This Saturday I went to Goodison Park to see my local team Dagenham & Redbridge take on Everton in the FA Cup. This is what it meant to me and many other full time and part time Daggers fans.
No matter how much I fall in and out of love with football, I cannot help but get that special feeling when the 3rd round of the FA Cup arrives. It's the nostalgia mainly. Not even from moments I personally remember but also the highlights from years gone by. The FA Cup is still special.
So is my local team, Dagenham & Redbridge. Well I say local, they were for most of my life until I moved further out into Essex. Despite growing up a fan of a London based Premier League club, I followed the Daggers progress in the non-league and would try to get to a couple of games a year hoping they could finally get over the hump and get in the football league. Coincidentally the season they did just that was the season I met my future wife. Victoria Road played host to the first game she ever saw, a 4-1 drubbing of Woking. They've been in the football league since then and even got promoted to league one. My local team in League One, I still can't get over that! So I guess we have her to thank!
This may sound patronising as I know there are a lot of Dagenham fans who are just fans of the Daggers, but they are a lot of people's second team. A little brother almost. I do know there are a lot of people who go to the games and follow the team whose main team is a Premier League or Championship club. Without trying to patronise too much, they are our little team, and the Daggers fans wouldn't have it any other way. A popular chant from the Daggers faithful is 'we're just a pub team from Essex' and it sums up the club's ethos and atmosphere perfectly. We are the underdog and we like it that way.
It is important to understand this mentality to grasp what Saturday meant to anyone connected to Dagenham & Redbridge. We have had a few big FA Cup ties in the past, a trip to Norwich City when they were in the Championship and hosting then Premier League Ipswich Town the season before that. But this really felt different. This was Everton, a well established top tier team who just days before had beaten Manchester City in the first leg of their League Cup tie. This is Everton who had won not just domestic cups but the league title and had been successful in Europe too. For some neutrals the draw may have been seen as just a Premier League team hosting a small League Two club. For us Daggers it was our pub team from Essex going to one of the most famous clubs in the land. This was going to be an incredible day for the Daggers.
For myself it was an early start, getting an 8am coach from Victoria Road...sorry the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium...sorry again, I mean the Chigwell Construction Stadium (still takes some getting used to). I was joined by a couple of members of the supporters club who are originally fans of Premier League teams. Although that was not surprising, it is a surprise that neither of them are West Ham fans. Dagenham is a very West Ham populated area, as is most of Essex. Instead they were fans of Tottenham Hotspur and a Manchester United fan who was actually born in Manchester. Yet here he was traveling around the country watching the Daggers!
The four hour or so coach journey was filled largely with anticipation as to what the day would bring with some predictions ranging from 3-0 to 7-1 to Everton. We all agreed however that a Daggers goal would be enough no matter how many they got. The range of predictions had also changed since the win over Whitehawk in the 2nd round replay. Under previous manager Wayne Burnett the team were conceding quite a few goals and getting the odd few. Under returning manager and Daggers legend John Still less goals were expected as he looked to shore up the defence.
I have only been to Liverpool once, a strange day where we saw a lot of the Beatles sites and sounds as Liverpool played Cardiff in the League Cup final. A very scouse day. On that day, on the drive in we passed Goodison park but did not see Anfield. When the coach pulled up this weekend I couldn't understand how we missed it last time. It literally is right across the park! I joked via text to my brother that the two clubs should just merge, a reply came demanding me to go to the town hall to advise the local council that this should happen. The only way I could have got myself more of a kicking in was if I started singing You'll Never Walk Alone along to the tune of Z Cars! But I digress. In fact the Evertonians were quite pleasant and many fans of both teams wished each other well in the Thomas Frost pub not too far from the ground. It was quite a bizarre sight looking at Daggers shirts pass Everton's shirts. They seem worlds apart but here they were about to play on the same field at the famous old ground.
After a few sherbets, it was time to head in. The atmosphere was of course incredible. When I say that I mean the atmosphere in the away section. I couldn't tell you what it was like in the rest of the ground due to noise the Daggers fans were making. Black and yellow balloons (the colours of our away kit this season) accompanied the roar the traveling support gave as their team walked on to the pitch. You see for a lot of the fans, not only do we feel like a little club, to follow Dagenham & Redbridge is to declare to the world where you come from. Not many people will boast that they are from Dagenham, but the club's achievements over the last decade make you feel proud to call yourself a Dagger. There is definitely a sense of local pride when following the Daggers and it was enhanced as they kicked off against the might of Premier League Everton.
Along with our predictions on the journey up north we all felt a goal would come fairly early, which frustrated me as I had picked out the 34th minute in the golden goal stakes. They could be 2-0 up by then! However they weren't. Five minutes passed. 10 minutes. 20 minutes had passed and not only was it still 0-0 but Dagenham and even had possession of the ball in the opposition half! Eventually the goal came...in the 32nd minute. A double blow for myself. A free kick was headed in by Arouna Kone, an area the Daggers have struggled with recently under the previous manager. But 1-0 at half time was by no means a disgrace. Yes Everton had changed their line up but they still had some quality internationals in their team. And they were only beating us by a single goal from a set piece. Not too shabby.
Goodison Park is a ground that many would describe as a box ticker. It is a famous old ground that has not been overly developed and keeps a few quirks from 'the good old days'. The away end really hasn't been changed much over the years. The floors are all wooden planks and the seats are also made of wood and not plastic. It would have felt a little like home from home for the traveling support but even the Chigwell Construction Stadium has concrete floors and two stands with plastic seats. Not that they were used much as we stood for the whole game!
Just before half time the rain started to come down. The weather is an underrated player in the mystique of the FA Cup. We always remember and love an FA Cup final day with glorious May sunshine, but the 3rd round also seems much better if the weather is miserable. There needs to be some rain or snow. The rain in fact raised the spirits of the away fans. There is a strong belief that the Daggers only score when it's raining and often chant this. I can tell you now that this is usually true. In fact on the last two occasions I have been to watch them play, Dagenham scored when the heavens opened up.
The Daggers crowd were not only in good voice but came prepared with various chants that probably made the home fans chuckle. Apart from the obvious tedious ones about scousers, there were whispers of shushes going round to imply they were in a library because of the lack of noise coming from the home crowd. Although quite funny I always find it hard to agree because what are the home fans of Premier League meant to be like? This game was a no win situation for them. They have turned up to watch their team get a few goals and win comfortably. The tickets were also cheaper bringing in a different crowd and some younger fans too.
The best moment of the game, from our perspective, came when we went 2-0 down. However, it was only by coincidence that were were cheering when a penalty was given away. We were in good voice at that moment in time because a cat had entered the field of play. The black and white feline had made its way over from the dug out opposite to prowl along the touchline in front of us. The away crowd showed their quick witted nature by asking John Still to sign him up followed by 'Pussy is a Dagger' after he ran away from Everton goalkeeper Joel Robles in a failed attempt to catch it. After the penalty had gone in and we were 2-0 down with little over ten minutes to go the fans were still paying attention to the cat who had settled behind the goal line. Then came the chant 'we're only here for the pussy'. Crude? Yes. Funny? Very much so.
As the full time whistle brought an end to the game a cheer could be heard from both sets of fans. It was a job done for Everton, and a job well done by our boys. The players, lead by their manager gave us a great appreciation as we stayed to clap them off. 1,883 traveling fans is a great turn out for the Daggers. As much as it is welcome there were a few hard core fans who asked where this was every week back home where attendances can sometime be just half of that. This may be true but days like today prove how many people do care for the club. Yes it was a day out for some part time supporters (myself included) but we all feel a connection with our local side from Dagenham.
I asked the question of whether we would have sacrificed this result for getting a goal with a bigger margin of defeat to a few of the fans on our coach. We agreed it would have been nice but we didn't need it in the end. Saturday was always going to be about the good day out. This season has been a struggle and relegation looked quite the possibility, but now the man who bleeds Daggers red and blue, John Still, is back in the dug out, hopes are high that a return to punching well above our weight will return.
In the end it really didn't matter what the result was. We didn't want to be disgraced. The aim for me was for when I put on Match of the Day later that night, was that the game I had been to would not have been on early in the programme for the wrong reasons. We frustrated them enough to get on in the second hour.
Football really is a funny old game. The FA Cup makes it so for me. The old saying of David verses Goliath and how magic comes alive in early January certainly still resonates today. How else do you explain a pub team from Essex playing away from home to a former champion of England? They may be a small club, but they're our small club and we wouldn't change it for the world.