IT WAS EXACTLY ONE YEAR TO THE DAY SINCE AN AMERICAN CONSORTIUM EMERGED FROM THE SHADOWS TO SUDDENLY TAKE OVER A DAGENHAM SIDE THAT WERE FINANCIALLY STRUGGLING AND SEEMINGLY HEADING TOWARDS RELEGATION TO THE NATIONAL LEAGUE SOUTH - AN OCCASION THE DAGGERS MARKED WITH A BRILLIANT HOME PERFORMANCE THAT EPITOMISED THE PROGRESS THAT HAS BEEN MADE THROUGHOUT THOSE EVENTFUL TWELVE MONTHS. ALL THE ATTRIBUTES OF A VERY PROMISING SIDE WERE EVIDENT DURING A 3-1 VICTORY AGAINST HARTLEPOOL THAT PROPELLED THE DAGGERS INTO THEIR HIGHEST LEAGUE POSITION SINCE THE LIKES OF MORGAN FERRIER AND COREY WHITELY WERE AT THE CLUB, TAKING THEIR UNBEATEN RUN TO A VERY IMPRESSIVE SEVEN GAMES IN THE PROCESS. EVERYTHING SEEMS TO BE GOING RIGHT FOR THE DAGGERS SO FAR, WITH THEIR PERFORMANCES PROVING ENTERTAINING AS WELL AS EFFECTIVE.
The Maidenhead game felt like a turning point. A dominant display, arguably the best of Peter Taylor's managerial reign so far, gave them an eagerly-awaited first clean sheet of the season, the momentum from which would be crucial in the coming weeks. A big test against Hartlepool would follow, with Craig Hignett's side also in the midst of a six-game unbeaten run and seemingly getting better each week. Just a single goal put the Pools above the Daggers in the league standings, indicating the kind of tight encounter that would take place. Small margins would prove crucial, and a positive start was vital. There may be 225 miles between the sides but, as expected, nothing much separated them on the pitch throughout the opening twenty minutes. The Daggers edged the opening stages, but were a bit off-colour as their usual interplay and cohesion was seemingly lacking, evidenced by Ángelo Balanta struggling to control the ball in positions he would usually wriggle free from with his usual delicate flair.
Hartlepool showed glimpses of their quality, particularly when either Gus Mafuta or Ryan Donaldson were in possession, but like their Southern counterparts they couldn't quite unlock their full creative potential. Three minutes in and a good exchange of passes worked the ball to the hosts' Joe Quigley, who turned excellently but failed to produce a shot to match, as his low strike bobbled almost apologetically into the hands of Killip. Hartlepool struggled to fashion many chances, partially due to the excellent work of Phipps and Robinson to stop Liam Noble from dictating play, and also partially because they were quite predictable and one-dimensional at times, always looking to clip a long ball to Donaldson, who constantly made the run in-between Clark and Croll. Although the defence were undone by this a couple of times early on, they soon adjusted to the threat and were rarely threatened for the rest of the half. A clever manoeuvre and shot from powerful frontman Gimé Touré was the closest they came, but Justham never treated it as anything other than a routine save.
Rather than this providing encouragement for Craig Hignett's side, it seemed to spark the Daggers into life. Luque began to work his magic and clearly had the measure of his marker Peter Kioso, whom he flew past with ease. Kenny Clark then headed wide while off-balance from a corner, prompting a dramatic few minutes of football either side of the hour-mark. With 24 gone, a glorious passage of play saw Balanta produce a brilliant bit of movement to work a yard of space before feeding Luque, who showed excellent awareness to then find Quigley unmarked in the box. The shot was unconvincing, but Daggers' number 15 done enough to send a low shot squirming through the legs of Killip, trickling slowly into the net to give Taylor's men a richly-deserved lead. So often this season a lack of a second goal was Daggers downfall, but they were in determined to kill this one off. Balanta was so unlucky to hit the post with an effort that went out for a corner, before the resulting set-piece was powered onto the crossbar by Manny Onariase, who rose in such a fashion that it seemed for all the world that he was going to send it crashing into the roof of the net.
Then, not long after, Harry Phipps was put through on goal by an inch-perfect pass, but he could only fire against the legs of Killip from a tight-angle. The Daggers should've gone into the break with a commanding lead, however it wasn't the comfortable end to the half most people envisaged as Hartlepool enjoyed a late rally. Thankfully, Onariase and Clark teamed up excellently to shut off several attacks and maintain the advantage Dagenham were worthy of, before referee eventually signalled the end of another encouraging half. The second period began on a nervy note. Dagenham had chances, the biggest of which came when Dobson found the side-netting from a tight angle, however they were often sandwiched between brief spells of Pools' pressure. As Touré tested Justham with a low shot and a Noble free-kick was finger-tipped over, Dagenham's lead looked fragile and the need for a second goal was reaffirmed. Then, out of nowhere, they got it.
Just as the game appeared to be diminishing into a drab encounter, Balanta found the net with a goal that typified his ability. As much as it was a horrific mistake from Killip, who erratically launched himself towards a ball he was never going to get, Balanta did brilliantly to nip in and finish from a very narrow angle. Like the first goal it took an age to roll into the net, finally crawling over the line via the post, but Dagenham had the second goal and were surely heading towards another three points. With a more comfortable cushion, the Daggers attacked with more freedom, and it should've been three when Balanta and substitute McQueen both had shots in the box after a rapid attack from the team. Joe Quigley, who had performed fantastically, also went close with a curling strike on the turn, but Killip made a good save. However, as is often the case with Dagenham, there was to be another twist. Moments after Robinson had brought an end to one attack with an outstanding tackle, Hartlepool attacked again. Clark failed to clear and Donaldson struck an effort that seemed to be curving away from goal until a mightily-unfortunate deflection sent it rasping into the bottom-left corner.
All at once, the home support was silent as the atmosphere the already-exuberant away contingent rose a few decibels. However, Dagenham fans barely had time to dwell on what could potentially go wrong before the ball was at the other end again. Bagasan Graham, who had made a fantastic impression since coming on, crossed for Balanta, who swivelled and glanced the ball against the crossbar. Quickest to react was Joe Quigley, who smashed the ball past Killip to restore the order of the afternoon. There should've been another goal to enjoy as McQueen burst from the half-way line but he was pushed to the floor before he could square for Balanta, who would've had a one-on-one with Killip. The referee inexplicably gave only a yellow card, but it was merely a split-second of frustration in a performance littered with overwhelming positives. The Daggers are up to fifth!