Friday 4th August 2017
TIME has moved on. More than 13 years of it.
But for Brian Fairley, the frustration remains.
He still remembers the time and the place well. The afternoon of Saturday, April 17 2004, at New Douglas Park. The day before his 45th birthday.
And the day which shaped the destiny of his bid to take Dumbarton back into Scotland’s second tier.
“It still rankles with me,” he admits, still able to recall every detail.
In his mind’s eye, he still sees Gordon Herd charging into the Hamilton Accies penalty area with seven minutes gone with only the keeper to beat.
Steven Thomson cleans him out. Penalty alright, and Neill Collins converts, but that’s it as far as the home defender’s punishment is concerned.
“It was as clear a sending off as you are ever likely to see, but the referee decided only to award a penalty.
“We scored – and then who scored Hamilton’s equaliser? Thomson.
“And then they went on to score the winner in injury time.”
Hamilton’s win that day put them two points ahead of Sons, with the two teams pursuing leaders Airdrie United.
Each team had four games left. They won all four of them, meaning that Dumbarton never caught the Accies.
Brian will also admit to the poor start to the season, which saw Sons take only six of the first 30 league points, as a reason why they missed out on second place.
With no play-offs in those days, that would have meant the club returning to the second tier, instead of waiting another eight years.
They’d have done so under a manager who took over 15 years ago this season, also under highly-charged circumstances.
He woke up on Friday, March 21 2003 still in charge of Bo’ness United and looking forward to a Scottish Junior Cup semi-final against Linlithgow Rose at Almondvale Stadium the next day.
Dumbarton, by contrast, had no game that afternoon. Opponents Stranraer were in Scottish Cup quarter final action, so a training session was arranged.
And Brian was in charge of it.
As Bo’ness headed to Livingston, he was in Levengrove Park, training the team he had seven games left to save from relegation to the old Third Division.
His now ex-club went on to lose the semi-final to Linlithgow, who themselves were beaten in the final by Tayport.
But that match had become an irrelevance. A new chapter was beginning.
Brian said: “It was an easy decision to make from a footballing perspective. It was a step up a level and I had wanted to go back into senior football.
“But on a personal level it was extremely difficult. I’d made a lot of good friends at Bo’ness, played for them and won the Scottish Junior Cup in 1984.
“It was a difficult conversation to have with the guys at the club. They hadn’t been in the Scottish Junior Cup semi-final for years and the fact that they had that game made it a huge blow.
“However, the problem with football is that you are not in control of when your opportunities come along. I had to take this one, but it didn’t leave a good taste with Bo’ness.
“Over the years I have spoken to them and they’ve understood why I went, but at the time it was a bit raw.
“We’d obviously done a background check on Dumbarton and knew they had some decent players. In training sessions they were really positive and upbeat and to be honest, we were surprised at the position they found themselves in.
“Our immediate task was just to keep things simple and to give them a bit of confidence for the run-in we faced.
“In our first match against Stranraer we didn’t really fire. It ended 1-1 in midweek. Then we were up at Forfar on the Saturday and when we won that game 1-0, that was when we knew the team would stay up.
“It was a difficult venue to go to, but as well as showing the talent we had, we also showed the resolve we needed.”
Winning four and drawing three of those seven matches, Brian and assistant Allan McGonigal had done what they were brought in to do.
In fact, Sons survived at the expense of a Stranraer team whose midfield contained none other than the 26-year-old Stevie Aitken.
Brian, of course, was retained as manager for the 2003/04 season, but after a 2-1 win at newly-relegated Alloa on the opening day, the first hurdle was hit.
Dumbarton would not win again until matchday 11, having accumulated only three further points for three draws in between.
That victory was also against the Wasps, courtesy of Craig McEwan converting a penalty the award of which, for handball, even surprised Sons.
After that, things began to click for a squad Brian was always confident would come good.
He said: “In a part-time team, everybody has to do their bit, but we knew we had a decent squad with good spirit, and the signings we made added to that.
“Banjo (James McKinstry) swept the board at the player of the year awards at the end of the season. He had a significant part to play in our success, especially in the position he was playing
“But there were a lot of good performances right through the season. As brilliantly as we did the season before in getting clear of relegation, this campaign was one hell of an effort.
“We had a really poor first quarter, reaching the end of October with only one league victory. I thought the squad was better than that and was starting to wonder what was happening.
“We needed any sort of victory to spark a change, and at home to Alloa was the game. Somebody was smiling on us that day.
“Once you get the breaks you have to make the best of them – I think I said that after the game.
“After that, we just went on a great run. But even then, it didn’t occur to me that promotion was possible because we had some decent sides in the league – the likes of Airdrie, Hamilton and Morton.”
The following Saturday, Dumbarton were 4-0 ahead away to Berwick Rangers after only 23 minutes. They eventually won 4-1.
Alloa had also been the first victims of a run which saw all nine other teams in the Second Division beaten at Dumbarton.
Those included a 1-0 victory over Morton, runaway leaders, at New Year. Between the sequence being built at home, and the odd victory away, an unlikely promotion push was gathering pace. Until Hamilton.
Brian continued: “We knew we could be competitive, but we didn’t envisage the results we got. Defensively we were pretty sound – only Airdrie, who won the league, conceded less goals than we did.
“We just hadn’t scored enough goals in the first quarter of the season. Once we got the confidence in the side, we became a really decent outfit.
“Being honest, the support kept us on that run at home. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea to come to our ground as it’s open on three sides and always windy, but the crowd was always behind us.
“Allan and myself always commented on the backing from the stand. As soon as we scored at home, we always had the impression we would go on and win.
“In our final 11 games, we won eight, drew one and lost two. One defeat was against champions Airdrie, and the other was at Hamilton.
“It still rankles with me to think of what could have been, albeit after a horrendous start by us, had the referee made a different decision.”
Two weeks after the New Douglas Park episode, though, things were very different. Morton returned to Dumbarton and were hammered 3-0.
That victory was followed by Brian running across the field to the fans at full time, arms aloft, and rallying them for the two remaining games.
After the 3-0 scoreline was repeated at Arbroath, it all came down to the final day. Dumbarton at home to Alloa, Hamilton away to Forfar.
As well as Sons having to win, they also needed the Loons to do something that few teams seemed able to do – beat the Accies.
But after conversations with the Forfar management, it was always in the back of Brian’s mind that it just wasn’t meant to be.
He said: “It (beating Morton 3-0) does rank v
ery highly in terms of football management. I won the Scottish Junior Cup with Camelon in 1995, which was a hell of an achievement.
“But what makes occasions like the Morton game so special is the big support. Morton brought a big crowd through, Dumbarton had a big crowd, and it was a great atmosphere.
“When everybody is behind the team there is a real feeling of togetherness, and that showed in how we won the game.
“Two weeks later, I spoke to Ray Stewart, Forfar manager at the time, in the lead-up to their last match, against Hamilton.
“I didn’t get the feeling he was particularly confident. His team wasn’t playing that well, and we knew that Hamilton had enough in their armoury to score.
“So even ahead of our game with Alloa, I had the nagging doubt that whatever we did, it wouldn’t be enough.
“In the end, we won very comfortably, but Hamilton did what they needed to do and won promotion.”
However, there was one cause for celebration in the Fairley family that weekend.
Older brother George was Hamilton’s director of football, and while his junior sibling reflected on what might have been, he did have some congratulations to give.
He added: “There were two things about that season which ended up costing us – the poor start and the Hamilton match. It was all ifs and buts.
“I was just pleased for my brother that he was involved at Hamilton when they won promotion.”
PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW WILL BE ONLINE AT 12.30pm.
Photo by Donald Fullarton