Finding football's soul at Dagenham & Redbridge
On Friday night I watched Dagenham & Redbridge defeat Barnet 2-0 in a League Two fixture at Victoria Road.
Prior to Friday the last match I had seen in London was at Wembley, as Hull City won promotion to the Premier League by defeating Bristol City 1-0 in last season's Championship play-off final.
It was a cracking day, especially for my wife, who has shamelessly become increasingly fervent in her support of the Tigers as they have climbed through the divisions.
I like the new Wembley - the architecture, the sheer scale, the arch, the fearsome hand dryers in the toilets that ripple the skin - but watching a match there is almost a clinical process. It lacks the personal touch.
The beers in the concourse are not pulled by hand but dispensed in large number by a machine, supporters are surrounded on all sides by the branding of multi-national companies and I have always felt ever so slightly like a tiny part of a huge production line being taken through a process that lightens the pockets. Like many top stadiums, Wembley is a brilliant piece of stadia but lacks character, feels a bit sterile. It is a bit like being a witness to rather than a part of something. The same could not be said of Victoria Road and attending a game there reminded me why I fell in love with watching football.
The home of the Daggers would not win any awards for design or comfort, offers a level of corporate hospitality that is hardly worthy of the name and has terraces on three sides, with both ends open to the elements, but I found the whole experience incredibly refreshing.
From the moment I arrived at the ticket office I was struck by the amount of people that knew each other. People in front of me in the queue addressed the woman behind the counter by name - and vice versa. The social club that adjoins the ground was doing a brisk trade in pre-match drinks - Stone's bitter at £2.25 a pint or £8.50 for a four-pint pitcher. Again, the barmaids knew many of the people they were serving, catching up with the latest gossip as they pulled pints. Supporters from both sides mingled happily, though non-members apparently had to fork out a 50 pence entrance fee. All around hand-made notices informed people that the social club would be open on Saturday to show the England game while photos of various teams from down the years hung on the walls.
It struck me as a much-needed antidote to the remoteness of football at the highest level. The man sat to my left was a Swedish radio journalist who travels to England a couple of times a year to cover games in the lower leagues. On Saturday he was going to watch Mangotsfield United in a Southern League Premier fixture. I asked him what attracted him to such games and he said: "Most of the game is not about football anymore, it is a business. But football is not about money, it is about soul."
And what is soul in football? Surely it is about a connection, about a bond between supporters and their club. The Daggers wouldn't exist if the people of Dagenham and Redbridge didn't come out to support them. In a true and meaningful sense club and supporter are interlinked.
And events on the pitch this season so far can only be strengthening that bond. The Daggers only just survived the drop last May, a fate that would have seen their tenure as a Football League club last precisely one season. But this year they have made an impressive start to their season and watching them against Barnet one can see why.
The fixture is regarded as something of a derby and there are certainly plenty of connections between the two clubs. Daggers boss John Still is a former manager of the Bees and still regards chairman Tony Kleanthous as a personal friend. Several players on each team used to play for the other - Ben Strevens, Mark Arber and Richard Graham, for example, now play for the Daggers but formerly plied their trade at Underhill. And the match started with the speed and intensity of a contest between familiar rivals. But the Daggers had more composure on the ball, more incision in dangerous areas and a looping cross from the right was headed home by Matt Ritchie after nine minutes.
The Daggers, founded in their current form in 1992 following a series of mergers involving several successful non-league sides, were the better side and you could hear all too clearly the increasing frustration in the voices of Bees boss Paul Fairclough and assistant Ian Hendon as they gave instructions from the sidelines. At one point midfielder Ashley Carew replied in the direction of the bench: "What could I do about that?" It was one of those nights for Barnet.
Strevens doubled the lead after the break and it would not have been a major surprise had the Daggers scored again but in the end they had to settle for a comfortable 2-0 win. The victory lifted them up to the heady heights of second in the table. Still explained his team's upturn in fortunes afterwards, claiming: "One of the big things this season is that we have got people fit."
Essentially, the team is the same that won promotion from the Conference in 2007 (something that must only serve to strengthen the bond between supporters and players - the sense that they have been through something important together). But last season supplier in chief Sam Saunders and striker Paul Benson, who scored 28 goals in the promotion campaign, missed large swathes of the campaign while other injuries also made Still's job harder.
I didn't really get the impression that many people expect the promotion push to last the distance but everyone seemed to think that flirting with relegation would be avoided this time around. And they certainly have some players who are attracting attention from elsewhere. A rush of scouts suddenly appeared at the press box when the team sheets appeared, most presumably to monitor the form of defender Scott Griffiths.
At the end of the game Still took his players into a congratulatory huddle while Fairclough talked to his in more serious terms on the other side of the pitch. Supporters made their way out of the stands, the crowd of 2,629 comfortably the highest of the season. As I left the ground many fans appeared to be heading back to the social club. Outside the chippy down the road stood a group of Barnet supporters holding their own post-mortem.
As I reached the tube stop for my long trip across the District Line it suddenly struck me that it must have been the best part of a decade since I saw a game from the lowest division of the Football League. I told myself that I must watch more League Two football this season because something exists down here that has been lost elsewhere.