At ten to five on Saturday afternoon, the final whistle blew at Victoria Road, Dagenham, and results elsewhere ensured that Dagenham & Redbridge will be taking their place amongst the 92 clubs of the Football League. The pre-season favourites, Oxford United, seemed to have run away with the title by the end of November, but stuttered badly at Christmas and never really recovered. Their defeat at Northwich on Saturday merely confirmed what most people in non-league circles had known for some time. Dagenham hadn’t been anyone’s pre-season favourites to go up, but manager John Still has built a quietly effective team over the course of the last year or so, and it’s fair to say that they thoroughly deserve their place amongst the bigger clubs.
Having said all of that, though, their very existence is one of the curiosities of the last thirty years of non-league football, and their path to the Football League is littered with the corpses of clubs, unscrupulous property developers and local apathy. Dagenham & Redbridge is a merger of four clubs. It started with Dagenham, Leytonstone, Ilford and Walthamstow Avenue. Each of them had had a smattering of success through out their histories. They each made a couple of FA Amateur Cup finals and Walthamstow got to the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1953 and held Manchester United to a draw at Old Trafford before losing a replay played at Highbury. In 1979, both beset by debts and plummeting crowds, Leytonstone & Ilford merged as the snappily-named Leytonstone-Ilford. Although successful on the pitch (they won the Isthmian League in 1983 but were denied entrance to the Conference for reasons related to their Granleigh Road stadium), their crowds seldom rose above a couple of hundred people. In 1988, they gave up on Granleigh Road, and moved across north-east London to merge with Walthamstow Avenue, a stalwart team of the amateur era, who played at the ramshackle but lovable Green Pond Road stadium. I visited Green Pond Road in 1988 for an Isthmian League match between Leytonstone-Ilford and St Albans City – a quick check through the records shows that Leytonstone won 1-0 in front of a crowd of 203 people (about one third of the league average at the time). Green Pond Road was falling apart at the seams, all rotten wood and crumbling concrete. They won the Isthmian League again in 1989, but were barred from the Conference again. They changed their name to Redbridge Forest, having finally given up on the Leytonstone/Ilford/Walthamstow area, and moved to Dagenham in 1991.
Dagenham were a reasonably successful club. FA Trophy winners in 1980, they were voted into the Alliance Premier League (that’s the old name for the Conference, by the way) with Enfield in 1981, and were twice semi-finalists in the Trophy in the 1980s. The groundsharing arrangement was never going to last that long (land values in London are far too valuable – Dagenham had the ground, Redbridge had the money), so the two clubs merged in 1992. This was the controversial – it was widely felt, whether rightly or wrongly, that Dagenham had bought themselves a place in the Conference, having been little more than a mid-table Isthmian League side for the previous four seasons. The “Redbridge” part takes second place to the “Dagenham” part in their name, and the club are still nicknamed The Daggers. The histories of Leytonstone, Ilford and Walthamstow Avenue are now little more than perfunctory notes hidden away in the D&R website’s “history” section. A re-formed Ilford FC currently play at the bottom of the Ryman League, but they are currently looking at relegation back to the county leagues, and Walthamstow Avenue started up again in 2000, and currently play under the name of Walthamstow Avenue & Pennant (you guessed it, another merger) on the roped off park pitches of the Middlesex County League.
Dagenham & Redbridge will, I think, find League football a struggle. Their crowds seldom rose above 1,500 until they started to pull clear at the top of the table, and with the local competition coming from West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient, it’s difficult to see, even in a high density population area like north-east London, where they’re going to attract much bigger crowds from. For Oxford United, their rivals for this season, the agony of the play-offs lies ahead. Surely, though, it’s only a matter of time before they reclaim their place in the Football League, though.