Sunday 31st December 2017
THE phone call from Colin Hosie was concise and to the point.
It was Hogmanay 10 years ago, but it wasn’t ‘Happy New Year’. In fact, it was a word less.
Dumbarton had a new manager. It had taken 51 days, but the way season 2007/08 had manifested itself, it was little surprise. The duty of managing Sons was fast becoming the job nobody wanted. Things were worlds away from where the club is now, holding its own during its sixth season in Scotland’s second tier.
In recent times the likes of Hibernian, St Mirren and Dundee United have all left G82 empty handed. Back then, fellow part-timers were regularly leaving what is now the YOUR Radio 103FM Stadium with full points. The regularity of it meant that Sons were dangerously close to a second season in 10 years finishing as the lowest club in the old Scottish Football League. It may seem the obvious phrase, but it was dangerously close to Rock bottom.
Nobody seemed to want the job – but in the end, somebody did.
Why was there a vacancy?
Gerry McCabe had left the club two months previously, around 24 hours after a 2-0 defeat away to Albion Rovers which proved to be his last match in charge.
It ended an 18-month spell as Sons boss for McCabe, whose first season saw the club finish fifth in the Third Division into which it had been newly-relegated. With that, key players like Stephen Grindlay, Ryan Borris, Chris Boyle and Craig Winter decided now was the time to seek a new challenge.
From the early stages of season 2007/08, it was obvious that this was not going to be Dumbarton’s season either. The new-look squad were, without exception, hard workers, but didn’t have the requisite quality. Newly-signed strikers Brian McPhee and David McFarlane had hopes pinned on them for goals, but neither could avoid injury trouble. Indeed, McFarlane played his last game of the season on Saturday, November 24, scoring in a 2-0 Scottish Cup third round win at home to Berwick Rangers.
The surprise recruitment of goalkeeper David Crawford, one of the mainstays of a remarkable Queen’s Park side who won promotion the previous season, did bring some optimism. But it still didn’t bring results. Sons went to Cliftonhill to face Rovers on Saturday, November 10, having won only three of their 11 league outings to date. The last of those was six weeks previously at Montrose, by a 1-0 scoreline with Crawford saving a penalty.
Although the controversial sending off of Niall Henderson did little to help matters, there could be little argument with Dumbarton’s fifth league reverse of the season. And it meant decisive action. A year previously McCabe had been the Third Division’s manager of the month. Now he was gone.
Colin said: “Gerry gave the job his very best shot; nobody could disagree with that. With so many players leaving during the close season, rebuilding was always going to be difficult.
“But Dumbarton were perilously close to the bottom of the Third Division, and that was not where we wanted to be. Ten years earlier I had seen the club finish in that very position – rock bottom out of what was then Scotland’s 40 SFL clubs. There was no way anybody wanted that to recur.
“So, with a great deal of disappointment on Gerry’s behalf, we felt that a change of regime was necessary to get the club out of the rut it was in.”
With no game the following Saturday due to an international break – for Scotland’s ill-fated Euro 2008 qualifying decider against Italy – the club had a window of opportunity. But there was to be more to the saga.
A new manager was announced in the build-up to the next competitive game, the Scottish Cup third round tie at home to Berwick Rangers. Only the next morning, the same manager informed the club that due to personal reasons, he was unable to take the hot seat after all. He later accepted the same job at a club which, at the time, was in the old First Division.
Colin added: “What happened with this manager was disappointing, but we respected his reasons and wished him well going forward. Unfortunately this set us right back to square one. As far as we were concerned, we were set to resume match action with a new manager.
“Now Jim Clark, who had been Gerry’s assistant, was required to take interim charge on a matchday and possibly more.”
In the end, Clark, who made little secret of his desire to succeed McCabe, oversaw seven games. He won two – the Scottish Cup tie with Berwick and a 3-1 victory at home to East Stirlingshire. But the other five merely added to the reasons why this was becoming a season to forget for Dumbarton. Defeats to Stenhousemuir and, to an extent, runaway leaders East Fife, were unlucky. The other three, at home to Stranraer and Montrose (the latter of those with Henderson again sent off) and away to bottom side Forfar, were not.
Although Dumbarton had yet to reach the bottom of the old Third Division, the journey home from Station Park, after the last fixture of 2007, was one of deep contemplation. Just who was going to want to start 2008 in charge of a team who, barring the most unlikely of fightbacks, was going to spend the rest of the season playing glorified friendlies at the bottom end of Scottish football?
With hours left of the old year, the answer was given.
The white smoke
Seventeen seasons ago, Jim Chapman had come to Dumbarton from Albion Rovers as a player, only for injury to end his career months into his time at Boghead. Now, somewhat belatedly, he had made the same transfer as a manager.
Then aged 42, he had spent the last two full seasons with the Wee Rovers as manager, and although neither ended in promotion – they finished eighth and sixth respectively – promising signs had been witnessed. The second of those seasons had seen the club reach the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup only to lose 4-1 away to Ross County, who went on to win the trophy. Previously unknown players like Gordon Lennon had made their name in senior football at Cliftonhill, while Scott Chaplain had reinvented himself after leaving Ayr United, scoring goals for fun from midfield.
However, at the end of that second season, Chapman left Cliftonhill. Since then, he had been awaiting the right opportunity to get back into the game where his playing career was cut short. His last senior game as a player had been a 2-1 defeat for Dumbarton at Arbroath in November 1990. Returning in a reserve match against Airdrieonians in early 1991, he aggravated the same injury so severely he never played again.
It was actually a little-known fact that he served the club as a coach after that – and had already won promotion, assisting Billy Lamont and Billy Simpson in the Second Division triumph of 1991/92. His chances of doing so as his own boss, during what was left of season 2007/08, were at best remote. But Chapman was known as somebody who did not dodge a challenge and was up for one with Dumbarton.
Colin said: “By the time Jim left our discussion with him, we knew he was the man we wanted to take us forward. This was a guy who we already knew from his playing days lived and breathed football – and more importantly, was not daunted by the position the club was in.
“He and ourselves felt that this was a challenge he could take on, at a club where we could be mutually beneficial. We had no hesitation in offering Jim the job, and there was no little relief on our part that we could celebrate the dawn of 2008 with a permanent appointment finally made.”
And there was a fair degree of irony about Chapman’s first game, which he faced within two days of being announced as manager. At home to Albion Rovers.
If the squad had plans for Hogmanay which involved partying into the small hours, they had to cancel them. They were in early doors on New Year’s Day to meet their new leader, who had brought with him Alan Adamson, his assistant from his second season in charge at Coatbridge.
The impromptu workout was worth it. I
t was glaringly obvious just how much Chapman had to do to make his team look like potential promotion winners this season or next, but goals by Fergus Tiernan and McPhee brought a 2-0 victory.
A new broom
The Dumbarton team which beat Albion Rovers was: David Crawford; Jonathan Yule, Craig Brittain, Mark Canning, Craig Potter, Chris Gentile, Chris Hamilton, Fergus Tiernan, Paul McQuilken, Brian McPhee and Ryan Russell. The playing substitutes were Sean Kerr (on loan from Livingston), Kenny Haswell and Tommy Coyne; unused were trialist Michael Stokes, who did belatedly sign but only played a few games, and keeper Anton Nugent.
That team was soon to be decimated. It was McQuilken’s last game for the club and Haswell’s penultimate one. Together with Kerr, who played two more games before returning to Livingston, they left the club in the January transfer window. Of the remaining 13, only Yule, Brittain, Canning and Tiernan were still Dumbarton players at the start of the following season. Efforts were made to retain Crawford but he declined terms. Only Canning was left by the end of January 2009 and when he was released four months later, Chapman’s entire first team selection had left the club within 16 months.
When the new boss next managed Dumbarton, in a Scottish Cup fourth round tie away to St Mirren, he had already made his first signing in defender Grant Evans on loan from Hamilton Accies. The trip to Love Street ended 3-0, but the scoreline did not tell the story of how much the Buddies dominated. And it triggered another run of poor results. Desperately unlucky to lose 2-0 at Stranraer in the next league outing, Dumbarton were then outclassed by Elgin City (4-1 – to date Elgin’s only victory at Sons’ current ground), Montrose (3-1) and East Fife (3-0).
Those games saw some additions come in, although in gameshow terminology they are probably ‘Pointless answers’. Chris Mackie, anybody? Axel Orrstrom?Two other January signings, though, made statements of intent. Striker Michael Moore had a track record in the bottom division, and as if that wasn’t enough, had a day job in a Dumbarton bank. He was duly signed after leaving Ayr United, but went on to score only twice for Sons.
The other made a big impression, although not one that came as a surprise to Chapman. Along with him, Gordon Lennon had left Albion Rovers in the close season, in his case to move to Partick Thistle. His move to Firhill had not worked out, being sent out on loan to Stenhousemuir in the earlier part of the season. But as soon as Chapman was installed at Dumbarton, and Lennon
released by the Jags, a move was his. So too was the captain’s armband, previously worn by David Craig, who had been out injured since September.
Colin said: “Jim was keen to use what was left of the January transfer window to strengthen as best he could, and to retain Gordon and Michael through to the end of season 2008/09 in order that they could be part of things further down the line.
“We had no hesitation in backing him in doing so, as we knew how important signings like these would be if the club was to reach its goal. A manager never relishes releasing players, but to get out of the position we were in, we had to explore all possibilities.”
The losing run was halted by a 2-1 win over Arbroath, a game which saw Canning, who had never scored for Dumbarton, find the net with two free kicks. But three nights later, Sons were in the position they dreaded without kicking a ball. Forfar Athletic’s 1-0 win over Albion Rovers meant that the Loons were off the bottom, with Dumbarton replacing them there.
Rovers, though, were made to pay for not delivering the favour Dumbarton needed. A Canning goal at Cliftonhill the following Saturday was the only one of the game and Sons’ stay at the foot of the old SFL had lasted only 96 hours. Mercifully, it was a position they would never return to, although the rest of the season was much of a muchness in terms of results. Of their remaining 11 games, Dumbarton won only two, although defeating East Stirlingshire 1-0 in the final home fixture ensured they definitely did not finish bottom. They also lost only three, all of them by the odd goal. None of those 11 fixtures saw either team score or concede more than twice, although Sons never scored more than once. Indeed, over the season, there had only been five league games where they scored more than once.
The final game of the season was a 1-1 draw at Forfar Athletic and, although a well-enjoyed day out on the terrace, the main feeling was ‘Thank goodness that’s over’. As per previously, not many players were retained on the expiry of their contracts at the end of the season. Too much strengthening needed done for the club to move forward.
What the new-look squad achieved will be documented further down the line, in a way it deserves to be. However, the next time Dumbarton are struggling in a Championship fixture, just remember where the club was less than 10 years ago.
A position it hopes never to return to.