Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Curse Has Been Lifted - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Stockport County FC, National League, Victoria Road (08/02/20)

“Ohh it’s sunny” says Rachel, as we beat a controlled retreat from my Mum's front door towards the car at the bottom of the long array of steps, having just ditched the kids, on the promise that we will return at some point later today after the football, baring fish and chips. Fiddling with something in the boot, Rachel is confused at what's causing the hold up. We are sans children, which is an all too rare occurrence these days, so she asks me quite plainly, “what are we still doing here?”.

I imagine the fans of Stockport County FC (SC), regularly ask themselves a similar question, ‘what are we still doing in the National League?’. Nine years since relegation from the Football League, how have they still have not managed to ascend back to the promised land is anyone's guess. Until our visit to their home Edgeley Park in early January it was looking like a possibility, but since they've not won a game, not scored in the league, and have crashed out of the FA Trophy to a team from the step below them, their form has been of some concern.

We said after watching them take a bit of a hiding from Boreham Wood, that we would give them some space, as they never seem to do all that well when we are there, but the fact they are playing thirty minutes from our house today, it’s too hard to resist.

There are a couple of welcome differences from the last time Rachel and I went to a match. It’s sunny for one, my right ear is being toasted as we head east, for the first time in a while catching a glimpse of Spurs’s new ground which looks majestic. Secondly, and most importantly Rachel is not hung over, and I mean puking when you get up, trouble speaking, need to eat four Greggs sausage rolls before you can even consider moving, kind of hangover. Which is nice.

The sky is clear pale blue, there is not a cloud to be seen, one could not ask for a better day for a match, and although the kids are not here, we still spend most of our time in the car together talking about them. It seems like there is one McDonalds drive through after another as we get closer to the ground and a learner driver and their panicking passenger prove to be of some entertainment, before we eventually see a small brown sign high up on a lamppost, pointing us towards Dagenham & Redbridge FC (DR).

I’m frankly shocked at how close to the ground we can park, non league football showing once again its many benefits, but having parked, and after Rachel's impromptu sojourn had concluded, where she crossed the road, then realised she was on the wrong side, so crossed back, it became clear why such a prime spot was free. Adjacent to my car was a front garden full of dogs and not lively pooches enjoying the late winter sun, but a strange selection of furry statues, one of whom had “died” according to Rachel, pointing to it lying on its side.

A short street that's lined with terraced houses, one of which someone is having a bit of a barney in with the windows open that everyone can hear, leads us to the ground that shares its name, Victoria Road. This is made abundantly clear by the red and white henge that towers over the way in, welcoming you and despite the very loud and sweary domestic and the prospect of some football, Rachel is still somewhat perplexed by the sight of all those dogs, “I've never seen anything like that”.

Under the monolith and past a silver haired lady in the car park, her timing is impeccable, “50/50?” she calls out, “it's like she knew” laughs Rachel. Opposite her a couple are selling programmes and golden goal tickets, and within less than a minute of arriving, as Rachel put it I’ve “all the bases covered”. The man who has joined the silver haired lady flogging the 50/50’s, is slightly less cheery than his silver haired counterpart, “£1 a ticket or I'll beat you up” he says to some potential customers.

Victoria Road offers up not one, but two opportunities for a bit of pre match shopping. The supporters club office is essentially a bric-a-brac shop full of tatty cardboard boxes full of programmes, a rail of fading t-shirts hanging from thin wire hangers, and that’s only outside. Inside among the framed shirts and pennants, there is plenty more stuff, tons of it, however its chaotic organisation means it’s not exactly clear what's what and there is barely enough room to swing a cat.

If it’s a more sterile and organised shopping experience you want, the official club shop is not far away, where the latest training gear or branded hoody is available, however much to Rachel's disappointment there are no “keyrings”. Nothing to add to her jailer sized bunch of lock openers, that she has picked up from everywhere from the RAF Museum to the Ampelmann shop, but despite this and although she has minimal retail experience, she bizarrely tells me she “likes” their “stock”.

Much like at every football ground, the away fans entrance is the least well kept and it's no different here. It’s also nine times out of ten the place with the highest concentration of stewards, and there are no end of men and women in long hi vis coats waiting to look at you suspiciously, before rummaging through your bag.

Led Zeppelin greet us on the other side of the red turnstiles, the red turnstiles which just took £21 each off us each. “Get it now, so I don't have to get it at half time” says Rachel, making an immediate beeline for the back of the long queue to the burger bar. Our time waiting allows her to fully peruse the significant menu, “might get a pie, didn't get a pie last time”, offering me all sorts of options that I decline. “You can get a Pot Noodle”, “sure you don't what a jumbo hot dog?” and by the time we’ve made it to the front, having listened to one SC supporters attempt at a southern accent, roundly laughed at by the woman serving, the pies have “run out” we are told.

The two interlocking yellow polystyrene trays can barely contain Rachel's food, as she staggers over toward the condiments table, having left my coffee to fend for itself on the counter. No pie, meant she went for a “pasty” and although it's not a long walk to our eventual seats, it's slow going. The DR mascot, a large dog in a home shirt, marches past us, clutching a red bucket, as Rachel devotes all her concentration into not spilling any of her mountain of chips.

As I have come to expect from the SC fans, they have done their best to transform their little plot of East London into a home from home, plenty of their flags adorn the red seat filled stand at one end of a ground, that for all you Fifa connoisseurs out there is basically Court Lane. The Who are now blasting over the speakers, and the first wave of “I O County, County I O” rivals  Roger Daltry.

The announcement that we are all to welcome the “guard of honour” by the man on the PA, which is a troop of flag carrying children doing a lap of the pitch, is given short shift by one SC fan “who?”, when it's added that they are all players from a local team the “Romford Fliers”, and although Rachel is having no issue whatsoever dealing with an Eddie Hall amount of food, she does admit the pasty is a bit “flaccid”.

Almost flattening half the guard of honour, one SC player warming up does well to stop himself just in time before we have a major disaster on our hands. When the players do depart up the red vinyl tunnel that extends curiously from the middle of the away end, this will prove to be significant come full time, they are serenaded, “we're the famous Stockport county and we’re from Edgeley”.

Three quarters of the ground are bathed in brilliant sunshine, except the away end which is shrouded in frigid shade, this though does little to deter the SC fans coming over all Lion King with a song to the tune of In the Jungle the Mighty Jungle, “win away, win away”. Moving between the two dense lines of kids and their flags, one tries to add a bit of showmanship to his waving duties, seemingly keen to try a bit of baton twirling, but not quite having the confidence to toss it up in the air, the returning players emerge and head out across the pitch.

Even more flags go up, following the teams DR’s mascot and SC’s manager Jim Gannon, who then share a strange moment of synergy, when both at the same time raise their hands above their heads to applaud their respective supporters, within just a couple of feet of each other.

Not that the away supporters were thin on the ground before, but edging ever closer towards kick off, the bar in the bowels of the stand Rachel and are are sitting on the front row of, empties, flooding out through the double doors to our right, to find somewhere to sit. The extra fans adding a bit more volume to the chant coming from the standing last five or six rows behind us, “can you hear the Daggers sing?”.

More jabs are aimed at the locals, “you’re support is fucking shit” however to be fair to them, many can’ actually see whats going on, one benefit of the shade is being able to see the game, 90% of the home fans have to raise their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding sun. The SC supporters deducing that the lack of singing for their own team, must mean then they are “here for the county”.

“First one gone” declares the man behind me, the game only minutes old and the first hoofed clearance sees the ball clear the main stand and off into the neighbouring car park and much like the Dr’s famous Tardis, more and more people continue to emerge from the tea bar, some in various states of inebriation, Rachel asking “where have they all be hiding?”.

The singing is non stop and the opening exchanges are far more like that of a basketball match, than a
football one. Up and down, up and down the players go, I want to say it's because of intense quality attacking football, but it's more a case of each team being unable to hold onto the ball for more than a few touches.

Rachel lets out a satisfied groan as she finally finished her food, and somehow more and more people appear, although admittedly the flow is slowing somewhat. The all colour dot matrix scoreboard at the far end of the pitch reads 0 - 0 and the songs keep on coming, “I O County, County I O”. None of the back rows have sat down, and I’m sure none of them will, it is from there the songs emanate, “hello, hello we are the County boys”. One person who is sitting, although she doesn't look very comfortable, is the woman sharing her foot space with a large suitcase, almost having to sit side saddle on account of the massive piece of luggage.

Stuck in a loop of “blue army” the SC fans take direction for a moment from a large man at the front, “look at the capo” points out Rachel, at the man conducting the crowd, she does though make a good point adding, “in Italy though they don't have a burger in their hand”.

Twelve minutes gone and a low DR shot strikes the SC keeper and spins out wide and having thought that SC had a good chance here today after reading that they are undefeated at Victoria Road, it's pointed out to me by someone that they have only ever played here “once”. The early signs are though that SC might not be able to keep up this illustrious record. Having advanced close to the DR box, their attack breaks down and the home team is off. Jim Gannon is appalled, and scolds the players from his technical area.

I’m starting to wish the sun was in our eyes, because the less than convincing start by SC, is making for difficult viewing. “Same issue again” bemoans Rachel, SC are unable to retain possession. A “good corner” as she puts it, almost punishing them after giving the ball away. Zipping right through their box and right out the other side. Rachel's biggest peeve is that her hometown team is coming off second best in all the aerial duels. “If you're losing the ball in the air to Dagenham it's a worry, they are midgets”.

As the sun slowly starts to set, the shadows it casts gets longer and longer and one of the group behind us are not very hopeful we'll see any goals, “got 0 - 0 written all over it”, and just as the final syllable leaves his lips, SC are in, but are thwarted by the courageous DR keeper, whose Herculian save, stops an almost certain goal, but also sees him injured in the process.

A a complaint about flags blocking advertising, forces some SC fans to move them, distracting me from the match for a moment, but it's right back on it, when one of DR’s “midgets”, a very diminutive forward glides away from the SC defence thanks to a great first touch, but his shot isn’t on par with his ball skills and he shoots, well, well over.

I’m not sure what they mean when they sing “we’re Stockport County we’ll do what we want'' maybe it's putting out the recycling a day early, but the fans are singing it anyway. Just shy of the half hour mark and SC are in on goal, but the DR keeper is equal to it again, and in saving it he awards SC a corner, the SC supporters excited at the prospect, let out a booming “I O County” but the corner is poor and Rachel rightly points out, “it's easy to forget a football match is on” with all the goings on in the stands. The fracas with the flags, the singing, trying to work out why the woman has brought a suitcase, the football can sometimes become a bit secondary.

If it hadn't been for the off field antics, then the last thirty minutes would have been just about the most unforgettable of my life. The game has been dire, it’s only the SC fans stopping me from slipping off into slumber, the latest jibe at the home fans, penetrating my coma, “football in a library” and not that either team has looked remotely dangerous, SC are at least having some joy down their left. “He’s done that twice now” comments one man, as the winger sails past his marker. “Skin him” demands one fan, and the player does it with ease, but the final cross is poor.

“Everyone is off for their pie, you see I was clever” bristles Rachel, as the crowd starts to thin in search I think is more likely beer, than limp regional baked goods, but I could be wrong, and the group behind us are proving to be good for a quote, summing up the half pretty perfectly, “a game of very few chances”. When people are getting excited about disappearing footballs, and I include Rachel in that group, “oh my god that’s three” she says, like they are going to run out, as another is hammered into oblivion, it's a poor reflection of the state of the match.

Those in search of refreshments miss the final action of the half, DR’s keeper is back at it again, this time with face, stopping another nailed on SC effort and keeping his side in the match. “Two added minutes of added time” advises the PA, with a powerful air of the Wizard of Oz about him. SC star Danny Lloyd gets a song as he approaches to defend a late DR corner, giving the fans an understated clap and a wry smile. Much may I add, to Rachel's absolute disgust, “you wanna concentrate on the game”.

The exodus from the stand is almost complete come the half time whistle. Gimme Shelter strikes up, but not before the Wonderful Wizard of Oz instructs us to “stick around” for the 50/50 and a “special presentation of a new signing”. He however doesn't leave me hanging on for long, fading out Mick and the boys, to of course inform me I haven't won. He thanks me and every other mug for “taking part”, but it doesn't really soften the blow.

It turns out the “special presentation” is a tractor, “he won't score many goals” jokes the announcer, who for some reason has decided to assign a gender to the red ride along mower. The accompanying joyful tractor song Rachel thinks is “cute”, a programme seller is doing the rounds with a copy of Dagger held above his head, which is a bit of a throwback and I’m hugely envious of the group with a big green thermos, and box of biscuits. “Help yourself” offers one man to another, I wish we were that organized. The sign pointing to the tea bar nearby suggests I might be able to bag myself a Kit Kat in there if I wanted, but what is beyond the double doors is far from a tea bar. More like a dingy speakeasy, where anything but tea and biscuits are being served, and the SC fans are in fine voice, tossing around an unfurling roll of loo paper.

The stand is half full as the referee raises his whistle to his lips, and gets the second half underway. A
man below us becomes my own personal football hero, when I spot him inserting his programme in a zip lock freezer bag and at the moment the children at the front of the family stand, are louder than the entirety of the rest of the home support, “Dagenham”. Inside the ‘tea bar’ the fans are still singing and with the sun fading, the floodlights have come on.

Dribs and drabs are slowly slipping back from the bar and the DR kids are putting the grownups to shame. “Fill the fucking box” shouts one SC fan, with a player venturing down the wing, but with few options to aim at. Rachel has now come to the conclusion if she was “a scout”, this train of thought inspired by having bumped into an acquaintance pre kick off, a once non league manager and now scout for a League Two side, her notes would simply read “these lot are shite”. Her sweeping summary of all twenty two players is only a mild improvement on the Spinal Tap album review, “shit sandwich”.

The fact that it's cold only makes what has continued to be a rather drab game, seem even worse. SC’s fans almost back to full strength fire off a shot at their opposite number and the lack of noise, “football in a library”. When we are treated to three quickfire chances in succession, two for the home side and one for the visitor, it feels just that, a treat. First its SC when the DR keeper is slow to claim the ball, bobbing around in the box, it just won't fall right and they don't capitalize. Minutes later and DR are in, but SC’s keeper is far more decisive, and he’s able to smother the ball.

It’s taken almost twenty minutes for what seems to be the last of the bar dwellers to return, their sing song, and pints far more appealing than the prospect of more sub standard football and the falsetto “win away, wooooooooooo” is commendable by one of the aforementioned late comers.

If you put a gun to my head, I’d say that DR are edging it, they do just seem just that bit more composed. Winning the ball back in midfield, and taking an early shot, the ball ends up in the garden behind, is though the antithesis of composure and as Rachel points out its “number 4 ball gone”. Summarising that your position in the pyramid, directly relates to how many footballs you go through in a season, “the lower down the leagues you go, the more balls you loose”.

A home corner sets away heart racing, but it's just about scrambled away. DR are in again, not long after, but the shot is tame and easy for the keeper to claim. All of DR’s chances now stemming exclusively from SC being so unbelievably bad. The moon is now visible, a tiny sliver hanging above the pitch and after the latest ball to exit the ground is noted, “number five” mumbles Rachel, I’m starting to lose the will to live.

With a couple of the stairs next to us proving to be a bit tricky for some people to negotiate, one person after another stumbling up them, I find myself cruelly waiting for their next victim, rather than subject myself to more the dross in front of me. My favorite line, from my favourite SC song “is the scarf my father wore”, goes some way to rouse me, but the SC performance is getting worse. “Get hold of it!” pleads one fan. Each time an SC player is in possession it's like they are playing a game of hot potato. The chorus of groans, sighs and tuts is deafening. “Come on” pleads another, one reckons if SC do somehow manage to bag a goal, as unlikely as it seems, it's worthy of vaulting the railing, “we're on the pitch if County score”.

“They're going to have to change that song” sneers Rachel after the latest rendition of the “win away”. Into the last quarter of an hour and an SC corner is so poor, it allows DR a free run at their goal, luckily for them the shot is right at the keeper.

All elements of the SC performance are riling up the fans, “what's this long ball, get it on the floor”. When a home player goes down injured, they take their frustrations out on him, “let him die, let him die” they sing. The break for the player to be seen to, allows the teams to congregate around their respective benches for some last instructions and for the SC fans to remind along with their local National League rivals, they are on course for relegation, “you're going down with the Chorley”.

The length of time to attend to the injured player, is not to one fans approval, “get him off the fucking pitch shit house” and with the sun almost gone behind the tress in the distance, the temperature has plummeted, and Rachel is now tapping her shoes to the rhythm of the cold feet dance. Through almost chattering teeth she tells me, “I think next time we should bring a thermos”.

Until now the away fans had little more than their own devotion or the quiet home fans to sing about, “what's it like to see a crowd”. For the final ten minutes, all under the watchful eye of a couple of the Metropolitan Police's finest, it gets as close to pandemonium in the away end as you can get, without it being classified a riot, and the army being drafted in. The spark for my most enjoyable and depressing ten minutes of the season so far, all starts with a low stinging Danny Lloyd drive, which is followed by a song all in the main man's honour.

Despite the upturn in SC’s performance, Rachel is far from happy with their propensity for a hoof, “can’t they play it on the ground?”. When Danny Lloyd, the focal point for all of SC’s new found endeavour, is scythed down, and no foul is awarded, the response from the SC fans is a furious one.

“Jim Gannon's blue and white army” is now stuck on repeat, it’s SC, a curled in cross is headed over and for the first time today, it feels like SC are on the ascendancy. DR are placid, and SC still feel a bit toothless, if anything is going to happen it will be down to Lloyd. The DR kids are quite commendably still at it and the SC supporters are begging for everything their team has left, “get at him”, “chase him down”.

DR flash a shot across the SC goal, which gets a “ohhhh” from all quarters. A loose SC pass offers them up another chance, but the shot is over. Rachel in one of her many moments of punditry today makes the point, “if Dagenham were a better team”. One SC fan is close to having seen enough after another “wasteful” long ball, taking his displeasure out on the plastic seats, “horrible” moans one fan,
as SC revert to type with aimless punt up front.

Danny Lloyd is a man on a mission, and almost single handedly provides SC with the goal they want, the goal they need. Running to the byline he bustles his way to the edge of the six yard box, where he stabs the ball towards the penalty spot, ricocheting and bouncing all over the place, it falls kindly to one SC player whose half volley looks destined for the top right hand corner only of a combination of the DR keepers hand and a man on the line, is it kept out. Having picked himself up, the DR keeper gives his defender the bear hug of all bear hugs, lifting him up off the ground.

Other than goals scored by Spurs, very rarely, if at all, do I get caught up in the emotion of goals scored by other teams. I can appreciate a fine move or the significance of one, but never does it affect me like ones scored by one's own team. That though goes right out the window on eighty nine minutes, when in the scruffiest of fashion SC takes the lead. The back post tap needing the help of the post before hitting the back of the net, sending me, Rachel and all the SC supporters around us into raptures.

The fans rush from their seats towards the pitch, none vault the high metal railing, where they are met by the celebrating faces of the players, pumping their fists and embracing, only inches away. Rachel and I are both out of our seats, I bring to an end a, ‘weyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy get in’, that seemed to go on forever.

It’s not only the back few rows on their feet now, the whole stand is bouncing, the singing reaching an all new decibel level, “County”. Rolling across the scoreboard that has taken so long to change since three o'clock, is the amount of time SC have to hang on, four minutes.

“Ally, ally O, SCFC” chant the fans, as quite astonishingly SC go in search of a second, no sitting back on their laurels, no attempt at game management, they have the bit between their teeth. The DR keeper once more on hand to frustrate the SC players, scoping the shot off his line, after a storming run down the right and the cut back ball into the box.

Jostling with the stewards, the ever growing group pressed up against the railings, wait out the final minutes, “I’ve not seen the board” says one man, unsure of how long is left, how long SC have to hold on, it soon transpired, it was just that little bit too long.

I have to admit I don't see the DR goal, it's only when the wave of cheers from the DR fans hits me and the sight of the prancing DR keeper, stood in the back of his goal goading the baying SC fans, do I realise they have thrown it away. “Can you not use that language please” repeats one steward to a man, who is only able to use expletives in response to his teams fragility. “Cheer all you want you wankers, you're still getting relegated” screams one man in attempt to feel just a tad better about his team falling at the final hurdle, missing out on a vital two points as the scoreboard goes into overdrive, goal, goal, goal, goal, is plastered all over it in red.

It's far from the result anyone wanted, but it's no excuse for the silly bollocks that came after the final whistle. I want to blame it on the fact that the tunnel I mentioned at the beginning dissects the away fans exit and the actions of the DR keeper really got some people very agitated. So sadly as the players leave there is some kind of melee, police rush one way, fans the other, and the hapless stewards just stand there looking hapless. One man when asked to "move along" points out he would happily leave if only the ground had been "properly designed"

I'm far from blinkered from the reality of some of the SC fans behaviour, a minority leaving an unsavory taste in the mouth. However as ever I'd rather focus on the positives, on the amazing travelling support, the welcome from so many of them Rachel and I received, and the man with the sandwich bag, oh I could have hugged him.

I've said before how much I like SC, I've said how much I think their fans are fantastic, It's probably worth adding how much I like Victoria Road too and I never knew I had it in me, that visceral reaction to another team scoring, like I had today, it almost felt like cheating. All I can think about though as we leave, once we finally left after all the nonsense had simmered down, was what one SC
fan looking me dead in the eye, in the moments after the goal said to me, "the curse has been lifted", after I suggested before there was some voodoo a foot, whenever Rachel and I watch SC play.

I'm not sure It's totally gone, I'm not sure why he felt it necessary to say anything in the first place, have you never heard of a jinx, but at least its getting better.

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