New Year’s Day was supposed to be a day of celebration. Since the fixtures were released back in July we had been looking forward at welcoming Maidstone United at The Dripping Pan today. With an expected four figure crowd, a special bumper edition matchday programme written and enough organic burgers to feed at least a dozen people we were ready to put on a show. On Saturday our pitch team battled against the elements to get our game versus East Thurrock United on and we all did a collective sigh of relief when the final whistle blew and over 650 fans applauded the efforts of those who had not only performed but had got the game on.
Alas, the forecast for the days before the New Year was poor, and so it was. We put “Pitch Watch” in place via Twitter, with images of the ground posted regularly to give us all hope. Alas, the torrential rain on New Year’s Eve meant that the standing water on the pitch wasn’t to the referees liking and with a very heavy heart our game was cancelled. The cost to us? Thousands of pounds. Instead of welcoming a crowd of 1,200, we will be lucky to get 400 when the game is squeezed into a midweek slot in February. Gate receipts will be down by £8,000. Programme sales down. Catering down. Bar takings down. Yet our costs don’t change. Players still need to be paid this week, utilities have to be paid, printers still want their invoices paying.
We weren’t alone. In fact every game in the Isthmian Premier fell by the wayside, and only one game in the Conference South made it to 3pm. But with a “free game pass” I had little options as to where to go.
I was literally driving around Essex and Cambridgeshire looking for a game to go to as my options reduced. I had one last chance. Dagenham & Redbridge. Despite the appalling weather, it looked like the game at Victoria Road, or the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium to give it its catchy shorter name was on, so headed down the A13 to meet up with the Daggers Diary team for the first game of what promises to be a great year of football.
Its been seven seasons since the Daggers gained promotion from the Conference and it is fair to say that life is still treating them well. After a near-miss of relegation in their first season, it was up, up and away for the club cumulating with a visit to Wembley were they won the League Two Play-off final. Daggers fans had to pinch themselves that they had gone from games with Canvey Island and Tamworth to hosting Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton & Hove Albion. The bubble burst at the end of the season (although one more point and they would have stayed to fight another day), and last season they almost lost their Football League status, staying up on goal difference.
But this season things have been a bit different. Coming into the New Year’s derby with AFC Wimbledon there are whispers on the terraces in these parts of the words “Play Offs” again. In fact they sat happily in mid-table closer to the top than the bottom in point terms. A source for optimism surely?
Dagenham & Redbridge 1 AFC Wimbledon 0 – Victoria Road – Wednesday 1st January 2014
Being a few minutes late meant that I could park right outside the ground. I hadn’t missed any of the action as I handed over my £17. ”Oh hang on love, let me get your change”. And with that search came the unmistakable crowd cheer of a goal.
Not surprisingly the majority of the crowd were huddled under the roof of the covered North Stand, sheltering from the incessant rain. I finally found Dagenham Dan, armed with my life-saving Bovril and he brought me up to speed. Abu Ogogo had opened the scoring after Gavin Hoyte’s set up. It was the best goal of 2014, the wits around me told me.
The game wasn’t a classic. The weather meant that every pass seemed to be over hit, every tackle late and every refereeing decision questionable. After Lawson D’Ath was sent off for a reckless challenge, the home fans felt the official was playing for the draw (at least). It seemed that Dagger’s manager Wayne Burnett felt the same way as he was sent from the dug out to the first row of the stand for persistent abuse. Quite how they makes a difference when he was now sitting less than a metre away from the dug out is ridiculous.
AFC Wimbledon threw everything at Dagenham in the last twenty minutes but thanks to a combination of poor finishing, great goal keeping and one or two slices of luck, they held on to take all three points. It wasn’t a great game for the football purists but the weather made it entertaining, not knowing what would happen next.
The official attendance was just over 2,000 which on an afternoon of foul weather and Premier League football being beamed live into the sitting rooms of the armchair fans up and down the land wasn’t bad. But as I left I could only feel sad that I wasn’t 70 miles south at The Dripping Pan, basking in the glory of a well-run match day against Maidstone United. I blame the FA. Somehow, some way it must be their fault.