We may be facing our second match in just 48 hours, but tonight City can strike a psychological advantage over our rivals by registering three points, and once again striding ahead in the race for the National League title.
Obviously it won’t be an easy task, up until a couple of weeks ago it looked as if Dagenham & Redbridge would be involved in the race for the title. A partial collapse in March has left them six points adrift of us, and we have two games in hand over them. They’ll still believe they have a chance though, and a win for them tonight would push them right back into contention.
As we saw from Bromley on Saturday, there are no easy games in this league. There are plenty of tough ones though, and both on paper and on the pitch tonight is going to be a tough fixture. We have a habit of rising to the occasion against our promotion rivals, in seven games against the teams currently in the play-offs we’ve lost just once. That was against Dagenham (I’ll let you put the ‘and Redbridge’ in yourself now, it’s too much of a pain to type), way back in August. They handed us our first away defeat of the season in a game that neutral observers felt we deserved more from, and tonight revenge would not just be sweet but also crucial in our own pursuit of league football.
Dagenham have lost five of the last nine, but have won the other four, and like us they seem to have an issue putting organised and resolute sides away. They’ve lost to Barrow, Guiseley, Aldershot and Maidstone, all teams that needed to secure vital points. They have managed to beat Forest Green (for what it’s worth), and they did manage to not only break York down (1-0), but also to hand Eastleigh a sound thrashing (4-0). They are a real Jekyll and Hyde team, and we know they’ll come to City looking to attack with pace and play the ball around in the final third. An awful lot depends on which Dagenham turn up.
There have been question marks over their defence, but they’ve kept two clean sheets in a row recently and they’re hoping that is a sign of them turning a corner. They’ve only kept three clean sheets in a row once this season, in matches against Braintree (3-0), North Ferriby (4-0) and Tranmere (2-0) back in January. They do have a good record against teams in the play off race just as we do, in seven matches against the top five they’ve lost just once (Aldershot), won three (Us, FGR and Tranmere) and drawn two (FGR and Tranmere). They seem to raise their game for the top sides, and we’ll face our sternest test in ten days this evening.
Striker Oliver Hawkins was their main goal threat, but like our own target man Rheady, he has suffered something of a drought in recent weeks. Hawkins last scored on February 18th (Rheady hasn’t scored since the 11th) as they lost to Guiseley, and he’ll doubtless be looking to get back amongst the goals. How we deal with his threat will be a key part of how we come out of the game.
Much will depend on how City line up for the game as well, and I think there will be changes from the starting line-up against Bromley. I wonder if perhaps Billy Knott might get a start after his goal scoring exploits, and if Terry Hawkridge is fit I suspect he might come in for Harry Anderson. The strength of our squad is crucial to the next few weeks and it could be the deciding factor this evening. We have a real array of fast players who can expose tired legs in the final twenty minutes, and Dagenham are used to being exposed late on in halves. Prior to their two clean sheets they’ve conceded three late second half goals in six games. They also look susceptible to a goal in the run up to half time, conceding three goals just before the break in six games as well. If we’re looking to press home an advantage expect it to come late it either half. I know that means a nervy and tense forty minutes or so in both halves, but as Danny said, just enjoy it!
It’s best not to focus on previous meetings, from 2001 we’ve played them eight times, losing five and drawing one. Our two wins came in March 2009 when Janos Kovacs, Aaron Brown and Anthony Elding fired us to a 3-0 win at Victoria Road, probably the single biggest contribution from the ‘Magnificent Seven’. Our only home win of the millennium came in 2008 when Ben Wright and a last minute Dany N’Guessan strike gave us all three points.
We did meet them twice in our GMVC season in 1987/88. After two straight defeats in our opening fixtures it was a 3-0 over the Daggers that got our season on track, although that was before the formation of Dagenham and Redbridge. Back then just Dagenham were soundly beaten 3-0 with goals from David Mossman (2) and Les Hunter. The return fixture also finished 3-0 to City thanks to Phil Brown (2) and Dave Clarke. There’s no doubt at all that we’d take that sort of score line tonight. In truth I suspect another scrappy 1-0 win would do us just fine.
Former Imps assistant boss John Still is an experienced and wily character though who has plotted three teams escape from this division. He was in charge of Dagenham when they won the title in 2007, and again with Luton in 2014. In 1989 he guided Maidstone to promotion, and in doing so became the first ‘proper’ non-league team to go up automatically. He’ll be looking to make it four promotions even if it means coming through the play-offs and although four points separate D&R and sixth place Dover, he’ll feel they need a bigger cushion and a win against City would begin to provide that.
One final interesting feature of the Dagenham side is the name of their goal keeper Elliot Justham. He’s been plagued with chants of ‘you’re just a shit Tesco sandwich’ all season, much to the amusement of fans across the country.
One thing is for sure, tonight is the most important league game since Saturday, and there will be none more important until next Saturday. Another 6,500+ crowd is expected as we go in search of three more points that will put increased pressure on our promotion rivals.