August is a magical time for any football fan. Saturday afternoons reclaim their purpose in life, pitches are close-mown emerald fields of dreams, and the zero-pointed league table generates an unrealistic optimism towards the forthcoming season that your club may well challenge for silverware. Perhaps for the first time in 121 years.
In 1897, Juventus FC were still in nappies, Queen Victoria was more than squiffy celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, and the recipe for Irn-Bru, with its wholesome 50% higher sugar content, was still a tangy notion inside the head of the Barr family. For joint-winners of the first ever Scottish Football League Dumbarton FC, it was a time when Boghead Park was still just a mere puddle and the volcanic rock upon which the castle stands was a scant pebble inside the laced boots of the players.
On August 16, 2017, the Sons of the Rock would play host to Rangers Colts in the Irn-Bru Scottish Challenge Cup First Round. The decision taken by the SPFL to include 12 Colts teams from the Ladbrokes Premiership in the tournament was greeted with disgust by several factions of ardent supporters from the lower league clubs, with several refusing to buttress such farcical notions, leaving many of the yellow seats in Dumbarton’s solitary stand appearing like a Connect-4 monopoly.
It would be former Rangers youth system players who would inevitably lead to their old club’s demise with Calum Gallagher netting from the spot after only two minutes, and an assist from Tom Walsh leading to journeyman Mark Stewart driving in the winning goal. Fierce diagonal rain shunted the photographers to take refuge under the shelter where, usually, petty stewards would chase them away with a large pointy stick. For the few hundred who turned out, soaked in their new season jerseys and sweat-saturated scarves, it would be the beginning of a long and unforeseen adventure.
(Excerpt from) Vs Rangers Colts 16/08/2017
It’s ironic that today, kids return to school.
The ball-boys blend in with the subs,
do homework in the swimming pool
swelling behind the goals
as the manager runs the rule
over who will make it
and who is consigned to a lifetime of Subbuteo.
By the second round on September 2, 2017, I would be incapacitated on the Isle of Mull celebrating a friend’s wedding, relying on social media newsfeeds and friends’ texts to keep me apprised of how we were faring against Welsh Premiership outfit Connah’s Quay Nomads. This really was the great unknown and it was anyone’s guess how the Sons would fare against a troupe of sheep-botherers whom no-one had really heard of. Indeed, with nine minutes left Dumbarton were heading out of the cup until midfielder David Wilson gave us a lifeline. Into extra-time, ex-Chester City captain George Horran received his marching orders, leaving the field to 24-year old Dimitris Froxylias, signed only 24 hours previously from Cypriot club Ermis Aradippou, to announce his arrival. In the very final minute of extra time, former French under-21 and Hearts striker Christian Nade was floored by a Nomads defender. The combination of Nade being fouled late in the game and Froxylias taking the resulting free-kick against Welsh opposition would become one of the pivotal fairy-tale moments during Dumbarton’s cup run. The Cypriot debutant’s curling, penalty-edge effort was parried by the keeper’s outstretched glove on to the post, before nestling in the net for the winner. Around the same time 90 miles away in the west of Scotland, I was carrying a huge bongo drum over my shoulder in a field trying desperately to get an internet connection. Twitter was my God now.
With a new hero in town, things were looking promising for Dumbarton. A third consecutive home tie in October was the reward for reaching the third round, with Sons manager Stevie Aitken’s former club Stranraer visiting the town. Losing goalkeeper Scott Gallagher after half an hour was far from comforting but heralded the return of an old favourite in the shape of long-serving Jamie Ewings between the sticks. It was subsequently my first-ever taste of Bovril after 30 years of attending football matches in Scotland, after a kind friend thought it would warm the convulsing shape sat next to him. Not exactly what I meant when I said that the next round was his. With Ewings carrying a little weight and with a team still accustoming themselves with one another, there was minimal confidence among the 500 supporters braving the elements. Mercifully, only a late injury-time goal by the visitors caused any genuine unsettlement as Craig Barr and Mark Stewart’s goals secured yet another 2-1 win for the club in white, gold and black. This time it was more a feeling of relief than joy that the job had been done – Sons are very infrequently ever anything other than the underdog. But we had reached a quarter-final for the first time in my lifetime and there was good reason to feel excited.
(Excerpt from) Vs Stranraer 06/10/2017
Friday night is fluorescent.
spark flashes from luminescent
Stranraer, equipped in faux-Dortmund kit,
lose themselves in the floodlights
and the return of Jamie Ewings;
a beard in ultraviolet boots.
Come November 11, 2017, Sons would hit their best form of the season. A six-game unbeaten run earned manager Stevie Aitken Ladbrokes manager of the month for November, and only the Armistice Day minute’s silence prior to the quarters against Raith Rovers muzzled the jubilant Sons fans. Young fans were returning to the Your Radio stadium, and a noisy drum was used to engage the supporters in a positive manner. Sadly, this was to the disagreement of a minor number of fans during the Raith game who opposed the tuneless beat of the teenage element, and successfully had the drum hauled from the stands. A poll from the Sons Supporters Trust was carried out during one of the more controversial incidents during season 2017/18, and with great relief it was reinstalled with its owner. Drums may not agree with football supporters, but at a club unacquainted with much atmosphere, it was something to be encouraged and valued, offering much-needed colour and energy. Goals from flying wing-back Chris McLaughlin and on-loan Hearts striker Ally Roy earned Dumbarton their first cup semi-final in a lifetime of moderate success.
Glorious as this accomplishment was, when the Sons were drawn against Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints in the semi-final, few would have given the club a snowball’s chance in hell of progressing to the final. Not least, the game was away – in the Welsh border town of Oswestry – against a club raking in £1m a year from their annual appearance in the early stages of the Champions League. It would be the club’s first ever venture out of Scotland. Europe, albeit England/Wales, was calling and the excitement in the support was palpable. Two supporters’ buses were filled, with many others opting to travel by rail or car. We may not fare too well in the tie, but this was an almighty big deal in the club’s history and we were not going to miss it for the world.
On February 17, 2018, the black, gold and white army from the Rock descended upon Shropshire in the West Midlands. There had been a castle here once too, before it was reduced to a pile of rocks during the English Civil War. Now stood a charming little market town with ample bars and amenities for visiting Sons and Daughters of the Rock to enjoy, served by friendly and welcoming staff. “SHITEHOLE,” bellowed one of our own from the back of the bus, as it drew in to the kerb. Sometimes, it’s better to say nothing at all. Everywhere one turned there was a familiar face: local shop owners such as Robert Ryan; pipers Iain McPhee and Colin Will (who would perform a rousing and stirring version of Loch Lomond inside the ground towards the death); and many of the faces without names everyone sees week in/week out at Dumbarton’s home matches, bedecked in scarves, flags, and the colours of our club. An old school friend, Scott, who left Dumbarton 20 years ago, had even travelled from Bolton to join us.
Inside the Park Hall stadium, supporters from both clubs interspersed, blending accents and vocal support from all corners. It was alarming that the pitch-side officials were Welsh, gladly donning the Welsh dragon upon their black boots – a feature that we were quick to pounce on and offer some good-natured taunting. Nil-nil at half-time, and I met commercial director Alan Findlay in the stands. The history of TNS, our tactics, and our game-plan were discussed with a mutual feeling of hope rather than expectation. “Enjoy the second-half,” I called over. “Endure, more like,” Alan quipped. It wasn’t long before reality settled in and Dumbarton found themselves a goal down. Of course, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the numerous supporters driving the team on, but it was a sobering feeling that this wonderful run was reaching its end. The players had other plans though.
Danny Handling’s thunderbolt with 15 minutes remaining was delivered directly from Olympia. An incredible 20-yard screamer which will live long in the memory of the Sons support. Shortly after, Handling was replaced by the talisman Froxylias, complete with his own moment of brilliance. With just over five minutes remaining, Nade was fouled 30 yards from goal, and a free-kick awarded. On the Welsh TV channel, the commentator remarked: “No chance”. Our old school friend Scott muttered “Surely he isn’t going to have a crack from there?” The rest of us, well – we said “Just watch and see, this guy’s something special.” For those lucky enough to be standing behind the goals, a dipping, swerving, ostentatious effort whacked the net so hard that the goalframe could be seen lifting out of the ground. It was unconditionally spine-tingling; and enough to put Dumbarton through into their first cup final in 121 years. The look on director Findlay’s face at full-time was a gift: thumbs up, hands raw from applauding, and a genuine dream being made tangible. For the former AEK Athens man, who was on the verge of quitting football only a few years earlier, it was a wonder goal and a call-up to the Cyprus international squad came shortly after. ‘Froxylias for Mayor of Dumbarton’ tweeted one Sons supporter – and few would argue against.
(Excerpt from) Vs The New Saints (Away) 17/02/2018
Those goals would prune the journey home,
replayed repeatedly on mobile phones
and spin daydreams like wool on Saxony wheels
where the knitted scarves held above our heads
broadcast our spirit animal elephant-crest
and the colours of our hope;
the pride in our chests.
The week of the cup final beckoned. Local newspaper The Reporter was giving away free Stevie Aitken masks to the passionate Sons following, while sponsors Irn-Bru donated 56 free commemorative bottles (28 to each club) to be given away at local service stations; all were snapped up in four minutes. Support was received online from stars such as John Gordon-Sinclair, Matthew Le Tissier and Stuart Cosgrove. Local businesses such as Aggreko were baking Dumbarton ‘Rocks’ cakes for charity while a special Sons of the Choc yellow hot chocolate was available in Big Sparra Music Café, a few minutes away from the stadium. Eleven supporters’ buses and more than 2,000 excited supporters were kitted in flags, jester hats, scarves, balloons, ticker tape – even Ben Lomond dazzled in a shimmering sun-kissed gold, black-silhouette and snow-white peak. On a personal level, a recital of my poem Diddy Cups, recorded and edited by film-maker John Sartain, had been watched 40,000 times, celebrating the “love for the smaller clubs” during tournaments such as the Challenge Cup. Excitement had reached fever pitch – but it was on the pitch where it would really matter.
On March 24, 2018, Dumbarton faced Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Irn-Bru Challenge Cup Final at St Johnstone’s McDiarmid Park. On one of the supporters’ buses, I had conversed with an expat called Matthew, now living in Germany. A ship-builder returning to watch the team he had grown up loving. It was a time for sharing stories, recalling the favourite memories of Boghead and celebrating the achievements of the current squad with the little money available to spend. Inside the stadium, Coca-Cola would be poured at snack bars into Irn-Bru cups. It was almost a metaphor for the way many Sons fans were feeling: that we were imposters at this final, with the quintessential working-class mindset that somehow, we were undeserving of all this attention. Around an hour into the game with the score still zero-apiece, Froxylias was summoned by the bench and began stripping for action. A free-kick was awarded to Dumbarton approximately 35 yards out, and the Sons fans beseeched manager Aitken to get the newly-capped Cypriot international on the pitch. Assistant manager Ian Durrant grinned back at the fans, shrugging his shoulders and pointing to Aitken to deviate the attention back on to the boss. It was a moment of good-natured humour between the management and the fans. Subsequently, it was too late and the opportunity passed.
Despite a shocking penalty miss from our opponents with less than ten minutes remaining, nothing would quite prepare the Dumbarton fans for what was to come next. In the final seconds of three added minutes of injury-time, a ball swooped across the penalty area where Carl Tremarco rushed in at the back post to tap the ball in. Having supported Dumbarton since 1988, all three decades of supporting the club pressed heavily on the internal organs when the net flushed. A tsunami wave of gloating (deservedly) from Caley fans washed over us, and seconds later the final whistle sounded. Never cry in a football stadium because you can guarantee a camera will find you and beam it to thousands of spectators. The “…diddy dream of a diddy team lifting a diddy cup” had transformed into a diddy-coma and subsequently would not be fulfilled today. The ribbons would be blue and red tonight.
(Excerpt from) Vs Inverness Caledonian Thistle (Irn-Bru Cup Final) 24/03/2018
No cup, but families in jester hats
taking snaps, clapping and chanting,
cheering and laughing and joking
and remembering everything which was good.
Such days can be so evocative in any childhood.
Consider the positives.
The beauty of a long journey is the time for reflection – both in terms of the supporters’ bus returning from Perth and looking back at Dumbarton’s achievement in reaching the Irn-Bru cup final. While the prize of £300,000+ would bolster the Caley bank account, this part-time ensemble of lads who had previously graced the Scottish Premier League, youth signings on loan, and journeymen excelling in a system which flattered their talents, had achieved so much. The town had bustled with aspirations, prompting strangers to engage in conversation (my car had been in for a service on the morning of the final where the Arnold Clark salesman enthused that his grandfather had attended Boghead for 60 years and yet had never seen the club in a final, before passing away in 2016), and given their fans genuine reason to smile on a Saturday night. A flag of ambition and intention had been planted in this competition, and finally the media were talking about our little club. We may not have walked away with a trophy, but something a lot more valuable had been earned. Friendship. Respect. International caps. Heroes. Time with families. And a target to go one step better in future. Rock steady.