Saturday, 12 February 2011

Onward and upwards for the Sons

First published in Sons View, 12 February 2011, Dumbarton -v- Airdrie United. Double issue, also Peterhead, 22 Februry 2011.

Like a good number of Dumbarton fans, I suspect, I found myself constantly going back to look at the SFL Second Division league table last weekend – just to check that the Sons had, indeed, risen to the lofty heights of eighth place. It’s amazing the difference two games can make. Specifically, lifting you out of bottom place.

Of course there’s no room for complacency. A couple of sunny days don’t make a summer, and both East Fife and Stenhousemuir still hold games in hand over us. But the really encouraging thing about our recent away matches against Airdrie United and Alloa Athletic was not just the results, but also the highly creditable performances, and the evident determination among the players and coaching staff to turn this season around for Dumbarton.

There might well have been a certain sense of unease among the travelling support on the journey to Clackmannanshire on 5th February. After all, the Wasps were smarting from their 4-1 drubbing at the Strathclyde Homes Stadium just two-and-a-half weeks earlier, and manager Allan Maitland had talked ominously about “revenge in the air”.

In that spirit, Alloa came out of their starting blocks with speed and enthusiasm. But, tellingly, Sons did not flinch. They moved the ball around and pushed back. Goals either side of half-time looked to have provided the winning edge. Then what seemed like imminent disaster struck. In a few short minutes, the home side drew level and then threatened to snatch all three points.

It was at that juncture, and in the midst of those nerve-wracking final few minutes following Ryan McStay’s third, decisive goal for Dumbarton, that our young team showed their growing character. They dug in, fought back and held out, when others might have buckled.

Both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that when there is a sudden change of fortune in a game of football, the blow to the morale of those who have had their lead overturned can combine with the momentum gained by their opponents to make a complete reversal – rather than a draw or a successful fight back – the more likely outcome.

Thankfully that didn’t happen. The Sons refused to panic, avoided sitting too far back, and didn’t give up chasing, harrying and looking for gaps and opportunities to reclaim the advantage. Such boldness was rewarded with a 3-2 victory. The same spirit was needed to hold out after a late home penalty at the Excelsior Stadium earlier in the week, with Dumbarton again running out winners, this time 2-1.

Both these matches turned out to be fine adverts for second division football in Scotland, too. They were played with flair, pace and passion. Hopefully this re-match with Airdrie United at SHS and the game at the Rock against Peterhead (following on from a long midweek trip to Balmoor) will prove equally entertaining, as well as providing further evidence of Sons’ resurgence.

What’s clear now is that the continuing turnaround we seek will have to be built without significant in-season resculpting of the squad. While Alloa, for example, brought in three players late in the transfer window, Sons – lacking the funds – were only able to add one further loanee. Mind you, the signings completed since the beginning of January have already played a highly significant role in moving things forward for the team. In particular, Jordan Halsman from Motherwell has looked confident and creative, while Pat Walker and Mark Gilhaney are proving a handful for defences in this league, combining with an imposing, restored Jon McShane.

Consistency and confidence is the key for Dumbarton’s further progress now. The busy schedule of midweek and weekend matches produced by the winter hiatus seems to have acted as a spur rather than a burden. It’s also noticeable that we have done proportionately better on artificial surfaces. Still not to everyone’s taste, they nevertheless provide the kind of consistent surface that benefits a passing game. That’s certainly what Sons displayed at Recreation Park and ‘New Broomfield’, moving the ball around with deliberation and assurance.

This Saturday and on 22 February it’s back to business on grass at SHS, however. Away from home, a couple of important ‘ducks’ have already been broken – the first outfield goals on the road this term (five of them in two matches), and the first consecutive victories. Back in October, Dumbarton lost to both the Diamonds and the Blue Toon in succeeding weeks. But that was then, and this is now. And ‘now’ is surely the time to make the Rock live up to its name. Onwards and, hopefully, upwards for the Sons!

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