BY Vince Cooper

DUMBARTON recently celebrated 150 years since they first took the field. They are currently competing in the basement division of Scottish football having endured a torrid time over the last few years in Scotland. But it wasn’t always like that.

A 3rd Division playoff appearance in 2022-23 saw them suffer a 6-0 first leg defeat against Annan Athletic which led to a dismal crowd of 283 showing up for the second leg at Dumbarton Stadium.

There was a time when it was all very different and when the Sons were among the country’s leading lights.

Sadly, by the end of the 19th century the glory days were already gone and the club disappeared from the football map. But the absence proved temporary as they returned five years after folding and have existed, mostly in the league’s lower reaches and at times precariously, ever since.

The team was formed in 1872 making them the fourth oldest in Scottish football behind only Queen’s Park, Kilmarnock and Stranraer. They took part in the first-ever Scottish Cup in the 1873-74 season.

Dumbarton came through the first round via walkover when Vale of Leven withdrew but were knocked out in the second round by Renton. They drew away against their fellow Dumbartonshire side but then lost the replay at home, 1-0.

Prior to this, the club’s first-ever match was an away fixture at Callander which Dumbarton won 1-0. 

The first home game was a 3-0 defeat to Vale of Leven at Meadow Park.

Dumbarton Castle and the Rock

The second season competing in the Scottish Cup brought a semi-final appearance. The Sons (so nicknamed as a shortened version of ‘Sons of the Rock’ in reference to the volcanic Dumbarton Rock which overlooks the town) saw off Arthurlie, Rangers (after a replay) and The Third Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers (Third Lanark) setting up a last-four clash where they again ran into Renton. They again drew the first game against 1-1 and then lost the replay 1-0.

By the 1875-76 season they had a new home – Broomfauld Park – and again made it to the last four of the Scottish Cup. This time they saw off Lennox, Renton Thistle and Drumpellier before oddly receiving a bye in the quarter-final. Their conquerors this time were Third Lanark who won a second replay 3-0 after a pair of 1-1 draws. The following season saw another move, this time to Lowmans Park for a year then another, to Townend for the last two years before settling in at the Boghead Park ground that would become their home for the next 121 years

Another Scottish Cup semi-final appearance came in 1879-80 when they were ousted by eventual winners Queens Park and in the 1880-81 season they finally reached the Scottish Cup final. Then they played it, lost it and played it again and lost it again.

The final, against Queens Park and was held at Kinning Park in Glasgow, then home of Rangers. Dumbarton lost 2-1 but then protested that there were spectators on the pitch and the Scottish F.A. ordered that the match be replayed.

An irate Queens Park threatened to withdraw from the F.A. over the decision but eventually agreed to a second match, winning 3-1 with the gates firmly locked to prevent further overspill.

The following year they made it to the final again (after an 11-2 semi romp against Cart Vale), and lost again, to Queens Park again. And again it took two matches. For the first time the final was played at Hampden Park and it finished 2-2 before Queens Park ran out 4-1 winners when the sides met again.

In 1882-83 Dumbarton finally claimed the trophy, after all those near-misses. The early rounds were something of a breeze. They walked over against Kilmarnock Thistle in the first, thumped Kings Park 8-1 in the second and then beat Jamestown by the same score in the third.

The Sons then recorded a 3-0 win at Thornliebank in the fourth round before overcoming old rivals Queens Park 3-1 in the quarter-final.

The semi-final draw saw Dumbarton set to play Pollokshields Athletic. They beat their rivals 1-0 but the match was declared void and replayed. This time they thrashed their opponents 5-0 to set up a final clash with Vale of Leven.

In front of a crowd of 15,000 the teams fought out a 2-2 draw, Dumbarton’s goals coming from Michael Paton and George McArthur.

Dumbarton 1883

The replay was played a week later in front of 8,000 fans and Dumbarton won 2-1 with both goals scored by Robert Brown. But it was two different Robert Browns who scored.

Dumbarton v Queens Park 1883

The first goal was scored by Robert ‘Plumber’ Brown (presumably so-named because of his occupation) who had joined the club at the start of the season and who would go on to represent Scotland once. The second came from Robert ‘Sparrow’ Brown (we can only guess where that nickname came from – he was an outside-right so maybe he was a ‘flier’) who had been with the club since 1878, and who would go on to win two caps for Scotland, both in 1884.

Also in the Dumbarton line-up that day was Joseph Lindsay, perhaps the finest player during the club’s early days.

A centre-forward, Lindsey joined The Sons in 1878 and would be with them for 12 years before moving on to play for Renton and Rangers. He won eight caps for his country, the first of which was when he played alongside clubmate Archie Lang in the 5-1 win over Wales at Hampden Park in 1880 giving them the joint honour of being the first internationals from the club. Lindsay scored and would go on to add five more including a hat-trick on his last start, also against the Welsh, this time at Wrexham.

The 1886-87 season saw another Scottish Cup final appearance. This time they lost 2-1 to Hibernian with the goal coming from International forward Ralph Aitken. At Easter the club undertook a three-match tour of England, playing at Accrington, Preston and Blackburn.

The club had been regular opponents of English teams even prior to the tour, both at home and away, having played Blackburn Olympic, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Darwen, Sheffield, Walsall Swifts and Old Carthusians among others. The first match against opposition from over the border was on 1 January 1881 and resulted in a 4-1 win at Blackburn Rovers.

At the end of the 1888-89 season the club merged with the town’s other team Dumbarton Athletic thus ensuring that there was now only one game in town.

Thr Scottish League’s debut season was in 1890-91 and it started with ten teams lining up. At the end of it, Dumbarton (who, with Aitken and Lindsay having left in the summer, might have been expected to struggle) and Rangers finished with the same number of points – 29, eight clear of third-placed Celtic.

Rather than rely on goal average or difference (Dumbarton would have been declared winners on both criteria) the league ordered a playoff. Played at Cathkin Park, the game finished all square at 2-2 and the title was shared.

The team also reached the Scottish Cup final in the same year. At the time of the final Dumbarton had yet to be beaten on the season but the result proved a major shock with the Sons losing 1-0 to Heart of Midlothian.

In 1891-92 the league increased to 12 teams. This time Dumbarton needed no play-off decider,  finishing two points clear of Celtic to claim the title. The Sons were unbeaten at Boghead all season (for the 3rd season in a row), scored a total of 124 goals in all competitions and recorded an 8-0 league win over Vale of Leven which, to this day remains their biggest ever.

During the two seasons of success that would never be repeated Dumbarton’s exploits were fired by two major goalgetters – John Bell and Jack Taylor.

Bell, a local man, made his debut for the club in 1890. In the two title winning seasons he scored 46 times in 50 games. In 1893 he moved south to join Everton with whom he had two spells, also playing for Celtic, New Brighton and Preston. During his time at Goodison Park he helped set up the players union who he would later serve as president.

John Bell

39 of Bell’s goals over the two seasons came in the league, making him the competition’s top scorer in both of his full campaigns at the club.

Jack Taylor

Taylor was even more prolific, scoring 46 times in 45 games, although some of those came in lesser competitions. Like Bell he moved on looking for a paid footballing job and went first to St Mirren before, like Bell before him, he joined Everton.

Taylor spent 14 years at Goodison Park making over 450 appearances in all competitions and playing in three F.A. Cup finals, collecting a winners medal in 1906.

Both Bell and Taylor were capped for Scotland along with a number of teammates, many of whom moved to England in search of professional work.

By the start of the 1892-93 season professionalism was becoming widespread in England and was starting to creep into the Scottish game. The Sons remained steadfastly amateur and this unsurprisingly resulted in the departure of a number of key players.

Dumbarton lost John Miller to Liverpool, Dickie Boyle to Everton and James Galbraith to Middlesbrough during the summer of 1892. Another five first-teamers left during the season including leading goalscorer Bell who scored nine goals in 15 games before moving to Goodison.

The losses proved too great. The signs were clear when St Mirren visited Boghead Park on the opening day of the season and won 3-1 ending that amazing home run and The Sons would eventually finish in 7th place.

On 11 March 1893, the day of the Scottish Cup final Dumbarton made the long trip south for a friendly against Royal Arsenal although they were missing a number of players due to work commitments. In front of 6,000 fans the Londoners proved too strong, running out 3-1 winners.

On 2 May 1893 Scottish football officially accepted professionalism. Dumbarton were against the move but were in the minority and, at the end of the season, a motion to adopt professionalism was passed at the club’s AGM.

Thus began the inevitable slide into mediocrity as Dumbarton found themselves unable to compete with the big clubs on either side of the border for top players and started to find themselves more as a ‘feeder’ for the bigger, more financially robust teams..

A case in point saw international star Taylor move on to St Mirren where he would spend a single season (scoring a hat-trick against Dumbarton in one match) before his already-described transfer to Everton.

Following a creditable 5th-place finish in 1893-94 a further mass exodus of players took place with no fewer than six first-teamers departing for better-paid positions at other clubs.

This resulted in a new low with Dumbarton finishing second from bottom in the 1894-95 campaign and forced to (successfully) apply for re-election to stay in the top flight.

The club were struggling on all fronts. Attendances at Boghead Park had reached an all-time low, revenues were dropping and players continued to move on. So in the summer of 1895, the decision was taken to return to amateur status. Of course this would lead to more first-team players moving on.

As a result the 1895-96 season would prove an unmitigated disaster. Of 18 matches played the Sons won four times and lost the remaining 14 to finish bottom of the table. Re-election to the top flight was again applied for but it came as no surprise when the league decided to relegate Dumbarton to the second tier with Abercorn taking their place.

The following 1896-97 season was just as bad in the league. In the 2nd Division they finished 10th and last, seven points off the team in 9th place and with just two wins and two draws from their 18 games.

Quite remarkably for a team so poor in the league, The Sons reached the Scottish Cup final.

A first round home win over Raith Rovers set Dumbarton on their way to Hampden and they then drew twice with Leith Athletic before overcoming their stubborn opponents 3-2 in a second replay. They then overcame St Bernard’s and Kilmarnock to make it to the final where they suffered 5-1 hammering by Rangers.

Thus at the Scottish League’s summer AGM, despite their Scottish Cup exploits and just five years after being crowned champions, Dumbarton were banished from the league, resulting in the departure of yet more of their better players.

After a few years of early Cup exits and what became a handful of friendlies it was no real surprise when in 1901 the club decided to disband.

Fortunately in 1905-06 they were back and competing in the Scottish Combination league which they duly won easily to earn election to the newly-expanded Scottish 2nd Division.

John Rowan who joined the club in 1910 and spent 10 years at Boghead Park

After their return Dumbarton continually featured near the top of the second-tier table until in 1910-11 they were crowned champions finishing four points clear of Ayr United. Unfortunately for The Sons these were the days before automatic promotion and relegation and the bottom two clubs in the top flight, Motherwell and Queens Park, retained their places.

In the 1912-13 season Dumbarton finished 6th, their lowest position since re-entering the league, and yet won promotion. The 1st Division was expanding from 18 to 20 teams and champions Ayr United were given one of the two spots. The other position came down to a vote and it was a close-run decision. The League chairman used his casting vote to make the final decision – and he plumped for Dumbarton.

Attendances at Boghead Park may have had some bearing on the decision. The ground regularly held over 4,000 fans and this rose to over 5,000 for the big games.

Dumbarton finished one place away from the bottom spot in their first season back in the top flight but comfortably maintained their status when votes were cast for promotion/relegation at the end of the campaign.

The ‘Postage Stamp’

The 1914-15 season saw the pitch rotated by 90 degrees and the tiny ‘Postage Stamp’ stand – with 80 seats – built. It also saw the club employ the first manager in their history. And James Collins might have had some effect as the team rose to finish comfortably in mid-table.

Donald Colman. A Scotland international signed from Aberdeen in 1920

In fact Dumbarton maintained their top-flight position for nine seasons until an awful campaign in 1921-22 saw them finish third from bottom and relegated in the first year of automatic promotion and relegation.

Duncan Walker. 35 goals in 61 games, then gone.

The Sons had done even worse in the previous season finishing 2nd from bottom despite a hatful of goals from Duncan Walker who would eventually move on to St Mirren and then Nottingham Forest.

James Scott who joined the club from Liverpool

Thus Dumbarton dropped into the second tier where they would remain from 1922-23 until 1953-54, a run of 31 humdrum seasons. After 4th place in their first season back on the lower tier, the club never finished higher than 6th and the main aim was merely survival.

One of the few star Sons fans had during this period would shine for a single season.

Alex Jackson – bought for a football

Dumbarton picked Alex Jackson up from Renton Victoria in return for a football. He played for only a year at Boghead Park before, along with brother Wattie who had been playing for Kilmarnock, he went to the USA to visit relatives.

In America the Jacksons were contacted by Bethlehem Steel, one of the top sides in the country, and they spent a season with the Pennsylvania team before returning to Scotland and signing for Aberdeen with Alex eventually becoming one of the famous Wembley Wizards and playing for Huddersfield and Chelsea.

The departure of Jackson coincided with the end of Dumbarton’s time on the big stage. When we return for part two we’ll be writing about a team struggling towards the bottom of the Scottish League food-chain.