Friday 3rd May 2019
THERE’S a cardboard box waiting for Jim Duffy in his office.
Cones, bibs, balls? He does have a match with Stranraer to prepare for.
Except there’s a note accompanying it. It reads something like: “Happy birthday and thanks for everything you’ve done this season.”
The box contains cupcakes. What looks to the untrained eye like about a dozen of them.
We are about to have a chat on the day Jim reaches one milestone in life – a significant birthday.
He is about to reach another – the end of his first season in charge of Dumbarton. Given that he took over in October it’s actually just shy of three quarters of a season, but who counts?
Whatever the percentages, it ends tomorrow at Arbroath. A season which started with optimism, ends with satisfaction at having secured a place in next season’s League One, and has undergone almost every emotion in between.
A season which has seen seven goalkeepers named on the teamsheet at one time or another. A season which has had almost every player out injured at some point.
Even for somebody who has spent half of his life in management, it is a campaign which will go down as one of highs and lows.
But it has ended with satisfaction at avoiding the same fate which befell Dumbarton the last time they were newly-relegated from the second tier 22 years ago.
Back then they went down again, this time they’ll be back in League One in season 2019/20 with the aim of giving it a proper go.
Speaking exclusively to www.dumbartonfootballclub.com, Jim said: “It’s been a difficult period since I came in, in terms of just trying to get the balance of the team right. That was the biggest issue.
“It’s been well-documented that we had injury problems. That meant that players were continually having to be shifted around into different positions which were rarely their natural ones.
“If you look at the games we have done well in, most of them have had players playing in their more natural position. Players feel more comfortable in roles they are used to.
“It’s a source of satisfaction how we’ve finished the season. People ask if we are relieved, but it wasn’t about relief for us; it was about making sure.
“We want to do our jobs properly and my job is to make sure we keep focused on the job in hand, which is to get results. We try and press that upon the players and since the turn of the year we have done better.
“It’s like at any level – consistency is what you are searching for, but it is difficult when the team is so fragmented.
“But we are certainly pleased to be retaining our League One status. It gives a degree of satisfaction but it allows you to take a step back and review things and see where you can improve.
“It’s been a tough challenge but I don’t scale them. Different jobs have different remits and different situations.
“You don’t grade them in terms of degrees of success or failure – you just do the best you can; it’s all you can do.
“We’ve had limited resources here – not financially or anything, just because of the player availability. I can’t remember a time where I’ve been at a club that has used so many goalkeepers, for instance.
“We’ve had five goalkeepers who have been on the pitch at some time this season and another two who have been on the bench but never come on. It’s simple things like that.
“Teams who have gone on a good run of results, then others have gone on a good run and the league has just stayed the same. It’s stayed congested.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t have good players – I always felt we did, when they were fit, ready and playing where they normally play.
“I always felt that if we got guys on the pitch who were healthy, they were always good enough and that points to a degree of success.”
So what of the prospects of giving success a proper go next season?
Talks have already started with regards to that, and there will be more once the kit and boots make their final journey of the season, home from Arbroath tomorrow.
But other talks, even to a manager with Jim’s experience, are not such an appealing prospect. Players who have given their all this season will be told their future lies elsewhere.
With only three teams – East Fife, Airdrieonians and Stranraer – known to be with Sons in next season’s League One, it is far too early to be making any rash predictions about what lies in store.
The aim, though, is known.
Jim continued: “We had a brief meeting this morning, just to go over one or two little things, nothing too dramatic.
“You have to work by the budget you are working with. There is also the ambition of the club – do they think it can be a big enough budget to compete at the top end, or one where you will need a bit of good fortune to be at that level?
“So we have talked about how we can move things forward.
“We need to know if we can get players good enough to compete in this division. Dom Thomas, for example, has been a sensational acquisition by the club, but we are unlikely to have him next season and we may well lose others.
“It’s in the lap of the gods. There isn’t anything to say about how we may perform next season.
“We certainly want to compete for promotion – if you don’t, you shouldn’t be involved in football. But every team will be the same. That will be the target, no doubt about it.
“It doesn’t get any easier telling players they are being released and it’s not a time you really enjoy. Sometimes you get really likeable and good boys but it’s time to change things.
“It’s more difficult when you have youth players because that can affect them a lot more if they are 17 or 18 and in your opinion, they don’t have a future.
“But we don’t have that here and I don’t think the impact will be the same on these guys if and when the time comes.
“Some will speak to us after the Arbroath game; others may do so in advance. If they think they’re not going to be offered terms for next season it may as well be done with.”
At the time of our conversation, Scottish football is going through a sad time. It is remembering Billy McNeill, the captain of Celtic’s Lisbon Lions who died on Monday, April 22.
He was also Jim’s first manager in senior football, with the Parkhead club.
We are talking before the death of another Lisbon Lion, Stevie Chalmers, which was announced earlier this week.
Jim said: “I have fantastic, fond memories of Billy. He signed me for Celtic and I will be eternally grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to get involved for many, many years after that.
“I met him in a variety of roles from football to socially, and he was a unique person in terms of how he held himself, as a footballer and as a person.
“For a man who lifted the European Cup, he retained an immense amount of humility.”
But there is a happier note to end our conversation on. Many of Jim’s predecessors have recognised the supporters positively – and he is no different.
He added: “The supporters are always important. I was pleasantly surprised because when we weren’t doing so well and had periods of poor results, the fans were really good.
“I don’t go on social media and I never will, but the fans have been really vocal and supportive and I thought they were really good to us. You always get the odd person but generally speaking they’ve been really supportive.
“Encouraging helps everybody and myself, because you think that people are still with you.
“We’ve also had a group of young supporters at home and away, and that’s always great for the club to get a new generation of fans coming through. It’s great to see.”