My first ever football match ended with Dumbarton FC being crowned champions of the world. On August 6, 1988, Dumbarton played West Bromwich Albion in the ‘Championship of the World’ Centenary Cup at the dearly-departed Boghead to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the English Cup holders (WBA) being defeated by the Scottish Cup holders (Renton). Dumbarton represented the latter as the nearest professional club to the town. A 2-1 victory in front of a crowd of 745, with WBA’s goal courtesy of future England international Carlton Palmer, began a love-affair with my hometown club.
Although my grandfather was a light-heavyweight boxing champion in the Royal Tank Corps, and exhibited high quality at whatever sport he threw himself into, there was never any enduring association with the sporting lifestyle in my family’s makeup, so my Dad was caught off-guard when, at the age of eight, I showed an interest in football. He had attended one game in his life and had decided that was enough, but the opportunity to spend some quality father-son time had presented itself – and working as an electrician for Dumbarton’s sponsors at the time, the Vale of Leven’s Polaroid, ensured that on occasions he was able to score us free tickets to sit in the ‘postage box’, so-called due to its limited seating capacity.
At the time, the Sons were in a downward spiral, relegated in the mid-1980s from the Premier League and with Boghead’s capacity dropping by thousands each year due to stadia neglect and a diminishing status. Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld would soon find himself out the door, match programmes would be adorned with the face of BBC news reporter Hazel Irvine as honorary president of the Dumbarton FC Supporters Association, and a 5-0 pre-season friendly defeat against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side in 1991 would be one of the final times that the stadium would be graced by a capacity crowd.
Around the same time in St Michael’s Primary School, life education began abruptly with hooped-jersey boys as young as six or seven in the playground bellowing out “Ooh Ah Up The Ra”, not entirely convinced what their pro-IRA advocacy meant. Likewise, when I opted to join the protestant cub scouts in the town, the lean was towards the Union Jack, Queen Liz and King Bill; at the time, I was entirely unsure why the Greek capital Athens was being used as a derogatory term towards Catholics such as me.
A lot of things never made sense. Football. Religion. Courtesy of friends in the neighbourhood, I had worn both Rangers and Celtic strips when I was very little but now felt no attachment to either club. Admittedly, a family friend would pass me Celtic’s match-day programmes as he wobbled up the road from the pub but this came to a halt when I decided that I wanted to support ‘a big team’ like the rest of the lads at school. It was fine to support Dumbarton and Celtic or Dumbarton and Rangers, and privately my parents must have hoped that if I must support a second club in the Premier League, that it would be one which was close to home, manageable, affordable – St Mirren or Partick Thistle, for example. But it was the late 1980s and there was a club in a galaxy far, far away (or at least 150 miles north on the A9) who were grabbing my attention, and that club was Aberdeen.
In October 1989, my Hampden Park baptism was to witness Alex Smith’s Aberdeen defeat Graeme Souness’s Rangers 2-1 in the Scottish League Cup final courtesy of a Paul Mason brace. More than 61,000 fans filled the terraces and both my breath and heart were taken. Those songs which I had heard sung by a few boys in cub uniforms were now roaring from three-quarters of the stadium, coins were being pelted across the fences towards the Dons fans and, despite the obvious intimidation, there was something exhilarating and acceptable in my young eyes. My Dad and I stopped to celebrate inside a Little Chef in Dumbarton on the way home. One customer, mistaking my dark blue, red and white tracksuit as Rangers, ruffled my hair and remarked, “better luck next time, son”, clearly missing the red scarf poking out my Dad’s pocket or the enormous smile painted across my face.
It was firmly in the blood. This is what football should be about – and of course it was difficult then to see any hardships befalling the Dons in the years ahead. A few months later, my Mum, Dad and I travelled north to visit Pittodrie for the first time – my maiden journey to Aberdeen was to celebrate my 10th birthday in mid-December and meet the players prior to a home match against Dundee United where I would be the unofficial mascot (the club were still new to this concept). Dropping my Mum off in Union Street, my Dad and I met with the heroes of that day at Hampden two months previously – my sister’s new crush, Dutch goalkeeper Theo Snelders, the good-natured Alex McLeish, 17-year-old Eoin Jess, midfield dynamo Jim Bett and all the rest. Dad’s association with the landlord of Dumbarton pub the Waverley, ex-Hearts and Airdrie forward Drew Busby, led us to meet with “the other Drew”, of Jarvie persuasion, and a solid 2-0 victory cemented my new-found obsession.
Letters to the club were sent on a fortnightly basis, photographs and programmes hunted, membership acquired within the Dons Youngstars Club (I would play on Pittodrie’s pitch soon after and score a penalty past forward Andy Gibson, who was playing goalie), and all-things red. We collected my chilled, ice-blue Mum, shivering from a full day shopping in wintery conditions and North Sea blast with no refuge until 5pm, and duly lost ourselves in pitch-dark countryside returning home to Dumbarton. I couldn’t care less at my Dad’s stress in the front seat as I flicked through the autographs I had collected earlier in the day.
Without Dad, there was no way I would reach the Granite City by myself. It was a treat when it happened, an expensive one in petrol, food, scarf and anything else that sprung to mind. I would occasionally stand outside the pub reading the match programme while the old man gulped down a pint, never forgetting to exit without a packet of salt n’ vinegar crisps and a “not a word to your mum” reminder in my ear.
However, Dumbarton’s stadium was only a 25-minute walk from home. I was now 11 and at high school, looking for something to fill my Saturday afternoons. Childhood friend and lifelong Son of the Rock Chris Reilly was in the same boat, and upon crossing paths a few times during the half-time switching of the ends at Boghead, we began to drift towards the same spots in the stadium.
There is a philosophy at Olympique Marseille that where you stand in a stadium represents where you are in your life; beginning in the family seats alongside a parent, moving towards the more rebellious section of the stadium with friends, gravitating either towards the posh or cheaper seats in the company of new beloveds as you become a little older, then returning once more to the family section with your own children in tow. Chris and I found our spot behind the goals, away from our dads and our heads full of new expletives we were ready to test out on the opposition, referee, linesmen, substitutes warming up behind the goals, and on very rare occasions, our own players. I was deservedly shamed by “Shut it ya bawbag” after once targeting Sons defender Alan Foster for abuse.
Now attending games without our dads, my friends at the matches were growing in numbers to include Jamma, Mo, Housty, McGrory and Horner, donkey-howling that a player would have the audacity to respond to a fan on the terraces. This fate would continue as Chris and I proceeded to neglect studying for our standard grade exams by attending midweek reserve games, poking fun at a Stranraer substitute for not being good enough to even make the reserve team. “How sad are you two that you turn out to watch a reserve game?” he retorted. There were three people in the stadium that evening – myself, Chris, and the late, faithful Sons supporter John Goldie. Despite our embarrassment, and hope that Mr Goldie had not heard the response we received, a 9-2 victory remains one of our favourite Dumbarton games; subsequently also the only game we have ever stolen a football from, after a wayward shot into the stands was not retrieved.
As Murdo MacLeod was appointed Dumbarton manager in 1993, the expectations of Sons fans increased. We were obsessed with our hometown club, excited that we may finally reach higher than the Second Division. Chris and I continued to hover around crumbling Boghead, once running around the pitch on a late Tuesday evening, playing with an invisible football which Chris crossed and I duly headed into the back of the net with a cry of “JIM MEECHAN!!!”, the big Dumbarton central defender. Groundskeeper Dick Jackson was the only one around but again our blushes were spared by young legs; tufts of grass ripped from the pitch were secreted inside our pockets. I can’t say for sure what Chris did with his but I wrapped mine in cling-film which I hid in a bedroom drawer, and can only imagine what my mum would have thought if she had discovered it.
Just as Dumbarton’s star was rising, Aberdeen’s was plummeting at an alarming rate. Relegation was on the horizon by mid-1995 and I was finding it difficult to balance my enthusiasm for the Sons, on the cusp of promotion, just as the Dons were battling for survival. Fortunately, four wins from the last five games under Roy Aitken’s dictatorship steered the Dons clear, and a play-off trouncing of Dunfermline secured Premier League status for one more season. Meantime, I was attending Cappielow and then a last-day decider at Forthbank Stadium, witnessing Dumbarton’s promotion to the first division among a sea of gold and black balloons. For many Sons fans, that sunny day in Stirling, celebrating a 2-0 victory courtesy of goals from Hugh Ward and Charlie Gibson, remains their favourite memory but personally, I was just relieved that everything had worked to plan.
By season 1995/96, we had peaked. Chris and I were season-ticket holders, watching the team play (and beat) the likes of newly-relegated Dundee United in our opening months and travelling on the supporters’ bus. Aberdeen were also good for their worth with Aitken’s side defeating Dundee 2-0 in the League Cup final – the first time I had seen the Dandy Dons lift a trophy at Hampden in five years. However, one week later Chris and I travelled to Tannadice to witness Dumbarton being thumped 8-0 a day before my 16th birthday, and a run of 19 defeats in a row followed. The mixed fortunes of my two clubs continued to oscillate with each other.
It is only now that it becomes clear to see that at this precise time, Chris and I started under-age drinking. How else could you survive watching your team being thumped on a weekly basis? My first taste of work experience followed in mid-1996, reporting on Dumbarton v East Stirling in the Stirlingshire Cup final shortly after the Sons’ sorry return to the Second Division. From the cosy postage box seats which my Dad had treated me to eight years previously, I watched, hoping and praying that the club’s fortunes were once more turning. I was disappointed. Another miserable season concluded with a supporters’ bus to a sodden west-coast Stair Park to witness Dumbarton’s relegation for the second year running. The only respite we were afforded was when one of the Dumbarton players appeared in the tabloids; he had been having an affair and had been caught and beaten up by the lover’s husband. Numerous Sons fans appeared in the terraces with one eye painted black, showing solidarity with their hero who sheepishly applauded their efforts.
But this had to happen. Supporters of the Old Firm, or the ‘big clubs’ such as Manchester United and Barcelona, are used to success. The achievements of clubs such as Dumbarton and Aberdeen are more fleeting. Winning isn’t ingrained, nor a sense of entitlement, but when it does happen that sense of magic, unbridled joy and disbelief is magnified. An Aberdeen game inside Pittodrie still stirs butterflies – nay, seagulls – inside my stomach as visits are less frequent and the potential for triumph is always one shoogly peg away from being crushed. Trophy years become the landmarks I use to pinpoint my life.
Meanwhile, at Dumbarton’s current home within the Cheaper Insurance Direct stadium (Boghead II, if I may), it is different; gazing out across the pitch towards the familiar West Bridgend high flats and Dumbarton East rooftops, one stand for all fans dismissing any notion of catching your adversaries flicking the Vs, there is a comfort in waiting for the Sons to step out of the tunnel; a seen-it-all-before mindset. However, everything changes as soon as the whistle blows. There is, of course, a desire to win everything, but more importantly, as a hometown club, an inclination to represent the town well – no heavy defeats, no relegations, to play football the way it is supposed to be played; honour. Dumbarton don’t have to be the champions of the world – supporters simply want pride, something to throw back in the faces of any other club who dares sneer in the faces of God’s country.
Supporting two clubs isn’t impossible – there are reasons and feelings and disappointments which will always be attached to you in different ways. However, 150 miles and playing in different leagues does help.