Thursday 3rd August 2017
IN TV gameshow terminology, David Winnie is probably a ‘Pointless’ answer.
If any contestant on that show was asked to name a Dumbarton manager, chances are they wouldn’t think of him.
After all, he was only in the hot seat for nine months – one of the shorter tenures of any Sons gaffer.
But 15 years on from inheriting the post, he can still lay claim to quite a few high achievements in charge.
He’s still the only man to manage Dumbarton in the quarter finals of what is currently the Irn Bru Cup.
He’s the only Sons boss to win two ties in that competition and is joined only by Stevie Aitken, Alan Adamson and Jimmy Brown in having won a tie in it at all.
And among the players who made their debuts for Dumbarton under him are Neill Collins, Stephen Grindlay and Iain Russell.
It was his first, and to date only, crack at being a manager in his own right, and a task which, even a decade and a half later, he still regards as a pleasure to take on.
He told www.dumbartonfootballclub.com as part of #sons24: “It was a privilege to be given the Dumbarton job.
“I was a relatively untried manager, and the club had just come up into a higher division, so they knew it was going to be quite a task to maintain their status there.
“I had actually applied for the job. I’m not sure who else was in for it, but I went through an interview with various members of the board and managed to get the honour of being Dumbarton manager.
“The players were a good bunch of lads, but I thought after watching them in training and pre-season games, we would have to strengthen defensively.
“We were going to come up against teams who were full-time, like Raith Rovers, who had good teams, were well-organised and were fit. If they were at it, we would really struggle.
“So that, and adding experience to the squad, was my mindset when I was getting started.”
David began competitive life as Dumbarton manager 15 years ago on this very day, in a 2-2 draw away to Stenhousemuir where Sons fought back from 2-0 down with 10 minutes to play.
But it was a pre-season game which provided the first high of his tenure. Not in terms of the result, or who played for Dumbarton.
It was about who played against them.
Doing his best to stop Sons scoring was a teenage centre half with only one season of Third Division football – with the bottom team – under his belt.
David said: “We played Queen’s Park in a pre-season friendly, and as soon as I saw Neill Collins, within the first 10 minutes I thought he was a player.
“He was exactly the type of player I was looking for. He was strong, athletic, dominant and could play football. He was everything you would like or require in a modern defender.
“I approached Queen’s Park boss John McCormack after the game, as with Queen’s Park’s situation as an amateur club, their players could speak to you at any time. I also said to the chairman that we needed to get this player on board.
“I then spoke to Neill and his dad and it just confirmed my view of him. He was completely grounded and had a strong family behind him. I immediately thought he was destined for bigger things.
“I’m very much surprised he’s never been capped for Scotland at full international level. If he kept developing the way he was, I thought he was a shoe-in to play there.”
And Collins, who two years later joined Sunderland and has played for several English clubs since, wasn’t the only big discovery made early in David’s tenure.
While John Wight was in goal for the game at Stenhousemuir, he was replaced for the new gaffer’s second game by a 19-year-old keeper who was already on the books.
Stephen Grindlay had joined the previous season and been farmed out on loan to a local amateur side.
He was handed his debut in a 1-0 Challenge Cup first round victory at home to East Fife. He never looked back from there.
David said: “It’s never an easy thing with goalkeepers. Outfield players can make a few mistakes and nothing more could come from it. With keepers, one mistake could cost your team.
“My thinking on Dumbarton’s goalkeepers was that there had to be a steady pair of hands. If goalkeepers are dependable, they don’t need to be world beaters, but they give their defenders confidence. I was a defender and the relationship between the goalkeeper and his defence is important.
“John Wight was very vocal, good at organising the team, but at times I felt he got too involved in the game. Rather than concentrating on his own role, he tried to direct traffic.
“And that was where Stephen Grindlay came in. When he made his debut, he played very well and I felt he could keep his place in the team.
“He was just a young keeper but the defenders were confident playing in front of him. The relationship he had with his centre halves was excellent.”
In the first month of the season, the task of managing a newly promoted side in the old Second Division may have looked easy for David.
Ten league points were taken out of the first 15, with the only defeat being to newly-relegated Raith Rovers with a last-minute goal.
And there was the Challenge Cup run. First Division Ayr United were demolished 3-0 at Dumbarton before eventual winners Queen of the South got the better of Sons, beating them 2-0 at Dumfries in the quarter final.
But following the third league win, away to Berwick Rangers, a brick wall awaited.
Little had anybody known after the defeat at Kirkcaldy just how much late goals were about to cost Dumbarton.
With November barely having started, Forfar Athletic and Berwick themselves had won games at the Rock in injury time.
More importantly, Dumbarton were still winless since the last day of August.
David continued: “Looking back, it was my first real job in management and I made mistakes. With hindsight I wish I had done this, done that, and even after my first month I knew it would turn.
“At that point, we didn’t have enough players, and we didn’t have enough quality players to maintain the challenge we were making at that point.
“Although it was great to get those results, I was acutely aware that for a team that had just come up, and was part-time, it was a heavy ask.
“Unless we brought in one or two other players, it would be difficult to remain in the position we held.
“We lost several late goals which cost us points, and it got to the stage where I kept asking myself ‘Why is this happening?’
“I spoke to various people in the game, sought advice from various managers. Was a fitness thing, was it a mental thing, was it failings on my part as a manager?
“All sorts of things go through your head as a manager on what you should be doing, or what you are not doing. And at that point, I couldn’t find the answer.”
Something had to happen, and ahead of an away match at Airdrie, some suspected it may have to come through dropping team captain David Stewart.
In February 2002, the skipper had been involved in a horrendous car accident. He did regain his place in the team at the start of the 2002/03 season, but questions were asked about whether he was the same player.
His manager took the decision to leave him out of the team to travel to New Broomfield. It was a successful trip, as Paddy Flannery’s goal from the penalty spot was the only one of the game.
But David said of the call: “It was extremely difficult.
“I can’t speak highly enough of David Stewart as a player or as an individual. He went through a terrible time prior to me joining the club, but got himself fit and back into contention again.
“But he was the type of player that needed to be playing all the time to maintain his fitness levels. With the situation at Dumbarton, if you weren’t playing, there was no reserve league where you could keep players fit.
“And if I couldn’t play David in one game, then it would probab
ly become two or three games, maybe more, before he returned.
“It was a big decision because he was a big character in the team, but I made the call in terms of centre halves, because I had also brought Neil Duffy to the club.
“He and Neill Collins were doing great together at centre half, and it was difficult to fit another centre half in unless we played three at the back.
“David was always positive, never became a bad influence in the dressing room. He was a good captain.”
Two weeks later Stranraer – featuring a young Stevie Aitken – were demolished 3-0 at Dumbarton despite Sons playing more than half the game with 10 men.
All seemed decent again, although it was the last win of 2002. Then, on the first day of 2003 came what seemed another injection of positivity.
Not for the first time, it was courtesy of a player who David had watched play against Sons. In a 1-1 draw at home to Cowdenbeath at the end of November, Emeka Obidile had stood out in a trial display for the Blue Brazil.
He couldn’t agree a deal with Cowden – but he could with Dumbarton, after an initial trial spell.
That started on New Year’s Day, at home to Airdrie, with his pace and technical ability on full display from the start.
He scored the first goal and set up John Dillon for the second in a game Sons won 2-1 – their third victory out of three against the Diamonds.
Dillon himself was another success story of the season. Having signed in 1999 under Jimmy Brown, he struggled for starts under either him or Tom Carson.
Given an opportunity by David, he thrived out on the left, and finished the season as top goalscorer.
David said: “Emeka played for Cowdenbeath against us, and having watched him in that game, I thought he would be a bit different.
“This lad gave us a right hard game. He was quick, he had great technique, he could make things out of nothing.
“Through an agent I knew, I found out Emeka was available, but he was quite a full-time player. So I arranged training facilities for him with another club so he could train full-time.
“It was a big ask for Dumbarton to take him, and all credit to them. They back me in that sense, but he was an exciting player.
“In John’s case, his development was simply a result of playing him in pre-season. When I came into the club I didn’t know any of the players and didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas.
“I simply told the players that they had done really well to get promoted, but it all started again. It was a harder league and with me taking over, they all had a blank slate.
“John worked his backside off and did everything I asked him to do and more. For a manager at that level he was very easy to work with.
“He did a power of work for the team every week – and came in with a few goals.”
David was also the first Sons manager to operate within the restraints of transfer windows, which were introduced during the close season when he took over.
One of his last-minute January signings was a 20-year-old striker who had played only a handful of games for Motherwell as a substitute.
Iain Russell was added to the squad on loan and made his debut in a 3-1 win over Hamilton Accies in February.
David said: “He had a little bit more about him, a bit more quality, and he was keen to learn and step up again.
“A lot of players who move down a division are at that level for a reason. They’re settled at that level and won’t go any higher.
“But with Iain, I could see that if he got a bit of consistency and a run of games, he could play and would step up a level again.”
Events after that game, though, shaped what was left of David’s tenure. After back to back wins, Dumbarton were due to travel to face Cowdenbeath in a vital game, only for a frozen Central Park pitch to call it off.
Three defeats followed, and then came a home match with Berwick Rangers where Dumbarton led 2-0, only to draw with yet another injury time goal concession.
Instead of being on the crest of a wave, Dumbarton headed to Cowdenbeath on Tuesday, March 18 2003 with the pressure on.
Part two of this interview will be online at 9.30pm. Headline photo by Donald Fullarton.