Manager has transformed sinking Sons
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