It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Daggers are in their seventh Football League season. When they won promotion in 2007, the immediate reaction from football fans was, “London doesn’t need another Football League club”. Indeed, with West Ham and Leyton Orient not too far away, the popular suggestion was that Dagenham wouldn’t draw anything near enough people to remain at that level.
It’s tough, true, but the Daggers have not only survived – and they almost certainly can look forward to an eighth season – but they enjoyed one promotion in the process. Much of their success was down to a manager who was very much dyed-in-the-wool non-league: John Still. He’s not at Luton Town in the Conference and may repeat the trick of taking a club into the League.
Dagenham and me go back a long way. I saw them play at Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup final in 1970 when they were pushed easily aside by Enfield. A year later they met Skelmersdale United in the final and also lost emphatically. I recall that Dagenham’s programme was called The Dagger and the style was identical to West Ham’s pocket-sized “Hammer”, little wonder given the editor of both was Jack Helier.
But the overriding memory of trips to Victoria Road is one visit for a non-league game. As is customary with that genre, a post-match drink was being enjoyed after a FA Cup tie. I was asked if I wanted ice in my drink and after requesting a cube or two with my G&T, the barmaid thrust her hand in the ice bucket and bowled them into the drink! The gin had a distinct note of cheap French perfume about it.
The air around the entrance to the club now is very much fried matchday food. But Victoria Road is a different ground from its Isthmian and Conference days. There’s the curiously named “Traditional Builders Stand”, which contrary to its signage, is not the exclusive territory of flat-capped brickies in overalls. It’s a large stand at an end that used to be open and exposed to the elements.
The club, of course, is a strange amalgamation of London non-league football. Its family tree is more complex than the European Championships that Michel Platini is trying to concoct in 2016 and 2020: Leytonstone merged with Ilford, absorbed Walthamstow, changed its name to Redbridge Forest, married Dagenham. There’s scarcely been a more complicated arrangement. If the creation of an East London Super Club was the aim, it was somewhat successful, although West Ham fans may not agree.
But isn’t Dagenham really Essex? It was when I was young, although anything west of Upminster has always been in “the London Borough of…”. If the term had been around before Dagenham really did become part of London, rather than the home counties, opposition supporters would have called them “Plastic Cockneys”, rather like they do now with Stevenage. What is a Dagenham accent, though? Is it the clipped vowels and public school tone that belonged to Sir Alf Ramsey (yes, he was born there…), or the estuarine diction of Terry Venables, who started life in the “suburb of East London”? More the latter, I would say, and speaking as someone who was advised by his manager at NatWest in the mid-1970s that I would benefit from elocution lessons, I should know. Essex, East London, they all merge into one these days. For the purposes of this visit, it’s Dagenham & Redbridge versus Southend United in a League Two Essex derby.
Southend fans turned out in force, around 1,300 of them made the relatively short journey from the seaside to dockside (there is a station called Dagenham Dock that used to act as the alighting point for many Fords’ workers). Their team ran out in a kit that the Hull City Tigers’ owner would die for, although the shirts had clearly been taken over by over-sized number patches. No chance of mistaken identity here.
Dagenham’s audience, swelled by West Ham fans on a night off, perhaps, were reinforced by a drum, which struggled to get through the turnstiles and barely made a noise all evening. Whatever happened to the Dagenham Girl Pipers? Over in the corner of the ground, I noticed the inevitable mascot, who, from a distance, appeared to have KKK headgear on. Surely, it wasn’t supposed to be a “Dagger”?
As for the game, Southend dominated the early exchanges and adopted a wayward shoot on sight approach that should have yielded more than the odd “ooh” or “ahhh” from the Shrimpers’ fans behind the goal. For Dagenham, Rhys Murphy looked useful – as he had done in August when we saw them at Fleetwood – prompting discussions about how players like him had been pushed down the ranks by the huge influx of foreign players in Britain. Murphy was denied by Southend goalkeeper Dan Bentley and should have given his team the lead in the first half. Bentley also pulled off an excellent save from Zavon Hines just as the Dagenham fans were heading for their half-time pies.
Southend took the lead in the 52th minute with what can only be described as a “Barnes-Wallis goal”. Actually it was Kevan Hurst who scored, a bouncing bomb of a shot that deceived Daggers’ keeper Chris Lewington. The goal was created by Ben Coker, a player who has stepped-up from non-league football where he helped Bury Town win the Southern League Midland Division in 2010.
Dagenham equalized 15 minutes later with a much better crafted goal, Luke Norris showing some determination in brushing aside a defender before picking the only available spot high into the top corner of Southend’s net. A good strike, earning him the Man of the Match award.
It could have gone either way after that, although Lewington pulled off a point preserving save very late in the game. Final score 1-1. Southend have a chance of a play-off place but Dagenham look destined for mid-table safety this season. The game had been more entertaining than anyone had dared hope. Another London Football League club? Nah…it’s Essex ‘init.