Every season one team in each division falls like a stone towards relegation in the last third of the season. Dagger’s Diary’s Brian Parish knows that feeling all too well at the moment as Dagenham and Redbridge slowly sink towards a life outside of the Football League.
We’ve reached the last two weeks of the season, and unlike last year, when we produced a championship style run of form to save ourselves with two games left, this time season we enter the last couple of matches with our status for next season not yet confirmed.
Last weekend’s game against Oxford was not good, but it did confirm that, if we need to try to provide the attacking impetus in a game (especially at home), then we tend to struggle. Whether that is down to a lack of experience, or just lack of ability, it’s hard to tell. Under the (presently interim) management of Wayne Burnett, the only two wins of his time in charge have both come away from home. While they have both been at teams chasing a play off spot (Rotherham United and Exeter City), the home form has produced just two points in the last two months. At least today, we are away.
But it’s not going to be an easy one this. Tuesday’s night 0-2 defeat to Southend meant that Aldershot are six points away from safety with just two games to go.
Defeat for Aldershot will mean relegation back to the Conference, five years after promotion with a points tally in three figures. A draw might be enough, although that would mean that they would need results to go their way in other games involving teams at the bottom of the table. A win, and they could go into their last game of the season with a chance of staying up.
A win for us would put us safe, although I’ve looked at the league table so often since Tuesday that I’m not sure anymore. A draw would probably be enough, although defeat would mean that the agony would be prolonged for another week. And the problem is that it’s not going to get any easier next Saturday, as we play York City.
Some of the best Daggers moments have come at the end of the season. A penultimate Saturday of the season trip to Darlington in 2008 produced a 3-2 win after being 0-2 down after an hour. Two years later, we confirmed a play off place, with a 2-0 win at the same stadium. On the flip side, in 2009, we lost at home to Shrewsbury on the last day in a game where the winner took the last play off spot. Two years after that, we lost at Peterborough to get relegated from League One. At least last year we were safe by now.
Saturday 20th April 2013, Aldershot Town v Dagenham & Redbridge, Recreation Ground
There is a kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgia about the end of last season, and the fact that we weren’t quite as nervous as we are as the coach approaches the stadium. The journey hasn’t taken too long, aside from a brief stop about a couple of minutes after leaving Victoria Road, so that the driver could make sure that one of the luggage doors on the outside of the coach was shut.
One of the things that makes Aldershot a formidable place to visit is the home support. Not only are the drummers some of the finest in the division, but the almost total support that the rest of the fans give to their team is fantastic to listen to.
We’ve been starting games with a 4-5-1 formation, but today, we have two forwards on the pitch. It’s a positive move, and with the importance of the game, hopefully the correct one. Since Dwight Gayle left in November, we haven’t been scoring enough goals, and so to make the change in formation today is a brave move.
The home support are in good voice early on, but the game is nowhere as good. Both teams are clearly nervous, and in a first half that doesn’t have many chances, the best ones arguably fall to the Daggers. Josh Scott, has probably the best of those, but his shot midway through the half is over the top, while in stoppage time, another effort clips the top of the crossbar. While the visiting fans think of what have been, there is visible relief in the home sections as well. The noise doesn’t continue all the way through the half, possibly as news of other scores come in. There are people checking for updates on their phones all the way through the game, looking to see who is doing what, and what that will mean for their team. At half time, it’s 0-0, and while it’s not too bad for us, for Aldershot it will mean that they are relegated.
The second half starts with the same crescendo of noise, and the Daggers have the first chance to score. Jake Reed, who has caused a few problems for the home defence with his almost constant harassment of the home defence is played through on the left side of the attack, and has a clear run at goal. His first touch isn’t too bad, but his second is awful, allowing the ball to run away from him. Although he is able to get a toe to the ball and nudge it goalwards, Jamie Young in the Aldershot goal is able to block, and keep it scoreless.
If there is frustration amongst the away support at that point, then it turns worse on fifty six minutes, when Michael Rankine is able to force the ball over the goal line, as the Daggers fail to clear. Since the Reed chance, it’s almost as if the momentum had changed in favour of the home team, and with a rare chance, they have grabbed the lead.
The phones are now back out, and with other scores not quite going our way, we need a goal back and quickly. Three changes follow in five minutes, with two more attacking players introduced, but it doesn’t do too much for us. Luke Wilkinson is denied by a flying save by Young, and as the Daggers push forward, there are gaps appearing at the back, which Aldershot aren’t able to exploit. As the three minutes of stoppage time are announced, there is renewed hope from the away fans of getting something from the game, which will eventually be a forlorn hope. It ends 1-0 to Aldershot, and on a day when the whole relegation business could have been sorted out, nothing has been decided, and it will go to the final day of the season.
Once the whistle has been blown, I make my way out of the ground. A heavy sense of frustration has descended, and I just want to go home. As I board the coach, there are about half a dozen already on board, and they look to be in the same mood. Part of me just wants to go now, but we have to wait. As I sit there, the rest start drifting back, and stories of heated exchanges between the players and those that have remained behind start to emerge. No one is happy, especially when news of a late Barnet winner (coupled with a Wycombe penalty miss), emerge.
The first twenty minutes or so of the journey back are the quietest I think I have ever known on a football coach. No one utters a word, and if they do, it is to provide an update on our worsening league position. This does not go down well, and most just sit in silence. Eventually, the mood does improve, but not much. The coach doesn’t stop on the way back, and a few head straight for the club house upon arrival back at Victoria Road.
There is no lack of effort from the players, and that should be recognized. We’ve seen from many teams in the past that, when it starts to go against you, players just go into their shells, and shrink from the challenge. I don’t think that this is the case here. All of them are trying, but the plain and simple fact is that we just haven’t been good enough. Goals have been a major problem; when we beat Rotherham in November, we had scored twenty eight in seventeen games. In the twenty eight we have played since, we have managed twenty seven. That’s not even a goal per game, and it’s not good enough. Our third highest goalscorer left the club in November, and our fourth highest is a centre back.
Aside from one 0-3 beating by Southend at Christmas, we haven’t really been beaten out of sight by anyone, but losing games by one goal or half a dozen is the same thing (although the goal difference has clearly taken a battering in one of those). Once the Barnet game had finally finished, we will go into the final day with fifty one points, the same as Barnet, who are in twenty second place, one more than Wimbledon and three more than Aldershot. The final day will be as nervy as any I can recall in all of the years I have been following this lot. I had just better make sure that, if I am checking on the other scores, that my phone is charged up enough.