The Thursday Preview: Dagenham & Redbridge Vs Bournemouth
It is worth remembering that, when Bournemouth were knocking Man. United out of the FA Cup in 1984, Dagenham & Redbridge weren’t even a club yet. Or, rather, they were three clubs: Leytonstone & Ilford (the result of an earlier merger in 1979), who later merged with Waltamstow Avenue in 1988 to become Redbridge Forest, who themselves merged with Dagenham in 1992 to become Dagenham & Redbridge. Their rise has been quite spectacular; having been relegated from the Conference in 1996, the Daggers spent the rest of the decade languishing in the Isthmian League before re-establishing themselves as one of the strongest teams in non-league during the first part of the last decade. Famously and unjustly robbed of a place in the Football League by Boston United in 2002, they finally made it into the League in 2007. Since then, their progress has been steady and consistent. Under the guidance of wily, experienced manager John Still, a lifelong Daggers fan, they have improved their league position year on year. Even if they finish bottom this season, it will be the club’s highest-ever finish. Off the pitch, the club is run shrewdly and to budget. They own their ground. Day-to-day affairs are handled by the chairman, who himself represented both Leytonstone and Waltamstow Avenue at Wembley during his playing days, and the club’s commercial manager, the only two full-time administrative staff at the club. Their average gate is around 2,500 and their record transfer fee paid is £15,000 to Purfleet for Paul Cobb back in 1998. By any measure, the Daggers would be one of the smallest clubs in the league below, never mind in the same league as relative giants like Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton. That they are in the third tier, and, furthermore, competing respectably in it – they still have a fighting chance of staying up this season – underlines that it is possible to achieve relative success without spending a fortune. In this way they serve as an example for all football clubs outside the established elite.
Bournemouth’s financial history is somewhat more chequered. Beset by financial troubles on numerous occasions over the last two decades, The Cherries have almost gone out of existence more than once. They have learned the consequences of poor economics the hard way. Most notably, the club were placed under a transfer embargo for 13 months between February 2009 and March 2010, and the club’s finances continue to be closely monitored by the League, with a limit on the number of players the club are allowed to employ. The club’s long-term future also remain in question after the sale of their stadium, Dean Court, to property developers on a sale-and-lease-back arrangement to ease debts in December 2005. Despite this, Eddie Howe, then the League’s youngest manager, managed to put together a squad that, in the space of two years, rose from 23rd in League Two to the automatic promotion places in League One. Howe has, of course, recently left for pastures new at Burnley. He has been replaced by another rookie, Lee Bradbury, hitherto most famous for a disastrous spell at Manchester City in the late 1990s. Whilst there are some misgivings about Bradbury’s lack of managerial experience, he has made a promising start to life as Dean Court’s head honcho, and promotion remains a very realistic possibility come the end of the season. The way things are going, Bournemouth may well celebrate the end of their three-year period of transfer restrictions by receiving a large pile of Championship TV cash in the summer.
Saturday’s meeting, then, is an intriguing clash between frugal East Enders made good, run by a chairman who is one of their own, against one from the affluent south coast, with a chairman who lives in a mansion in Sandbanks, one of Britain’s richest estates, who have discovered how the other half live. The clubs may be similar in how they have found success over the last two years – teamwork, organisation and shrewd purchases from non-league; yet, in other ways they are so different.
This difference is nowhere more apparent than on the pitch. Bournemouth’s promotion push has been widely unexpected. Pre-season outsiders for promotion, the Dorset club were widely expected to struggle this season. The loss of leading scorer and talisman Brett Pitman to Bristol City just before the transfer window, and the loss of the man who had seamlessly stepped into his shoes , Josh McQuoid, soon after, did nothing to dispel this theory. Yet, with a well-organised team where everybody knows their jobs, Bournemouth continue to excel. Academy product Danny Ings has been particularly impressive up front, whilst the bedrock of the team is broadly the same one that secured Football League safety two seasons ago. Jason Pearce, Shaun Cooper, Anton Robinson and Danny Hollands have continually played well, whilst Shwan Jalal has ably demonstrated that his erratic spell at Peterborough was just a blip to establish himself as a steady No. 1. The team has been supplemented with hungry young players from non-league; of these, Anton Robinson and Liam Feeney have been particularly important to the team. The small squad necessitated by the club’s monetary woes has led to a consistency in team selection that has served them well. Bournemouth are thus a team short on stars but long on capable players who are keen to improve and know well their roles and those of their team mates.
The Daggers, on the other hand, have found going relatively tough this season. This is unsurprising; indeed manager John Still is himself unequivocal about how difficult it is for his side to compete, admitting that most people at his club ‘expected us to finish bottom’, illustrating the gap in resources between his club and those higher up by admitting that there were squad players at other clubs in the division earning more per season than the entire Daggers playing staff combined. Trying to compete at a level beyond which their budget should stretch – Dagenham & Redbridge have by some distance the smallest budget in the division – means that manager Still has had to gamble on a number of players throughout the season, unable to afford the proven quality of other clubs in the division. This has contributed to the relatively high number of players used by the Essex club this season, which currently stands at 33. Especially when compared with Bournemouth’s 24 players (one of the fewest in the division), it perhaps suggests one reason why Bournemouth have thrived whereas the Daggers have struggled. A settled side has helped Bournemouth’s season greatly; the lack of a settled side has hindered Dagenham & Redbridge’s equally.
This is not to say that the Daggers do not have some good players. Tony Roberts continues to defy his 41 years of age in goal, whilst Josh Scott has shown much promise up front. Jon Nurse, Gavin Tomlin and Mark Arber have all been solid performers, too. In midfield, guile is provided by Darren Currie and Peter Gain, who remain classy performers, even if their legs won’t allow him to do as much running as in the past. Recently, former £140,000 man John Akinde, on loan from Bristol City, and talented twit Marvin Morgan have joined to boot their attack. Looking like relegation certainties a month ago, the Victoria Road club have now lost just one of their last five, sit just two points from safety and have games in hand on all their rivals. If they keep up current form, safety may yet be achieved come May.
Bournemouth manager Lee Bradbury was just 4 years of age when his Dagenham counterpart John Still took his first job, ironically at Leytonstone & Ilford. The Cherries are thus far undefeated under his stewardship, and, if Bournemouth were at home on Saturday, I would predict they would win. However, given the Daggers’ recent upturn in form and their wizened chief’s ability to pull proverbial rabbits out of hats, I am going for a 1-1 draw.