Dagenham & Redbridge 1 Cheltenham 0 (9th Feb 2013)
I wouldn’t normally have bothered venturing across to the other side of London on such a depressingly cold and wet afternoon, but I had already purchased a ticked for a rugby match in the evening, and felt it was too good an opportunity to miss.
I got the first hints of regret at Barking station, trundling out along the District Line, whose slow and infrequent service through some of London’s least appealing locations always feels like an Orwellian vision designed to crush the soul. My personal Room 101 on this occasion would be have been to make this trip only to find the game off, and it was at Barking that it occurred to me that I surely should have at least seen one other person going to the match by now.
It wasn’t until turning into Victoria Road and seeing the floodlights on that I was totally confident the game was on. It was just that with a mere 1526 in attendance, even at 2.30 there was nothing resembling a rush to the ground.
Victoria Road itself leads to the club car park, backing onto the relatively new Carling Stand, as well as the club offices. These are rather more dated, and with their brickwork and maroon panelling under the windows, look more like they should form part of a primary school building in the 1970s.
Through the car is the route to the away end, my vantage point for the day purely as it offered the best view. The “Traditional Builders Stand” – I presume the name is sponsored rather than being a tribute to men who like a lot of tea breaks and bending over with their bum cleavage on show – holds 1200 in a fairly steep bank of seats, offering a good view of the pitch and the little else there is to see beyond.
The seats are raised over the tea bar areas, giving it a rather dull blank wall at the front, which at least you can’t see from the stand itself. Today the stand was split in two, with the 186 pretty noisy Cheltenham fans given one half, and the other half given over to youth team members and other non-paying hangers-on.
On the wall facing fans from the other side of the “sterile” walkway was a sign for the away end tea bar, which, perhaps mindful of the recent horse-meat scandal, had a sign offering “Good food, Good prices, Good service” right next to one pointing the way to the first aid area.
To the right, looking from this stand was the Carling Stand. Running most of the length of the pitch, this modern stand of six rows of seats is the kind perfectly suited to an ambitious non-league clubs, but look unambitious once they achieve something. It does its job (although what looks like a later extension to the front on the roof fascia suggest some bits didn’t) but it’s never going to be any more than functional.
Next to this is the Barking College Family Stand, with the name almost being longer than the stand itself, which squeezes 200 seats on four rows into the corner. Comparisons with a Lego model would may be unfair, but this tiny flat-roofed stand somehow still needs four supporting pillars at the front, and the builders of it, traditional or otherwise, are unlikely to be asked to build anything similar.
To the left is perhaps the most appealing part of the ground. A low side terrace with a pitched roof is covered with old-style painted adverts, with the pitched roof almost looking like a continuation of the factory behind. Disappointingly the nearest section of this terrace was fenced off, no doubt to discourage “banter” between the home and away supporters. That was a shame, as if any ground needed something to spice up the atmosphere, it’s Victoria Road. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a quieter ground outside non-league football.
The far end is just a narrow open terrace topped with a scoreboard. Sparsely populated, this is clearly the least popular part of the ground, and it’s only features other than the scoreboard are a stubby brick building looking like a police control room, and a flat-roofed structure in the corner looking like a tea-bar and toilet block, except that it was all shut like an abandoned house in a sink estate. For some reason this “tea bar” is adorned by an advertising hoarding on the roof, which not only is missing a section of the advert, but is upside-down. The adverts atop the back fence stop where an exit gate leads out into the road behind, allowing a clear view of this street to the away fans. It has to be said though that Bury Road is hardly the main strip of Las Vegas, so this isn’t quite the treat it could be.
On reflection I could probably have picked a better game to go to. You don’t always expect a cracker in League Two when conditions are hardly welcoming, but with Cheltenham going for promotion, I did have hopes that they’d be committed.
To be fair they did have a go. It’s just that little worked. Two players stood out for me. One was Steve Elliot, who looked every inch, especially round the waist, the kind of lower division journeyman who used to be so common. The other was Jermaine McGlashan, who was Cheltenham in a nutshell – plenty of potential, always looking on the verge of doing something good, but never quite actually doing so.
Dagenham were hardly great either, but they did just about enough to earn the win. On the hour a move down the right saw the ball cut back to Luke Howell on the corner of the ‘D’. With a crowd of bodies in front and little to aim at, he calmly side-footed round the throng into the inside of the side-netting to give the home side the lead. A perfect finish, with a bit of skill seemingly borrowed from another game.
Dagenham had a chance to double the lead not long later after a clumsy attempt at a tackle gave them a penalty. This drew a terrific save from the Cheltenham keeper, which unfortunately was about as good as it got for the away fans. The nearest they came to equalising was an injury time mêlée with the same keeper up causing confusion in the box, but the ball was poked wide, and that was that.