The Northamptonshire marriage has already made it into (and out of) the Football League; now an east London club with roots in four others are riding high in the Conference. David Stubbs watches the battle of the mergers

There’s always that great Saturday afternoon matchday sense you get that you’re approaching a stadium. Suddenly, as you walk into the station, you realise you’re part of a steadily growing crowd. The pace has quickened, with everyone walking with a slightly cocky, anticipatory gait. You squeeze on to the District Line, a hitherto empty carriage now bulging. Then, two stops down, everyone ups and pours out of the carriages en masse. Everyone, that is, except you. For the stop is Upton Park. They’re all off to West Ham v Watford, whereas you are heading further up the line, towards Dagenham East. And now, as the train pushes on, you’re alone in the carriage, except for another bloke and a dog. And they’re getting off at Upney.

Approaching Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road ground at 2.20, along a desultory high street of off-licences, launderettes and ­off‑licences, and few if any second-hand vinyl reggae stores, just on the cusp between London and England, I wonder if, in fact, I’ve arrived in the wrong town. A quarter of a mile from the ground and the only fans I’ve seen are a group of claret-and‑blue scarved kids, stragglers heading West Hamwards. Only on turning into Victoria Road itself, a terraced row of irregularly stone-clad houses, are my fears partly allayed by the distant stench of fried onions. Then I see a Sky reporter interviewing Dagenham’s manager, John Still, with excited nippers and one or two adults jumping about in the background trying to get on camera. The ground lies low and discreet in a flat land of social housing and light industrial indifference. It is, of course, done out in bright red, but not red as in Big Red. It’s subtly different, somehow. If Dulux were marketing the paint, they’d probably call it “Conference Red”.

Perhaps this “Red” is all that’s left of Redbridge, with whom Dagenham “merged” in 1992. In fact, D&R have their roots in four teams, including Leytonstone, Ilford and Walthamstow. Redbridge Forest, as was, were themselves a merger of Walthamstow Avenue and Leytonstone/Ilford. Rushden & Diamonds, meanwhile, were welded together by Dr Martens owner Max Griggs back in 1992 from Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds and by 2003 had ascended all the way to Division Two, before descending on a long, slow, inexorable slide back down to the Conference, where, before today’s game, they are languishing in 15th place in the table, while Dagenham are sitting nicely at the top.

Today’s game, then, is a case of Pariah v Pariah. The whole business of mergers is not just confusing and depressing, but a source of some bitterness to other Conference fans in particular – the lower leagues, far from being gentler pastures of homelier, more authentic footballing culture, would seem to be more vulnerable to these sorts of dealings and enforced uprootings. Such amalgamations remind me of 1970s ­comics, when Tiger “merged” with Jag. Even as youngsters, we knew that Jag, whatever Jag had been, was as dead as pre-decimal coinage. Similarly, when Melody Maker was closed in 2000, a pretence was made that NME had “incorporated” MM, as if owners IPC magazines were in denial about its demise. Really, however, these mergers are the equivalent of, say, my renaming myself David Stubbs & Jacket Potato With Cheese about an hour after the match.

Dagenham are regarded to have gobbled up much of the territory that lies beyond the Ford plant whose employees doubtless provide the bulk of their fanbase, as if with aspirations to become some sort of lower-league footballing EastLondonia. And yet, among the Dagenham fans who about quarter-fill the stadium (the attendance is just over the 1,800 mark), or even among the websites, it’s hard to gauge any particular mood of defensiveness or siege mentality. They seem oblivious to that – a case of “no one likes us, we don’t know”.

Indeed, it’s hard to gauge any sort of mood at all. No great sense of elation, despite roosting comfortably atop the table, none of that chronic pessimism that is so often the default conditioning of the diehard Conference fan. A woman filming the match from the gantry tries to get a bit of pre-match flavour, picking out two small boys, one black and one white, coaxing from them a loud “C’mon, Dagenham!” This is not exactly ethnically representative – the crowd is a sea of Caucasian. These, however, are a strikingly ordinary collection of people who have given up their Saturday afternoon – lots of young lads but no sense of chav yobbishness, lots of blokes alone but no sense of more-lower-league-than-thou nerdiness or unbalanced fanaticism or of them being social misfits, quite a few families, a lot of small boys. Their placid demeanour, however, doesn’t exactly translate into atmosphere.

This is more the crinkle-cut-chip-in-a-tray than prawn-sandwich brigade, but the stand-in PA announcer has a hard time getting any reaction out of anybody. He tells us of a cheque that has been donated to the club for £5,000. No response – it’s as if he’s Hopkirk (deceased). A little hurt, he tries again. “Five thousand paahnds!” Still nothing. The announcement of a child’s fifth birthday doesn’t even elicit a single tiny cheer, poor kid. He has a little more luck reading out the team sheet. The first few names, including ex-QPR keeper Tony Roberts, get a small “rah” each, but then they stop after number four, relapsing back into a silence that’s almost oriental in its inscrutability.

All the stranger, then, when Dagenham take the pitch to the celestial chariot strains of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, when something by George Formby might be more appropriate. This, however, quickly mutates into a piece of Eurodisco so extensive I fear that the kick-off may have to be delayed until 3.15.

It dies away and we get started. Despite their lowlier position, it’s Rushden who look the sharper and quicker, with Dagenham playing like they’re still sat on their top bunk, stretching their arms, pyjama-clad, easing themselves slowly into the game like slippers. It may come as a surprise to the general reader that the standard of football is not great. I’m wafted back to a Barnet v Walsall game I attended some months ago in which, frankly, the man of the match was the wind. Putative attacks run aground, passes go astray with such regularity (or so it might seem to an outsider spoiled on a caviar diet of Premiership football) that you begin to wonder, as with the Eton wall game, if it might be decades before anybody scores. The most graceful moments come from the referee, Mr Horwood from Gravesend, who when indicating a free-kick unfurls his arm like a swan uncoiling its neck.

Despite their indifferent start, Daggers fans only grow restive whenever Rushden’s full-back Glenn Wilson takes a throw-in. Minutes seem to tick by as he contemplates his options, arranges himself into a shape, checks the rearrangement, contemplates his options again, has a rethink on his shape-arrangement, then contemplates his options once again in a Hamlet-like state of existential quandary, to the growing exasperation of the crowd. “In yer own facking time, mate!” On the terraces, two shaven-headed but not hostile-looking cheerleaders with a drum, along with a vertically challenged friend, try to galvanise the crowd with a ceaseless tom-tom but to limited avail.

Gradually, Dagenham’s mixture of peroxided forwards and close-cropped midfielders do decide to clamber down and take part in the game, threading some football together and generally asserting their superiority. Yet it’s Rushden who look the most lethal, taking advantage of what murmuring Dagenham fans agree is a certain complacency on their team’s part after a good run. And, following two good chances that whistle over the bar, it’s Rushden who take the lead on 33 minutes, as Simeon Jackson, conspicuously the most talented player on the pitch, cuts inside the penalty area and rifles a shot into the top-right corner, to a mass silence of stunned Daggers pinching themselves. Yonder behind their own goal, the 80 or so travelling Rushden fans, who from a distance look like the silhouettes of Visigoths, cheer malevolently.

The goal, however, has an effect on Dagenham not unlike a cattleprod on a dozy Friesian. Almost immediately, they stampede down the left flank and Paul Benson, a miniature Peter Crouch-alike, slides in the equaliser from close range.

The pattern of play isn’t especially altered in the second half, as the skies darken and the cold sets in. Dagenham & Redbridge’s main sponsors are West & Coe, the local funeral directors, a potential source of creaky mirth in less happy times for the club. However, you don’t feel in any danger of being carried out in a coffin, more like you’re being slowly suspended into a cryogenic state. The quality of football is becoming harder to endure, a ragtag of shanked clearances, poor decisions, desperately unsubtle fouls and free-kicks that end up in adjoining postal districts. Not until the 88th minute does Roberts deliver a goal-kick that doesn’t veer as wildly askew as a cheap Scud.

“Tempo! Tempo!” cries the bloke next to me. Dagenham appear to heed him, pressing with “when, not if” determination in search of the winner, perhaps riled by a spot of handbags on the touchline, which stirs the nearby stand to rise from their seats for the one and only time in the game. And yet, it’s Rushden who – against form, expectation and the run of play – go 2-1 ahead, courtesy of  Chris Hope latching on to a stray ball on the edge of the area. The final two minutes are a belated crescendo of crowd excitement as Dagenham surge forward like the hare desperately trying to catch the tortoise, in top gear at last, but it’s too late.

There are no boos, nor even great disappointment, as fans file out. They understand that, like the rain that’s beginning to trickle down, bang on cue as John Still commences his post-match TV interview, disappointments such as this are part of the inevitable, even nurturing climate of the game. Stoicism, I realise, is the word I’ve been looking for. There is a creditable lack of the sort of bipolar, high-expectation emotionalism of 6.06, “top level” footballing culture.

One online Daggers fan board contributor ascribed Dagenham’s haemorrhaging of support in recent times to a general disillusionment on the part of some fans with modern football, with its ever grosser disparity between top and bottom, super-rich and scrimpers. That hasn’t been enough to put off these fans, whose outing is rounded off with the biggest cheer of the afternoon. West Ham have lost to Watford.

From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month

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