Friday 4th August 2017

EIGHT years before they returned to Scotland’s second tier, Dumbarton spent the close season of 2004 reflecting on what might have been.

And where it could all go right in season 2004/05.

Brian Fairley had retained most of the squad which he had managed to within a win of second place in the old Second Division, which in those days meant automatic promotion.

The only notable departure from the Sons squad was defender Neill Collins, who had his full-time move with Sunderland. Everybody else was still there, determined to give it another, more successful, go.

But somewhere along the line, things stalled. And it was hard to get them going again.

The first two league games were won against Ayr United and Arbroath, meaning that Dumbarton had won all of their past six league games, five with clean sheets.

However, after a run of four points out of 24 which took in only one more victory, a promotion push was stalling.

And after a 1-0 defeat away to Stirling Albion – a third consecutive league reverse without scoring – the wind of change blew.

Brian, the man who could have managed Dumbarton to the First Division but for a controversial refereeing decision at Hamilton late in the 2003/04 season, left the club.

He didn’t leave the division, though. The same evening as his departure from Sons was announced, he took over at Forfar Athletic.

He told “I did think it would be possible to challenge for promotion again, but there were a few factors behind why we didn’t, and my decision to leave.

“One disappointment was that I felt we needed a couple more players after the near miss of the previous season. I had two guys lined up who I felt could make a real difference, but we didn’t get the opportunity to bring them to the club.

“However, we should still have been good enough to be competitive. We knew where we needed to be and after a positive start where we won our first two league games, we weren’t quite at it.

“People got a sense that things needed changing, but I was confident we would be able to pull it back and move forward.

“We did win some games, but things weren’t working for me and it was probably best that the change was made.

“There were mixed feelings when I joined another club in the same division straight away. People will wonder what it was all about, but there were reasons behind it.”

Within less than a month of leaving, Brian was back at Dumbarton in the AWAY dugout, as his Forfar team claimed a point.

But a further two months later came the sort of reunion every team and its fans dread.

On their first away match against Fairley’s Forfar, Sons, now under Paul Martin’s management, were demolished 6-0 on a day when the deficit could have been greater.

Defeats by that margin can eventually be swallowed and moved on from – but it is a little harder when it is your former manager in charge of the winners.

And Brian admitted that even in that position, he struggled for enjoyment out of the afternoon.

He continued: “That I didn’t enjoy. It was a great result for my team of course, but I had too many great memories of my time at Dumbarton to take much pleasure out of it.

“Dumbarton have been our favourite club that we’ve worked at – good people, honest people and a good, supportive crowd that will always remain special to me.

“Before the first game against Dumbarton, I just remember meeting Paul Martin before the game and wishing him well.

“It was a 1-1 draw where the teams largely cancelled each other out.”

As it turned out, though, Brian’s tenure at Forfar was not a long one. His Loons side did beat Dumbarton again in their first meeting of the 2005/06 season, again at Station Park, by a more conventional 2-0 scoreline.

But the following week, away to Partick Thistle, was his last in charge of Forfar after only nine months in the job.

He said: “It was a change in work circumstances which meant I was unable to continue at Forfar.

“They were a nice club, a well-run club with friendly people involved, but things changed at my job that meant I wasn’t able to get away as sharp for training.

“Previously I had been able to leave at 4.45pm, pick up Allan and our coach Alan Fraser and head north. It was a big commitment which I knew about when I took on the post.

“My workload increased as a result of the changes and I decided that it was best to take a step back from football after that.”

Only a step back became a long holiday.

It was nearly three years before Brian was back in any dugout, returning to junior football with Linlithgow Rose in the 2008 close season.

And nine years down the line, two words from him sum that move up from his point of view: “Big mistake.”

His stay at Prestonfield lasted only until February 2009 – and that, to date, remains his last involvement in football.

Even as a Falkirk supporter, his involvement is mostly from an armchair or somewhere equally distant from a football pitch.

It may well surprise people who, on more than one occasion, saw him celebrate a Dumbarton victory as passionately as the players on the pitch or the fans in the stand.

But even the Scottish Cup final struggles to get him back into the environment he called home for decades.

Brian said: “It [returning to management with Linlithgow Rose] was a mistake for two simple reasons. One was that I had been out of football for a long time.

“The second was that I didn’t have an assistant I had worked with previously. Most people will tell you that managers link up with their own staff, who understand them and have got their back.

“I should have stayed out of football. It wasn’t an enjoyable spell for myself or the club. It just didn’t work out.

“I’ve not managed since then at any level, and I can’t remember the last time I was at a live football match.

“It’s 15 minutes’ walk from my house to the Falkirk Stadium, and I think I’ve been to one game in the last two and a half years.

“I watched their play-off matches against Dundee United on TV at the end of last season when they came up a bit short.

“I didn’t even go to the Scottish Cup final against Inverness CT two years ago. My five brothers and I got together to watch it in the beer garden of a local pub. We made a family day of it – it shows how things have changed.

“I still get a lot of enjoyment from watching football and stay involved in some ways, but I don’t miss management.”

But even 15 years after the season when he took charge at Dumbarton, Brian will never lose sight of how things are going at the club.

As well as watching from afar as Sons prepare for a sixth season in the Championship, he’s also followed players he used to manage in the black and gold.

He added: “You recall good times and fantastic occasions, and the guys you worked with in the dressing room. I’ve noticed some of the players I managed at Dumbarton moving into management themselves – Mark Bradley and Paul Ronald with Linlithgow Rose, Paddy Flannery with a team in the south of Scotland, Craig McEwan with Glenafton.

“I still keep an eye on how things are going for Dumbarton. You always look out for how teams are getting on that you’re associated with.

“They had a sticky spell last season, but it’s another tremendous effort by Stevie Aitken and his players to look forward to another season in the Championship.”

And had Brian managed Dumbarton to the second tier of Scottish football back in 2004, would they have lasted six seasons?

Says the man himself: “It would have been a hell of an effort for my Dumbarton side to stay in the second tier as long. The gulf over a season between full-time and part-time teams is generally where you suffer.

“But I’ve picked up bits and pieces from Terry Christie during his years as a manager, and with those, I think we’d have had a chanc

Photo by Donald Fullarton

Andy Galloway

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