6 March 2012

Daggers - on the pitch and on the terraces

Dagenham and Redbridge FC 1 – Bradford City FC 0

Saturday 3 March 2012

Travelling through Dagenham it's no longer possible to orientate by the prominent pubs that used to punctuate the repeating pattern of uniform housing.

The pubs are gone. Now it's only passing the shops stuck to the stations that gives you a sense of movement. 

And going down road after road of off-white and pebble-dash ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ you can't imagine you're on your way to a football club that's only twenty years old.

When you get there, nothing about the place gives you any impression of modernity. Dagenham and Redbridge FC play in a former factory football club site that has been used as such since 1917. Backing onto an industrial estate, the ground is also next to some of that flat, scrag-end land that passes for open space around here. I bought the programme complete with an ad for a firm of pawnbrokers with photos of the World War One medals that they'd be happy to take off your hands.

I went to the game because I thought it might my last chance to watch the club that cannily bears the name of the borough where I live whilst Dagenham and Redbridge are still one of the ninety-two.

It was good to be back in a ground that you can walk around, at least along the two terraced sides. The site, and the walk around, reminded me of Millwall’s Old Den. Both tattered grounds were situated alongside the scruffier end of the motor trade.

At the Daggers' ground, Don Autos and Boston Garage Equipment both have ads. Diamond Cars, a minicab firm, sponsored this match. The programme had a picture of bloke, with a car hood up, mending the car engine. The auto repair place, next to the stadium, had vehicles out front with sprayed on notes like ‘airbag deployed’ or ‘boot will not open’.

A benefit of the anaemic history of the Daggers means that it's unlikely that there will be any similar ‘upgrading’ to their stadium as happened to the Lions. Millwall’s New Den is designed for everything save any way of retaining atmosphere. Dagenham and Redbridge FC's Victoria Road oozes Seventies football. 

If not motors, then the building trade is the other theme of Victoria Road. The ground has a ‘Traditional Builders Stand’ as well as ads for roofers and for a college course that teaches how to hang a door. Daggers aren’t going to attract too many Arsenal or even West Ham fans squeezed by ticket prices.

The overwhelmingly good-natured crowd included many children, and their mums and dads, who were attending as part of a cheap entry promotion - a total of 3,041 including 345 in the Bradford end. These numbers were double that of their at home five-nil humiliation by Cheltenham a fortnight previously. It was a bright, spring-like day. 

Daggers bore the name of West and Coe, undertakers, on their shirts. A hospice was the match’s charity of the day. With just one season in League One, and their recent bumping along the bottom of League Two, the club must be facing the possibility of being despatched to non-League after just five years. But with Dagenham winning up North against tough Morecambe in the week, would today see a further resurrection and movement from being second bottom in the league? 

Bradford City were all in black as befits their recent history. It is one hundred and one years since Bradford won their only honour, the FA Cup. It is eleven years since they were in the Premiership. Now, as the lowest ranked of all ex Premier sides, they may well be the first of their former peers to go down to the Conference.

First half

The game stopped just when it started because of a foul by Bradford City, who saw their Matt Fry booked. But City started well; workhorse Kyel Reid was knocking in cross and after cross from the left-wing. He was nearly rewarded after ten minutes where, with the Daggers keeper beaten, only a goal line kick away by Jon Nurse stopped City from opening the scoring. Later Reid demonstrated a feisty overhead kick to stop the conceding of a throw-in.
 
And then, five minutes before half-time, Reid, a graduate of the West Ham Academy (so maybe not too far from home) seemed more influenced by his now Northern base and momentarily dropped the Association code and delivered an excellent rugby league conversion over the crossbar.

An unwelcome interval

The half-time interval featured ‘Sign Up Against Racism Day’ with a phalanx of dignitaries posing mid-pitch with their pens. They included the Chief Executive of the local council, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (who have the naming rights for the ground) as well as a Tory prospective parliamentary candidate (for the local constituency that was maybe only won by Labour last time because one in nine voters cast their ballot for the BNP) and the Head of Public Affairs at Canary Wharf.

The latter must have felt that he had never travelled a longer ten miles than that between the glistening totem towers of the future of British capitalism and the industrial elephants’ graveyard that is Dagenham, complete with the near carcass of Ford, once Britain’s biggest industrial site. 

He really need not have bothered. Nobody from the crowd that I could see paid any attention as they took part in this signing ritual. The event was not too far distant from the actions of prim Edwardian matrons from the Temperance movement coming to the East End to lecture locals about the evils of the demon drink.

It's wrong to abuse the patience of the crowd to deliver what are now hegemonic views on race, or climate change, or whatever. Just because there's a captive crowd of a few thousand doesn’t mean that they're there as your audience. 

Not content with this half-time proselytising, the Daggers programme also carried a council ad suggesting people should ‘Celebrate St George’s Day’ as if a local authority can spark genuine festivities in such a manner. 

World War Two Britain saw endless lectures about saving waste food for pig swill or bathing in just a couple of inches of water. But something happened by the Sixties that made these patronising lectures, even with often useful messages, a cause of irritation to many. People realised they no longer had to listen and they switched off. It's a cause of regret that football fans today seem resigned to accepting that they can’t just watch a ball be kicked about but also have to be ‘educated’ at the same time.

This top-down approach doesn't work and this official ‘anti-racism’ has some strange outcomes. No presumption of innocence for John Terry; Luis Suarez found ‘guilty’ by a previously unknown court of the land, the Football Association.  

And the news about this match being part of ‘Daggers Against Racism Family Fun Day’ found little echo at the interface of the Dagenham and the Bradford fans on the terrace. I saw the aftermath of the nasty racist abuse of a group of twelve to fourteen year old Asian Bradford fans by Daggers supporters, who were aged in their late teens and early twenties. I saw the line of stewards and cops separating the few bigots and some Bradford fans and then the continuing invective being jabbed by a few Dagenham and Redbridge supporters over the thin line of security guard yellow and police black.

It's interesting how Bradford City have many Asian fans, albeit from a city that maybe has a majority Asian population. That's in stark contrast to West Ham, located in the heart of overwhelmingly Asian Newham, which has a fan base that's very nearly all Essex whites. It's this multi-racial Bradford support, a grassroots approach, that will really ‘kick racism out of football’ a lot better than the organisation with the same name ever will. 

Dagenham and Redbridge FC made a strong statement condemning the racism after the match. But the Daggers’ fans, at the time of writing, have made near 200 posts on a forum that are mostly expressing disgust at this incident but also suggesting practical ideas about how to oppose such bigotry.

Second half

From late in the first half and for most of the second, Dagenham and Redbridge were dominant.

Bradford’s Deane Smalley, looking all the world from the back like a pause button, with his number 11 on his black shirt, was inexplicably not pushed until the sixtieth minute when he became the first of his side to be substituted.

And then, seventy minutes in, came the only goal. Preceded by a dummy, Daggers' Matthew Saunders hit the free kick straight into the net. The scorer then immediately hobbled off with his left leg in pain and was carried round the pitch in fireman’s lift. With the Dagenham crowd now chanting for the first time, their team immediately got in close again with good cross by Nurse.

And in the last minutes, Daggers’ Brian Woodall was briefly one on one with City’s keeper until his lack of pace gave retreating Bradford defenders time to catch up and so forced the Dagenham player to shot square, directly to the goalkeeper.

One-nil to Dagenham and Redbridge was a fair result for a contest that saw Bradford fail to profit from their early promise in the game. The Yorkshire fans roughly shook the pull-out tunnel entrance cover from above as their team left the pitch.

Clive Power