Sunday, 28 November 2010

Hibs and Saints grind out a draw

Hibs try to turn the game
Not having thought about it as much as I should have beforehand, I definitely found that I had qualms as I approached Easter Road yesterday afternoon. Given that Hibernian's home fixture against St Johnstone and other Scottish Premier League games were only going ahead because overseas officials (in this case, three from Malta) had been drafted in to replace striking Scottish refs, turning up felt - as Walter Smith said the other day - "like being a scab". One official from Israel said he "felt deceived" by the SFA.  Thankfully I got a comp in the end. I think I might have balked at handing that cash over. Having been a trade union member for my whole working life, I've never crossed a picket line. Just 44 officials could hardly mount one at eight different venues in pursuit of their campaign to end abuse and false accusations of bias. Even so, they have a strong point to make and I've written to the SFA to back it. The issue is not that officials should be immune from criticism or accountability, but that they should be able to do a difficult and not very well rewarded job without intimidation.

Steven Thicott at half-time
As for this particular footballing encounter... well, as Dean King from Dumbarton (Helensburgh, actually) put it afterwards, "nice reffing, shame about the game!" We and his son had met up for a drink at the Middleton Bar before the match, since DFC were not playing due to the referees' action. Hibs are also my local side now that I reside in Leith. I'm 20 minutes' walk from their famous ground. Due to my prior Sons commitments and the happenstance of when midweek opportunities to see them come up, this is the first time I've got to Easter Road since moving to Edinburgh. (I've been to Tynecastle twice. Sorry Hibees!). With the new stand, it's a fine stadium, and I was fortunate enough to be given a seat a few rows up right on the half-way line. Not that this made the football any prettier. Both sides laboured, but a combination of poor decision making, iffy distribution and disappointing first touches on the ball made it a lacklustre display with barely any chances at either end. There will be better green and white afternoons or evenings, I'm sure. New boss Colin Calderwood will certainly be hoping so. For what it's worth, my man of the match was Hibs no 22, Daniel Galbraith. He worked his socks off.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Moving in the right direction

First published in Sons View, 27 November 2010, Dumbarton -v- Alloa Athletic. (The game was postponed- and again on 30 November and 7 December, due to the freezing weather. Since the column will be we well out of date when it finally appears, I am publishing it now).

A few weeks ago the mental obituaries were being written for the Sons. Since then, both performances and results have begun to turn around, starting with that hard-won 3-2 League win over Ayr United, continuing with the Stirlingshire Cup victory and then last Saturday with a determined showing against Morton.

There is still a long way to go, of course. The aim has to be to ensure that we are off the Second Division basement by the turn of the year if at all possible. Points against Alloa Athletic today would be a huge step in that direction. But it will also require a good deal of organisation and concentration on the ball.

The men from Clackmannanshire are perched mid-table at the moment. But they have clear aspirations to be competing for the promotion spots, and three points could bridge the gap – depending on how results go elsewhere. So the game this afternoon is likely to be a competitive affair, as was the 0-0 draw that Dumbarton fought out against Alloa at Recreation Park just over a month ago.

On that occasion the Wasps had more of the play, but Sons defended well to ensure that at least one point headed in our direction. At home, and with the added inspiration of ten goals in the last four competitive matches here at Strathclyde Homes Stadium, Dumbarton are looking to improve on that result.

Being edged out of the draw for the Fourth Round of the Scottish Cup last week was disappointing, naturally. But the game was certainly not – and several media reports noted the promise of youth in Sons’ line-up. This season has been a steep learning curve for a number of our players. In spite of the setbacks, they have shown themselves prepared to learn and battle. That has begun to reap rewards, especially up front, where in the earlier stages of the 2010-11 campaign we lacked edge.

Coming into his first senior appointment on the back of an unpromising series of results, interim gaffer Alan Adamson has added greater solidity to Sons’ on-the-park mix, and has secured three wins to date. The one which will have created least stir in the wider football community was the 2-0 win against Scottish Premier League Falkirk’s reserves and youth on 16 November. For me it was a rather special occasion, however – the first time I have seen Dumbarton appear in a Cup Final of any kind, let alone win it for the second time in a row. That’s silverware in three successive seasons!

The Stirlingshire trophy, let’s not forget, is one of the oldest in the game, dating from 1883/4, and is competed for by six senior sides spanning three divisions at the moment. Yes, the tradition is to give youngsters an outing rather than first team squads, but there has been no lack of spirit in the matches I’ve witnessed this term, and in the case of our Final opponents Sons were still up against full-time players with a rigorous training regime and top-quality coaching.

Meanwhile, at least a side-glance is needed to matters off the pitch in Scottish League Football which could have a significant impact on it. Category One referees voted to strike last Sunday afternoon, after a resolution that received unanimous backing at their union meeting. The officials are concerned that their integrity is constantly being called into question by some clubs and individuals, not least in some of the high profile matches and in the media. They have even been receiving threats at work and at home after controversial decisions.

Former ref Kenny Clark told BBC Scotland earlier this week: "Referees are at the end of their tether, and it's not just how it's impacting on them but it's the impact it's all having on their families and business lives."

That it has come to a threat of withdrawn labour from people who love the game and devote a good deal to it for relatively scant reward is some indication of how serious things have got. Hopefully, by the time you read this, a conversation will have taken place to ensure that this grievance found does not imperil the six SPL games, two Alba Cup matches and SFL fixtures due to be played this afternoon. What the officials want, evidently, is for clubs to take theses issues seriously, and to be seen to do so.

There’s obviously an issue for supporters here, too. Decisions that go against our team can be immensely frustrating. But what gets to many refs and their assistants are the accusations of cheating. That’s plain daft, there isn’t a shred of evidence for it, and it is one thing that should be cut out from terrace banter.

Scottish referees have a case

Although the withdrawal of labour by Scottish Category One and Two referees has regrettably led to the postponement of Dumbarton's home match against Alloa Athletic today, I have considerable sympathy with their case. What is unacceptable, however, is the way that lower league clubs are being punished for a problem essentially caused by managers, players and fans in the SPL - while Premier sides are spared the impact through the importation of overseas officials. Once again, those with least resources are being made to pay for a problem not really of their creation - though no doubt refs will point out that they get a fair bit of verbal aggro at all levels of the game. I'm told that had the action been targetted at a few clubs only, a legal backlash over contractual obligations would have followed. It's hardly just, but that's the way it goes.

Is industrial action the best way for officials to seek to end a culture of abuse and intimidation? Rangers' manager Walter Smith thinks so. He's a good man. So does Chick Young. And so does Grahame Smith of the STUC. It certainly seems to have quickened the reaction of the SFA and the SFL. According to Scotland on Sunday, referees will now demand points deductions for clubs who ignore warnings about their behaviour and continue to verbally abuse officials and question their integrity. Notes commentator Tom English: "As ever, the unspoken word in all of this is Celtic, the Parkhead club being at the heart of this increasingly bitter spat with the SFA."

Friday, 26 November 2010

A charitable turn

Dumbarton have supported the worthy work of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust on several occasions recently. It's good that football clubs are involved as much as possible in civic, community and charitable life. I've penned a further report on the Sonstrust website.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Rangers pay the penalty

Battling away on the big screen...
After Rangers' heroic defensive efforts at Old Trafford and a home result against Valencia that did not do justice to their efforts, I tucked into an Irish pub in North London to watch the second Champions League showdown with Manchester United. The Boston Arms in Tufnell Park was showing three games. The other two were Spurs versus Werder Bremen (whom I had seen pre-season facing Fulham at Craven Cottage) and Barcelona away to Panathinaikos. Curiously, I started out being the only person in the entire establishment watching the Scottish-English clash. Later in the second half I was joined by two extravagantly well-fuelled Arsenal supporters whose vocally unflattering take on Wayne Rooney meant that they, too, would have been happy to see a Glasgow victory. Sadly, it was not to be.

Without Madjid Bougherra, Sasa Papac and Maurice Edu, the 'Gers (who I should stress I would not dream of supporting other than in European competition) still looked well organised and very determined. In a first half which was more about survival than adventure, they had their fair share of the ball but struggled to know what to do with it. There were few clear-cut chances at either end, with United inevitably looking far more menacing. The quality, pace and excitement ratcheted up a notch or two after the break,  thankfully. But in the end it was a penalty converted by the otherwise uninspiring Rooney that ended up separating the two teams after 180 minutes of football. That in itself is a considerable achievement for Walter Smith's men, whose reward is a crack at the Europa League. Almost certainly, they will not have the depth of squad to cope, and their final CL group stage match against Bursaspor will likely prove the 'Gers last appearance in the Champions League proper for some time, what with the coefficient further downgrading Scotland's stake in the competition.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

More lows than highs at the Valley

Charlton press the Bristol Rovers goalmouth
A spell down in London for work purposes provided the opportunity for a bit of League One football research. My preference would have been to accompany my friend Kevin Scully on Leyton Orient's trip to Peterborough (which ended 2-2). But with the costs of that trip looking a little high, and needing to be up early the next morning, I opted for another visit to the Valley, this time to see second-placed Charlton Athletic take on Bristol Rovers. It's certainly an impressive ground for this level of football. Indeed my first visit there a few years ago was when the Addicks were in the Premier League and managed by Alan Curbishley. That day they were facing a Portsmouth side under the tutelage of Harry Redknapp. How times and fortunes change.

This time that game didn't really match up to the venue. But a cold night and some plodding progress (or lack of it) on the pitch was enlivened by the passion and banter of a seat high and behind the goal at the home end. It's safe to say CUFC don't have much time for Millwall, as if you needed telling! Anyway, Charlton had more of the first half, though it was hard to see how anyone was going to achieve a breakthrough. Rovers' Wayne Brown finally broke the deadlock on 63 minutes, blasting the Southwest visitors into the lead with an assist from Ben Swallow. Had Bristol held on, it would have been their first win at the Valley since 1958, the year that I was born. But it was not to be. Charlton's Paul Benson eagerly took the chance provided for him by Kyel Reid to make it 1-1 thirteen minutes from time. And that's how the score remained. An enjoyable if less-than-scintillating evening.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Back to the league campaign

By all accounts Dumbarton put on a good display against First Division local rivals Morton yesterday - though due to the happy event of a friend's wedding in London, I wasn't there to witness it in person. After four months as a continuous Sons regular, it felt strange to be back on the 'text list' again.

Last year, having beaten us in the replay, the 'Ton drew Celtic in the next round. This time, writes Alan Findlay on the DFC website, "Sons almost made it into the hat for the 4th round draw" in a "pulsating match", but "the experience of the Greenock side was the telling factor after 90 minutes."

Ah well, we'll have to leave glory for another year - and hopefully, with all due respect to men from Cappielow, a 3rd round draw against different opponents! This coming Saturday it's back to Division Two duty again at the Rock, with a game against Alloa Athletic - a rather more important match, since Sons need a good run to try and get off the foot of the table. The last four games at SHS have given some cause for encouragement, too. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Time to let go of the pressure

First published in Sons View, 20 November 2010, Dumbarton -v- Greenock Morton

There must be something about Morton. I’m not particularly thinking about the fact that this afternoon’s Scottish Cup Third Round clash with the men from Greenock is Dumbarton’s fifth trophy tie against them in two seasons, including two previous games in the same competition at the identical stage last term, and two Alba Challenge Cup encounters in July 2009 and July 2010 respectively.

Nor am I pondering on how close Sons have come to equalling the ’Ton in those ties – without quite managing it (yet). That Alba first round match earlier in the summer was concluded on penalties, remember; while the previous one was decided by just one goal. Meanwhile, Dumbarton held Morton to a 0-0 draw at Cappielow in the Scottish Cup last season, and only lost out to Brian Graham's header in the replay at SHS in the 74th minute. That’s two goals conceded in 344 minutes of open play and several opportunities that could have – but didn’t quite – head our way. This time we need to go one better.

But no, the “something about Morton” I have in mind is more personal. The thing is, whenever Sons play ’Ton, there always seems to be an important event preventing me from physically being at the match! Two work conferences, moving house, and – this time – a wedding, to be precise. So as you bite your nails through the game, I’ll be celebrating some friends’ happy nuptials down in London… while keeping one eye on the Twitter updates from Dumbarton via my mobile phone.

Today’s match is notable for another reason, too. It’s the third of four consecutive home games for the Sons, including last Tuesday night’s Stirlingshire Cup Final against Falkirk, and that thoroughly energising 3-2 Division Two win over Ayr United a week ago.

This ‘home run’ comes at an opportune moment in Dumbarton’s season. Some solid performances and results in front of your own fans is a good way to rebuild momentum following a dispiriting first third of the campaign. The statistics of woe remain plentiful for Sons, of course. But it’s far more advantageous to focus on the positive news. Which is that we have now reduced the gap at the foot of the table to one point, and in the last couple of SHS league outings have secured two victories and seven goals.

The break offered by a bit cup (distr)action carries other benefits, too. Against Falkirk, it provided some of our younger players with a chance to show their mettle. Here against Morton, it gives more of the first-team regulars the test of higher-level opposition (Sons often seem to do better when stretched) without that intense pressure to bag more crucial points. Because, whatever the attractions of a big, well-attended fixture like today’s, the Second Division remains our clear priority. Tilting our fortunes towards trophies is not to be sniffed at, of course. But it’s the pudding rather than the main course.

No doubt our local rivals will have been thinking much the same as they prepared for this Cup-tie. Because, as of 13 November, Morton were just one point above the drop zone in Division One themselves, and in the 2009/10 season they escaped relegation only through a last ditch win over Ayr. Like Sons, ’Ton know exactly what it means to struggle. In their past eight league games they have secured one win and two draws. So, for both sides, this afternoon’s match is all about reviving flagging fortunes.

In that task, “nothing succeeds like success”, as they say. For Dumbarton, you could detect elements of fortune as well as positive play and hard work in the last two home victories. By that I mean we got the breaks that just had not come earlier in the season, even when the performances might have merited more.

As far as the Ayr game is concerned, hopefully it will prove to be a fillip for players and staff alike. Hesitancy at the back and a lack of decisiveness in the final third have remained Sons’ principal weaknesses, especially on the road. But in last week’s game there were a number of flowing moves and touches of flair which indicate that our lads still have more to offer – with a Cup match providing precisely the stage needed to hone skills and build confidence.

Meanwhile, after the spice of the Scottish Cup, Sons have five important bread-and-butter league games ahead of the New Year, three of them here at the Rock. Eight points or more could put a significantly different slant on that all-important table. The target is clear. Let’s go for it.

The ups and downs of the Cup

First published in The Sons View matchday programme, Dumbarton v Greenock Morton, 20 November 2010

Kit, Rab and David...
The clubs competing in today’s Scottish Cup Third Round tie at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium have only won the nation’s main football cup competition twice between them – and in different centuries, too.

Dumbarton’s moment of triumph came in 1883 and Morton lifted the trophy in 1922. They are two of 23 sides to have done so, 19 of whom are still existent today. Two of those teams that no longer feature in the senior game, Renton (two wins) and Vale of Leven (three wins), were part of an earlier era of football domination by Dunbartonshire clubs which is rather hard to imagine today!

In total, the Scottish Cup (more properly the Scottish Football Association Challenge Cup) has been awarded on 124 occasions. Of those, 67 have been won by the Old Firm (with Celtic just one ahead of rivals Rangers), and 57 have been claimed by 21 other teams.

Last year, First Division Ross County – up until 1994–95 season members of the Highland League – made an appearance in the Final for the first time in their history, having beaten Celtic in the semi-final on 10 April 2010. Their shot at glory was eventually extinguished by the orange of Dundee United, who won the resulting Hampden encounter 3-0 on 15 May.

Quite a few Dumbarton fans enjoyed the day out in Glasgow for that occasion (see picture), choosing to join the County legions in a show of lower league solidarity. The dream of a Sons appearance in the Scottish Cup Final in the twenty-first century is one that is very unlikely to be realised if the bookies (and common sense) are to be believed… but the beauty of any knockout tournament lies in the twists, turns and surprises it can provide. That and a small income boost for those clubs fortunate enough to reach the later stages.

Among the intriguing matches in the 2010-11 Third Round, taking place at the same time as the game here, are the challenging trip junior side Sunnybank face in going to Ayr United (who are recovering from the 3-2 defeat Dumbarton inflicted on them last week) and Third Division leaders Berwick Rangers travelling north to take on Cove Rangers.

Sunnybank’s happy day out comes courtesy of a brave giant-killing against Albion Rovers in the Second Round, while Cove were overcoming Nairn County – a side Sons last took on in a friendly back in 1987.

Until the 2007-8 season, clubs in the Third and Second Divisions qualified automatically for the First Round of the Scottish Cup, along with four non-league teams each from the Scottish Qualifying Cup (North) and (South) competitions. Clubs in the First Division and the Scottish Premier League had automatic byes to the Third Round.

Then new criteria were introduced for entry into the competition. The Scottish Qualifying Cup games were scrapped and the 36 SFA member clubs outside the SPL and SFL were given direct entry to the First Round proper.

In addition, the league winners of the East of Scotland and South of Scotland Leagues, both of which contain some clubs that are not full members of the SFA and hence could not previously enter the Scottish Cup, were given a place in the draw.

Clubs from Scottish Junior football (almost all of whom are not members of the SFA, belonging instead to the Scottish Junior Football Association) were admitted for the first time in the 2007–08 competition. Up to four junior clubs are allowed to enter. These are the champions of the previous season's Scottish Junior Football North Premier League, the Scottish Junior Football West Premier League, the Scottish Junior Football East Region Super League, and the winner of the Scottish Junior Cup – if they have not also won one of the three top regional league titles.

In recent years the Scottish Cup has not been a great hunting ground for Dumbarton, though we took 2,000 fans in anticipation to Celtic Park on 7 January 2007, going down 4-0 but performing well, especially in the second half. Morton stole another tie with Bhoys from us last season. The Hoops beat them 1-0 at Cappielow. In 2008-9, both ’Ton and Sons went out in the Third Round, losing to Peterhead and Ross County respectively – though Dumbarton did achieve a very creditable 2-2 draw at Dingwall, with Derek Carcary coming off the bench to be the two-goal hero.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

More than Faroe enough for Mackie

Mackie in training
Since the footballing authorities had been inconsiderate enough to organise Scotland's friendly against the Faroe Islands at Pittodrie on the same night as Dumbarton's Stirlingshire Cup Final with Falkirk, I had to wait until returning from SHS to watch the international highlights. It was good to see some of the youngsters getting a chance to shine. The project of rebuilding the national team depends upon cultivating fresh talent, so occasions like this may not set the world alight but are not, in my view, to be knocked.

I'm especially delighted that ex-Exeter City striker Jamie Mackie got his first goal for Scotland, a typical poacher's effort on the far post. When I used to watch him playing for the Grecians in their Conference days, I wouldn't have imagined him playing at this level, let alone for Scotland. He seemed a bright talent, for sure, and his work-rate was fantastic. But there's no question that his moves to Plymouth and now Queens Park Rangers have transformed and refined his game - with more to come, hopefully.

After the game last night, Mackie told Sporting Times : "It feels brilliant. I am absolutely delighted and I can't wait for the next squad now. The goal was important for me because fans up here probably don't know about me but they do now and that was my main aim, as was impressing the manager to get in the next squad. I do see myself as a striker but I am not playing there with my club, I play on the right but I will play anywhere Scotland want me to.

"It is massive for me to score and to be called a Scotland international is something I dreamt about as a boy. My family are extremely proud. The boys at my club give me a bit of banter about not being Scottish but just because I don't have a Scottish accent doesn't mean I am not equally as proud as any of the other lads."

The moment of triumph

Not a great video, but a fine moment. 
Dumbarton are presented with the Stirlingshire Cup.

Dumbarton claim the Cup again

This article was first published as Sons triumph in the Stirlingshire Cup on the Dumbarton FC website

The teams line up before the Final
Stirlingshire Cup holders Dumbarton put on a determined display in the 2010-11 Final at SHS tonight, retaining the historic trophy with a morale-boosting 2-0 victory over SPLers Falkirk.

The youthful Falkirk side had the best of the possession in the opening stages of the game. But then on ten minutes a Gary Smith inswinger from the left for Dumbarton almost beat Bairns' keeper Graham Bowman on his near post.

Falkirk had their first serious chance shortly afterwards, but Kallum Higginbotham drove straight into the arms of Sons' stopper Michael White.

With both sides wanting to attack, the game swung back and forth, Dumbarton trying to move the ball out to the wings and Falkirk looking more direct in the middle of the park.

Approaching the half hour, Sons' number 9 Ross Campbell drove a shot over the bar from just outside the area, and minutes later had a header comfortably claimed by Bowman.

Sons close in on the Cup
On 41 minutes Tony Wallace brought Dumbarton fans to their feet with a well-clipped opening goal after two sweeping Sons moves.

Seven minutes into the second half, Gary Smith deservedly made it 2-0 for Dumbarton with a low drive from the edge of the box.

On 69 minutes Andy Geggan and Ryan Metcalf came on to reinforce Sons in a double substitution for Alan Cook and Ross Campbell.

Inside the last quarter hour Dumbarton, refusing simply to sit back on their lead, had two close offside calls going against them.

Sons' Rees Pearson replaced Ryan McStay in the final few minutes, as Dumbarton coasted to their third piece of silverware in three seasons, on a cold but cheerful night at the Rock.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Bigger than the Scottish Cup

Well, physically anyway. The Stirlingshire Cup competition has run from 1883/84 almost uninterrupted, with the exceptions being the World War periods and the 2008/09 season. Dumbarton are the current holders, having seen off Stenhousemuir 2-0 last season, and tonight face SPL side Falkirk in the Final at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. To all intent and purpose, Sons are fielding five of a first eleven for the match and the Bairns a combined youth and reserve team - but the full-time visitors will still be favourites to lift the trophy. It might only be a regional tournament, but it has a fine pedigree... and from my point of view, it's the first time I've ever seen my team in a competitive cup final for senior sides. So I intend to enjoy the occasion, come what may!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sheffield's worrying Wednesday

Football's "clubs in crisis" situation continues unabated, with the sad news that Sheffield Wednesday, one of the legendary sides in the game (now languishing in League One - or the Third Division, as we more accurately used to know it) face a winding up petition. On Wednesday, ironically. Once again, it's an unpaid PAYE tax bill of £600,000 that's doing the damage. In September 2010, the 143-year-old club was spared administration through an agreement with the Co-operative Bank over what was then a £1.1 million debt. But it is understood that the Bank is not satisfied with progress and the measures taken in the intervening eight weeks, which could spell another serious body-blow for the club relegated from the Championship (or Second Division) last season. Apparently, local Lib Dem MP Nick Clegg is getting involved. Fingers crossed for the Owls. But who'd want to be reliant on the Deputy PM's promises, given all the others he and his party have broken without batting an eyelid?

Fresh energy for Sons

The match sponsors for yesterday's Dumbarton versus Ayr United clash at the Rock decided to give the Man of the Match award to Sons favourite Andy Geggan, who certainly had a busy afternoon across the park. But for my money, and in the opinion of just about everyone round-about where I sit, the stand out player for DFC on this occasion was trialist Pat Walker (pictured), wearing the number 11 shirt. Despite not being at the top of his fitness level, the 26-year-old created several chances and claimed a well taken goal into the bargain.

Along with Falkirk loanee Craig McLeish, who also made some impressive passes, Pat injected some energy and good decision making into the Dumbarton line-up. On this outing it's hard to see how the former Albion Rovers front-man made only 3 starts and 6 substitute appearances for third division Annan Athletic, or why they have decided to let him go. But sometimes the chemistry just doesn't work. Apparently he will be with Sons for three games - and if that works out, we can hope that the club find some way of keeping Pat on a loan deal.

All-in-all, Dumbarton gained a real boost from the 3-2 win over Ayr, and the onwards and upwards trajectory needs to continue.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Dumbarton discover an Ayr of confidence

First published as Sons Claim the Points Against Ayr on the Dumbarton FC website

Dumbarton put Ayr under more pressure
Looking to their home form to get them off the foot of the table, Dumbarton secured a well-earned 3-2 win against Ayr United at SHS this afternoon.

After early pressure from Sons, keeper Stephen Grindlay was called into action to thwart an Ayr breakaway, saving with his feet at point blank range.

Trialist Pat Walker had Dumbarton's first clear chance on the quarter hour, as Sons continued to pressure the visitors' area. But he was forced off-balance as he fired in on goal.

On 27 minutes Alan Cook put Dumbarton into the lead from the penalty spot after Keiran Brannan was tripped and Ayr went down to ten men. From then on Sons put together some fine flowing moves, but lacked a final punch.

With half time approaching Grindlay again rescued the home side, diving athletically to his right to tip away a firm shot from Danny McKay.

Jon McShane had the ball in the net for Dumbarton shortly after the restart, but it was disallowed for offside.

Then on 55 minutes trialist Walker, who had set up a number of chances for Sons, deservedly got the second goal with a well-taken strike past David Crawford and into the top corner.

Ayr target man Mark Roberts got one back for the visitors on 66 minutes with his 12th goal of the season - a well-timed header from an inswinging cross.

Dumbarton looked nervous as Ayr regained confidence, but substitute Ross Campbell sealed a vital three points for Sons with a breakaway goal on 83 minutes - in spite of Andy Rodgers' last minute strike back for Ayr to make it 3-2.

Unmissable opportunity

I'll be number 6 for the home team...

Surviving the football winter

First published in Sons View, 13 November 2010, Dumbarton -v- Ayr United

This afternoon Dumbarton host one of a trio of sides vying for the top spot in Irn Bru Scottish League Division Two, while Sons find themselves three points adrift at the foot of the table – and six points away from the all-important safety zone. It’s going to be a long, hard winter, whatever the weather!

Last weekend the team battled hard but unsuccessfully against title favourites Livingston, whom today’s visitors Ayr United beat 3-1 at home on 2 October. Mind you, the Honest Men did us a favour while we were labouring at Almondvale, beating Peterhead at the same time as our other immediate rivals, Stenhousemuir and East Fife, were picking up a draw and a win, respectively.

A match against the Lions on the road was always going to be a tough one, even after that morale-boosting 4-1 victory over the Fifers at SHS the week before. Now Dumbarton have an opportunity to consolidate their improving form at the Rock. It’s a truism that “home results are the bedrock of achievement in league football”, but it’s one Sons will be happy to have justified once more by ten to five.

In our last encounter with Ayr, at Somerset Park on 21 August, there was little separating the teams, other than the unfortunate slip leading to Paul Maxwell’s own goal. This season there have also been a number of significant result-reversals in home and away Second Division fixtures, including Dumbarton’s turnaround against the side that thumped us 6-0, in the last match at SHS.

Sons fans will be hoping for a similar transposition this afternoon, as Alan Adamson’s men seek a positive path through the cold months ahead – and hopefully do so with a bit of an early spring in their steps.

Meanwhile, although the full freeze has yet to come, it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that over the coming weeks we will have a revival of that established annual ritual: the debate about summer football or a winter break. That thought will probably receive as many groans in the stands as some of our recent results. But it’s also an argument that’s unlikely to go away.

In April this year, former First Minister Henry McLeish (who is also a former professional football with East Fife) suggested that changes to the shape of the season could be most profitably tested in the youth game before being transferred to the senior level.

That was one of 53 recommendations that formed the first part of his review of grassroots Scottish football. A second tranche of analysis and suggestions is expected sometime soon, but seems to have been overtaken by the recent headline crisis around Dundee, and the subsequent review and revamp of the SFA announced by its new chief executive, Stewart Regan, on 4 November 2010.

McLeish is known to have been looking at the successes of football in Germany, while stressing that its highly federalised structure and culture is quite different to what prevails in Scotland. In the past it was Holland we wondered about as a role model. But in terms of a change to the timing of the season, the example of Ireland is the one that may carry most weight if there is to be reform – which many doubt, given a long history of inertia.

Summer football in Ireland has helped teams do better in Europe, it has been argued. It has also led to bigger crowds in some games, fewer postponements, less serious injuries and a better fan experience, proponents suggest. The League of Ireland elected to make the switch in 2003, and now operates between March and November. There are very few people who want to reverse that decision.

But for many hardened traditionalists there’s more than a whiff of romance about enduring the tough weather conditions that December, January and February can bring. Those of us over 50 have little difficulty in recalling (allegedly) classic games played through a blizzard, for instance. We also look back – some of us – with a strange nostalgia for standing around in swirling, icy winds while our limbs are steadily rendered undetectable by the still-functioning portions of our cerebral cortex.

Vicarious suffering and football fandom often go together, but given the choice I’d frankly rather it was the temperature I was required to moan about instead of the threat of my team finding itself on an irreversible down escalator.

Better still, I’d like to see the game played in conditions that make it more a matter of skill than a climatic lottery. And most of all I desperately want a win for Dumbarton this afternoon. Next week, next month and next year can wait!

Make that a double

Not being persuaded by the bitternesses that can infect some football rivalries, I was equally delighted that Hibernian had managed to overcome Rangers 3-0 at Ibrox the other night as I was to witness Hearts' determined 2-0 defeat of Celtic. A double for Edinburgh!

In public I affect a studied neutrality when it comes to the capital's two largest football teams, though being a Leith resident I'd tip the green way given a choice. To be fair, I even even saw some Jambos applauding that result from Glasgow. If anything unites non-Old Firm football fans up here, it's a win over one of the terrible twins - let alone two in one night. A happy evening for the Athens of the North, then, as the Daily Record noted the next day.

To even the personal score, I hope to get to Easter Road (only a mile away) sometime soon. The midweek opportunity has simply nor arisen yet.

Tumult at Tynecastle

Hearts press the Celtic defences
Given that my last experience of hopping on a bus and watching a midweek game at Tynecastle hadn't been entirely positively, I umm-ed and ah-ed a bit over this one. But in the end, upon discovering (to my astonishment) that it was still possible to get a decent ticket for Hearts' SPL clash with Celtic that night before the game, I succumbed. I'm definitely glad I did.

I wouldn't swap my match days with Dumbarton for the world. But sometimes it is good to get to watch a live game at a significantly higher level, and to soak up a bit of the 'big match' atmosphere. This one was buzzing, particularly where I was sitting, in the spacious and comfortable Wheatfield Stand, adjacent to the corner where the Jambos' faithful crossed words with the Hoops' travelling support.

Given the mighty financial and footballing gulf between the Old Firm and the rest in the Scottish Premier League, I had braced myself for disappointment in my hopes for an upset. Hearts aren't bad, but Celtic came into this one off the back of a 9-0 drubbing of Aberdeen, and though few thought that would happen again in Gorgie, there was an understandable air of tension and apprehension among the home support.

Waving goodbye...
That soon changed. The Bhoys looked lacklustre, for sure. But nothing should detract from the determination and skill that Hearts displayed. This was a high-tempo game where concentration was vital if they were to succeed. For the most part, perhaps with the exception of those early moments in the second half when the Jambos looked as if they might try to sit back on a 1-0 lead with what would almost certainly have been disastrous consequences, they kept on top of both the match and the opposition - and, crucially, not just when in possession.

Technically, this match was far from flawless, but it had all the ingredients of a great game: passion, atmosphere, pace, constant endeavour, a couple of decisive goals - even a red card on the pitch and one for Celtic manager Gordon Lennon, too, for his (justified but over-exerted) complaint about a penalty call. The Hearts fans taunted the frankly rather unlovely Glasgow visitors - who didn't appear to have heard the tannoy appeal against sectarian chants - with "It's a conspiracy!" when they scored or got a decision. Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable evening and a fine 2-0 home win.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Good news from Clyde

It's not often you can say that - because Dumbarton's Cumbernauld-based neighbours (well, almost) are having an even rougher time than we are, propping up Division Three rather than Division Two. The good news, though, is that they have just announced themselves as a Community Interest Company. This is a change in the terms of ownership (rather than a change of ownership itself), but gives the members a direct say in the running of the club and provides a framework for maintaining the priority of community concerns over private profit. I have written a short piece about this on the Sonstrust website.

Fear and Lothian

Preparing for kick-off
"Livingston - the place to shop" said the billboard. Yup, that's probably what many Dumbarton fans were thinking too, after another disappointing away trip. To be honest, we'd have been happy with a point against the Lothian full-timers. But in spite of a gutsy performance in the second half, it wasn't to be. To round things off, victory for the home side was put beyond doubt by ex-Son Iain Russell right at the end. Up until that point Dumbarton had pushed back against a 1-0 deficit, but never really looked like breaking through.

As to the venue, well Livingston's Almondvale Stadium, which we are now supposed to call the Braidwood Motor Company Stadium (that makes our Strathclyde Homes Stadium sound positively poetic!), is less than an hour away by bus and train from where I live. This feels positively 'next door' compared to many of the journeys I make. Of course that doesn't include the brisk 20 minute walk from the station in the bracing rain and cold. But that's what football is all about.

When I arrived at the ground I was intending to dry off in the bar, but as fortune had it I was given a complimentary ticket, so decided to check out the facilities inside. One small snag emerged, however. Once located in the 'community section', I discovered that I wasn't allowed to cross an invisible line to join my compatriots (including the estimable Jack Deighton) at the away end. Then again, there's supposed to be crowd separation, too. Minor consternation among the stewards, followed by earnest discussion. Eventually common sense broke out and I was escorted (along with another Sons supporter) the long twenty yards to our assigned pit of despair. The irony is that Livi fans were routinely traversing the same patch of territory just to find the toilets and the food outlet. It was all rather confusing, in a friendly kind of way.

Almondvale is a very pleasant ground, by the way. Modern, with a scale and presence several notches up from the Second Division - but not as soulless as some of the plastic boxes in England. The one regret is that it isn't, as indicated above, possible to wander round to take in different vantage points, as you can at many lower league grounds in Scotland. Well, I say "the one regret". That doesn't include the lack of goals and points, obviously. But there's always next week, as you have to keep telling yourself.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Livingston prove too strong for Dumbarton

Dumbarton found themselves on the wrong end of the clash against Second Division high-flyers Livingston at Almondvale, going down 2-0 on a cold and damp afternoon.

Dumbarton pressure the Livi goal
The early pressure came from the home team, but in the tense opening exchanges both sides struggled to move beyond a tight midfield.

After several attempts on goal from Livingston, Sons' first real opportunity came from a Jon McShane header that floated past keeper Bullock's post on 16 minutes.

However, it was Livi's Paul Watson who opened the scoring for the West Lothian team three minutes later, as Dumbarton failed to clear their lines.

McShane's fast and sharply angled shot from the edge of the area almost put the visitors back on level terms on 22 minutes.

The two sides then probed for a further breakthrough without success, as the first half gradually petered out. On a slippery pitch, the Lions were keeping a tighter grip on both the turf and the ball, however.

As the second half opened, Livi pressed hard and Stephen Grindlay spared Sons further blushes with a good smothering save from close range. The Lions' number 9 then blazed well wide on 53 minutes, as Dumbarton found themselves scrambling to clear.

Sons' new Falkirk loanee Craig McLeish struck a good effort on 65 minutes. However most of the pressure continued to come from Livingston. With 18 minutes to go Dumbarton were awarded a free-kick on the edge if the area, but Jon McShane blasted wide.

Ryan McStay was thrown into the fray for Dumbarton on 83 minutes. Sons laboured hard without reward against confident opponents. But Livingston turned out comfortable winners after former Sons man Iain Russell weaved through the defence to make it 2-0.