Sandstone tenements, pubs and kebab shops dominate central Dumbarton. Turn left for the castle and you are on a single access road heading for the famous rock.
There, nestling at the foot of the impressive mound, is the Bet Butler Stadium, where Hearts’ quest for the Championship title continues on Saturday.
For those following the Edinburgh club west, this will be like reality setting in. Relegation to the Championship means lower-league venues and part-time teams. Known as “The Rock”, Dumbarton’s ground is modern but modest – a single-stand venue with a capacity of just over 2000. Hearts have never played there. It is somewhat soulless with nothing but large metal fencing around three sides of the pitch. On the plus side, it is one of the most picturesque locations in Scotland.
Dumbarton have sold a record number of season tickets for this year and could have sold more. The town is not exactly a footballing hotbed of recent times but older generations remember stars of their era. Players like Murdo MacLeod, Graeme Sharp and Walter Smith all donned the famous gold and black with distinction. Dumbarton is also the club where a certain Freddie Glidden finished his playing career after it peaked with Scottish Cup success at Hearts in 1956. The move to sign Dutch footballing god Johann Cruyff in 1980 is perhaps even more legendary.
Relocating from dilapidated Boghead Park to the new stadium in 2000 brought much-improved facilities. However, Dumbarton are unable to fully capitalise on the most high-profile second tier in Scottish football history. Having Hearts, Hibs and Rangers in their league is great for prestige, but chief executive Gilbert Lawrie is frustrated he cannot increase his ground’s capacity. Even temporary seating isn’t possible.
“The problem with our ground is it’s relatively new,” he explained. “Under the planning regulations at the time of building, we must have full car parking on site. That’s why the original development was restricted to the numbers we have just now, because the site can only accommodate so many car park spaces and therefore so many supporters.
“There is a single access road all the way round to the stadium and there is housing next to us now, which we didn’t have when we first moved here. Car parking is the big issue, the major stumbling block to any temporary seating. We had discussions about it but, in reality, I think we knew from day one it was never going to happen. To satisfy ourselves and our fans, we had to go through the process of looking at it to make sure that was the case.
“Our capacity is stuck and there is no opportunity to increase it in any way. So an all-ticket game against Hibs, Hearts or Rangers is the same as an all-ticket game against Morton, Dundee, Falkirk, Queen of the South and the rest. It’s not really any different for us. Obviously, the quality of the teams coming are different from a football perspective. You could argue that to a degree, but they are actually in our league now, so we’ve just got to play who we’ve got to play.”
Temporary seating was explored by a number of Championship clubs over the summer once it became clear that three of Scotland’s biggest clubs would be joining the league. “I spoke to some clubs who did it last year,” said Lawrie, a lifelong Dumbarton fan. “When you factor in the cost of bringing in these stands, plus additional temporary toilets, temporary food stalls and extra stewarding, I don’t think they made as much out of it as they thought they would. Whilst they made some money, it was maybe more hassle than it was worth for some of them.
“I think a lot of suppliers of these stands knew they had an ideal market and I’m pretty sure all the prices started to rise.”
It is not a completely wasted opportunity. Dumbarton can still try to make the most of home crowds when Rangers, Hearts and Hibs are in town.
“We can maximise hospitality,” said Lawrie. “One of the big advantages to our stadium is we have two really massive function suites. If hospitality sales go up, we have the capacity to take more than we would normally have. That brings in an extra bit of revenue, but not anything substantial.”
Locals are keen to turn up to see teams they would not usually see this season. Dumbarton even had to cap season ticket sales during the summer. “We’ve sold a record number of season tickets down here, around 620. There’s no doubt the people of Dumbarton are excited by this campaign,” continued Lawrie.
“We only have a capacity of about 800 for home fans so we need to keep some seating available for the paying punter who wants to come one game at a time. We could probably have sold more, but, to be fair to walk-up fans, we’ve tried to take them into consideration.
“The Hearts game is close to sellout. Hearts were given about 730 tickets plus some hospitality seats and we expect the Hearts end to be sold out. Our end will be very close to it by the time the game kicks off.
“The biggest game we’ve had here in recent years was the [old First Division] play-off against Airdrie in 2012. That was a full house and the game was covered live by BBC Alba, so that’s the biggest.
“When Partick Thistle came here in the last game of the 2012/13 season, their end was full and that was also a big game because they were going up to the Premier League.”
Hearts’ arrival will be bigger again. Dumbarton’s ground may be a slight culture shock, but a capacity crowd may just get The Rock rocking.