the daggers voice
2017 marked our first full year back in non-league's top flight and was full of up's and down's - from the delight of making the play-offs on that simmering day in Wales to the despair of seeing our eventual promotion challenge ended on a heartbreaking afternoon against Forest Green which was a devastating end to a fantastic campaign.
Ultimately, this was a year which continued a new era at the club following the end of a nine-year stay in the Football League and our fantastically-rebuilt team exceeded all that was expected from the fans, which I can't praise them enough for. As our initial bid to make an instant return failed, we had a long Summer to recuperate and get the result out of our systems, ready to mount another challenge.
Those fabled trips to Charlton, Southampton, Portsmouth seemed a lifetime away, but the more time we spend in the National League makes you appreciate those days all the more. Instead, they were replaced with journeys to places such as North Ferriby and Maidenhead United, a reminder of just how far the Daggers had come in our short 25-year history, but also how far we had managed to fall, all because of one disastrous year.
Another busy Summer was in store as John Still wanted to ensure we could go one better this time. We sadly waved goodbye to Jordan Maguire-Drew, who will be fondly remembered at the club. Even though it was ultimately meaningless, I'll never forget his goal at home to Forest Green in the home play-off semi-final, which even the thought of brings a smile to my face.
In his place, though, came two quality strikers in the form of Morgan Ferrier and Michael Cheek and they would go on to endear themselves to the fans. Ferrier in particular is adored now, and his incredible goal at home to Ebbsfleet United in August will go down as one of my favourites of all time. Cheek had netted 20 goals for relegated Braintree the season before and him signing signalled another statement of intent from the Daggers.
Several more players were recruited and Dagenham were expected to have a rather successful year. Optimism soared after an incredible August where the Daggers went unbeaten. We were scoring goals for fun and looked a cut above the rest in the National League, even at that early stage.
It's safe to say many people were getting carried away, but why wouldn't they? We'd battered then-leaders Bromley 5-1, Corey Whitely was on the form of his life and a battling draw at Maidstone with ten men even proved we could dig deep when need be. The signs were overwhelmingly positive, but nobody knew that things would begin to decline.
September began well, with an impressive win over Gateshead, where we showed that we could perform even without Whitely. However, the first defeat arrived at Hartlepool and, with us rattled, was swiftly followed by a second. People were claiming that cracks were starting to appear, but we responded with last-minute goals against Solihull and Torquay to pick up points, despite admittedly shaky performances.
Our first week in October was one of the biggest in our year, as we travelled to high-flyers Aldershot and Woking respectively. Although we earned a point at Aldershot which again outlined our promotion credentials, we were then beaten at Woking, despite dominating. Once again, the next defeat was hard to recover from and we went on a bad run after that, losing to Orient in the FA Cup and suffering a last-minute loss to Wrexham, but form picked up and we managed to end the month with 4 points against Macclesfield (then top) and Maidenhead.
We were suffering from a bad case of travel sickness, though, and we lost our first game of November against Tranmere Rovers, meaning we were without an away win since the first week in August. However we would go on to break that record in the middle of a fantastic four-game winning run that propelled us right up there, beating Guiseley after being 2-0 down, Dover (then top), Chester emphatically and then Barrow, also away, to begin December.
But we typically underperform in December, and this year was no different as we are still winless since that display at Holker Street. An FA Trophy exit to seventh-tier Hereford meant there was to be no cup success this season and our defensive problems plagued us in the games that followed, with a shock loss to Eastleigh coming before another loss away to Orient. And the year was ended on Saturday, with a 1-1 draw at Ebbsfleet.
So it's certainly been an interesting year, and we're currently just on the cusp of the play-offs, but with a match in hand. Whatever happens it's generally been a proud year to follow the Daggers, and here's to an even better 2018, when we can maybe go one better.
This season, there's going to be only one team who prevents us from winning the title, and that's ourselves. We're our own worst enemy and it's so frustrating because we all know that we're good enough, but at the minute we're just letting ourselves down.
Take our recent run for example. Only Dagenham & Redbridge could win four games in a row and then lose the next three, undoing all of our good work in the progress. It's come at the worst possible time too, in the midst of a busy and hugely crucial period in our season. Last campaign we lost the league, I'd say, before the end of the year and I'd hate for that to happen this time around, too.
But that's what's happening. The title is slowly slipping away and, come Monday, it could be beyond reach altogether. Either that or it could be back on but, at the minute, I can only see one thing happening. We really lack mental strength at this time, the kind of mental strength that saw us snatch last-minute victories earlier on in the campaign.
One of the biggest problems is that we appear to lack leadership, that Abu Ogogo type player who can single-handedly drag you back into games. We have Scott Doe but unfortunately he's been one of our biggest problems recently. He contributed to both of Eastleigh's goals on Saturday and then inexcusably let his marker go for the first on Boxing Day. He also conceded the penalty from which Hereford scored their winning penalty in the FA Trophy tie.
How are you supposed to respect a player in the dressing room who has made those mistakes recently? Were it not for reputation and the fact he holds the captaincy, Doe would surely be dropped. Bondz N'Gala got shipped out for less, which brings me to another point: it makes no sense to help out our biggest rivals in any situation, but especially given our defensive frailties.
It's so frustrating to see us return to our old ways after we looked like we'd turned a corner defensively and, if that wasn't bad enough, we've really lost our way in attack too. Ferrier and Cheek are both fantastic strikers who both bring something different to the team, but they can't survive without service. I thought the return of Sparkes would really sort that, but if anything his inclusion seems to have unsettled the squad.
One big conundrum that John Still faces refers to Craig Robson. When we play him in defence, the midfield suffers but when we put him in midfield, the defence in turn suffers, so it must be puzzling for John Still to accommodate him. I think the best solution would be to play him alongside Lokko in defence and for Howell to play alongside Boucs in midfield.
But in defence we have a real crisis and I feel our recent run of clean sheets was only really papering over the cracks. Ling is a cracking player now but it's easy to forget that he was our third choice right-back last term, which seems incredible. Now, our defence was hardly incredible last season, but I'd be slightly tempted to swap for the one we have now. Sir Alex Ferguson once said ''attack wins you games, defence wins you titles'' - we're starting to see that.
Looking at teams around us, our defence is severely lacking in comparison. Wrexham are the obvious example, but even looking at teams such as Dover and Sutton for example, their backline is much stronger and ours and you can't say that they have better resources or funds than us because they don't, so it all comes down to recruitment. Of course, we also released two of Dover's first-team defenders, Passley and Femi, who I'm sure we'd happily take both of right now, and what are we left with?
We've got a winger playing at left-back and only two centre-backs who either aren't on loan or are loaned out (I also hear N'Gala will probably make a permanent switch to E10) - this isn't building for the future. It isn't a short-term solution, we're supposed to be be preparing for some sort of future whether we go up this season or not. This is a makeshift defence and it's not one which will earn you promotion with maybe the exception of Robson and Ling, who are both excellent. We're making the same mistakes we made last season. Once again, attack wins you matches, defence wins you titles.
One thing that's been particularly noticeable in recent weeks is that we also appear to be lacking fitness-wise. Perhaps the busy schedule is taking more of a toll on the players than expected, which is worrying given that we have 2 games in 3 days coming up. Against Eastleigh and Orient we seemed to have run out of steam after twenty minutes - even Ferrier looked exhausted. I know Still has said that the Winter run-in isn't a problem for the team, but maybe it's time to delve into the exterior options, even if just to remind the players that their place isn't guaranteed.
The main reason all of this is frustrating is because we all know what our team is capable of. We've alsolutely blown teams away this season and even the defence has performed admirably on occasions. The so-called best teams, the likes of Macclesfield and Dover, have looked very ordinary against us. Even teams that have beaten us such as Woking, Sutton, Wrexham etc, haven't looked like title material. I imagine other team's fans will also say that about us, but I honestly believe that we have enough quality to win the league.
We won't, though, for a number of reasons. One of those is that we're simply too inconsistent. There's no middle ground with us, we're either brilliant of dreadfully bad. We can't maintain a good standard of football every week, and momentum just doesn't exist at this football club. Another thing is that we can't grind out results like typical title contenders can.
Teams like Lincoln 2016/17, who combined a healthy team balance with clever tactics and even gamesmanship which also enabled them to snatch points when need be. That's what title winners do, they win at all costs, and the key to it is form. Even Forest Green; whenever I watched them either when they played us or on television they never looked amazing, or better than us by any means, but they found the ways to win and eventually that earned them their promotion, at our expense.
But I understand that it will be impossible to emulate what either of those teams achieved, because I think that no club in the league look good enough. But while the wheels appear to have somewhat come off recently, there's still half a year to go and we can still achieve our dreams. There's a long way to go but it's one step at a time, and the focus remains on Ebbsfleet, and then another pulsating derby against the O's.
We have a talented bunch of players and all of us are proud of how we did last season, but we really need to start playing as well as we can and, who knows, maybe we'll go one better this time.
So, after a brief detour in the FA Trophy last week, it's back to the promotion charge for our first home game in over a month, and last of 2017. We will welcome Eastleigh to Victoria HQ looking to extend our four-game winning run in the National League; a run which has propelled us towards the very top of the division.
Another three-point haul, therefore, would keep us in touch ahead of what is a crucial period for every club, where four games are played in ten days. This gives the opportunity of a possible 12 points which could well see us at the summit of the division and, with such a short turnover, we may see some rotation from John Still.
The visitors today are Eastleigh, making the journey from the Silverlake Stadium. The Spitfires are one of those teams who threaten to do well every campaign, but always fail to deliver. Currently 18th, they are winless in eight - having also been knocked out of the Trophy - which has prompted a dramatic change in management.
Current boss Richard Hill has moved upstairs to make way for Andy Hessenthaler, who has taken the reigns. This changes things for the Daggers; it means that Eastleigh may well set up a completely different way than expected, and there's always the expectation that a new manager delivers results straight away.
Thankfully, having a new manager won't change the fact that they are struggling and, on the flip side, you may well see a cautious approach from the visitors. I fully expect them to sit back and possibly invite pressure, which is never good against a team like us. I don't see any way of them dealing with our attacking threat of Ferrier, Cheek and Whitely, the latter of which is gradually returning to his old self.
Big things are expected from Corey now. He loves playing Eastleigh, netting six of our last seven goals against them. This includes two in the August meeting, which ended in a draw with a brace for home striker Ben Williamson, who I'm delighted to say is injured and will miss the clash at Victoria Road. That's not to say they don't carry a threat, but their main one is gone, which is a boost for us, not that we should be relying on average teams having their best players injured.
Speaking of which, there are no fresh injury concerns for the Daggers, to my knowledge. Robson was absent in the loss to Hereford but should be back to maintain his ever-present league record. Morgan Ferrier was forced off through injury at Edgar Street but hopefully that was for precautionary measures only, and he too will return to destroy another defence, as he has been doing all campaign.
It's mainly the form of fans' favourite Ferrier, National League signing of the season in my opinion, that has distracted the attention somewhat from Whitely's deteriorating performances. Had this been last season then we'd be lost without him firing on all cylinders but the fact that we have so many talented players has compensated for this. However, we still need Whitely, and it's easy to forget what he's capable of when he's got the confidence.
And, obviously, his place shouldn't be guaranteed. He needs to earn his position just as anybody else would and, to be fair, he's been doing that recently. Nobody can fault his work rate but he needs to regain his unstoppable form of August, especially with January around the corner. I don't want us to lose him but if he really wants to realise his Football League dream, he needs to start showing it.
But I think he'll start against Eastleigh. I expect Still not to want to tamper with a winning formula, and as such will stick with the side that won four league games in a row. That means Cousins in goal, a back four of Howells, Doe, Lokko and Ling with Robson sitting in midfield alongside Boucaud and, on the wings, Whitely and Howell, while Ferrier and Cheek operate up front.
However, mindful of the upcoming few days, he may make changes. We could see a return for Luke Pennell on the left. Also returning to full fitness is Okenabirhie, who could easily slot into one of the wing positions. Sparkes has been impressing recently and he could make his first start for the club, which is definitely something I'd like to see. Kandi, too, is available, and certainly good enough from what I've seen.
Adams and Robinson are also waiting if John fancies meddling with the midfield. This just goes to show the sheer options we have; he could make five changes and still be left with a team capable of winning a game. But we mustn't underestimate Eastleigh, who will want to make an instant impression for their new manager.
A repeat of last season's clash would be perfect. Dagenham won 4-0 against a lethargic-looking Eastleigh side who were already on the beach. Whitely was incredible that day, scoring a hat-trick, hitting the bar and creating the other goal for Benson. He also bagged the winner against Eastleigh the previous October, and today could be the perfect morale-booster for him.
We are the best home team in the league and, as John Still says, that's not because other teams aren't good. It's because we are GOOD, and now we must go out and be good.
Last time we won four in a row, we lost the elusive fifth. Now let's rectify that and get another three points, a welcome early Christmas present for all of us. It's been over a month since our last home game, so let's make the wait worthwhile. COYD
Since the Daggers were relegated to the Vanarama National League at the end of the 2015/16 season, many people have been very surprised by the high standard of football in the division. Indeed, there is often a negative outlook on non-league, but it actually isn't too much of a contrast to the Football League.
It's refreshing to see teams such as York and Hartlepool struggle in a division which they were so confident ahead of. At Dagenham, nobody expected or even thought that we would finish as highly as we did last season, but John Still completed a remarkable squad overhaul which was only denied an instant play-off final appearance by Forest Green, thanks also to a frankly pathetic dive from Bugiel.
Alas, though, we went again. Here we are in December, exactly halfway through the season, sitting very respectably in fifth. Very few points separate the sides at the top and so it is all to play for ahead of a Festive period which really could make or break a club's campaign. A spell of four games in ten days can stretch a squad to it's limit, so it will be a chance for everybody to prove themselves.
Not many teams will go into this period in as good form as the Daggers. We have won four games in a row, with three clean sheets which, considering our defence is often deemed unsatisfactory, is incredible. After an FA Trophy trip to Hereford, we will entertain rivals Leyton Orient in a double-header, host Eastleigh and enjoy another local trip to Ebbsfleet. Hard games but, for a club with our ambitions, ones which we should be expecting to win.
I never expected things to be as tight in December as they currently are. At this point last season, you only had a couple of teams in contention, and Daggers were just about in touch. This year, there are so many teams who have a genuine shot at promotion, and just slender margins separate them all, which begs the question: is the standard of the National League worse, or actually better?
I think it's a combination of both. While it could be argued that some of the teams doing well this season wouldn't have enjoyed nearly as much success if this was last season, I certainly believe that anybody can beat anybody on any given day, which adds to the unpredictability of things and makes it harder to build up momentum, hence why Daggers' current four-game winning run deserves immense credit.
It's hard to compare our squad to that of 2015/16 as both were fantastic in different ways. We have a better attack this year but arguably a weaker defence too, but after 23 games are in a similarly strong position. At this stage then we were 6th however with 42 points, only two more than we currently have, so there's not too much of a contrast.
One thing that has changed in the league from last campaign, though, is that there is no stand out team as of yet. Last season Lincoln City and Forest Green made lots of ground by Christmas, however one team is yet to take the 2016/17 National League by storm. This means that Dagenham have as good a chance as anybody to emerge as the best, all it takes is a bit of form.
And the Daggers certainly have it in them to push themselves to the next level. We've beaten teams such as Macclesfield and Dover when they were top of the league, and none of those struck me as an outstanding team. You could see why they were doing so well, but were never left with the genuine feeling that those sides were better than us.
Infact, even when we've been beaten this season, I haven't really seen us totally outplayed. Wrexham are one of the best teams in the division by virtue of their outstanding defence, but while they remain solid at the back, you get the impression that if you don't fear them and attack against them just as you would any other team, they can crumble. Macclesfield, low and behold, done this and won 4-1.
To date, Sutton would have to be the best team I've seen us face, and even they needed a last minute goal to defeat the Daggers after what was a poor display from Still's side. We threw that game away and Sutton were by far from brilliant, once again showing that no team in this league are amazing.
And so these next few weeks could become crucial for all the clubs. All it takes is one team to put a brilliant run together and that could prove to be the difference between now and the end of the season. Momentum is crucial and, with four games in just over a week coming up, this is the chance for us to continue our winning run, and who knows where it could take us?
But, first, we have a trip to Hereford in the FA Trophy. It might be seen as a distraction to some, but John Still will need to show them as much respect as they would a league side. You only need to look at what happened against Worthing last year to show the consequences of underestimating an underdog. Win this, and we might just go on a decent Cup run which ends with 90 minutes under the Wembley arch.
But our priority is the league, and I would happily take a loss at Edgar Street if it makes us focus more on our challenging Christmas run. The prospect of a mouth-watering double header against Orient is all the incentive the Daggers need, and we also host Eastleigh and travel to Ebbsfleet. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas - but can Daggers begin to look like National League champions?
We're pretty much at the halfway stage of the campaign and I must say I'm fairly satisfied so far. As you'd expect, there has been ups and downs, but ultimately we are around where we expect to be come the end of April. In an increasingly-tight league it's small margins that could be the difference between promotion or not, and thankfully, we have players who can change games in an instant. As a team we surely rank as one of the best, but how does that compare to the individual talent amongst our ranks?
02. BEN NUNN (6/10): Much was expected from right-back Nunn but he has slowly found himself becoming less and less favoured due to the form of Sam Ling. From what I have seen, he looks like a good signing, with a good cross and pass on him, but needs to take his chances in the team, or risk being permanently consigned to the reserves.
03. LUKE PENNELL (6/10): Just as Pennell seemed to be putting a good run together in the side, he was struck by another injury. He done very well to recover from his last injury and build up fitness, and I feel that he will improve with every game. Although he often has a tendency to drift into the middle of the pitch he's genuinely a good player, and there is hopefully more to come from him.
04. SCOTT DOE (7/10): As reliable as ever, but also prone to the occasional error. Despite injuries towards the start of the season, Doe has done well to not only come into the side, but establish himself as a mainstay. He is also very vocal and passionate on the pitch, and a threat at corners, which is exactly what you'd expect from your captain.
05. CRAIG ROBSON (8/10): If it wasn't for Doe, I'd want this guy to have the armband. Robson is commanding, powerful and solid; he has without a doubt been our best defender this season, although when required he can do a job in midfield. Another obscure John Still find and it's remarkable to think that he was playing for Bognor Regis just two seasons ago.
06. MATT ROBINSON (6/10): Matt Robinson is a hard-working midfielder who can feel hard done by this season. He hasn't really done much wrong in all fairness and seems to work well with Boucaud, but has seen game time limited, despite being a prominent figure last season. This is a testament to the quality within our side, but sooner or later Robinson deserves a chance to impress.
07. LUKE HOWELL (6.5/10): Often underrated, Howell has only begun to show his quality in recent weeks with two goals in November. Earlier in the season it was easy to forget Howell was even a Dagenham player but, to his credit, he has forced his way into the lineup - even impressing on the left recently - and with an eye for goal can certainly make an impact in the future. I'm optimistic for him.
08. CHARLEE ADAMS (6/10): Might as well copy and paste what I said about Robinson. There was much hype about Adams when he signed but, even though he hasn't been maybe as impressive as we hoped, it's hard to see what he's really done wrong. His appearances have delivered satisfactory if unspectacular performances, but he'll need to kick on in the future to establish himself as a regular.
09. CHIKE KANDI (6/10): Kandi is a player who really excites me, and I've been impressed every time I watched him. Plucked from relative obscurity, he adds even more quality to our attack, but hasn't been helped by an almost instant injury which halted his progress. With blistering pace and at the age of just 21, he is a good prospect, but needs gametime to prove himself, and it's still quite early to judge him.
10. MORGAN FERRIER (9/10): You only need to listen to the fans on a matchday to tell how adored Ferrier is at the club, and considering he's only been here since August, that's some achievement. A definite candidate for National League Signing of the Season, he can score goals, assist goals and hold the ball up brilliantly; I pray we hang onto this exciting striker, but he could definitely play at a higher level.
11. FEJIRI OKENABIRHIE (6/10): On his day, Okenabirhie can be unstoppable but, unfortunately, his 'days' are becoming less and less regular. He looks a shadow of his former self, which is so frustrating because everybody knows what he's capable of. As a result, he's found himself a regular on the substitutes' bench, when a player of his quality should be playing week in, week out. He must step up.
12. ELLIOT ROMAIN (6/10): If it was down to effort and work rate, then Romain would consistently be the first name on the teamsheet. There's no disputing that he gives his all when stepping onto the pitch, which is always excellent to see, but unfortunately 1 goal in almost nine months speaks volumes. It looks like he's slightly lost his way after a decent start, and will need to start scoring to earn a place in the team.
14. DAN SPARKES (6/10): Similar to Chike Kandi. Sparkes signed in the Summer but due to injury, only made his debut recently. To his credit, though, he has looked very good in the brief appearances he has made so far, and is surely knocking on the door for a starting place. He has worked hard to get back to full fitness and is surely giving John Still a selection headache.
15. BONDZ N'GALA (4/10): This really was a puzzling signing, and alarm bells were surely ringing when he failed to impress at Dover Athletic and Eastleigh in recent times. Most people were slightly unconvinced when we signed him and, though he was in our team at the beginning of the season, he has not appeared for us since. Infact, he is now on loan at Leyton Orient, which says it all really.
17. ANDRE BOUCAUD (8/10): I remember a time when Boucaud was hated by the fans and booed on a regular basis. Well, what a transformation. In the years he's had under John Still, he's blossomed into a fantastic midfielder and, according to Ferrier, is one of the most technically gifted players he's ever played with. He has been immense and, with five assists, is contributing in attack, too. His experience is vital.
18. KEVIN LOKKO (6/10): Despite being error-prone and at times very reckless, there is surely a reason why Stevenage took a gamble on him in the summer. I haven't seen him look capable of that standard quite yet but, despite the cards he's received, he looks like a good, very no-nonsense player. Our defence looks better with him in it, and he has done well to secure a place in the side. Maidstone also adored him.
19. SAM LING (9/10): Has matured into an excellent right-back and fans' favourite. With an eye for attack and a solid instinct in defence, he is one of our most reliable performers. Last season he looked naive and young but surprisingly has really stepped up this season. That cross for Ferrier's goal against Dover deserves a 9 all by itself.
20. MASON BLOOMFIELD (5/10): John Still clearly sees something in Bloomfield, especially as we re-signed him following earlier release. This rating seems slightly harsh on him because he is young and inexperienced, but at the time doesn't seem ready. Has the potential, but maybe needs a loan spell at a National League South side to help harvest it.
23. MICHAEL CHEEK (7/10): This signing sparked excitement throughout the club. A natural finisher, Cheek's goalscoring exploits have been clear to see but, although he's shown his quality, a frustrating injury has limited his appearances. He reminds me of Jamie Cureton in the sense that he can go missing in games, and then all of a sudden, come alive in the box.
25. COREY WHITELY (7/10): There's been two versions of Whitely this season; the August one, and the version since. In the early stages of the season he was lethal, and shone in every game. However, although he is still putting effort in, things don't seem to be coming off for him. He is undoubtedly one of our best players but desperately needs to regain his form, and I fear for opposing defenders when he does...
29. JAKE HOWELLS (6/10): An interesting signing to say the least. Many thought, and perhaps still think, that he's not good enough but it seems like he's really developed this season. An experienced player, he has done a decent job at left-back recently, and has perhaps been harshly treated in the past. I'll happily admit I was slightly wrong about Howells, and I hope he continues to improve.
30. MARK COUSINS (8/10): Last, but certainly not least. Many have disputed who is better out of him and Justham but, for me, Cousins has single-handedly settled that debate this season. He was impressive in League 2 and just needed a run of games to get going this term. He has produced some brilliant, match-winning saves at crucial times this season - the perfect way to channel your frustration from last year.
I'm definitely expecting more from Charlee Adams and Fejiri Okenabirhie next season. Both are talented players but need to prove their quality. Everybody is also praying for Whitely to recapture his form as that would give the side a huge lift, and give players like Ferrier and Cheek more support. Hopefully, our key players such as Ling, Boucaud and Ferrier push on, and we can reach our aim of promotion. With the quality amongst our squad, anything is possible, and in 2018 we can be the stand-out National League team.
I am Joel Page, Dagenham & Redbridge FC fan. Here I will share some of my experiences.