Tuesday 31st July 2018
STEVIE AITKEN could have been woken up at night by the same nightmare for the last three years.
He just hasn’t had the chance to close the wounds. Not yet. Not until Saturday.
He may still be kept awake by the events of Saturday, April 25, 2015. The penultimate Saturday of the scheduled 2014/15 season.
The second last time, until Saturday, he managed in an ordinary League One fixture.
His Stranraer team were top of the league, 180 minutes away from the title. But it was a house of cards. One puff of wind could dismantle everything.
Especially since the team in a position to deliver that blow were Morton. Full-time, they were many neutrals’ favourites, but Stranraer had defied the odds all season.
If they won, only fellow part-timers Forfar could stop them on the last day. Morton would be out of the reckoning.
Stevie could still have nightmares about the final five minutes of the first half. He could still see Steven Bell foul Peter MacDonald on 40 minutes, and Declan McManus converting from the spot.
He may also see McManus head home his second, a minute from half time – from a cross by a player Stevie now manages.
The final insult for Stevie was that his own brother, Chris, was sent off.
The house of cards hadn’t just collapsed; it had fallen off the table and gone through the cracks in the floor. Stranraer never recovered and the next month, of course, Stevie was on his way to Dumbarton.
It’s a scenario he could replay for anybody assuming that season 2018/19 will end in success for Sons.
But he’s going to darn well try and make up for that day – with input from the supplier of Morton’s second goal, Ross Forbes.
Speaking to www.dumbartonfootballclub.com, Stevie said: “There were full-time clubs in the division that season, but we finished well above clubs like Ayr United and Dunfermline.
“Stranraer were really good that year, but we knew Morton were the favourites. We knew the threats they had.
“It was going fine until Stranraer lost the penalty, and then Morton got another goal to go in 2-0 up.
“After that Stranraer struggled to get back into it. They were off the top of the table with a game to go.
“There was a time on the last day when they were ahead at Brechin and Morton were drawing with Peterhead. That put Stranraer back at the top as it stood.
“But Morton went on to win, and were champions. It was difficult to pick the players up after that after going so close to winning the league, and they then lost the play-off semi-final to Forfar.
“You learn to take it on the chin. I’ve been there two or three times, when my team’s fate has gone to the last day of the season.
“If we can take it to the last day, or there is a result that would see us going back to the Championship, we’d take it.
“Stranraer will be tricky, Raith are staying full-time, Airdrie have had a lot said about them. It’s going to be very competitive.
“But we are looking forward to it. With the experience I’ve built up as a manager, and Ian Durrant’s experience, we’ll try to get the club back up.”
The mechanics of winning promotion are many. And there’s one that Stevie already knows the importance of.
Going back again to season 2014/15, Stranraer gained only two points from the first 12 available. They then went unbeaten until December but those dropped points at the start came back to haunt them.
So from Saturday at East Fife, it is about getting points on the board – and not stopping gathering them until May 4 at Arbroath.
Even the presence of a full-time club in League One doesn’t change the stance that Dumbarton are in it to do well.
He continued: “It’s vital we make a good start. If you get that on the board, it can carry you forward for the next stage.
“Everybody will be playing each other in the first round of fixtures and once we’ve played each other once, we’ll have a better idea of the challenges we face.
“There will be strange results in the league, and hopefully they’ll be ones which benefit us.
“With a full-time team in the league, we should be at a disadvantage to them. They are training every day and not working outside the game.
“That’s not to say we’ll finish below them, but we need to use what we’ve got. Other clubs have proven it wrong that being full-time wins you honours.
“The pressure is on Raith as they are the ones everybody will be looking to beat, and we’ve had good results against them before.
“Results give you confidence. We had confidence we could be the best part-time team and we proved that.
“We have players who know what it takes to win promotion, and confidence is needed to do that.”
Season 2014/15, of course, hasn’t been the only one of Stevie’s career which has not ended with the desired outcome.
Saturday’s game at East Fife comes 12 weeks after a place in League One was confirmed with defeat to Alloa.
That may live with Stevie for a long time as well, but it is now done and dusted. New league, new season – hopefully a new start.
No assumptions are being made, but the aim is to have more happy faces walking up Castle Road every other Saturday.
Stevie said: “You just had to walk into the dressing room and see how gutted the players were with the way it finished.
“Losing the Irn Bru Cup final in injury time, and then being 30 seconds away from staying in the Championship was very hard to take.
“A lot of people will look at the disappointment and that’s understandable, but there is also a sense of satisfaction from five seasons in the Championship and being the best part-time club in Scotland.
“We’ve gone to places like Tannadice and Easter Road and got results. We now pass the mantle on to Alloa to fly the flag for part-time sides in that division and we wish them well.
“As for us, we now aim to get back up there.
“It’s the first time relegation has happened to me as a manager and I have to deal with it and move forward.
“I have to learn from mistakes, but I’ve had a lot of support from different managers to say that the job we’ve done has been nothing short of outstanding.
“Better managers than me have been relegated, and they’ve all bounced back from it.
“I was relegated as a player with Stranraer in 2003. But as a manager, you look at it as your club, team, players and staff.
“It would have been harder for us in the Championship again this year. It is getting harder for part-time clubs to survive in that division and it is maybe the right time for us to come out of it and get a feel-good factor about the place.
“We want to put a team on the pitch playing entertaining football and winning games, and to score more goals. We went on long runs without winning in the Championship and that’s just down to how the division was.”
As well as the league, there is also something to make up for in the Irn Bru Cup, after last season’s final defeat to Inverness CT.
But will it be this season?
Stevie continued: “In any competition, we want to try and do well. Last season was terrific, getting to the final after winning the semi-final against The New Saints.
“It’ll live with us for a long time – supporters, players and staff. There were grown men in tears.
“But did it hurt us in the league? It could have done. It took a lot out of the legs.
“After four or five weeks were we played twice, we were starting to run on empty.
“We’d like to try and have another journey like that, but it will be tough, and we have a tough game against Morton to begin our campaign this time around.”
Sons’ signings in the close season transfer window have impressed many, with players arriving from higher levels of the game.
A large part of that has been the backing of stadium sponsors C&G Sytems, to whom Stevie expressed thanks.
The gaffer declared himself satisfied with progress to date, but it’s not ju
st about what the players can do with a ball at their feet.
Team spirit did wonders for certain teams at this year’s World Cup – and it can do likewise for Sons.
Stevie said: “We’re delighted with who we’ve managed to recruit. There are quality players here and the likes of Rory Loy and Andy Little arriving shows how hard we have worked over the close season.
“It will take a bit of time because that is 12 new players, but we’ve shown promise and we’ll try to build on that.
“It’s been a challenge working with a reduced budget. At any time when a club falls down a division, there will be a financial hit and we’ve had to cut our cloth accordingly.
“We had 20 players last season, so it is a smaller squad this time, but we’ll hopefully have more luck with injuries and suspensions.
“C&G Systems have been a great sponsor to the club. With their involvement we have been able to offer players jobs outside the game.
“I don’t take to do with that personally – I only spoke to players from the footballing side. But if they want a job, we can help them get in the right direction with that. I am grateful for the players for their football skills.
“I don’t think there will be any more additions at the moment. We’re happy with what we’ve got and we’re happy to start with the 17 players we have.
“Those players can play two or three different positions, and that will help in the event of injuries.
“We still have until the end of August to make additions, including loans.
“We can’t cover every position so we’ve had to sacrifice cover for some, but Ross Perry can fill in at left back or we can change the shape to go three at the back.
“We’ve also kept the five players we wanted to keep from last season, and the ones who have come in have been really good.
“Training has been good and the players are a group getting on really well with each other.
“Team spirit can get you 10 or 15 points over the season, for example when you are chasing a game and get something out of it. So far, it’s been really good.
“Ian Durrant is a character and he keeps it bubbling away.”
And as for another part of any success the club will achieve – the fans?
Stevie’s message was: “We’ve had a great experience over the last five years, competing really well. Now we hope to play football that everybody really enjoys.
“The players look for supporters home and away. They’ve been great for me and the players and we enjoy a really good relationship with them.
“I enjoy working here and have a lot of good people about me. You can see what they’re doing behind the scenes.
“Stay with us.”