The former Football League clubs that currently ply their trade in the Blue Square Premier must occasionally wonder how it has come to this. The match at The Abbey Stadium this afternoon between Cambridge United and Luton Town is being played between a crowd of almost 5,000 people but this match, a division higher, is being watched by only just over a third of that number. On a sunny September afternoon, and with their nearest local predators West Ham United not even playing until Monday evening, but it feels as if only a few people care that much about Dagenham & Redbridge.
The Daggers won the Blue Square Premier championship in 2007, and Morecambe followed them up through the play-offs at the same time. Both clubs continue to struggle for gates (the 1,770 here today is about average for Dagenham, while Morecambe average around 450 more than this for their home matches), but both are planning for the future. Morecambe leave their home, Christie Park, at the end of this season, and Dagenham are also rebuilding – a new stand at one end of Victoria Road should be open any time now will bring the ground into line with Football League regulations. With just 73 away supporters having made the trip down from Lancaster, though, this match has the feel of a non-league match being played in the Football League.
This feeling is further enhanced before kick-off, when it is confirmed that Dagenham will be playing in their change kit of yellow today. Morecambe’s home shirts are red, and their change shirts are blue, whilst Dagenham wear red and blue stripes. Third kits aren’t often one of the higher priorities for clubs playing at this level. On the pitch, though, Dagenham are considerably better organised. They’ve won four matches going into this, and manager John Still – who began his managerial career at Leytonstone-Ilford, one of the clubs subsumed into Dagenham & Redbridge in the early 1990s – is working wonders on a shoestring budget.
Dagenham start slowly, but they can afford this against a Morecambe side which seems shorn of attacking ambition. New signing Danny Spiller shoots wide and Mark Arber heads over, but this is a somewhat spluttering Dagenham performance. Eight minutes from half-time, however, they work a way through the Morecambe defence when Josh Scott finds a bit of room on the edge of the penalty area. His first shot is charged down, but he reacts quicker than his marker and sweeps a second low shot wide of the Morecambe goalkeeper Barry Roche and into the corner of the net.
Dagenham hold their lead comfortably until half-time, and it’s not difficult to see why they have a one hundred per cent home record so far this season. There are no star players on their team, but some – such as tall forward Danny Benson – show neat touches on the ground and they seem a physically strong team, providing a significant danger from set pieces. Today, though, they are having difficulty finishing off a spirited Morecambe side, who come out for the second half with a more positive outlook. When the equalising goal comes, however, it is not without a more than a feint hint of controversy. Stewart Drummond finds himself suddenly clear on goal, and goes over as if he has been shot when there only seems to have been the very slightest of contact from the Dagenham goalkeeper Tony Roberts. Roberts is shown a yellow card and, with a section of the home support still booing, Phil Jevons sends him the wrong way to level things up.
Dagenham press forward in search of a winner, but they are running out of steam. Josh Scott heads wide and, deep into injury time, Paul Benson has a great chance to win the match but shoots narrowly wide and the match ends up with both teams taking a point each with them. Dagenham stay in second place in the table – the Bournemouth juggernaut has won again, extending their lead at the top of the table to four points, and Rotherham United have closed the gap to goal difference by brushing Barnet aside at The Don Valley Stadium. Whether they will be able to stay in touch at the top of the table is uncertain. John Still may be showing many of the qualities of an alchemist at present, but the realpolitik of life in League Two may mean that this is as good as things get in the league this season for Dagenham & Redbridge.