again went close.

Shortly into the second half, Peterhead substitute Ross dashed Sons' initial hopes with a sweetly struck goal high and to the right of the flying Grindlay.

The visitors immediately began to push back, but Toon had taken heart from their lead and made it difficult for Dumbarton to get back into the match.

After the hour Mark Gilhaney replaced Ryan McStay for Sons. Paul Maxwell came on for Tony Wallace six minutes later. However, Dumbarton struggled to regain momentum and confidence.

On 77 minutes Sons won a corner, and then rapidly found themselves tracking back in a see-saw final period of the game.

Ben Gordon had a shot deflected away as the whistle drew near, but Dumbarton's last throw of the dice with Ryan Metcalf replacing Iain Chisolm, a header from Martin McNiff and a shot blasted over the bar by Gilhaney came too late to thwart another disappointing defeat.

Farewell, Big Mal

"A lot of hard work went into this defeat" declared the late, great Malcom Allison on one memorable occasion. He was one of the game's abiding characters, a King of Bling before the concept was invented, and rightly termed by Henry Winter "a coach of immense stature". As far as the quotable gem above goes, it's the almost perfect exemplar of what is now grindingly known as "taking the positives"... with tongue firmly in cheek.

Big Mal is best known for his time at Manchester City, of course, and Crystal Palace too. But he also had a strong relationship with lovable minnows Bath City, who have bravely fought their way into the Blue Square Premier Division this season, with the backing of one of my favourite film-makers, Ken Loach, among others.

Another City: A Week in the Life of Bath's Football Club was made in 1998 and features Allison. It is included in the DVD package that comes with Loach's thoroughly enjoyable recent movie, Looking for Eric. A must see, both of them, along with a good documentary about FC United of Manchester.

Big day out up north

Clash of the mini-Titans
My good friend and former colleague Kai Funkschmidt writes: "I see you make best use of Edinburgh residency to write in-depth analysis of why Dumbarton are doing fine despite losing. That's the spirit. I'll declare you an honorary St Pauli supporter!"  Honour accepted, Kai. Except that today I am forsaking the Athens of the North for a long day out on the search for goals and points at Balmoor. Our opponents Peterhead haven't exactly had a great start to the season either, but the maths of this encounter are stark. Win and we escape the basement. Draw and the we stay in the doldrums. Lose and we go at least four or five points adrift. I shall travel in hope - and early, and then late. Of course the 170 odd miles between Edinburgh and Peterhead is but nothing compared to the near 800 mile round trip between my old haunt, Exeter, and Dumbarton. But even so, we'd better play well!

Friday, 15 October 2010

An alternative pitch

Yes, I know. The descent of Dundee FC into their second period of administration (and possibly much worse) in seven years is the result of two successive seasons of foolish over-ambition on the part of people with more money than sense - but not quite enough money, when it really counts. Looking back to 2003 provides some sickening warnings. Yet any fan of Scottish football worth their salt can only feel sorrow at the plight of the fans, the players, the backroom staff - all who love the game and the club who are staring dissolution in the face. Hopefully it won't come to that.

The answer to the deep money-driven malaise in British football, played out at a stratospheric level in the sometimes ludicrous Liverpool soap-cum-docu-drama, has to be in supporters playing a far greater role in running clubs. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are among those who have talked, in different ways, about a statutory 'people's stakeholding' in every professional club. The Tories mocked before the election, of course. But reality bites, and fans need a way of biting back that is about wrenching the game back to those who love it, rather than just whining from the sidelines. 'Big Society', anyone? Among other things, as I've said over at the Sonstrust site, Trusts can make a real difference... in small matters, and (given the opportunity) in large.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The wrong trousers

So near, so far
Due to the inconveniences of life and work, I managed to miss two Scotland Euro 2012 qualifiers on television, and one Under-21 game up the street at Easter Road in person. Sadly, all of them ended in defeat. But one loss is not necessarily the same as another. The national team's performance at Hampden against world champions Spain was substantial, with only Fernando Llorente's late strike snuffing out a remarkable fightback from two down. But this heroism and endeavour only accentuated the folly of the "look, no front line" 6-4-0 formula - 6-2-2 if you're being generous - adopted by Craig Levein for the match against a significantly weaker (and weakened) Czech Republic side a few days earlier. The cost of that piece of calculated over-caution could be great indeed come the final countdown in 2011. The fear of losing is one of the greatest blights on modern football. It's easy to criticise for the sidelines and with hindsight. But the Scotland boss, in spite of his bullish defensive of unpopular tactics, has surely been made to think at least twice by the contrast between these two matches. Ah well, according to at least one commentator on the Press & Journal, the future is brighter than many would think - if the Under-21s performance against Iceland is a fair marker. Let's hope so.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Unassailable football wisdom No. 427

How I love this game, not least for its seemingly endless fund of indisputably sound advice.

However, should you harbour any lingering doubts about the depth of Jim Jeffries' tactical acumen, following Hearts' recent performances, may I suggest the following routine droplets of proven football wisdom: "Try getting it up the field, son!"; "stop letting them take the ball off you!"; "do something with it!"; "if you don't concede you can't lose!", "make 'em work for it!"... and my personal favourite: "no-one ever won a football match by failing to attack!"

That last pearl was obviously generated by someone who never bothered to watch Rangers in the UEFA Cup in 2008. Well, until they met Zenit Saint Petersburg in the final, anyway.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Banking on the Sons

Down but not out...
"So how are you going to get something positive out of that game for your next column?", I was asked by the couple at the bar in The Counting House after Sons' sorry defeat yesterday. Well, it was another grim afternoon, in football terms at least. But it's still early days, and in a division where no-one excels, I still think Dumbarton can steer to safety. Ten or twelve games is when judgments start to harden. Then again, eight games from the end of the 2008-9 season no bookie would have had us for promotion from the Third Division, either. That was a fantastic achievement -- though we're in no hurry to forsake the Second Division again. There's also a good way to go in 2010-11, though I'm sure it's going to be an emotionally draining eight months. Oddly, in spite of the result, I had a very enjoyable day out. Getting to see my team on a regular basis after 41 years undoubtedly has much to do with that.

Short-changed... almost  
So with clan Robertson (the driving force - literally - behind the Edinburgh Sons) ensconced in the drink-don't-drive hospitality posh seats, I took the opportunity to train over via Glasgow Queen Street and stay on after the game for a Guinness or two and a natter. Cars are convenient and have good company, but trains take the strain and let you stretch your legs out. Meanwhile, at the ground, I was multi-tasking. I'm doing match summaries for instant relay on the DFC site now, as well as contributing to the Sonstrust website (send 'em your subscription now, if you haven't already).

Yesterday I was also selling Sons View at the home end. ("You write for it, you flog it... next you'll be knitting it out of muesli", one wag noted). This is also a good chance to catch up with people I've got to know, like fellow Sassenach Dean King [pictured]. He's been coming to Dumbarton for three years or more now. Mind you, we were so wrapped in conversation that I not only almost short-changed him for a tenner, but also failed to give him his programme. Ker-ching. Sorry Dean, it's not company policy. Honest! Hopefully you'll be meeting him as a 'fan of the Week' in the not-too-distant-future. And equally hopefully, Sons will will a game again.

Grounds of hope

Rock steady crew
Over the years I've bumped into a number of 'ground hoppers' at Dumbarton games, mostly with English accents. On the train from Glasgow over to the Rock yesterday I met up with Roy and Gary [pictured],  who had made the journey from Cheshire. They have visited all the professional grounds south of the border and are now catching up with a few in Scotland. Unfortunately, they'd never had the pleasure of Boghead Park - but had to admit that SHS has one of the most pituresque settings in British football (being biased, I'd say the  most attractive), even if the game against Airdrie United was far from pretty at times. At least you can catch a glimpse of Sons' old home in the 2001 film (made in 1999) A Shot at Glory, lads. Available in all good DVD bargain bins.

Incidentally, Gary and Roy's home side Crewe Alexandra had a rather special day on 2 October 2010. While they were watching Dumbarton lose to the Diamonds, the Railwaymen (apparently named after a pub bearing Princess Alexandra's name) were involved in a ten-goal thriller at Chesterfield, eventually drawing 5-5. That's the kind of action we hope for down the Rock. 7-3 would be better, of course.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Dumbarton remain in the doldrums

  First published on the Dumbarton FC website as Disappointment for Sons against Airdrie Utd.

Sons kick-off against Airdrie Utd
Dumbarton still find themselves rooted to the foot of the Second Division table this evening, after another disappointing result in the home clash with Airdrie United.

Following a cagey first 15 minutes in which they found themselves pinned back by a tenacious Airdrie front line, Sons began to push steadily forward as the first half progressed.

In a tight game, Dumbarton struggled to find space out of midfield. On 25 minutes a header glanced down by Paul Maxwell almost found Derek Carcary on the break, but he was beaten to the ball by Airdrie keeper Mark Ridgers.

Scott Chaplain replaced the injured Stirling Smith on 27 minutes, with Dumbarton still not finding the necessary shape and direction.

Carcary was again in the action on 29 minutes, but could not control the ball for a close range opportunity that flew well over the bar.

Seconds later he headed into the arms of the keeper as Sons tried hard to turn possession into pressure. In a flurry of action before half time, Dumbarton had to scrabble the ball out of their area after Stephen Grindlay made a fine reaction save from Airdrie's McCord.

At the other end Maxwell almost pipped Ridgers on his near post before driving fractionally wide with a firm strike from the edge of the box moments later.

As the game opened up in the second half, it was Ryan McCord who put the visitors ahead on 52 minutes - shortly after Ben Gordon had gone tantalisingly close for Sons with a driving header.

A defensive mix-up ten minutes later gave Airdrie a second goal, as Ryan Wallace drove high into the net from close range.

Dumbarton responded with a double substitution, bringing on Keiran Brannan and Mark Gilhaney. But it was Maxwell who pulled one back for Sons on 65 minutes as the home fans roared life back into the team.

However, just as it looked as if Dumbarton might pull level, Airdrie's Scott Gemmell beat a forlorn offside claim and took the ball round a stranded Grindlay to make it 3-1.

Identifying the way forward

First published in Sons View, 02 October 2010, Dumbarton -v- Airdrie United

For most of the first quarter of the home game against Brechin last week, it looked as if Dumbarton might be about to turn the corner and secure another positive result. In the end, it all unravelled, with City gradually grasping control of the midfield. Sons were also unable to capitalise on several chances or to get behind their opponents in the box.

Even so, some good football was played, and this week it is important that we take the game to challenging opponents Airdrie United, who previously came from behind to claim all three points in their match against Forfar at Station Park, while Sons were frustratingly losing out to the Hedgemen.

Jimmy Boyle’s North Lanarkshire outfit sit just outside the play-off zone in the Second Division, and will be as keen to maintain their current momentum, as Dumbarton are to return to winning ways at the Rock.

The Diamonds are theoretically legitimate successors to the mantle of our old rivals Clydebank. But with Bankies fans reconstituting their side in junior football, and bringing them to SHS for a pre-season 1-1 draw back at the end of July, most people – friend and foe alike – think of United as the continuation of the town's previous side Airdrieonians, for whom manager Boyle once played.

Such identity confusion seems a common feature in modern football. For example, here I am, happily ensconced in Scotland at last. But when I return from watching the Sons of a Saturday, the TV fare available in the evening is from another country. That’s right, I can see every goal in the English Premier and Football Leagues, but have to rely on the internet, radio and the Friday night STV show to follow what’s going on up here.

Still, at least the English games enable me to track a couple of ex-Sons heroes. Our former captain Neill Collins, who won his under-21 Scotland cap the year after departing from Dumbarton (for whom he played 63 games), is establishing himself well as a central defender for Championship high flyers Leeds United – in spite of the setback of that own goal against Barnsley three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dobbie, who revived his career to Sons’ considerable (if brief) benefit in 2006, is now plying his trade as a striker at Swansea City. He got his first goal for the Welsh side in a 4-0 home win against Preston North End (for whom Collins also made 5 appearances earlier this year) on 14 August. He followed that by finding the net against Leeds and then Scunthorpe, giving himself a tally of three goals from eight appearances this term.

On the other hand, it’s possible that things may work in the opposite geographical direction if Scotland manager Craig Levein follows through with his interest in QPR striker Jamie Mackie, moving him into the national squad for the October games against the Czech Republic and Spain.

Mackie is another of those “grandparent Scots” who Tartan Army followers often have distinctly mixed feelings about. There’s no Sons link in there, but when I was based in southwest England, making as many forays as I could to the Rock, but also seeing locals Exeter City for my routine football diet, Jamie was making 87 appearances and scoring 19 goals for the Grecians between 2005 and 2008. That was the year of their return to the English Football League. He crossed my journalistic path several times, and his recent success was forged on the back of a controversial (but logical) move to Devon rivals Plymouth Argyle, and thence to Loftus Road.

Over the past week, Premier League side West Ham United have been linked with Mackie, as well as the manager of the national team. It’s the latter Scots will care about, obviously. My own view is that if he’s prepared to be genuinely committed to playing for Scotland, he would be well worth investigating.

Meanwhile, Dumbarton are urgently looking for their own solutions up front. The magnificent strike that Derek Carcary achieved on 72 minutes against Brechin last Saturday was the latest in a series of impressive goals from the ‘impact’ striker. But it was also only the second goal from open play scored by Sons so far this season.

That statistic tells its own story. Sons have often started to weaken after applying pressure on opposing defences to no avail, and at that point mistakes have crept in at the back too. It’s a cumulative problem. Undoubtedly a couple of goals would galvanise confidence and help to turn the tide in Dumbarton’s favour. That’s the scenario we very much want to see unfold against Airdrie United this afternoon.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Mackie the knife

"Me and my grandfather used to speak about playing for Scotland a lot, and it is a real honour for me to finally get the chance." - Jamie Mackie

Let's be honest, Scotland's latest recruit for the international squad for the double-header against the Czech Republic and Spain is English, even if his grandad was a proud Scot from Kilmarnock. Not that I hold that against him. After all, I'm English too - and if I'd been any good at football I'm sure I'd have been ringing my agent to find out whether my maternal great grandmother from Ayrshire was any use. As it was, my mother and I always supported Scotland and my father England. That was down more to gentle family rivalry and a certain romantic attachment than wafer-thin kinship - but sometimes feelings run deeper than blood. Or even logic.

As for young Jamie, I watched him play many times when I was living down in Devon and went to see Exeter City. He's transformed into a fine young player. I suspect most Grecians fans will be less concerned at his turn to Scotland than they were at his defection to loathed neighbours Plymouth Argyle!  But now he's got used to wearing a bit of blue at QPR, and I hope Craig Levein stays with his instincts and gives Mackie a spin against the Czechs. He's quick, tricky, and has a goal poacher's instincts. Admittedly the step up from the English Championship to this kind of Euro international is a large one, but we have relatively few options and fortune does indeed reward the brave in football. Sometimes. Yep, I know, the grandparent rule is a bit daft. But that's the way it is. 'Mon Jamie!

Pounds of flesh

 First published on the Sonstrust site as On the money again.

When it comes to football, it seems that money is rarely out of the news. The media focus right now is on the crisis at Dundee. But the SFL is also searching for new League Cup backers after Co-operative Insurance called time on their 12-year involvement with the competition, there are rumblings at Partick Thistle… one could go on. Over at Dens Park, manager Gordon Chisolm (who Sons fans will remember from his involvements at Clydebank and this weekend’s opponents Airdrie United) reckons an expanded SPL is the answer. But BBC journalist Jim Spence, who has been following the situation for many years, points the finger at another multi-millionaire investor and says Dee fans, who are being asked to fork out yet again, deserve better. The Club’s Trust, Dee4Life, are naturally putting out appeals to the faithful.

Here in Scotland we could really do with an equivalent to the redoubtable Dr John Beech, unpicking the threads and putting sense back into management and finance. While we wait for his next instalment, which concentrates on English clubs but has valuable lessons for lower league supporters here too, can I also recommend Wyn Grant‘s Football Economy blog. There’s plenty of useful news and info there – including basic financial data on a number of Scottish clubs.