THE dAGGERS vOICE
'Never too high with the highs, never too low with the lows.'
It's one of the phrases we've heard countless times from our old friend Mr John Still, usually in an attempt to soften the blow of a particularly disappointing defeat. Although it's clearly a strategy of self-preservation, he's got a point, in that a solitary result or mini run of form shouldn't characterise a manager or season, nor should there be disproportionately exaggerated reactions to either a win or defeat if you're going to dramatically fluctuate to the other extreme soon after.
With that in mind, take our last couple of fixtures against Bromley then Havant & Waterlooville where we followed up our biggest win of the season with it's worst defeat, in the space of just three days. It's true that the mindset towards the team did change somewhat rapidly but rather than that being an example of hypocrisy or 'short memories', I believe it was merely two contextually appropriate reactions to what was two astonishing contrasts in performance.
The Havant display was so pathetic that the enforced two-week break that followed it felt like an absolute blessing. The convincing victory against Bromley just 72 hours earlier made it all the more puzzling and while the shambolic showing three days later shouldn't discredit how pleasing we were against the Ravens, doesn't make it justifiable either. Most importantly, though, the manner in which we were brushed aside by one of the division's worst teams epitomised the Peter Taylor era so far.
We're currently 15th in the league table, which nobody would've anticipated when we were frankly doomed midway through October. In that respect, it's been a fantastic accomplishment and we've not only achieved pre-season target, but completely surpassed it. However, would we have done that with the squad we started the season with? Absolutely not. We suffered from a lot of misfortune, but make no mistake that team would struggle to make the National League South play-offs.
Now, though, it seems appropriate to consistently refer back to August and September. It's important to remember that time period as a not-so-fond reminder of how things can be, but to judge our current squad with that squad is complete madness - it's like comparing two different teams, differing conversely in relation to budget and quality, by exactly the same terms. Infact that's exactly what it is, because only two players who featured in August are regular starters now.
Other justifications of keeping Peter Taylor are his status, contacts and the need for stability, all factors that are purely hypothetical and not backed up my much substance. That he managed England once around twenty years ago hasn't made us play any better this season, nor did his contacts bring in any world-beaters during pre-season. Signings like the unearthing of Whitely and Robson three years ago wouldn't have been impossible in our situation but instead we assembled a squad that was very limited, admittedly with many restrictions. I won't use Solihull and Macclesfield because they're not the norm, but it's possible to do well with a budget that's lower than the average of that division, much like Braintree under Cowley and Dover for several years.
Taylor wants the best for the team, of that there's no doubt at all, but he makes decisions that, to the watching supporter, seem to hinder more than they help. The way we approach certain winnable games, Maidenhead and Havant for example, with five at the back and three defensive-minded central midfielders, is absolutely baffling, especially when one of our most creative players in Jack Munns sits on the bench. Munns isn't unbelievably good, he's had many off-days, but it's clear to see that our chances of winning games are bolstered with his inclusion.
He's the centre-piece between defence and attack; when he doesn't play there's so often a divide between the two areas. We've only lost three games that he's started and they were all against teams in the play-off mix or above. By contrast, someone like Will Wright plays considerably more and yet we've only won twice when he's been playing. The general consensus is that Munns is easily our best midfielder, and yet it's almost inevitable that he'll randomly vanish from the entire squad once a month.
That's a familiar theme. Someone like Tomi Adeloye will have a sustained run of six or seven games, then disappear from sight for three months then all of a sudden re-appear and go straight into the lineup, not even the bench. This has happened to Hoyte, Reynolds, Phipps and many others - it can't be great for morale or confidence. A player can be a mainstay for weeks and is then treated like they don't even exist - no wonder Lamar Reynolds, for example, struggles for form and consistency.
Now onto his mindset. We were told about his overly-defensive nature but I never expected to see us leaving players back in the last minute at Wrexham, with us losing the game 1-0. What were we protecting? Seriously, even if it means getting caught on the counter and losing by two or even three, I'd rather that happened than us not taking risks and leaving everything we had on that Racecourse pitch.
So the Daggers board have a lot to think about in the summer, and it seems as if Taylor will stay given how highly the Americans think of him. In that case, so be it, I'd love to see him do well and maybe it is a little bit unfair to judge him on a season that admittedly has been turbulent. Next season there will be more stability and he probably does deserve the chance to build a team completely of his own making, with more freedom.
However, my biggest fear is that we'll have a cautiously defensive manager leading a title charge, taking no risks and that the only change will be that he'll be shoehorning better players into a defensive formation. You can't just change your mindset. No title winners ever go to places for a point, and it's no coincidence that in the games we've done that this season, we've been well and truly punished for it.
He's got it right on occasion this season, albeit that is in the minority, but for example at Salford his tactics were set up to perfection for a side that were going to play on the counter-attack. If you go to the likes of Maidenhead and Havant like that, though, it's a bit different.
We have to get things perfect next season, and that means having the ideal manager to suit the team. There's no point keeping a manager just for the sake of stability unless that person is the best equipped to conform to the team's needs. If that is Peter Taylor, then I wish him the best of luck.
Under the accomplished guidance of a relatively young but highly competent manager in Simon Weaver, Harrogate Town have not only consolidated their position in the highest tier of non-league football but, by supplementing the core of an already capable side with some astute signings, find themselves embroiled in a congested play-off battle. After winning the National League North play-off final last May, they hit the ground running in this division and, up until the back end of 2018, were fighting towards the upper echelons of the league.
A number of attributes have lent themselves well to Harrogate's season. They possess strong and physically imposing centre backs, supported by the impossible-to-ignore presence of captain Josh Falkingham, who is an aggressive and battling midfielder. Attack wise, they have a talismanic outlet up front, but also have technical quality on the wings and, in marquee summer signing Jack Muldoon, hold a creative goalscorer - something that's hard to come by in the National League.
Though the top seven is too unreachable a target for this campaign, much like was the case last weekend against Sutton, it will be useful to test our credentials against a side who represent the benchmark of where we eventually want to be. Our blip at the start of this calendar year - if it was just a blip and the Sutton game wan't just a one-off - exposed the weaknesses we have in the squad. Although the strengths we do have are strong enough for any team, the weaknesses certainly aren't conducive to a promotion bid.
Against those teams currently in the play-offs, we've taken 13 points from a possible 24, and the fact that we're already collecting more than we're dropping indicates that we're not too far away. With a few additions to the squad, and the removal of those who are so obviously surplus to requirements, we'll be in a position to start afresh in the summer and pick up where we left off prior to this season.
Of course, we're not officially out of the relegation run-in, or at least not too far away to justify getting complacent. There are four worse clubs than us, of that there is absolutely no doubt, but such has been our unpredictable form all campaign that a loss today could completely throw us off track and send us on another losing run. When the bubble burst at home to Barnet, it plummeted us to a position of picking up only won win in seven games. We haven't won consecutive matches since beating Salford then Orient.
To endure a similar sequence of form, especially at the back end of the campaign, would be frustrating because we're more than capable of finishing in a healthy 10th, which is actually higher than we managed in 2017/18 - to accomplish that would be ridiculous considering how things all started. It's not unexpected that we finish either 10th or 19th considering the dramatic variation in some of the football we've played this year.
In the first forty minutes against Boreham Wood, we were as calamitous as anything you could possibly imagine on a football pitch, but all of sudden we became Barcelona for five minutes. Against Maidstone, we were poor in every area aside from their box. Signs of a good side it could be argued, but also signs of frustrating inconsistency and the sense of unpredictability that comes from watching Dagenham.
So this week, in which we also travel to Maidenhead on Tuesday, could be vital for our season. Our performance against Sutton was fantastic, mainly because it came from nowhere, and the fact that we can perform to that standard makes it all the more annoying when we constantly struggle to. Today it's off to North Yorkshire and it will definitely be a difficult game, especially as Harrogate know they need to win every game, but we've not done too bad in difficult games this season.
The pressure is off the Daggers, the expectation is on Harrogate, not only as the home team but as one sitting in the play-offs, to come out and attack us.
Up the Dags
A couple of months ago, where mid-table obscurity was a luxury that seemed to be an inevitable pathway for our increasingly-developing squad and there were even brief yet realistic murmurs of a potential run towards the play-offs, the future seemed to be bright at last. Most people expected us to calmly and assuredly negotiate the rest of our campaign with unspectacular nonchalance, but you tend to find that, at Dagenham & Redbridge, things never quite unfold as you would imagine.
Instead, the title-winning form that saw us beat Salford City and Leyton Orient in consecutive days has been replaced with that befitting of a team destined for the drop. That good run, in the aftermath of the hysteria generated by the arrival of our new American owners and the instant cashflow they injected to the club, was sandwiched between two terrible sequences of form but seems to be enough to keep us up.
We're so hard to predict. We've shown that we can match any team in the division, but on other occasions look like we could be dragged back into the relegation scrap again. As soon as our unbeaten sequence ended at home to Barnet at the end of December, we've plummeted to the complete other extreme. All of a sudden, we lack a cutting edge in attack and are just as shaky at the other end. It feels like August again.
So, it begs the question of what truly is the identity of our current squad. Are we good enough to defeat all of the top teams, or was that just the momentum of the situation carrying us through? Are we a struggling team just good enough to survive but nothing more? Is it something in-between? I firmly believe that, in Balanta and Wilkinson, we have two of the best players in the league but recently we've seen just how average we are without that duo.
When Havant & Waterlooville took the lead at Fylde on Tuesday, it took us to within three points of the relegation zone, and when you look at some of the teams we have to play before the end of the campaign, it's enough to suggest that there will be a lot of looking over our shoulders between now and then. Sutton United. Harrogate Town. AFC Fylde. Ebbsfleet United. Solihull Moors. All sides firmly embroiled in the play-off race.
That's before you even consider some of the teams around us who we play. Maidenhead, Bromley, Dover, Chesterfield, Havant & Waterlooville, Braintree - all huge games. Taylor speaks about earning five more wins but when every side seems to either be battling at the top or fighting for their lives at the bottom, that tally appears to be quite a difficult target. That feeling is only heightened when you look at our recent form. Only four teams have started the calendar year worse; there's not been a single game where we've looked that convincing, and that includes the victory at Maidstone.
So, therefore, it's absolutely imperative for us to collect three points this weekend. If we can get back to winning ways quickly, such has been the dramatic trajectory of our season that we could be spurred on to our best form again. On the other hand, though, every defeat adds more pressure and narrows the gap between us and the relegation zone. A loss this weekend only makes next weekend even more vital, and then things start to become overwhelming.
Maybe we got into a comfort zone. Maybe we just weren't that good to begin with. Maybe it's just a blip. Whatever the reason for our steep decline in form, we must snap out of it quickly. Who better to play, therefore, than a tricky play-off chasing side who you've notoriously struggled against in the past. Sutton United wouldn't be our ideal opponent but in some ways, maybe it's better to play a tougher team because a win would work wonders for our confidence.
Sutton United, in a word, are frustrating. They always resemble quite an average, unspectacular team who you're always capable of beating yet never manage to. They're experienced in how they operate and, like Gateshead who we saw last week, are very effective in what they do. Going 1-0 down spells disaster against Sutton because they are physically imposing and have all the skills to time-waste in an absolutely infuriating manner. No surprise then that all but one of their victories this season have been by a single-goal margin.
It's important to recognise that they're also decent on the ball. You don't get to 6th in the league purely by intimidation and annoying antics. They're a good side and have had the measure of us over the last couple of years. The job Paul Doswell is doing, to consistently defy the club's size and budget by always fighting alongside the bigger sides, goes under the radar but is worthy of immense respect.
They drew 0-0 with Barnet on Tuesday, where an injury crisis meant that two wingers were deployed at full-back. Although they ultimately kept a clean-sheet so obviously didn't struggle that much, if this is a problem that persists through to this weekend, then we have to look to exploit it. The way we play is usually with 3 centre-backs and central midfielders, which means Conor Wilkinson should be up against someone who isn't even a natural defender. He should be relishing that.
On the topic of our formation and tactics, I hope to see Balanta return to the lineup this weekend as we've really missed him. Reports of him aggravating his injury are concerning because when Lamar Reynolds partners Wilko up top, he simply doesn't do the job Balanta does of holding the ball up and earning space for his strike partner. So often Wilkinson is isolated, which is why he was dropping so deep to win the ball last weekend.
Hopefully Munns retains his place and McQueen plays further forward, where he can flourish. Phipps deserves a recall to the team, too, because he looked like a very good player when he featured for us last year and in Doug Loft I don't see someone that brings more to the team than Phipps does. With Peter Taylor, literally anybody could be in the lineup, maybe Justham is the only certainly. Whatever your opinion of him and his suitability to lead us next season (personally I'm undecided), it's time to continue backing him and the players. We can only do so much and now it's over to the boys.
On another day, one of our countless big opportunities would go in and we'd have taken the lead. On another day, the elbow on Reynolds and subsequent last-man foul on him could've resulted in a red card in either instance. On another day, the referee might not give such a soft penalty for Gateshead. On another day, Wilkinson scores from the spot and we go on to possibly get a point. Bemoaning our bad luck, a lot of which is self-inflicted deriving from our own mistakes, is a familiar theme at the minute.
It is true that when a team has two real chances compared to your fifteen plus, and you end up losing 2-0, you're somewhat entitled to adopt the 'not our day' mentality. It's also true that we should've been five goals up by the time Gateshead even ventured in our half. We were completely in control throughout the first-half but it was painfully predictable that they would take a completely undeserved lead. Then the dynamic of the game completely changes and you're chasing it.
And what better thing to do when you're chasing a game than take off your most creative and effective player? By the time Munns was inexplicably substituted, we'd succumbed again to Gateshead's perfectly-executed style of football. While we still had the time and ability to snatch a point, there was no belief. I remember the never-say-die mentality that saw us come from behind to earn superb victories against Salford, Orient and Hartlepool, but it wasn't evident here.
Against Boreham Wood just a few weeks ago, even at 3-0 down, you could just sense that we still had a fighting chance. On this occasion there was nothing. No fight. No spark. No real desire to give our absolute all until that final whistle, which only the sound of would indicate that we were truly beaten. We were beaten as soon as Rigg converted his penalty! There was nobody on the pitch who looked like making something happen.
That wasn't helped by the fact that we took Munns off and played McQueen at right-wing back. He's not a right-wing back, he never has been and never will be. Wilkinson had a massive off-day, but you can excuse him that after the start he's had to his stint at the club. You could see that he clearly wasn't fit, he just lacked the usual slickness and arrogant glide across the pitch. He couldn't wait to pass the ball and didn't contest much.
The delays ahead of our penalty didn't help things at all. The moment Wilkinson takes the ball off McQueen, he simply has to score, and in that moment he's maximised the pressure of the kick massively. Then of course Reynolds stayed down for a bit and this only added to the nerves across the ground as Wilkinson had more time to contemplate where to put it. He's been brilliant when he relies on pure instinct and impulse, but wasn't as good when he could really ponder what to do.
When he stepped up, the general consensus was, ''it's Wilko, there's no way this doesn't go in.'' but when you look at our penalty record since relegation to the National League it's really not that surprising. 22 awarded to us and exactly half of those missed doesn't make for pleasant reading and I doubt there's many teams in the top five tiers of English football with a worse success rate. So we're left with the 'what if' feeling regarding McQueen, who really looked up for it and had played quite well up until that point.
Going forwards, he performed well and that's no surprise because HE'S A WINGER. Liam Gordon also barely put a foot wrong and it's amazing to think that he's 19 years old. Robinson battled well too but other that that there were few who could walk off the Victoria Road pitch satisfied with their performance. To be honest, we probably did deserve a point but that doesn't disguise the fact that we're well below par at the minute.
This leaves us with two games coming up against sides around the play-off picture. We could quite conceivably, and the way we're going probably will, lose them both and that's scary because we're only five points above relegation. But not to worry, it just wasn't our day and we'll bounce back next week. Why? Because the players said so on Twitter. It is so like the Daggers to follow up title-winning form with that befitting of a relegation-chasing side.
Next week is massive now and, though things aren't great at the minute, the reality is that we'll all look forward to next weekend all over again. You feel gutted for a while and then it subsides as fickle hope begins to fill everyone's heads. Let's keep backing the team and Peter Taylor; as supporters we've done our job all season but now it's time for our team to step up and prove themselves. Yes, 14th is excellent compared to where we were in August but if you judge our recent performances based on where we should be given the strength of our current team, it's not been good enough.
Another week, another strange decision to scratch your head over. After the strange omission of Munns and McQueen from the lineup in North Wales last week, this time it was the substitution of Munns, our most creative player at that point, that proved baffling. That he then sarcastically applauded the supporters who rightfully voiced their pleasure over this decision wasn't particularly welcomed either as we slumped to a second straight defeat without scoring. Elsewhere, playing McQueen at right wing-back seemed confusing as two players natural to that position sat in the stands. Of course, then there's the forgotten man, Tomi Adeloye, who deserves so much better. The lineup itself was much more positive, which was pleasing, but the formation and roles didn't seem to suit us too well. Need Harry Phipps and Balanta back in that side quickly.
Gateshead are an organised, well-drilled if largely unspectacular side, whose unforeseen run into the play-offs despite troubles behind the scenes is worthy of immense credit. There wasn't really one standout player of any note yet as a unit they played well, complemented eachother and worked very hard. Some of their antics were questionable, such as the cynical elbow on Reynolds, but we've come to expect that now. Thought we were more than capable of beating them and they weren't particularly special, nor did they look like a team in the play-offs, but their ability to clinically convert the only real chances that came their way illustrates why they're doing so well. Superb counter-attacking play and though they should've been three down before ten minutes had even gone, on the whole they sat back and soaked up pressure well. Not the best side to visit Victoria Road all season, not that they had to be, but definitely the most effective.
Elliot JUSTHAM (6/10): Didn't have much to do, but still conceded both opportunities that he faced.
Liam GORDON (8/10): Like most weeks, didn't put a foot wrong.
Ben GOODLIFFE (6/10): Largely solid, but distribution from the back wasn't the best.
Kenny CLARK (7/10): A threat from our set-pieces but not as effective in the other box.
Manny ONARIASE (6/10): While it was harsh, still conceded the penalty which changed the game.
Alex MCQUEEN (7/10): Effective going forwards even when restricted by wing-back role. Imagine if we played him out wide.
Matt ROBINSON (7/10): Gritty, battled well but tired as the game went on.
Doug LOFT (5/10): If I could remember anything he did, I'd be able to comment on his performance.
Jack MUNNS (6/10): Busy and energetic, he was the likeliest to make something happen. Should never have been subbed.
Lamar REYNOLDS (4/10): You simply have to score those chances. So frustrating to watch.
Conor WILKINSON (4/10): A rare off-day for Conor who didn't look fit and lacked his usual spark. Penalty miss was huge too.
Substitutes - Ollie HARFIELD (5/10) didn't bring anything new to the table; Chike KANDI (5/10) completely ineffective.
93 minutes on the clock and somehow we've not been killed off. Despite offering little more than a handful of half-hearted forays forward, which was painfully inevitable given the bafflingly-negative mindset with which we approached the game, we manage to force a corner in the dying seconds. A tremor of excitement reverberates across the contingent of away supporters as the thought of our imposing defenders flooding the box and causing havoc offers faint hope that we can get a point that we neither deserve nor seem to want.
It's at this make-or-break time where the manager has two choices really. You can throw everybody forwards, including Justham, and even if you lose, the final whistle will leave few regrets because you know you've literally given everything. Alternatively, you could do what lyou can't imagine anyone else doing in that situation and leave players back because it's absolutely vital that we hang onto that 1-0 defeat.
The corner was cleared effortlessly and we went down with less than a whimper. It was a moment that absolutely epitomised the day for us. We'd beaten Salford, Fylde, Harrogate and Orient by showing them no respect and focusing purely on our own strengths, so it was ludicrous that we decided we'd treat Wrexham much better than their attributes merited. This was a team on their third manager of the season, having recorded 1 win from 5, scoring 1 goal in the process.
Unfortunately a team that were very much there for the taking were regarded as posing a threat akin to Pep Guardiola's Man City. Our tactics of playing five at the back, with three non-attacking midfielders all playing deep, reminded me of when we went to Everton with the sole intention of having an enjoyable day out. Of course it was unfortunate that Wilkinson had to go off but to be fair when you leave out Munns and Balanta, the opposition are always going to surround your biggest threat.
I don't want to be too harsh on Taylor because he's shown that he can be a really good manager. As I've seen mentioned online, a lot of our recent signings were down to the appeal of working under him, but this defeat illustrated the scepticism some people have towards him. It's unfair to say 'Taylor Out' when we lose and 'Taylor In' when we're victorious, but conversely it's also not right that that great run we had can now excuse the poor form we've slumped into the new year with.
We've now got three really hard games and could realistically lose all three. Gateshead, Sutton and Harrogate are all decent outfits, all in the play-off picture, and all three will dismantle us if we line up the same as we did on Saturday. A team with Munns, McQueen, Wilko and Balanta, on the other hand, could blow them away. If Wilkinson is out though, as he could be after taking quite a substantial whack, then the next few weeks will be very nervous. There's been a lot of talk about the faint possibility of the playoffs and the fact that we're only six points above the drop zone has gone under the radar.
''Right - now what's the real team?'' pretty much encapsulates the feelings of most Daggers fans upon hearing about the unexplained exclusion of many players who would've been expected to trouble Wrexham. Jack Munns was omitted from the squad entirely despite giving a pre-match interview on the Thursday prior to the game, and this was only made worse by the fact that Taylor later confirmed that it was a tactical decision. Then you had Balanta, apparently fit enough to have started last week if the game wouldn't have fell victim to the heavy snowfall, but not fit enough to start a week later. Ben Nunn is in a real rut at the minute but not enough for Gavin Hoyte to be given the chance he deserves. I can understand Nathan Smith being left out because he hasn't played much football in the past year and looked very tired against Aldershot. However, playing three central midfielders whose attributes and roles are all indistinguishably similar made no sense at all, especially when attack-minded ones like Phipps, Bellamy and of course Jack Munns weren't included. The whole lineup was the source of much confusion and indeed disappointment because it certainly seemed as if we came to North Wales to grind out a point, which was supported by the mundane footballing display that followed.
Wrexham v Dagenham & Redbridge, a fixture that will be greeted with contrasting emotions from both sides in spite of the league positions, which would indicate a complete other story. For the Daggers, a trip to North Wales is synonymous with delight. When Paul Benson secured our place in the 2016/17 play-offs with a match-winning header at the Racecourse, it capped an amazing season for the boys, which the performance epitomised in every aspect. Last season, when we were at our lowest ebb, a smash-and-grab 2-1 victory was a rare moment of joy at a time when hope was in short supply for the club.
Wrexham have very different memories of our visits in the last couple of seasons, which usually mark the very peak of their capitulation. Last campaign, Wrexham were promising title-challengers who somehow slipped out of the top seven altogether, and it seems that a similar story could be unfolding at the moment with the club in turmoil following a disastrous series of events. In the week, Bryan Hughes was appointed as their third manager since August.
The departure of Sam Ricketts, no longer a popular man around those parts, derailed their season somewhat, and Graham Barrow was named as his successor yet that was seemingly a decision made on impulse as he lost five games towards the start of 2019. Now he's resigned and Wrexham have made the brave choice to appoint a manager without any previous experience on a three-and-a-half year contract.
So it's a good time to play Wrexham, yet these kinds of situations can galvanise a team and we have to be wary of that tomorrow. They're fifth in the table on merit so irrespective of the turbulent nature of the last few days, the team that they will name will still be strong enough to rip us to pieces if we have the kind of off-day we did against Aldershot. Cole Stockton and Ben Tollitt are both dangerous attackers, while Wrexham also boast the best defence in the division.
It should be an interesting encounter and I actually think we'll fare better against Wrexham than we might've against Maidenhead last week. Our style of play is suited to the counter-attack, which is why we struggle when the pressure is on us to open up a defence, like against Halifax and Aldershot for example. When Wrexham are the home team, with a big crowd, plus the added dimension of them being desperate for crucial points, it could play right into our hands.
We come into the game having had an enforced two-week break after last week's unfortunate postponement. The decision to call the game off was disappointing yet at least it gave us an extra weeks' rest, which can be used to get Balanta ready to return to the team. We missed him against Aldershot and his presence up front with Wilkinson is something which we'd be absolutely lost without. It's such an effective duo.
That's just one of the conundrums for Peter Taylor. He's switched between three and four at the back recently and had to sacrifice Liam Gordon for the Aldershot game, which did seem to limit us somewhat. Now we have a fully-fit squad, with so many options, which is a massive strength.
This will be a really tough clash, but with the attitude we've displayed against other sides towards the top of the division, we'll be fine. We've beaten Salford, Fylde, Harrogate and Leyton Orient by performing a certain way so if we can emulate that against Wrexham, then there's no reason we shouldn't claim all three points. Hughes will be looking to get off to a strong start in his new role - it's our job to completely spoil that.
Up the Dags
We're hurtling towards the latter stages of the campaign and, with that, desperation kicks in for teams at both ends of the table. At the minute, we're in the unique and unfamiliar position where we're so high up in the standings to harbour faint hopes of the play-offs yet not high enough to completely rule out an end to the season which sees us looking anxiously over our shoulders. The top seven isn't that far away for us but Peter Taylor has made it clear that our priority is simply staying in the division, and the fact that anyone can even mention the play-offs without being ridiculed shows just how well that ambition has gone.
The run of games we're in the midst of initially looked inviting, bringing the potential for maximum points which could send us into the top half. Four points from a possible six, despite not playing well at all, is quite decent all things considered but there's no doubt that every home fan who exited the ground on Saturday did so with the regret and frustration of dropping two points overriding any delight at having got anything against a side who were vastly superior for most of the game.
The likes of Aldershot and Braintree will be treating every game from now until the end of the campaign like a cup final, because in a division where the tightest of margins can be the difference between survival and relegation, every point is absolutely crucial. That's been clear to see in the last couple of weeks with both Maidstone and Aldershot Town performing as if they were possessed by the sheer will to win.
Thankfully we had the quality against Maidstone and the scoreline disguised the fact that we were largely second best. It's easy to dismiss a poor performance when it brings a 3-0 away victory, but it's much harder to take when you drop points having performed in such an underwhelming manner which was the case on Saturday. After our unbelievable unbeaten run there's the sense that we're being found out a little bit.
It's clear that we're struggling to exert our superiority over a team who sit back and are willing to soak up pressure. The pace and quality of the Daggers, especially in attack, is much more suited to counter-attacking football and that's why we've done a job on Salford, Orient, Fylde and Harrogate but slumped to disappointing results against the likes of Halifax and Aldershot Town. We need to find a way to retain our composure and break teams down, because on Saturday we were erratic and hurried in our play.
It would be harsh not to recognise the effective nature of Aldershot's play. Despite being a far cry from the excellent Shots' sides we've faced since our relegation to the National League, they were spirited and determined. The difference-maker was Bernard Mensah who absolutely destroyed us as he always has done in the past. Mensah was the architect of all things good about Aldershot and, without him, we would've certainly won.
While the Shots were patient and controlled in possession, we were disjointed. It was like we had ten minutes to score because we pumped it forwards with absolutely no composure as if we had no time to win the game. It's been strange to watch us since the turn of the year because we've looked really panicky and never comfortable in a match. There's been moments of brilliance, like the comeback against Boreham Wood, but they're always counteracted by absolute ineptness. We're either amazing or useless.
It's hard to criticise Peter Taylor after the turnaround he's led us to over the last few months, but the starting lineup was somewhat bizarre. The absence of Tomi Adeloye, by far our most underrated player, has been strange; he seemed the perfect candidate to replace Balanta. Added to that, two of our best performers across the campaign, Gordon and Goodliffe, were missing from the lineup.
In Gordon's case it's even more weird because he's been superb since the turn of the year, so it must've been a decision to preserve his fitness, but surely it would've been better to play a fit in-form 19 year-old over a 32 year-old whose barely kicked a football in the last year. Nathan Smith looks like a good player in all fairness but struggled against Aldershot, not only when defending but in staying onside from free-kicks. There were two occasions where really big chances were scuppered by his premature runs.
Anyway, it was a game to forget but we still had some opportunities that could've won us the game. The clearance off the line, Wilkinson's speculative volley and McQueen's opening in the box were all 'nearly' moments, but in Balanta's absence we just lacked the spark and didn't look like scoring. It was a terrible spectacle in fairness, but let's get into some deeper analysis of our display.
We changed to a back four in order to accommodate new signing in Doug Loft but in all fairness I don't think our new loanee was influential enough to justify it. As has been mentioned, the absence of Liam Gordon wasn't something that pleased the Daggers faithful and we missed his energetic legs sprinting up and down the pitch, which is one of the benefits of playing with five. We weren't great playing with that formation recently so I'm not attributing our failure to win to that decision, and certainly the eleven we had on the pitch were more then capable of doing the job, but it damaged our attacking capabilities. That was especially noticeable as we didn't have Balanta, who despite being fine according to Terry Harris' midweek interview, couldn't recover from the damage caused by De Havilland during the win over Maidstone. Loft was another strange one as he, like Nathan Smith, hasn't played much football and hadn't been properly integrated into the squad after a couple of training sessions. Hopefully we kick off at Maidenhead next weekend not only with Balanta back, but also with Gordon, Goodliffe and potentially Hoyte as Nunn has been off his game for quite a while now.
Elliot JUSTHAM: Solid from Elliot. After having a few lapses in concentration over the last few weeks, he was closer to his best against the Shots. The goal was completely beyond his control and there was nothing he could do, but he still made a number of crucial saves to preserve our point. His save from Mensah's acrobatic effort was absolutely superb as most people were waiting for the net to bulge until he got a strong hand on it.
Nathan SMITH: Looked every inch of a player who hasn't played much football in the last few months. Was hard to expect him to play two games in a row, especially after lasting the ninety on a testing surface last weekend. Was brilliant against the Stones but this was a tired performance and it was his poor marking that gifted Bernard Mensah a free header to level the scores. All in all not his best display but in his short stint at the club he's already demonstrated that he's capable of being a great player for us.
Manny ONARIASE: Him and Wilko are two players that you can rely on to perform every single week, and it's no coincidence that they're both players of a higher standard. Wasn't his best performance for us and there were times where his distribution was frustrating, but defensively he was faultless as always. Such a boost to have him for the remainder of the campaign because if he went back to Rotherham, we'd struggle massively.
Kenny CLARK: A few errors have crept into Clark's game in recent weeks, but largely he's performed well and this was another solid if unremarkable display. Didn't get exploited many times, nor did he lose many aerial duels or concede possession. On the other hand, he didn't seem to make many tackles or get us out of trouble. Definitely looks better when we play as a five, but one thing we can judge from his ten or so appearances for us so far is that he's consistent.
Ben NUNN: Nunny will be the first to admit that he's not been at his best at recent weeks. He given away many clear-cut chances recently and made mistakes leading directly to goals. This was a better display but still not the best, though it's not easy to defend against a player like Bernard Mensah. To be fair, Nunn has been strong going forwards and whipping in crosses but this wasn't a game where he had licence to do that as we didn't play with wing-backs.
Jack MUNNS: Decent from Munns but he doesn't seem to be dictating play as much as he was a couple of months ago. In a game where the midfield was largely bypassed, there weren't enough times that he was allowed to get on the ball and make things happen. However, on the rare occasion he sneaked beyond the defence, his cross was millimetres from going over the line, so he did have an influence albeit not as frequently as he perhaps should've.
Doug LOFT: Doug Loft didn't appear to be too much of an improvement to what we already have in the squad. Admittedly he made a few decent tackles and passes but didn't look like a League One player. However, it's important to acknowledge that he hadn't had much gametime, plus he's alongside new players with whom he has no chemistry or understanding, so I think he'll get better as the weeks go by. Definitely thrown in the deep end.
Matt ROBINSON: Good to have him back! Thought he wasn't at his best at Maidstone, nor did he particularly excel on this occasion, but it was a gritty display and, out of everybody on the pitch, he did the most to try and break up Aldershot's play. Look forward to seeing the return of Harry Phipps because those two forged a good partnership and Robinson flourishes alongside good, technical midfielders.
Alex MCQUEEN: Not much to comment on really. He never had much of an opportunity to get the ball out of his feet and run at defenders, which is a credit to the way Aldershot nullified our threat out wide. There was one chance where he was played in by Wilkinson but instead of shooting with his right, he cut inside and eventually made it too complicated for himself. That situation demanded a bit more composure.
Conor WILKINSON: We've got to get used to teams putting two or three men on Conor because it doesn't take a genius to work out that he's the one to watch. He only got clear once in the game but that was all he needed to make a difference, smashing it past the keeper albeit with the aid of a deflection. Nearly won us the match with a moment of magic too. Even when Conor's quiet, he's at the heart of everything.
Lamar REYNOLDS: With Balanta out, this was the chance for Lamar to really take his opportunity but instead he merely cemented his status as an impact sub. It was a mismatch between him and the physical defenders, there was also never really a chance for him to run at anyone, similar to why McQueen was so quiet. With Wilkinson being dragged all over the place, every defender seemingly surrounding him, Lamar needed to be the outlet to draw them off him, and unfortunately he couldn't.
It's still debatable whether our magnificent unbeaten run stretching almost two months was an accurate reflection of what we can do with players like Wilkinson, Balanta or Onariase in the team, or whether it was merely momentum carrying us further and further. We can't expect to beat the likes of Orient and Salford every week, but one thing that's certain is that we don't deserve to be 16th in the table.
Had we started the season with our current squad it's quite conceivable that we'd be battling in the playoffs. Though we're only twelve points off with plenty of games to potentially overturn that deficit, it's likely that we'll just miss out. However, even to be talking about play-offs when we were dreading National League South football just three months ago speaks volumes about how far we've come. We're a changed team and the American Revolution is only in it's infancy.
Though it could be said that our campaign is finished because we're most probably going to find ourselves lodged in mid-table between the places of 10th and 14th, the next few months will be very important as they lay the foundations for 2019/20. All the progression we make from now until May will be carried into the promotion push we're expected to sustain, as the owners look to help guide us into the EFL again.
Above all else, though, the next few months are about enjoying football. November onwards has delivered me some of the most exciting times I can remember while supporting this club. When we were losing almost every game enroute to relegation to the National League, the matchday experience was utterly horrible. Now it's the exact opposite irrespective of the result and the fact that we've got to that stage now, especially considering what it was like during the first three months of the season, is a testament to the work being done behind the scenes.
One of the best pieces of work performed by the club was announcing Conor Wilkinson on an 18-month contract on Thursday. We've now got Goodliffe and Onariase on loan until the end of the season, we've got Wilko, Balanta and McQueen here until the summer of 2020, and we've got Clark and Phipps here until 2021. That's a huge part of our future right there, especially in Conor Wilkinson, whose arrival signals a huge statement of intent from the club.
No doubt he'll go straight into the side that will face Maidstone United today. Last week in the Trophy we were toothless up front in spite of our efforts, and we were crying out for someone like Conor just to make something happen, removing us from the constant cycle of building up a sustained attack, passing it sideways for a bit and then crossing it to absolutely nobody. Conor brings presence and intelligence which makes everybody play better.
Today is an opportunity to get 'back on the horse' so to speak, to start another run. We have three very winnable games starting today and the momentum generated by a couple of consecutive wins will be massive. Maidstone are in crisis somewhat, they're on their third manager of the season and judging by the comments on their online forum, are heading towards relegation. It's down to us to exploit their low confidence.
They sit 23rd in the league and have only picked up six points at home all season. Their fortunate victory over Barrow in August remains their solitary success at the Gallagher Stadium, where they've lost their last four including Tuesday's most recent loss to Maidenhead. They conceded four on that occasion and are clearly weak at the back, yet we'll be taking nothing for granted as this league has shown many times that it's unpredictable.
Anything but three points ill be seen as a disappointment, but I have every faith that we'll perform to our best and that will yield deserved reward.
Up the Dags
When unknown figure Conor Wilkinson arrived at the club prior to our home game against Fylde in November, both his previous goalscoring record and comments from those who watched him at his previous teams indicated that we'd be left largely underwhelmed by the Irishman. It was portrayed to us that we'd loaned in a lazy striker whose bad attitude and outbursts of aggression overshadow any fledgling ability he may have had.
Two months on, he tops both our goal and assist charts despite only being at the club for ten games. Such was his effect on the club and the supporters that the news he'd returned to Gillingham devastated us as much as the departure of anyone would've, and he was only on loan so it's a testament to his contribution. His performances were exciting and he contributed to a goal on average every single game. Yet Conor Wilkinson was so much more than the goals he scored.
He was the type of player for us who instantly generates a thrill just by receiving the ball because everybody knows what he's capable of doing. While he fits the bill of a clinical target-man, he's shown his worth in other areas and can often be found defending resiliently in his own box, like against Boreham Wood when he single-handedly prevented us conceding by clearing a dangerous header off the line. His mere presence causes panic, and gives supporters hope that no matter the situation or deficit, we're never truly out of a game.
His goals have been varied; Conor has shown his ability to find the net in a range of different areas. From his outstanding flicked equaliser at Salford to his unbelievable solo effort originating from the corner-flag at home to Havant, he's been dangerous in all positions on the pitch. Added to this, he's established himself as a good shooter from distance as both Fylde and Havant & Waterlooville can verify. However, there was always the sense that his spell at the club was temporary at best.
Wilkinson's awareness, skill and technical ability are miles away from the typical standards of the National League, as he's capable of performing in League 2 at the absolute minimum. Glimpses of talent were seen in League One in brief instances, no more than when he scored a magnificent goal away at Portsmouth just under a year ago, but a fractious relationship with the Gillingham manager meant that he couldn't perform at his best. Unfortunately, that was a recurring theme amongst supporters of his previous clubs, which was somewhat worrying.
It seems, though, that Conor Wilkinson and Dagenham & Redbridge are a perfect match, with both bolstering the other. Without Wilkinson, we're as toothless up front as our limp FA Trophy display at Salford showed, a lower mid-table side at best. For Wilkinson, without the Daggers he'd be undeservedly frozen out of the Gillingham team, with confidence at rock-bottom and frustration growing. It seems obvious that, while many may say that his attitude sabotaged himself, he's also been mismanaged.
We've managed to get the best out of him and it looks like Conor is finally enjoying his football. We haven't really seen any negative signs so far and the reaction to some of his teammates' goals proves that he has developed passion for the club, and it's great to see. It must've been hard to perform when you get rare minutes on the pitch, but here Wilko has the freedom, and the unwavering support of the fans.
To land him on a permanent deal is absolutely amazing, and more evidence of the brilliance of our new owners. I personally can't remember being more excited about any signing over the last five years - this is a huge part of our future. The club, and owners, deserve immense praise for making this happen, on top of countless other aspects that they've done which will improve the club. It was a difficult 2018, but those who stuck with us when we were on the brink of devastation are reaping the benefits now.
And the ironic thing is that, if Hopkin hadn't pulled out so unceremoniously, we wouldn't be in the situation we are now. Under these infectiously-passionate Americans, our future is bright and the possibilities are endless. Wilkinson is a massive part of that. Him and Balanta are one of the best partnerships in the league already and hopefully that continues to blossom.
Up the Dags, and up the Conor Wilkinson!
We entered 2018 with strong hope and expectation that we could make the end-of-season playoffs, before it all fell apart and the very existence of the club was jeopardised. There were catastrophically low moments, ultimately offset by euphoria of new investment, which inspired us to an incredible run of form. Players came and went but the biggest change came when Peter Taylor arrived at the helm in place of John Still.
The Daggers went from relegation certainties to comfortable mid-table security with just a few signings, earning some of our most impressive victories since we returned to the National League. Though 2018 will forever be synonymous with our financial instability, crazily it turned out to bring some of our best moments in many-a-year. The dramatic turnaround at Hartlepool, ending Salford's unbeaten home run and getting one over on Leyton Orient, at long last, all went a long way to repairing the wounds of February.
So we enter 2019 with fresh optimism and a sense of security that we certainly lacked at this stage last season. Such was the chaotic and turbulent nature of the twelve months preceding it, that nothing to happen this year would really surprise me. Ultimately, though, I suspect it's the year where we'll finish around the middle of the pile and then bring in new faces to sustain a promotion challenge in 2019/20.
Like last year, we begin against Leyton Orient and a win would not only preserve our excellent form over the last ten games, but would already give 2019 it's first outstanding moment. For the first time in ages, it's Orient looking to get revenge over us rather than the other way round. On Boxing Day, we came from a goal down to win 2-1. It was an incredible comeback and finally gave us the bragging rights over our London neighbours.
Even if we lose today, we've proven that we're no longer at Orient's mercy but three points today would be simply magnificent. Losing our unbeaten run against Barnet was disappointing but unfortunately it was just one game too many for us, and the absence of Jack Munns and Alex McQueen proved monumental. If they're back today which I presume they are, then we'll be at our strongest and we can take on any team in those circumstances.
Orient themselves will approach today with a bit of trepidation, especially as only a Dean Brill penalty save prevented a third away defeat in a row at Dover on Saturday. Only one victory from four, that being against lowly Chesterfield, makes this their worst run of form this season. They lost to Boreham Wood prior to being defeated by us; with Wrexham closing in on them at the top of the table, they need three points and this attributes a lot of pressure to today's game.
Last week was somewhat of an off day for them and they should be a lot more fluid today, especially at Brisbane Road, where they've only tasted defeat once. Josh Koroma and Macauley Bonne need no introduction to us. Koroma highlighted his threat with a lovely toepoked opener, but Bonne was largely quiet and will look to impose himself more on our defence today. Whether Jobi McAnuff is available could play a crucial role in deciding the outcome as his inclusion on the wing not only bolsters their wide options, but usually allows Koroma to play in his favoured position up front.
But we can damage the O's as much as they can damage us. Against Barnet we had five at the back but also two defensive midfielders so essentially had seven players sitting back, therefore we lost the midfield and this left Balanta and Wilkinson completely isolated. Munns is the centrepiece between defence and attack and gives us so much coherency. He's nippy, runs at defenders and wriggles through even the tiniest of gaps.
Wilkinson is one of the best strikers in the division. He's always lively and in just seven games has established himself as both our joint-top scorer and joint-top assist-maker. His combination with Balanta is superb and has yielded so much reward in recent weeks. It's amazing to see how far we've developed and a massive part of that is our mentality when playing top teams. Harrogate, Fylde, Salford, Orient. Played 4, won 4 - no fear.
Momentum may have drained somewhat but I've already seen that these boys have mental courage. It's gonna be a big day with lots of supporters making the short trip and getting behind the team.
Brisbane Road has always brought us misery in the past, from FA Cup exits to suffering relegation there in 2016. Last week we shrugged off our previous disappointments against them and now we have a chance to build on that.
UP THE DAGS!
I am Joel Page, an avid Dagger who travels across the country watching the club. Over the last few years, I've absorbed the turbulent rollercoaster ride that comes with supporting the Daggers and have seen us both at our highest and our lowest. From 'that' day at Wembley to watching us suffer a devastating drop into non-league, it's all a part of the journey.