The car park of McDiarmid Park, Perth, in March 2018 could not easily be confused with Casablanca Airport in the 1940s with a plane waiting for Lisbon. Nor is it that often that football fans could find themselves quoting Ilsa Lund to Rick Blaine – especially not after a cup final has ended the way it has.
Some hours earlier, 11 busloads of Dumbarton fans (months down the line, it still sounds incredible) had made their way up the A9 in hope. Not just a small amount of hope, but spades of it. Had this been an evening game, we’d have been checking whether the stars were aligned on the way up. As it was, we’d probably had the lot. Somebody, somewhere in G82 or the vicinity, had been avoiding cracks in the pavement, throwing salt over their shoulder every time they cooked, or something similar. Even lucky items of clothing were being kept in cold storage. Whatever worked, do it.
And why wouldn’t you do that when it’s your team’s first final for 121 years?
This is the story of not one, but two, remarkable days which for even long-term Sons supporters changed so much.
Que sera sera; whatever will be will be; we’re going to Oswestry, que sera sera.
Who’d have thought those lyrics could apply to Dumbarton? Not just for any game, but their first national cup semi-final since 1976 – when they had two such games, in the Scottish Cup against Hearts followed by the Spring Cup against Clydebank, only to lose both. When Raith Rovers were vanquished 2-0 in the quarter-finals of this season’s Irn-Bru Cup, it was known that there was only a one in three chance we’d face a Scottish opponent in the semi-final, having already played Connah’s Quay Nomads in round two. Days later, it became a reality in the form of an away tie at the other Welsh team involved in the competition, The New Saints.
If you support Dumbarton, there was nowhere else you’d rather have been on the weekend subsequent to Valentine’s Day. In the three months before the semi-final, excitement was almost instant, lulled for Christmas, and then reached fever pitch in the weeks beforehand. Immediately hotels were booked for semi-final weekend, taking in both the Saturday and Sunday nights to allow flexibility for whenever the game is played. We eventually discovered, just before Christmas, that Saturday was to be the matchday. Buses were filled, with two eventually making the journey – one overnight and one going there and back on the day. Many more made plans to get to Oswestry under their own steam, including myself and my fiancée, via a Friday night stay in Liverpool.
We arrived at Gobowen station, the nearest to Oswestry at a couple of miles away, at circa 3pm – the game was a 7.35pm kick-off. By this point I’d already read material online about TNS not being too popular in the town, and a chat with our taxi driver substantiated that. It all mainly stems from events in 2003, when after 44 years based in a tiny Welsh border village, the club moved to Oswestry and merged with the local Oswestry Town FC. Seven years before that, still known as Llansantffraid FC, they’d reached a substantial sponsorship agreement with an Oswestry-based telecommunications company. That was how the new name Total Network Solutions came to be.
When the telecoms firm was taken over in 2006, it meant another change of name, which resulted in the naming rights being auctioned on eBay. Eventually The New Saints, a nickname for the original Llansantffraid FC, was settled on in order to keep the TNS abbreviation, and that’s what it’s been ever since. Not that they’ve captured the imagination of locals, though, despite their six consecutive Welsh Premier Division titles and counting. Home crowds are similar to those of many Scottish League Two clubs, and during our stay, several hotel and bar staff, and taxi drivers, wished Dumbarton well in knocking them out.
It had been clear for several weeks in advance that Dumbarton fans were going to take over Oswestry for the weekend. The local Premier Inn was sold out, the same can be said of the adjacent Travelodge, and other, more central hotels were getting used to the sound of Scottish accents. In a relatively short space of time at our hotel to check in and drop our baggage off, we met several people we’d usually encounter back home. There were plenty more of them in the local Wetherspoons, but the coup de grace if you’re looking for evidence of Sons fans’ hunger for this trip was in hospitality, which was sold at a very reasonable price. Comparable in size to most large function rooms, the place was packed, mostly with Dumbarton supporters. The drinks were flowing and the band were keeping spirits up, including, by coincidence, playing a song which is used as a regular terrace chant by Sons followers. And the night was still young.
All we needed now was for the game to go well.
Ah yes, the game. Although we were confident, there was some trepidation due to one statistic alone. Unless you were one of the (estimated) 12 who made the midweek journey to Peterhead in January for a postponed Scottish Cup match, you went into the TNS tie having not seen Dumbarton score since at least Boxing Day – 53 days previously. The previous four league games, and a subsequent Scottish Cup trip to Morton, had all resulted in blank sheets upfront.
It was a run which needed to end, even more so when, after a goalless first half, Dean Ebbe put TNS ahead soon after the restart with a close-range finish. For some of us in Scottish football, the nightmare scenario is on. We’re going to see a Scottish cup final contested by a Welsh team who play in England.
We toiled. And then… Danny Handling on 71 minutes, Dimitris Froxylias on 84. Not just two goals which won the game for Dumbarton – two goals befitting a semi-final at a much higher level. The former was a 25-yard netbuster which those of us behind the goal could see hitting the net as soon as it left the ex-Hibernian man’s boot. The latter was something we’d seen already. The Cypriot Froxylias made his debut for the Sons in the same competition in September, scoring the winning goal directly from a free kick against Welsh opposition – this one being Connah’s Quay Nomads. Funny how history repeats itself. Again, to those of us behind the goal, his set piece was clearly never missing the target.
After that, the countdown turned from minutes to seconds. We couldn’t let this go now. We mustn’t.
Dumbarton were in their first final of one of Scotland’s current three major cups since Queen Victoria was on the throne. Some people, including the most seasoned of followers, needed convincing of the truth of that sentence. They’d have tried once the hugs were exchanged, the near-endless applause for the team concluded and, most challenging of all, once the drink stopped flowing at various establishments. A supporter was even allowed to bring his guitar and harmonica into the restaurant/bar adjacent to the Premier Inn as the festivities went on long into the night.
And that’s another thing. Those of us who could face breakfast in the morning were greeted by a plate in the restaurant/bar saying ‘Well done Dumbarton FC’ from the staff. When we’d just knocked out their local club.
That bit about countdowns? 34 days to go to the final, which on the journey home we established would be against Inverness CT, who beat Crusaders 3-2. There were a number of important league games between now and then in the battle to stay in the Championship for a seventh season as a part-time club. But it was hard not to do it with one eye on events in what was expected to be, and was later confirmed as, Perth. Unless you are 121 years old (in which case, why doesn’t the Guinness Book of Records know?), you hadn’t seen this before. Nobody ignores the Festival of Britain Quaich triumph in 1951, but in relation to Scottish football’s current majors, the next sentence had never been said truthfully by anybody currently alive.
Dumbarton are in a national cup final.
Since Oswestry the shooting boots had still been gathering dust. Only the hapless, luckless and, most significantly for the middle of March, winless Brechin City had suffered at the hands of the Dumbarton attack since Dimitris Froxylias stuck THAT free kick away some miles down the M6. Those of us who still hoped to avoid the play-offs on league business were finding confidence that bit more difficult to come by; those who had been saying for some time that it was going to happen were seeing their case boosted.
But on the morning of Saturday, March 24, all that went to one side.
We discovered it was true what they say about cup final day being one when, once you’re awake, getting back to sleep becomes impossible. By 8am the Facebook posts were being made, the fry-ups were being devoured and dozens of people were already discovering a time on a Saturday morning that they never knew existed. I’d already posted on the club website an item stating that this was OUR Manchester 2008, OUR Seville 2003. This was the day we finally found out what those matches were like for friends on each side of the Old Firm divide. Dumbarton don’t have to reach a European final for us to get those feelings. It just has to be something with a bit more prestige than the Stirlingshire Cup, something which most of us have experienced several times. That day was today.
We arrived at what is currently known as the YOUR Radio 103FM Stadium around 11.30am. On a home matchday, the supporters’ bar is not usually that busy until about an hour before kick-off, for a variety of reasons. This day, it was almost unrecognisable. Merchandise was flying off the shelves, although perhaps not quite as quickly as drinks were flying off the bar. There were people there who I didn’t even know liked football, let alone supported Dumbarton, resulting in school/workplace/neighbourhood reunions taking place left, right and centre. Goody bags were being filled with confetti, balloons and forms for fans to join the Sons Supporters Trust – if not today, when is the best day to do that?
And ELEVEN supporters’ buses. Actually it was ten – one of them left first thing in the morning to put flags on the seats at McDiarmid Park.
To those of us not convening one of those buses, the whole process of getting everybody on board their transport looked seamless. The reality was, of course, different. But as the sun overlooked Dumbarton Castle, just after 1pm, we were good to go. And then it all really kicked off.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“What players are going to be playing?”
“Are the Swiss Sons on any of the buses?”
The people referred to in that third question are a group of half a dozen guys from Switzerland who have been coming to a game every season since 2010/11. It’s fair to say they enjoy themselves when they do visit. And the answer to that question was no – they were staying in Perth.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“What’s the Brechin score?”
“Is this a nice stadium?”
Given that this is Dumbarton’s first game at McDiarmid Park since 1996, you might well ask. Although I have visited every one of Scotland’s current senior grounds, this was my first time at St Johnstone for a game – my only previous visit was for a conference some years ago, but those attending did get out on the pitch. Not only that, it means that I’ve seen Dumbarton play at them all, although Edinburgh City’s current Ainslie Park home has only been visited for friendlies.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Where is the Tulloch Institute? Is it far from the stadium?”
The bar the Swiss Sons are meeting us at – and no.
“ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?”
And all that was before Findo Gask. You never forget a name like that.
Eventually, said Tulloch Institute was the drop-off point. There were two rooms – one for each set of fans – and as our bus was first to arrive, the DJ in our function hall did not have much of an audience. It only took about 20 minutes or so, though, before the bar queue was two or three people deep and, just as back in Dumbarton about two hours previously, we were revelling in the pre-match build-up. I’ve seen somebody post on social media about how it felt like Saturday night and it was strange emerging into daylight afterwards. Hard to argue with that, to be honest.
But daylight was what we walked out to at around 3.30pm. The late Cilla Black once said on a game show she presented that it was “Time to stop doing the talking and start doing the walking.” How apt. This was Dumbarton’s Moment of Truth.
There were only minutes to kick-off before we got into our seats in the main stand. Dozens of people were still outside and maybe didn’t even see the first ball of the afternoon being kicked. But already, to a home and away Sons fan of 23 years, this support was only comparable to one – the first one I was part of, at Stirling Albion in 1995 for a last-day promotion decider. Promotions have been won since that day, but in front of less numerous crowds.
And should I mention Dumbarton won that game at Stirling?
Things kicked off and, not surprisingly, it was cagey. Sons were the better side in the first half but, once again, couldn’t get it finished. Inverness CT were generally on top of the second, but the effort from Dumbarton was unrelenting and opportunities weren’t easy to create. Then, with eight minutes to go, I thought I noticed a white sleeve touch the ball in the penalty area after Caley Thistle sent in a free kick. The referee eventually thought the same.
This is it. This is where it all falls apart. Is it?
Scott Gallacher dives to his left and saves from Iain Vigurs.
Are the stars out yet? Are they in line?
We’re going to have to do this soon. Some of our players can barely get out of neutral and won’t manage extra time.
But we’ll take it.
If we can defend this low ball that’s coming in from the right, two minutes into stoppage time.
We can’t. Carl Tremarco can finish it.
Again, there was only one thing comparable here. The moment when I watched from Hampden’s North Stand as Christian Panucci headed the goal for Italy that ended Scotland’s ambitions of reaching Euro 2008. The campaign where we’d beaten France twice en route and surprised so many people. This time Dumbarton had beaten five clubs, including one which competes in the Champions League season in season out, and surprised so many people.
And what did we have to show for it,
courtesy of one swing of an Inverness CT left back’s boot? Our programmes, any other souvenirs of the day, and in the players’ cases, a runner-up medal. You know, those ones that some players give away as soon as they can, because they don’t want to remember the occasion they lost out on the cup at the final hurdle? Because it hurts too much?
There was applause, and plenty of it. But it was through feelings of what might have been. And again, we knew what Seville and Manchester were like for Old Firm-supporting friends. Just like those two games from the Scottish clubs’ points of view, it was so near and yet so far.
While the buses north were full of optimism, noise and atmosphere, the ones south were deflated. Some people couldn’t even bring themselves to post more than one word on social media – ‘gutted’, or synonyms of it, being the obvious one. Consolation was sent from all parts of our respective friendship circles, but sorry wasn’t, and isn’t, going to bring the cup to Dumbarton.
We honestly thought we were going to witness the club lifting its first major national trophy since 1883 – they lost the 1897 Scottish Cup final to Rangers. It was hard to accept that we wouldn’t, not this season anyway. But we knew that come Scottish Cup final day, there would be another set of fans going through what we were. Those supporters would probably be more used to it.
If the club can continue the progress it has made over the past five seasons, it won’t be another 121 years until it’s our next major final. You’d like to say “We’ll be back”, but this is one occasion when you wish you could say for definite when that will come true. But some years down the line, we’ll view Saturday, March 24, 2018 as a date when the experience of supporting Dumbarton became even richer.
And when we learned a valuable lesson.
When you get to a cup final, savour it. You don’t know when it will happen again.