Sunday, 17 September 2017

Falling In Love With U's - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Sutton United FC, National League, Victoria Road (12/09/17)

I’m normally quite ambivalent about listening to the recounted tales of someone else's holiday, however sitting in the car, staring at the back of a Ford Focus, for the twentieth consecutive minute, our impromptu international break officially over (Tom went to Italy, I went fishing in Surrey). I nod along half listening as Tom insists on telling me about cannoli, gelato, insane Italian drivers and how people speak into their phone like on the Apprentice, instead of holding it to their ear, because I can no longer find anything interesting about the boot of the car in front.

Anticipating a fair bit of traffic, and still driven by my fear of missing the start of a game, it happened once before in 1997 and I have no intention of letting it happen again. We left with what I thought was plenty of time to spare, but time is now well and truly ticking, and as much as I enjoyed hearing about Tom biting into what turned out to be a big cheese filled doughnut from his hotel's breakfast buffet, I would much rather just get to Dagenham on time.

My mood is inexplicably lifted when my compatriot, who admittedly I’m not in the best of moods with, following his mocking laughs, when we discover we have a joint love of arancini, a risotto filled Italian taste sensation. I tell him my favourite filling is bolognaise, his response is to smugly chuckle to himself, telling me I wouldn’t find that in Italy, they call it “ragu”. However, I’m able to forgive this blatant display of food snobbery, you've changed by the way mate, you used to eat sirloin steak with ketchup, when he produces a gift for me.

Not much bigger than a fifty pence piece, garish pink, and in the shape of a t shirt, on closer inspection he has only gone and got me a miniature plastic replica Palermo shirt key ring, which has my name on it! “I know you love a pink shirt” he remarks, my heart thawing instantly, after the aforementioned bolognaise comment. It’s not what someone gets you, but the thought behind it: pink, Italian, football tat, ticks all the right boxes, it’s also as he calls it, “custom” which makes it even better.

A yellow sign sheds a bit of light on the crippling traffic “broken down vehicle”, so at least we know what we are dealing with, and eventually we catch a glimpse of the flashing lights of the emergency services in the distance, so know we’re getting close to the scene of the hold up.

Not wanting to wish ill on anyone, but considering we’ve spent nigh on an hour sitting, scooting along in second gear, only to see it’s an abandoned people carrier straddling two lanes, being attended to by a single policeman, I really wanted to see an overturned oil tanker to justify my lost time.

Other than a bizarre road side pyramid of sorts, that Tom says he "recognises", perhaps from his Close Encounters’esq visions, I imagine he has a mash potato version of his own at home, the rest of the journey passes without anything else of note worth mentioning, however we have lost quite a bit of time, my OCD is close to boiling point, only finding a parking space opposite the bright orange steward at the top of Victoria Road puts a hold on a full meltdown.

It’s a short walk from the car to the overly high welcome sign, so high up you get a crick in your neck craning to read what it says “Welcome to Dagenham & Redbridge FC”. With about twenty minutes to kick off, which to most people is totally acceptable, but to me is a nightmare, I squirm at the sight of those people arriving to their seats as the teams are walking out, I’ve already been sitting down for twenty five minutes, where have you been, I’m a mess. I should probably take inspiration from one of the visiting fans of Sutton United FC (SU) who is serenely walking around with a small baby in a sling, while I’m close to a panic attack, because I haven't got a programme yet.

Time to get my priorities straight, it’s time to pull myself together!

“50/50?” asks the man with a small Tupperware box, “pound a go” he informs me, making sure to reiterate its the “50/50” and not the “golden goal” and without even being in the ground, without even having secured a ticket for tonight's match, the most important part of the evening is sorted. Next stop the club shop.

The strip light lit red prefab building is pretty standard, minimal, but has the pin Tom requires. On our way to the turnstile, we notice the Programme Shop, outside a jumble sale of programmes and other goodies are laid out on the floor, I think I spot a framed West Ham shirt, but we don't have time to investigate, or the pennant and scarf adorned room next to it.

We’re in! The red walls of Victoria Road, home of Dagenham & Redbridge FC (DR) have been breached, the players are just finishing their warm up, we've about fifteen minutes to kick off, what were you worried about, I can hear you all asking yourselves.

Although the queue at the gaily coloured Julie’s Fast Food Bar is not very long at all, and what's on offer is “cheap” as Tom puts it, having cast his eye over the extensive menu plastered across its facade he decides to decline getting anything at this time, and waits while I have a muffled conversation with a man in what I can only describe as a phone box, exchanging £2 for a programme, through a small letter box sized hole.

“Covered my ass” says a somewhat perturbed Tom, as we turn a small corner, the ground opening up before us, and we realise that my understanding of the terrace that was recommended by someone on Twitter as the best place to stand, is probably the most underdeveloped part of the ground, and is sans roof. With Toms keen weather eye pointed to the heavens and the dark rolling clouds, he every so often puts out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for a raindrop, he is not happy. “Breezy” he mutters passive aggressively.

Standing on the small windswept terrace behind the goal, our backs quite literally against the wall, as the final wayward shots of the substitutes crash against the wall just inches above our heads, all while Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones plays over the PA, a gentlemen in a flat cap and distinctive East London accent, strikes up a conversation, that takes some interesting turns, and is in fact more of a bizarre monologue, with lots of me nodding, than a conversation at all.

“You see the result of the mighty Hammers?” he asks/says in my general direction. I smile, not wanting to divulge my true allegiance. I make a bit of a quip how they just squeezed past Huddersfield the previous evening, thanks to a deflection, he doesn't look very amused, so I stop. It doesn't seem to matter anyway, he’s soon moved on to DR’s last match, “played us off the park, and we won” he explains.

Please don't think me unfriendly, I’m happy to shoot the breeze as much as the next guy, but it’s hard to chat, when my knowledge of the subject matter is a little lacking, so I continue to politely nod along, wishing a little bit that I could join the procession of burger carriers making their way in front of us towards the long pitchside terrace to our right, which has a roof.

When the next topic is about telephone scammers, his language turning a little colorful to say the least, calling one person he recently received an unsolicited phone call from “scum” among a lot of other four letter words, and implying they must think he is a “prat” if he is going to ring a “premium number”, I’m praying for rain, so we can do a runner.

At the base of the largest stand, which has Daggers spelt out in white seats, the rest are red, a huge St George's cross with Sutton United FC on it has been strung out across the seats. Nearby the away fans are holed up in one corner, below them the red vinyl tunnel is extended, and the teams wait to walk out.

Always intrigued by the music played at football grounds, having always thought that most clubs fall either into the ‘dad music’ or ‘naff new pop music’ category, DR go and blow this out the water, with their choice of Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra, most well known as the opening theme to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey. The dramatic opening bars are briefly interrupted by the announcer asking all to “welcome the teams onto the pitch” and I’m momentarily distracted from the theatrical choice of music, by the large limping dog shaped mascot in DR colours, following up the team at the rear.

When the lineups are read out, SU first, then the home side, it’s made clear its not any old side, just like M&S’s sandwiches are not any old sandwiches, but John Still’s “manager of the month's” side.

With kick off imminent the voice over the PA makes a request of the home fans, “let's make some noise for the boys”. It is though the visiting fans who are the loudest at the moment, “United, United” they sing. There is the odd shout of “come on you Daggers” from a few around us, but they are again outdone by the traveling SU supporters, “we love United we do, we love United we do”.

SU get the first shot of the game, their fans encouraged by the that decree SU are the “team for me”.

Having not got anything to eat, Tom’s ravenous hunger has only increased, no thanks to the passing of “ohhh pie and chips”, which he has not failed to point out on every occasion he's seen some, despite all this, he is not let's say thrilled by the sight of the bacon filled half a baguette that has just been handed to the person next to him. It’s not lacking in filling, its positively overflowing, however it’s a little grey, a tad underdone. He turns his head to me, looks me dead in the eyes, and slowly shakes his head.

Singing is about all there is to do for either set of supporters as far as entertainment is concerned, the game so far is hardly gripping, the away team's fans are easily ahead off the pitch, “Sutton till I die” they sing. On it, it’s a relative stalemate, scrappy, no real quality from either side. When one SU player attempts to flick the ball on to a teammate with his shoulder, but it just ends up being a hand ball, Tom is quick to inform me with a huge amount of pride that the player responsible is, “ex Arsenal youth”, got to cling onto whatever you can I guess, you Gooners.

The sky has only continued to worsen, and with some sick kind of gratification, Tom leans over and whispers in my ear, “here it comes”, the rain is well and truly here. This is not grin and bare it British rain, this won't ruin my BBQ, kind of rain, but the kind that goes from barely any at all, to all of it at once.

Big long terrace here we come.

There are a few hardy exceptions, those not joining the mass exodus for cover, instead rummage around in their backpacks for a waterproof, or erect a large golfing umbrella, they will not be shifted.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but walking along the back row of the well populated terrace, with its
low slung angled roof, reducing our view to a long narrow strip, that apparently the only place to stand is within a stone's throw of the small hatch surviving food and drinks, with its condiment crammed table just in front.

Even with the slightly restricted view I’m able to see the red dot matrix scoreboard that had been above our heads. It currently reads H - 0, A - 0, not sure why they missed out the other three letters. The metal roof contains the murmuring and conversations of the home fans, the mixture of that, the rain and the occasional crash of a ball on the corrugated roof makes for quite a din.

On twenty two minutes the red ‘0’ after the ‘H’ has been replaced with a ‘1’, as the home team go ahead with a sweetly taken goal, that sneaks in at the near post. Shouting over the first bit of real noise from the home fans, Tom bashes out his first football cliche of the match, “should of done better” the keeper that is, who was beaten, all those in the know say he shouldn't have been beaten, but to be fair to him it was a fiercely struck shot.

Closer to the SU fans now, they are even louder and are quick to reply to the now lively DR fans “U's, U's, U's"

The excitement of the goal celebration subsiding, Tom informs me once again, “oh I’m hungry”. He then lets me in on the fact that he doesn't know if he can “wait twenty minutes to half time”, my theory about the proximity to the food is proven correct. “All I can smell is gravy” he tells me.

A deep curling SU free kick almost makes its way to the back of the DR net, both home and visiting fans “ohhhh” but for different reason. It’s also the first time I hear the “shit, shit, shit, shit” man, whose repetitive string of expletives flows out of him every time the ball gets anywhere near his team's box.

SU go close again, this time a header just flashes wide. “United, United, United” sing the very seldomly quiet SU fans. Most of their noise it seems coming from the group standing on the final few rows of the stand. “South London wankers” is what one snarling DR fan brands them. Mr “shit, shit, shit” once more expresses his displeasure at SU nearly scoring.

“Come on Daggers, let's get that second goal” pleads one fan, a sentiment most supporters, whatever team you follow can empathise with. That feeling that unless you are at least five goals ahead, you have no confidence at all that you might go on and actually win the game.

Both teams are what you might call probing at each other's defences. That pawing jab boxers do, it's just so far lacking that mighty right hand, that does all the damage. All this while the rain continues to lash down. Tom reckons for a moment it’s stopped, or at least eased, but a quick glance at the floodlights, and it’s clear it’s still falling.

SU almost land a decisive blow, but the chance is well blocked. One DR fan down front in a baseball cap, offers some advice to his team, the same bit of advice he has offered since we started standing a few rows behind him, “in his face” he barks.

Thankfully for us all, there is no time to dwell on the fact that there are “no chips”, because seconds after Tom has dropped that bombshell, returning from the food bar, and now regretting he only got a quarter pounder and not a half pounder, ordering smaller because he wanted chips, but now he doesn't have any, SU have drawn things level on forty five minutes.

It’s very kind of the announcer to inform us that it is in fact the scorer's 100th goal for SU. I’m pretty sure 95% of the people here couldn't give a damn. As far as goals go to clinch your century, it’s far from spectacular, but they all count. “Dundo’s, gonna get ya” chant the SU fans. A chant that always sounds like it has a veiled threat attached, that the one hundred goal man not only scores a few, but might have something else in mind for you too.

“United, United, United” sing the SU fans once more, following their ever so slightly menacing song about the fan favourite.

The end concludes surrounded by a shed full of angry East Londoners, their anger directed solely at the referee. “What kind of drugs you on ref?” asks one fan, then adding that he “would like some” if the man in change is able to tick him a little something. Another suggests to the man in black that he must get some thrill out of blowing his whistle, and therefore that's why he does it “every 30 seconds”.

None of this can mask the real anger that their team on the stroke of half time, conceded a scrappy goal, that just about sums the first half.

The teams depart, and the break in the game gives Tom a chance to reiterate that he still “wants chips”, his sizable burger having only felt like a “small starter”. Much like the DR fan's learning that is was Craig Dundas 100th goal, I couldn't give a shit. I’ve just learnt that I won't be taking home the “£145” prize fund from the 50/50.

“Halifax top of the league” announces one fan, looking up from his phone, the bright glare of which illuminates his face rather sinisterly. Instead of looking like someone from the Blair Which Project, he could do with lending it to the man next to me who is visibly doing himself harm, straining to read his programme in the gloom and murk of the terrace.

“Tea and Kit Kat time” discloses Tom. I thought after all that ragu, it would be only espresso and biscotti from now on? Anyway I’m much more interested in the man walking along the front of the stand, with a small leather bag over his shoulder, shouting “programmes” with one held above his head, wonder if he sells peanuts too?

For a moment I think the rain might have finally relented, until a glance at the floodlights once again, and I can see it’s very much there. Tom not a fan of anything resembling the cold says it feels like “fucking winter”. It’s not quite that bad, but it might be time to retire the shorts for 2017 at least, I have very damp shins.

I never would have taken Tom for an Elvis fan, but as the players return, while 'Can’t Help Falling in Love' by The King plays, he goes a bit gooey and soft, looking off into the middle distance, like someone in a Spielberg film, and tells me it's one of his “favourite” songs.

“Please welcome the teams back onto the pitch” asks the announcer, a few home fans oblige with shouts of “come on you Daggers”

No amount of half time snacks, or gloating at rivals doing badly during the break, means the referee is any less in the cross-hairs of the home fans. They just don't feel like anything is going their way, “you don't know what you're doing” they chant, before going as far to suggest he’s a, “cheat, cheat, cheat” and other than the celebrating the goal, it’s about the noisiest they've been tonight.

With the rain now at its absolute worst, “match abandoned” shouts one fan, half joking and half hoping, Tom suggesting its coming in “sideways”. Yes the wind is blowing into us now and we are getting a few spots on us, but if we look to our left the hardy souls still on the open terrace, are really putting us to shame.

The first quarter of the new half, has pretty much picked up where the first half left off, uneventful and scrappy. SU are the first to get a chance of any real meaning, a curling shot, a “skimmer” as Toms calls it, that skids across the grass, and into the arms of the keeper. Not long after DR shoot just
over, and the game has officially got going.

You might think that going close would have lifted the spirits of the DR the fans, but it does nothing of the sort, they are still more focused on giving the referee as much stick as possible, and my grumble-o-meter is going through the roof. There is thankfully a moment of brevity among all the darkness, when the name of an oncoming DR substitute causes a few laughs. Chike Kandi has only one foot on the pitch, when the less than original cry of “it's chico time” goes up. However, the next attempt, “we've got candy” to the tune of the 1965 hit 'I Want Candy' by The Strangeloves, is at least worth a wry smile.

SU go close, but the player at the far post is unable to get the final touch to poke it in. This gets a  song from the fans, “we’re the Sutton boys”. When one player makes a great effort to take the game to DR, gliding through the midfield, surging forwards, Tom once again has that glint in his eye, “Arsenal academy”.

“HOW?” mouths Tom with his head in his hands, much like the player who's mazey, slinky, jinky almost balletic run down the left wing, his quick feet getting him into the box, all while he evades what seems like the whole SU team, does not result in a goal. His shot is blocked, the rebound falling to a teammate, who shoots wide with the goal gaping.

The fans instead of chastising the player who missed, applaud the player responsible for the awesome run, “come on you Daggers”.

Finally the game between these two teams at the top of the league, is living up to a bit of its potential. First the wonderful solo effort, then SU almost give DR the lead, when they nearly scored an own goal. Another deep free kick almost catches out the SU keeper, he just tips it over, not sure if it was an audacious shot or just a wind assisted cross, but the keeper was almost embarrassed. The resulting corner, is headed over by the SU defense, the second is met by a DR attacker whose own header goes fractions wide.

Finally the moaning isn’t the loudest the home fans have been “come on your reds”. I nearly have to eat my words, when Mr “in his face” thinks the SU keeper in his Barney the dinosaur shade of purple kit is time wasting, “fucking horrible team Sutton” he shouts.

The “horrible” teams fans reply to their now vocal rivals, “United, United, United”, things are hotting up a bit.

It’s really the final quarter of the match that is the best of the whole ninety. SU almost take the lead, but the player can't convert the big looping ball into the box. DR get another deep free kick, almost in the same place as where the effort earlier just saved, was taken from. “Shooooot” demand the fans, he does, “ain't gonna do it twice” says Tom as the ball sails well over.

Into the final ten minutes there is that feeling among the home fans, that their team are going to screw this up, “Oh here we go” says someone whose clearly seen it all before, SU’s attack this time comes to nothing. Two SU corners follow not long after, causing more consternation in Mr “shit, shit, shit” who is now in overdrive.

The outrage towards the man in charge hits its peak when nigh on the whole terrace is directing him to where an SU throw in should be taken from. To be fair the SU player is taking the, ‘edging along the touchline’ thing all footballers do, a bit far. About fifty pairs of hands, fingers pointed, wave manically around us, accompanied by shouts of “back” until the player in question is finally re-positioned.

It's all SU, “United, United, United” sing their fans, most of them on their feet, a goal for them seems imminent, one DR fan makes a solemn statement, with the ball a constant around his teams box, and very rarely in SU's half, “should be down the other end”.

The board goes up showing the three minutes of extra time, from the response of some of those around us, you would have thought it said three hundred. The idea of their team having to hold on to for a whole one hundred and eighty seconds, without conceding, seems impossible. And they are almost proven right when an SU player rounds the keeper, but fires over from a tight angle.

A fan's sixth sense is very rarely wrong, that ability to know exactly when your team are about to blow it, is a skill every supporter learns not long after deciding, ‘this is my team’, also if Mr “shit, shit, shit” said it enough times, he was going to be correct at least once.

“Shit, shit, shit” he repeats for the umpteenth time, about one minute into the three added on. The cross into the box, finds the SU forward between two defenders, and with a glance of his forehead, SU take the lead. “Oh shit” he says as the visiting players in white, not yellow for some reason, don't quite get that clash, as DR play in red, run off to celebrate. Their fans erupt to our right, the home fans taking it as their cue to leave in their droves, rain or no rain.

“We are top of the league, we are top of the league” sing the SU supporters, someone has had a quick look at their mobile, and it would seem that thanks to other results tonight, SU have jumped from fifth to first.

All the commotion of the shed has gone, we stand almost completely alone, except for one soggy steward who wants us gone, as we watch the SU players applaud the singing fans, some whirling their scarves above their heads, “Sutton, Sutton, Sutton”.

As the final players leave the pitch, the one hundred goal man gets one last song “Dundo’s, gonna get ya”, before they round things off with a their own rendition of The Kings classic, “falling in love with U's, U's, U's”.

Outside I do my best to walk at double time, wanting to avoid any further moistening of my lower legs. A group of SU fans continue to celebrate their teams ascension to the top of the league, with a bit of a sing song on a dreary Victoria Road, as they start the long journey back to South London.

Back in the car, preparing for Uber duties as Tom plays a game on his phone I'm still wondering, why were SU playing in white, it just doesn't make sense. Why are chips such a problem at non league football, this is a problem we have encountered before, and Tom wants answers, and if Dundo did get "ya" what exactly would he do to you?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE ↓



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