All hail the Macc Lads

Brian Parish brings us news from Dagenham’s opening day trip to Cheshire.

After the relaxing atmosphere of pre-season, yesterday marked the start of the 2011/12 Football League season. When we got promoted to the league four years ago, we would have been happy to have lasted a year or two before heading back to the Conference. But here we are, still in the Football League for a fifth year. Last season was good fun, and although we were relegated, we could at least sit back and bask in the fact that, for one year at least, we were in the same division as some big names of the not too recent past.

Of course, now that we have had that year in League One, there is for the first time in quite a few years, a level of expectation that is not normal for our little club. After all, if we can get promotion from this division once, then why can’t we do it again?

A quick look through the division shows a few teams that have missed out on promotion in the last few years (Torquay and Rotherham having lost the last two play off finals), plus arguably the biggest club in the division, Bradford City, who surely can’t be as bad again as they have been the last few years.

Then there are the promoted clubs. Crawley Town breezed to the Conference title last year, with a playing staff the envy of many League Two (and some League One) clubs and are the bookies favourites this season. The main thing with Crawley for Daggers fans will be the appearance of their manager on the touchline, Steve Evans. Perhaps, it’s a good thing that our home game against the Conference champions isn’t until the second last weekend in April.

The other promoted side is AFC Wimbledon, and much will have already been written about how marvellous it is to see them in the Football League, and how they are only one division below the MK Dons. We’ll get an early chance to see the newest League club, when they visit Victoria Road next weekend.

The clubs relegated alongside us from League One (Bristol Rovers, Walsall and Plymouth Argyle) will all have hopes of going straight back up. League Two is going to be a difficult division to get out of, and I think we all know that. But like every supporter on the opening day of a new season, there is the optimism that this just might be the year when it all goes right.

Yesterday we started our first year back in League Two with a trip to Cheshire to play Macclesfield Town. Of course, there has been more than one person to have drawn comparisons with our promotion year, when we started that campaign in the same county with a trip to Crewe Alexandra.

Macclesfield Town have their roots in the non-league game, just like the Daggers. Promoted to the Football League in 1997, they have maintained their place despite their low attendances, which must surely be a testament to a well run club. This is partly due to their community programme, which is thriving in the local area. However, the club have suffered two tragedies in the last couple of years; in early 2010 the manager at the time, Keith Alexander, passed away. Not only that, but in January this year, the club also lost midfielder Richard Butcher; he was aged just 29.

Saturday 6th August 2011, Macclesfield Town v Dagenham & Redbridge
The coach owners of Britain must love Saturday’s in the football season, given the amount that we saw on the way up to Cheshire; we managed to get two to leave Victoria Road for the trip to Moss Rose. The weather wasn’t quite what I expected for the opening day, but at least it wasn’t raining. The away terrace was of course uncovered, so we had  to hope that it held off until at least we were on the way home.

With others were making their way up to the game under their own steam, hopes were for a good turn out from the Daggers faithful, but even the most optimistic were not expecting the several hundred that travelled to the opening game of last season at Sheffield Wednesday.

As we got to the ground, the coach organiser read out some messages regarding the ground, and we find out at this point that we will not be in the terrace; apparently, this is only opened if there is expected to be more than 400 visiting fans. So instead we will be located in the away section of the Henshaws Stand, which is all seater, and will cost us £18 to enter.

Once in the stadium, there are a few people to say hello to, mainly those who haven’t attended the pre-season games, and before we know it, the teams are on the way out. There is a place in the team for Oliver Lee (son of ex-Hammer and Newcastle United midfielder Robert Lee) who has returned to the club on a month’s loan from West Ham, and aside from that, it is the side that we expected to start. The only position in which we weren’t sure who would start was goalkeeper, but Chris Lewington has got the nod over James Shea.

We start the brighter of the two, and Luke Howell has our first serious shot at goal, which is saved by Viega in the home goal. We dominate for a five minute spell, and then its Macclesfield’s turn. About half way through the half, Red Card Reid reckons that this has 0-0 all over it, but the home side are looking dangerous down their right hand side; Gavin Tomlin has started in the left midfield slot, but he is leaving his full back, Damien McCrory up against two or even three players, which is creating problems for our defence.

By half time, we’ve had a couple of headers go wide (from Nurse and Williams), but it’s not been one way traffic. Chris Lewington is impressing with a couple of very good saves, including a brilliant one handed save from a Brown header. Macclesfield have also gone close through a long range shot from Fairhurst, which Lewington wouldn’t have got near. There is also time for a yellow card for Abu Ogogo, for a foul on Fairhurst, which forces him from the pitch a couple of minutes later. At half time, the rain which has been threatened has held off, and the score is 0-0.

The second half starts and while the first half wasn’t bad, this one has started in a very lively fashion. However the prediction that it will end goalless is proved wrong just on the hour. A free kick is awarded just inside the Macclesfield half, on the left hand side of the pitch as we attack. It is hit deep into the area, where Mark Arber heads it back across the goal, and it’s tapped in at the far post. We all celebrate, but the first question is who scored? There are several candidates, but the announcer reckons it was Medy Elito, so he is credited with our first goal of the season. Bang goes that 0-0.

In the immediate aftermath of the goal, we have another chance which brings a good save from Viega, but Lewington is the busier after this, with two very impressive saves which maintain our slender lead. However, ten minutes before the end, the game is potentially altered. Mark Arber allows the ball to bounce through to Lewington, but it’s not going to reach, and he heads the ball clear. The clearance though is not that far, and is immediately volleyed back goalwards. Whether Lewington blocks the ball with his hand we are not sure, but the whistle is blown. There has been a high foot from a home forward as the ball initially bounced through, but the referee brandishes a red card to Lewington, and he is dismissed from the field of play. This decision makes more than a few Daggers fans irate, and is enough to get the stewards a bit on the panicky side, and they immediately take up position between us and the pitch. The decision from the bench is to replace the goal-scorer Elito, and put on James Shea. His first duty is to face the free kick, but it results in nothing, and the game continues. Shea takes his time over the goal-kick, and is immediately warned about the time. Shea does this again a few minutes later, and immediately cautioned for his trouble. Perhaps the referee Mr Whitestone has a thing about away goal-keepers?

Shea has a few things to do, and completes them comfortably, and as the rain starts to fall, the board is held up to signify four minutes of additional time. The umbrellas are going up in the uncovered sections of the stadium, and while an injury to McCrory threatens to add a couple of extra minutes to play, the whistle is eventually blown, and the Daggers win an away game on the opening day of the season just as we did at the start of the promotion year.

This doesn’t save the referee from another several mouthfuls of abuse as he leaves the pitch, although as it’s raining quite heavily, both the officials and the home team run from the field. Our team congratulate each other, and then come over to the visiting support to show their appreciation, before heading for the sanctuary of the changing room.

It’s been a good day out. It’s always great to win an away game to make the journey back pass the time a bit quicker. However, the red card is the big talking point on the coach home, and we will need to wait for some ridiculous hour on BBC to watch the highlights (and we’ll probably be the last game as well), to see what was caught on camera. However, that decision aside, we’ve got a winning start and it sets us up nicely for AFC Wimbledon next week.

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