A Supporter's perspective
So Conor Wilkinson has gone, but it seems as if he was never really ours to have. It's a departure as frustrating as it is solemnly inevitable, with Conor the latest in a long line of fans' favourites whose spell here was painfully short-lived. Just as in the case of Morgan Ferrier, Fejiri Okenabirhie, Jodi Jones and most others who exhibit even an ounce of promise at Victoria Road, it was never meant to last. Realism rules optimism and the longer Wilkinson began to star, the shorter his spell would ultimately be.
However, that's the life of a non-league club and especially one which prides itself on its ability to mould and shape players into talented physical and technical specimens. The lure of the Football League is too much and, though it's infuriating to lose a player of Conor's ability, especially to Leyton Orient, the move is something you cannot begrudge him. This is especially after his rapid impact kept us up, almost on his own. Without his 12 goals and 5 assists we'd now be facing the devastating prospect of the National League South.
Although the outcome is a familiar sense of disappointment, that we've neither seen enough of Wilkinson nor received a satisfactory amount of money to warrant him leaving, you can't fault the club in this case. It seemed like we pulled out all the stops to keep him here as long as possible, but through a complicated combination of Wilkinson's desires, his agent's self-motivated infiltration and financial technicalities, we had to put the buyout clause in.
The buyout clause was a win-win situation short-term but a lose-lose situation long-term, it would seem. We'd got him for an extra six months on top of the loan deal, which we would've all been delighted about anyway, but more or less accepted that he was unlikely to remain here beyond that point, clinging onto the unlikely hope that the environment in which Wilkinson was flourishing would sway it in our favour. It was worth a try, as improbable as it was that he'd stay.
The announcement that he'd signed on an 18-month contract was merely a technicality to ensure we wouldn't have to pay him during May and June, rather than the monumental statement of our intentions we all thought at the time. We were sold a dream - but who can blame the club? We tried our best, even matching his League One wages, which is a testament to not only how well we regarded him, but the extent we were willing to go to get him to the club.
Essentially, the fee that we received covered Wilkinson's wages during the summer months so it hasn't cost us any excess money. What we gained from his spell at the club severely outweighs what we've lost. Wilkinson kept us up and with his superb displays ignited hope amongst supporters. His performances helped give us an incredible couple of months around Christmas where morale was as high as it has been in years, coming after a prolonged spell of misery.
He was far too good for the National League - that was blatantly obvious to everybody. Aside from his attacking capabilities, he was a brilliant antagonist, the likes of which we hadn't seen for ages. It was so satisfying to see him get under the skin of every team as he performed with a streak of aggression which seemed to drive him to play well. He thrived on anger and being the villain, which was evident when he celebrated directly in front of many teams he scored against and that made the goals all the more enjoyable.
Loving a player hated by the majority of the division brings such a good feeling, especially as you knew it was likely Wilkinson would have the last laugh. However the biggest thing we'll miss is his clinical finishing. With him in the team, we felt as if there was always a chance of getting anything out of any game, even if we had played awful. Whenever he picked up the ball, there was an audible vibe of excitement and there's not many players who we've seen do that in recent years.
It's a testament to his effect on the club that he'll be missed so sorely despite only featuring 23 times for us. Although there's an overriding element of disappointment that it's Orient to whom he'll now be endeared, we are left in appreciation for how he helped turn our season around in such a short space of time. Conor Wilkinson came in to do a job, to be a short-term fix, and it's fair to say that he definitely did that. He had an unimaginable effect on the team, but now we have to move on and find the next Conor Wilkinson. There's always another one around the corner.
Replacing him will, though, be a difficult task because he offered us so much. Now we have to trust in the management team that we can find a suitor who will have a positive effect on our chances next term. We can't judge the replacement on Wilkinson's standards but, as long as he gives 100% and brings a potent cutting edge to the team, we'll be more than happy. Losing Wilkinson is a blow but it sounds like we were expecting him to go, so hopefully we were prepared for this outcome and have a replacement lined up, just as Leyton Orient did with Macauley Bonne, to our detriment of course.
Dagenham & Redbridge look a very different side to about ten or fifteen minutes ago when they were on the back foot, and here's Benson...BRILLIANT!!!!! Paul Benson...with the stuff of fairytales!''
Wembley Stadium has hosted thousands of high-profile sporting events since it's opening in 2007 and it's fabled arch has overseen plenty of promotions in that time. Several teams have walked those famous 107 steps to lift their silverware and several have watched glumly from down below. Millions of football supporters have emerged from Wembley Park Station with hope in their hearts and nervous excitement in their stomachs.
Therefore it can be virtually guaranteed that the League Two Play-Off Final between Dagenham and Rotherham in 2010 wasn't one that ranks amongst the most memorable to have taken place on the hallowed turf at England's national stadium. Beyond the confines of one unspectacular borough of London and another albeit larger town in South Yorkshire, it's highly doubtful that the game has even been remembered. For Dagenham, though, the day 30th May 2010 will never be forgotten.
It's virtually implausible for it's status as the best day in the history of the football club to be compromised. It was a day of incomprehensible elation, the magnitude of which will forever go understated to people who aren't supporters of the Daggers. We were the pub team from Essex who lived a League One dream, the non-league minnows who would be going to Southampton as their equal, the team of nobodies who were about to line up against future Champions League finalists.
Few teams have shown more desire and passion than Dagenham & Redbridge 2009/10. The team was built on heart and not money, with the spine of the team coming from the likes of Bishops Stortford and White Ensign. But, against all odds, that team made it to League One and the achievement will never be forgotten. So, as we now reach an incredible nine years since that fateful day, it's time for the annual look-back on what is a truly unbelievable memory.
Just a small club in Essex? Well they're just a small club in League One now!
Nine years ago today, Dagenham & Redbridge were promoted to League One. That mere statement only scrapes the surface of what a remarkable achievement it was, and only begins to epitomise the determined attitude which was infectious around the club at the time. From mixing with minnows such as Canvey Island and Gravesend, the Daggers would be playing the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton and Charlton as their equal, after a breathtaking afternoon at Wembley, the home of English football. As we reach an incredible nine years since that monumental occasion, this is the story of a true footballing miracle.
To truly understand the magnitude of that accomplishment, you need to look at where the club currently lies. A non-league outfit, with that League 1 journey a lifetime away, the Daggers are where their fanbase and stadium indicates they truly belong. We were built on good foundations, thriving on a small budget and plucking talented players before developing them into great footballers. We've never had large crowds and attendances have always been on the low side, with most home figures just eclipsing the 1k mark, especially deteriorating since our non-league return. We're a small club from Essex who punch above their weight.
Compare that description to some of the teams we played in our League One campaign; clubs with illustrious pasts visiting the comparatively-tiny ground of an outfit just eighteen years old. Southampton, Brighton, Bournemouth - all now established Premier League outfits. Teams who frequently visit Anfield and Old Trafford amongst other notorious footballing outposts heading to a 6,000-capacity Victoria Road is an amusing thought but thanks to John Still and a tremendous group of players, it became reality. Even now I don't think it's sunk in. It's still remarkable, and the joy is as raw as ever.
Last season, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played their part as Liverpool reached the Champions League final in Kiev. Who'd have known, when they were facing the Daggers at Victoria Road, that seven years later they'd be appearing on the biggest footballing stage of all? While our League One opponents had future Premier League and UCL players amongst their ranks, we had people such as Danny Green, Scott Doe and Peter Gain. That group of players gave all they had for this club, and it was that mentality which served us so well.
Even when you look at our Wembley opponents, Rotherham, you realise how big that victory was. The Millers are now readying themselves for a season in the Championship. They're a massive town, with a large support, but on the day they were thoroughly beaten. Against a backdrop of sun and clear skies, Dagenham were determined and battled to the very last minute. Unfazed, we took a while to find our stride but kept calm throughout.
Eleven heroes in yellow all played their part in the day. You had our French maestro Romain Vincelot, whose powerfully-saved overhead kick really outlined our intentions. Tony Roberts was a hero as he always was, sweeping everything up. When that first Daggers goal hit the net, it took a while for the surreal moment to register. Paul Benson, signed from the very depths of the footballing pyramid, had a Wembley goal and this led to an outstanding piece of commentary.
''Dagenham & Redbridge look a very different side to about ten or fifteen minutes ago, when they were on the back foot, and here's Benson.....BRILLIANT! Paul Benson...with the stuff of fairytales. We're talking about League 2, but that would grace the Premier League'' - that piece of brilliance was the catalyst for an incredible day, with excitement and nerves in equal measure. We'd twice been pegged back, but wouldn't give up and in the end it was Jon Nurse's goal that won it.
Cue chaos, celebrations and delight. The victory meant so much to players and supporters alike. But we'd done it. Dagenham & Redbridge were in League One. The club may have just finished in it's lowest league position in over a decade but when you think back to this day, it will always bring a smile to your face. This isn't a reminder of how far we'd fallen, it is a reminder of how far we came. There may be no players left at the club from that day, but the memories will be forever ingrained into our folklore.
30th May 2010, the greatest day in our history and for many of us, the greatest day of our lives.
Dagenham & Redbridge is hardly a cathedral of English football, but I imagine it's that earthy Lower-League vibe That attracted you to the club.
No question. Going up on the train today, being with the players and being in Salford - what I'm experiencing is something I'm not sure American football fans would appreciate if they went to the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, etc. This is as authentic a football experience as you could possibly have.
Going up on the train today, being with the players, being in Salford - this is as authentic a football experience as you could possibly have.
Victoria Road is not amongst the most attractive or Recognisable grounds in the country, but it seems as if you aim to make it a place people are proud to be in.
When you look at this ground here (The Peninsula Stadium) since we're at Salford City, you see what can be done to create a modern ground even though it may be small and intimate. So we will continue to grow and build on what Victoria Road already has - we're excited to have a blank slate.
We will continue to grow and build on what Victoria Road already has - we're excited to have a blank slate.
We've seen things from a new scoreboard to new seats in the Carling Stand. In regard to the ground, what is your vision in the next five years? What's at the core of your plans?
It won't be five years, but it will be a phased approach where we will just continue to improve areas that we need to. We will look at every aspect of the club and try to make it as modern and clean as possible - to create something that everybody can be proud of.
It will be a phased approach where we will just continue to improve areas that we need to. We will look at every aspect of the club.
You couldn't have known much about the club when you first joined and I imagine Steve Thompson has taught you a lot, but what have you discovered from your various visits to the Daggers so far?
It's been an incredible learning experience. I think I've learned more in the last six months about sport here than I've learned in the last 40 years about any other venture I've had. The mentality of the fans and supporters is incredible because they're so invested in the club, and so passionate about what happens at the club. It's unlike the passive fan I'm used to dealing with, which is someone who wants a great fan experience; they want great food and their family to leave with smiles on their faces. Here, everybody is 'all in', every Saturday - this is their life, it's what makes them wake up in the morning and get excited.
The mentality of the fans and supporters is incredible because they're so invested in the club, and so passionate about what happens. Everybody is 'all in' every Saturday - this is their life, it's what makes them wake up in the morning and get excited.
Every club has an identity unique to them - what do you think The identity of Dagenham & Redbridge Football Club is? To describe us in one word, or one sentence.
Always the over-achieving underdog. Dagenham & Redbridge have been the small club that have gone all the way up to League One and we plan on bringing them back.
Always the over-achieving underdog. Dagenham & Redbridge have been the small club that have gone all the way up to League One and we plan on bringing them back.
CONTRACTED BEYOND NEXT SEASON: Clark, Phipps
CONTRACTED FOR NEXT SEASON: Gordon, McQueen, Balanta, Wilkinson, Bonds
OUT OF CONTRACT (FIRST-TEAM): Justham, Nunn, Robinson, Kandi, Adeloye, Munns, Harfield, Smith
OUT OF CONTRACT (SQUAD PLAYERS): Davey, Pennell, Reynolds, Moore, Hoyte, Bellamy
EXPIRED LOANS: Goodliffe, Wright, Onariase, Loft
The arrival of Notts County into the seemingly endless pit of non-league just confirms what we already knew about the level of competition next season. They were the oldest professional league club in the world until 5pm on Saturday, having been around since 1862 in which time they won an FA Cup and spent 30 seasons at the highest tier of the Football League system.
Upon seeing them crash out of the Football League for the first time in their history, the initial reaction was one of excitement across the National League, as County will deliver sizeable crowds up and down the country plus a Meadow Lane experience that many fans across the division will frantically look for when the fixtures are released at the beginning of July. For those reasons, it's great to have them in the league as it raises it's profile massively.
Reflecting on it more, though, having a team of that calibre potentially fighting alongside us can't be good. Though it would be conceivable for them to struggle just as many floundering ex-League clubs have before them, the probability is that they'll do everything they can to return to the EFL as quickly as possible. The relegation of Macclesfield Town, instead, would have lent itself better to our chances of fighting for promotion next season, which was specified as our intention.
So Notts County join the fifth-tier and will most likely fight towards the summit of the division. You've also got Yeovil Town, in the Championship five years ago, whose desire to make their non-league stay short-lived will be just as strong as that of those over at Nottingham. Then there's Chesterfield, who've got themselves together and will, without doubt, push on, not to forget the likes of Barnet and Hartlepool who now know what the league is about, and will look to get it right.
That's before you even touch on the teams who've just fell short this campaign. Wrexham and Harrogate for definite, maybe Solihull and Eastleigh if they can replicate their surprising performances, will look to sustain another challenge. The loser of the final between Fylde and Salford will be determined to go one better, too. Torquay and Stockport won the South and North respectively and won't be here to make up the numbers. There's only one automatic promotion place and ten managers, at the very least, who think they can realistically compete for it.
So where does that link to Dagenham? Well, we're one of those teams who will think we're capable of challenging for the play-offs at least, but have given ourselves arguably the most work (of those teams outlined above) of doing so. We ended 2018/19 with a team that underachieved from January onwards, but do have two or three players that are already of the quality we need. A big Summer is needed, though, with a minimum of seven good-quality signings needed if we even want to think about the play-offs.
What happens before a ball is kicked is just as crucial for us. Peter Taylor has reinforced his namesake Freund's ambition of promotion; if we're to realise our aims, something which seems very difficult and will only get harder with every further year we spend at this level, then we have to get it perfect. Few lapses will go unpunished, few defeats won't be costly. Personally, I look forward to us competing, even if it's just the top half, given the nature of last season.
If we're serious about gaining promotion, though, we need to approach it with a level of determination and ruthless. That might mean being harsh, even unfair, to certain players in regard to offering contracts, but if we don't then we'll end up with another 25-man squad whom most of which won't kick a ball all season. No lenience should be given, no 'benefit of the doubt', no 'possibly''s. For most of those who are out of contract, that will spell bad news but that's the nature of a promotion battle. We can get batter than 90% whose deals are expiring and it's been said that no transfer target will be out of our price range.
With that in mind, I've run the rule over all of our players who finished the 2018/19 season in relation to how conducive their inclusion within the team, is to a potential promotion challenge. Firstly, we have the group of players who are contracted for next campaign, two of which have a deal that lasts beyond that:
Clark, Phipps, Gordon, McQueen, Bonds, Balanta and Wilkinson are all contracted for next season, and with the exception of Elliot Bonds who is obviously a player for the future, have all shown enough to prove that if they were out of contract, they'd definitely have been offered one anyway. Conor Wilkinson is a player without whom we stand no chance of even thinking about the play-offs, such has been his contribution to the club. He's one of those who generates excitement whenever he picks up the ball and his combination with Ángelo Balanta is what kept us in the division, with Wilkinson's energy and aggression perfectly complimenting the intelligence of his strike partner. Balanta has been decent enough since he arrived from Boreham Wood yet I think it's fair to say we need him to push onto another level starting in August. Alex McQueen's seasons seemed to all but end when he was sent off at Havant, but he came up with some very important goals and was vital during the early months of the season, when he was a shining light alongside Liam Gordon, who - for a player in his first year of senior football - has just been ridiculous. His energy was crucial but not exceeding that boundary is a fine line given that he would often be caught out of position following a lung-busting run forwards. However, the way he played was fresh, his passion infectious, and he thoroughly deserved both his 3rd Placed Player of the Year award, and Supporters' Club Young Player of the Year. Similarly, Harry Phipps was another player whose maturity defied his age and his exclusion from the team, especially having been rewarded with a long contract only weeks beforehand, was absolutely baffling so acted to highlight the scepticism around some of Taylor's decisions. Like Gordon, he will only get better so as long as we don't have him inexplicably sitting in the stands, he should be a good player for us. Finally, Kenny Clark signed in December and though a two-and-a-half year contract seemed hasty for a 30 year-old, he's been generally solid, albeit unspectacular, since signing. However he joined a completely new side it's worth remembering, and Ebbsfleet supporters can't speak highly enough of the man they called 'Concrete', so I'm sure he'll prove his worth as, to be fair, he has begun to do so.
Then there's some players who we had on loan during the season: Ben Goodliffe, Manny Onariase, Will Wright and Doug Loft. The latter two have definitely been surplus to requirements while at the club, but Goodliffe and Manny are two players who fans would take back on a permanent deal in an absolutely heartbeat.
Unlike Manny at Rotherham who we don't appear to have much chance of signing, Ben Goodliffe isn't exactly on the radar at Wolves. He started shakily at the club, with two red cards and penalties conceded in as many months, but got progressively better as the season got on and definitely begun to adapt to the division. He didn't play much towards the end of the campaign, often the victim of formation and the quantity of centre-backs at the club, but before then was consistently one of our best performers over several months in which he showcased both direct and technical abilities, defending with fearlessness and intelligence. Manny Onariase just looked a cut above for us, reading the game so well at all times, but I find our chances of getting him unlikely, especially as Rotherham are now back in League One. Doug Loft joined in January, its clear to see he was once a very good player but that seems to have passed him by, and he spent most of his loan at the club passing it directly to the opposition. He hadn't played football in a while so maybe, after a solid pre-season, he'd be a different player for us but we can't afford to take that chance. He's out of contract, as is Will Wright at Colchester. To be fair to him, Wright has been unexpectedly accomplished as a right-back and performed very well, unfortunately it followed eight months of him being very poor though. Once again, another who could be an asset under different circumstances but simply not a player, or not yet a player, who we should have on our books next season.
That brings me to the out-of-contract players, which is the area in which the biggest decisions will be made. There are 15 players in this category, and I've organised them in order of how many league starts they made in 2018/19. (Green = Keep | Yellow = Arguments for Both | Red = Release)
Elliot JUSTHAM: This isn't even a decision, he should've been bundled into a room and given the papers to sign the moment he left the pitch following the Solihull Moors game. Very rarely have we had a more worthy Player of the Year winner and it's as much a testament to his talents that we stayed up as it is the likes of Wilkinson and Balanta who made the difference at the other end. There's not a single Dagger who wouldn't want Justham to sign a contract as soon as possible.
Matt ROBINSON: Once again a fairly routine choice, this has undoubtedly been his best season in a Daggers shirt and, while many have been questionable of him in the past, nobody can dispute that his gritty presence in midfield was important to our survival. A technical creator alongside him, much like when we had Andre Boucaud under John Still, could enable Robinson to flourish. He's earned an extension.
Jack MUNNS: A difficult one, it would be great to have someone that has won this league before (while at Cheltenham) but he obviously can't perform to his best under Peter Taylor. Prior to January, Munns would've been one of the first that fans would have wanted to sign a contract but since then his contribution has been limited - that's partially not his fault because the likes of Wright and Loft were keeping him out of the team. However, he's got quality and I think we should keep him.
Ben NUNN: Great captain and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to have at your club. When he joined the Daggers, he was a full-back who got up and down brilliantly, delivering teasing crosses, but in recent times it seems as if that aspect of his game has been a real struggle. Made quite a few individual errors last season, though then again people forget that before November-ish, he was performing well. That said, there's doubts and for that reason, this is a difficult one.
Luke PENNELL: Every time Pennell seems as if he's on track to a sustained spell of games in which he can play his best football, there seems to be another setback. He's a good player but we've persevered for ages now and the fact that he misses an average of two thirds of every season he's been here unfortunately speaks volumes. If we gave him another contract, he'd play well for a while but the same thing would happen again. I highly doubt he's in Peter Taylor's plans for next season.
Tomi ADELOYE: There's not been a single time where Tomi has been in the team and not played well. He always looks dangerous and it makes you wonder what he'd been like had we played a few more games in 2018/19, which he probably deserved to. However, we can only go by his contribution on the pitch, and a three-goal striker unfortunately isn't of the standard we need. He'd be great to keep as an option who can dictate games when he came on, but Taylor probably won't take that chance.
Chike KANDI: Kandi made 14 starts and 23 sub appearances, taking him to a total of 37 games played, which proves that he is regarded somewhat well by Taylor. His positive end-of-season form might be what swings it here, but looking at his overall performances, coupled with the fact that he's a player we actually paid money for, he hasn't been good enough often enough. Frustratingly, he seems to be lots of running but little end product. However, like Adeloye, he's rarely played poorly.
Ollie HARFIELD: Too little, too late for him unfortunately. Showed glimpses of quality against both Eastleigh and Solihull at home but those were both nothing games for us, and certainly not enough to constitute giving players contracts for playing well in. 1 goal and 1 assist tells it's own story and we can do a lot better when delving into the transfer market. To be fair, he's given the manager something to think about recently, but it shouldn't be enough.
Nathan SMITH: I worry about the stamina of a man who's 33 and lacking in game time over the last couple of years. However, considering that he's been fairly decent during his time here, he could be a right player with a thorough pre-season under his belt. He's a leader and certainly has the experience of a promotion battle, which obviously lends itself well to our situation. Could be a risk but a risk worth taking in my opinion.
Gavin HOYTE: Not in a Peter Taylor team. His limited contribution in 2018/19 wasn't really his fault - he performed well enough in the rare appearances he made to prove that he deserved more, but he's not going to get it at Victoria Road and, even if we offered him a contract against all odds, I don't see what would motivate him to sign up for another year of being frozen out without explanation. Good player, though, and his exclusion is one all of us have been trying to solve.
Alex DAVEY: Nasty injury that hampered his progress but not once this season has he looked good enough for us, and he proved that with his display at Braintree on Easter Monday. I think this choice was probably made long before this is being written. Davey is just too reckless and erratic to justify another contract, but I acknowledge that it was hard for him to flourish at the times in which his services were required this season.
Lamar REYNOLDS: One of the most disappointing players we've had at the club, whose displays didn't match up to the hype around his signing. When he made his debut against West Ham, we all thought we were on to a magical player but since then he's fallen to pieces whenever a big chance falls his way, shirking several one-on-ones. Too lightweight, too inconsistent. The fact that Reynolds was loaned out to Chelmsford is a good indication that he won't be at the Daggers come July.
Lewis MOORE: Only seen him twice, at Ebbsfleet in the FA Trophy and at Braintree on Easter Monday, and he hasn't looked bad. For a back-up keeper, he seems decent enough and his display at the Kuflink Stadium for that Trophy game was brilliant, some of the saves he made giving the impression that he's an experienced keeper used to playing every week. You can't expect much more for a second keeper, he might not be needed but, if he is for a short spell, I'm sure that we'll be in safe hands.
James BLANCHFIELD: 1 start, 4 sub appearances. Didn't pull up any trees while on loan at Lowestoft. The conversation with Blanchfield following the end of the season would probably have been a short one.
Liam BELLAMY: Don't even know what to say really. He's played a combined total of around 60 minutes despite supposedly being a player who would improve us massively.
'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
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.