The year is 2002, the month is March. Depressingly, Will Young is top of the charts with ‘Anything is Possible’ but the lovely Shakira is second with the catchy ‘Whenever, Wherever.’ At the cinema, we are about to have our IQ lowered by Ali G Indahouse and the headlines are dominated by the invasion of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, two teams are neck-and-neck in the race to claim the sole promotion place from the Conference to the Football League. They meet before the Sky TV cameras on a Monday night in East London. In a scrappy game, one side does just enough to claim a 1-0 win. The result is crucial, it puts them seven points clear in the table. Thinking it’s all done and dusted, the home side perform a lap of honour, celebrating as though it’s all over. It is a fatal mistake.
The teams are, as i’m sure you worked just after the bit about Ali G, Dagenham and Redbridge and Boston United. The respective bosses are Garry Hill and S**ve E**ns. They absolutely hate each other, their war of words creating a thoroughly entertaining sub-plot to a championship battle as tight as Shakira’s backside. in the end, United were motivated by that lap of honour more than anything E**ns could ever say or bribe and they went on to win the title on the last day.
So, fast forwarding to the present, and my first visit to Dagenham and (*takes deep breath*) The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium is not one to be taken lightly. I’m pretty sure they still hate Boston for cheating to beat them into the league, even though both managers are long gone and the sides have now swapped places.
A well-known Boston sports reporter described my visit there as the “ultimate sin” (move over, Eve) and many cautioned against a trip to the Eastern hinterlands of London on the ground that it was quite a long way for a Tuesday night and the Tube would be really, really busy.
But at least I could visit with ‘Pilgrims’ solidarity, for Plymouth were appearing there and my online colleague Rob was going. And boy it was a long way, 27 stops on the rush hour district line from High Street Kensington to Dagenham East (could they sound any more different?)
The ground sounds like one long Freedom of Information request (Rob’s observation) and is about as dull as one. It’s a bad sign when a club gives the best stand over to the away fans and the excellent 500-plus following from the Westcountry had a good stab at filling it. They were loud throughout despite having minimal hopes for the season.
The rest of the ground belongs in the non-league I’m afraid, as do their attendances and most of the football we saw. It was a much better goalless draw that many I’ve seen in the past, but only the home side actually looked like scoring.
If it hadn’t been for a succession of great saves from Jake Cole and a big dollop of good fortune, Plymouth would have been dead and buried by half-time. The first of the saves, from Dwight Gayle’s top corner-bound shot, was the pick, while cross after cross flew across goal begging for a touch.
Late in the half, Plymouth could have gained an unlikely lead when Conor Hourihane picked out Matt Lecointe, only for the England Under-18 international to drag his shot badly wide.
The second-half was very poor, with chances at a premium. The Plymouth defence held firm, throwing bodies on the line to block the dangerous supply of crosses. In fact, the highlight, like Saturday at Droylsden, came from the PA announcer, who asked the crowd to stop using flash photography as it was ‘distracting’ the players. Tom Daley has set an annoying precedent here.
The response from the away end was sparkling Westcountry wit: “We’ll flash when we want, we’ll flash when we want, we’re Plymouth Argyle, we’ll flash when we want.” Just wonderful.
Drifting out into the East End night, a home fan had a pop at us for putting the players off with our incessant photography as though Dagenham might break out the tiki-taka as long as nobody knows about it. He was walking on a crutch so thankfully we could walk quicker than he could!
And moments before, I glanced up as I walked out and couldn’t help but giggle - yes, Dagenham were doing a bloody lap of honour.
Next Match: Free-scoring Boston are at home again, so looking at Barnet v York City