Safety first

All is fair in love, war and football.  Well, that is what we are led to believe.  If it wasn’t for the pantomine villians, football would be no fun.  But when they escape the punishment of the fans it is oh, so frustrating.  Brian Parish reports on the absence of Steve Evans as Crawley Town met Dagenham & Redbridge.

Up until about ten days ago, this fixture was one of the most eagerly anticipated in the Daggers season. And this was not for good reasons, either. It all boiled down to the man who was in charge up until this point in time, Steve Evans. Evans was in charge of Boston United when they beat the Daggers to the Conference title in 2002. With only one promotion place up for grabs, it was only those that won the championship to go up; if you finished second, then there wasn’t even the prospect of the play offs to fall back on.

Then it emerged that Boston had been making illegal payments to players throughout that season. The FA investigated, and eventually, in a pathetic half-way house, doing something but not really doing anything kind of way, they deducted Boston four points. Not from the season when the offence had taken place though, but the following year. The Daggers protested, but the FA reckoned that they couldn’t change the fixture lists that had already been produced, so Boston got to keep their place in the league, while we had to stay in the Conference.

Evans eventually left Boston, although they clung onto their league place for five years before succumbing to relegation in 2007. The ironic thing was that we replaced them in the league, which was a fact not lost on any Daggers fans. Boston are now on their way back in the non-league game, although they were left in a bit of a mess after their time in the league.

Evans was convicted of tax evasion, and given a 20 month suspended prison sentence, although that didn’t stop Crawley employing him a few years ago. From that moment on, Crawley became a target of hate amongst Daggers fans, and the away trip in October was marked by a home 3-1 win, as well as one visiting fan being chucked out even before the game had started. And while most would be getting ready for Evans coming back to Victoria Road since that fateful 2001-02 campaign, that has all gone now since he decided to up sticks and depart for Rotherham. If you think that I may be overplaying this all a bit, then I will put it like this. Some of the biggest despots and dictators in history would get a better reception at Victoria Road than Evans. He really is that despised.

Crawley are having a bit of a stellar debut year in the Football League. Promoted as champions twelve months ago, they have topped the division for a while, but have since dropped back, although they are still in an automatic promotion position. The question is though, why would a manager that has guided their team to such heights in their first season in the football league, leave with half a dozen games to go?

Saturday 21st April 2012, Dagenham & Redbridge v Crawley Town, Victoria Road

Issues with the (now former) opposition manager aside, the Daggers are now just one point away from securing their place in the league for next season. It’s been a remarkable run, ever since that spirit crushing home defeat by Northampton on March 13th. For the first time this season, it has felt as though when we have been picking up points, those around us have started to flounder, meaning that a gap has developed. Just a draw today will see us safe, and heading for a sixth season in the Football League.

It would mean a nice way to mark the eighth anniversary of John Still returning to the club as manager. Still was the first manager of the club, following the merger of Dagenham and Redbridge Forest in 1992. He left the club to take over at Peterborough, but returned after Garry Hill departed in 2004. At the time, the brief was to keep up in the Conference, so we’ve done slightly better than that. Having completed eight years in the job, Still is the longest serving manager in the Football League, and the fourth longest in the top four divisions. It shows what can be achieved if there is a bit of patience with the manager from those above and supporters. For example, West Ham were always a club that prided itself on allowing their managers to get on with the job, and having decent longevity in the role. But, in the time that Still has been in charge, they have gone through four managers, and are presently on the fifth. And that isn’t the worst record out there.

The game sees a couple of recent Daggers return to Victoria Road. John Akinde and Charlie Wassmer have both spent a month on loan here in the not too distant past; Akinde saw considerably more time on the pitch than Wassmer, but if we are to retain our present status, then their efforts will not have been in vain. Aside from the two players, there is also another familiar face amongst the Crawley back room staff. Mark Stein, who is now the Crawley physio, spent two and a bit high scoring years with the club around ten years ago. As he troops off at the end of the warm up, he is given a loud cheer from those of us who recall his playing time at the club with great affection.

For a team that had enjoyed considerable success under a manager, their reaction to his departure was not what many would have expected. The video depicting the players doing the twist in celebration that appeared on you tube showed that popularity was a contest that he clearly lost.

During the teams warm up, the home fans were chanting for them to re-enact the footage, and although it appeared to generate a couple of laughs from the players, we really didn’t want them to be doing it in the game. Eighteen minutes into the game, and there it is; Charlie Wassmer has flicked home a cross from the right wing, and suddenly half the visiting team are making like it’s the 1950’s all over again.

For the third game in a row, the daggers fans are occupying the western part of the ground (also known as the “traditional builders stand”) which also happens to be the newest. However, this is the first time that it has been allocated solely to the home support. While its great being in this part of the ground, it’s not right that the traditionally home terrace has been three quarters taken over by visiting fans. It’s also strange having an unimpaired view of the whole pitch.

The Daggers, despite coming into this game with a seven match unbeaten run, are taking too long to settle. Chris Lewington is performing heroics with a double save just after the goal, and tears into his defenders for allowing them the chance of a goal. Crawley are on top, and although there is the occasional glimpse of us mounting an attack, we are just second best.

This isn’t to say though that we are completely impotent when it comes to attacking, as we reinforcing our position at the top of the corner league for the division. Going into thus game, we had already secured over 250 and although not each one will translate itself into a goal, it’s gratifying to note that we can at least create a goal-scoring opportunity. Saying that though, we topped the table for corners in League 1 last year, and we still got relegated.

As we edge closer to a half time deficit, we equalize. Billy Bingham is allowed time to get the ball onto his left foot, and hits a shot from twenty-five yards which the Crawley keeper does well to get a hand on, but is unable to prevent it going into the net. There is enough time for some in the seats to engage in a “mini-poznan”, before the whistle is blown for the interval. There are a couple who try and claim that we deserve to be level at the break, but most just simply dismiss this, and point to the better chances that the away side have created.

Crawley continue in the second half, but Gary Alexander must have forgotten his shooting boots. His first effort of the half is perilously close to the top corner, but his second arrives just after the hour, and from what looks about six yards out, hits his shot over the bar.

Michel Kuipers now starts to earn his money, as the Daggers start to mount some pressure. Having flapped at crosses in the first half, now he is forced to make a good save from Woodall, whose shot kicks up off the ground just in front of the keeper. Another Daggers chance is created, but this time he is able to watch Ogogo’s shot go wide of the goal, following good work from Spillane and McCrory.

After being able to spend a bit of the first half taking in the view of surrounding area (you get a lovely view of the QE2 bridge at Dartford from the back of the stand), the second has been better as a contest, but the game is now coming to an end. Spillane’s shot in the last minute is blocked, and although there is a moment of panic in the Crawley box in stoppage time, it ends all square at 1-1.

The result keeps Crawley in third, but importantly for us, means that we will now have a sixth season in the Football League. Five week ago, we were finished. Even the most ardent Daggers fan would have found it difficult to believe in any other outcome than relegation to the Conference. However we are staying up, and have done it while achieving our longest unbeaten run in our five year stay in the league. The mood in the bar after the game was not quite the celebration that might be expected though. It has been a long year, and it felt more as though there was an air of relief than of anything else. It’s difficult to explain, but while it means that we are a league club for at least another twelve months, we are facing the prospect of big changes if we want to avoid another year like this one. At least we should be able to enjoy the last couple of games though, safe in the knowledge that our immediate future is secure.

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