Man­ager has trans­formed sink­ing Sons

Lennox Herald - - SPORT -

It came af­ter a chat on Twit­ter, when a reg­u­lar reader of the Len­nox noted just how much I’d changed my opin­ion of Ste­vie Aitken.

I tried to cover it in a few tweets but the turn­around has been so dra­matic it war­ranted much more than that.

Take your­self back to De­cem­ber 6. On a poor run of league form, where we had tasted vic­tory just three times all sea­son while play­ing ab­so­lutely bru­tal foot­ball that was de­void of any at­tack­ing play, con­fi­dence wasn’t high for a home match against a side ef­fec­tively four leagues be­low. That is how far Dum­bar­ton had sunk un­der Aitken.

The for­mer Stran­raer man­ager was sub­ject to more abuse than al­most any other Sons man­ager in re­cent his­tory.

He traipsed across the soggy pitch, hav­ing seen his am­bi­tion­less side fall to the most em­bar­rass­ing re­sult in his man­age­rial ca­reer. In his post-match in­ter­views he looked like a bro­ken man.

The ma­jor­ity of fans wanted him to go and I was no ex­cep­tion.

I sav­aged him in that week’s blog, I ripped into the team in the match re­port and was joined by many other Sons fans in tear­ing every­thing to shreds on on­line fo­rums.

As that week wore on it be­came clear that a frank meet­ing had taken place be­tween the play­ers and the man­age­ment team.

We will likely never know what was said but I be­lieve the ‘clear the air’ talks played a mas­sive role in chang­ing every­thing.

That week­end we went to Easter Road, lost 2-0 to Hiber­nian and failed to hit a shot on tar­get. I was done with him.

In fact, al­most ev­ery­one was. Sons fans don’t have un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions but we would like to see a team that at least looked like it wanted to win, not one that looked fear­ful and timid any time it broke be­yond the half­way line.

A week later I’d been won over again and that came as a mas­sive shock, hav­ing grown more and more dis­grun­tled with the man­age­ment over the pre­vi­ous six months.

It’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point just what was so good about our 2-1 vic­tory over Falkirk. How­ever, some­thing felt very dif­fer­ent.

It was like watch­ing the team un­der Ian Mur­ray or Aitken’s early days. We fought for ev­ery ball, be­came ex­cit­ing to watch and scored a beau­ti­ful goal.

Garry Flem­ing’s win­ner may not have been as spec­tac­u­lar as Ryan Steven­son’s against Queen of the South a few weeks ear­lier but it was the first re­ally well­worked team goal Dum­bar­ton had scored all sea­son.

It was also the first time Dum­bar­ton had de­served to take all three points in a match they had won, some­thing that made a huge dif­fer­ence.

A week later saw Sons travel to Som­er­set Park to face Ayr United on Christ­mas Eve. In a re­mark­able game 10-man Dum­bar­ton came back from 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 down to draw 4-4.

Again we’d played well. Again we’d cre­ated plenty go­ing for­ward. The fight and de­sire that had been lack­ing for the first chunk of the sea­son had fi­nally reap­peared.

Slowly it looked like Aitken was turn­ing things around. From the low­est pos­si­ble ebb he had re­cov­ered and sud­denly we had a team play­ing with a bit of con­fi­dence and be­lief.

A se­cond con­sec­u­tive home vic­tory over Dundee United fol­lowed the Ayr match be­fore a ref­er­ee­ing mis­take robbed Dum­bar­ton of a point against Greenock Mor­ton at Cap­pielow in a game that Sons had dom­i­nated.

In be­tween those matches a fair bit of squad move­ment had started to take place. Fringe play­ers Ryan Steven­son and Frazer Wright had left the club for Raith Rovers and Stir­ling Al­bion re­spec­tively, while on-loan Celtic mid­fielder Joe Thom­son - Sons’ best player for much of the sea­son - had been re­called by the Park­head club, only to be sent back out on loan to ri­vals Queen of the South.

Their places in the squad were taken by the re­turn­ing Chris­tian Nade, young Raith at­tacker Lewis Vaughan and for­mer Mother­well man Stuart Car­swell.

That rep­re­sented some im­pres­sive busi­ness by Aitken. Steven­son had been a mar­quee sign­ing but had found his game time lim­ited and had clearly strug­gled to adapt to part-time foot­ball. Wright, mean­while, a star of last sea­son, had his year ru­ined by in­juries.

Fur­ther squad move­ment came with the de­par­ture of Craig Pet­ti­grew, with for­mer Rangers man Tom Lang re­plac­ing him in the squad, while Josh Todd and an­other for­mer Gers man Calum Gal­lagher swapped clubs.

Pet­ti­grew had never looked com­fort­able in the Cham­pi­onship, while most fans con­sid­ered Todd for Gal­lagher to be a good swap. The English­man had been de­cent enough for Dum­bar­ton but swap­ping him for a nat­u­ral winger made per­fect sense.

These changes al­lowed Dum­bar­ton, for al­most the first time un­der Aitken’s stew­ard­ship, to dras­ti­cally switch for­ma­tion. Car­swell and Mark Docherty sat deep in a 4-2-3-1, al­low­ing the more at­tack­ing play­ers to fi­nally start to in­flu­ence games.

Andy Stir­ling per­fectly en­cap­su­lated just how much had changed. I’d hap­pily have seen him join Steven­son, Wright and Pet­ti­grew on the ‘outs’ list af­ter the Bon­nyrigg game.

He was an all right player, noth­ing more. He con­trib­uted very lit­tle other than hor­ri­bly over-hit or un­der-hit crosses and never seemed to have the con­fi­dence to drive at his man.

In his first 24 games of the sea­son he had man­aged a goal and a fluke as­sist. In the first five games of this year he has added an­other goal and four im­pres­sive as­sists to his record.

Ar­guably he has been our star per­former of 2017. He’s an ab­so­lute joy to watch: di­rect, skil­ful, rapid and above all else ex­cit­ing. When he gets the ball at the mo­ment some­thing hap­pens - and that’s just about the best thing you can say about a winger.

Foot­ball is un­pre­dictable. We all know that. How­ever, I don’t think even the most optimistic of Dum­bar­ton fans could have seen the turn­around Aitken has presided over.

A home de­feat to Queen of the South proved a mere blip, as it was fol­lowed by our most dom­i­nant per­for­mance un­der the for­mer Stran­raer man­ager. A 3-1 vic­tory against Raith Rovers was the least Sons de­served in a game that they had con­trolled from start to fin­ish.

Last week’s game against St Mir­ren was the def­i­ni­tion of a must-not-lose match.

It was far from a per­fect per­for­mance but to lose our cap­tain to injury, go a goal down, equalise, lose the hugely in­flu­en­tial Stuart Car­swell to injury and claw back a point was an ex­cel­lent out­come, es­pe­cially on a pitch that didn’t suit our newly-found at­tack­ing flair.

Af­ter a week off Sons now face Ayr United, who will have played twice since Dum­bar­ton last took to the pitch.

Hand­ily, they could only draw with League Two Clyde on Satur­day so they will now face off against the Bully Wee in a re­play this week.

Hope­fully a mid­week re­play against lower league op­po­si­tion doesn’t have the same gal­vanis­ing im­pact on United’s sea­son.

Turn­ing point Garry Flem­ing cel­e­brates his goal against Falkirk

Top player Andy Stir­ling has been a star per­former

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