My favourite play-off memory: Dagenham and Redbridge
As a Dagenham and Redbridge fan, my favourite ever play-off game is entirely unsurprising.
With us only being a Football League club since 2007, we’d never been involved in the season-ending showpiece until last May. In fact, our only previous involvement at any level was in the Conference in 2003, when we became the only team to lose a play-off game by the golden goal method.
That day at the Britannia Stadium went down as one of my worst footballing moments – but last year’s Wembley event against Rotherham United more than made amends.
The semi-final saw us run out crushing 6-0 victors over Morecambe in the home leg, before booking our place in the final with a 2-1 loss at Christie Park. As incredible as that home game was, nothing could top the feeling of winning that final at Wembley.
Rotherham started the match on top. When Ryan Taylor flashed a header inches wide before forcing a save from Tony Roberts with another header, it seemed League One football would remain a distant dream.
But we gradually began to assert ourselves, forcing Millers goalkeeper Andy Warrington into two fine saves from Romain Vincelot’s superb overhead kick and a powerful Danny Green free-kick.
If anybody was going to break the deadlock in our favour, however, it was going to be top goal-scorer Paul Benson. And sure enough, the hitman was on hand to open the scoring. Damien McCrory fed the ball into him from the left, and almost in one movement the striker managed to stop the ball, swivel, and finish into the bottom corner with aplomb. The goal was greeted with the loudest roar I have ever heard at a Daggers match as everybody exploded with the nervous energy that had been building all day.
Before the celebrations had even quelled, we were pegged back. Kevin Ellison’s hooked ball in from the left was met once again by the head of Taylor, the ball this time finding the top corner.
Half-time was a welcome refuge for our boys to recover from what had been a body blow, but it did little to help the fans who could merely spend the break mentally playing out endless scenarios of what might have been.
Thankfully when the game did resume, however, the upper hand was well in our favour.
Just 11 minutes in, Danny Green gathered the ball on the corner of the penalty area before drilling a low shot into the far corner. Daggers fans erupted once more, but again those pesky Millers levelled just minutes later. If Danny Harrison’s first right-wing cross which dropped narrowly over the bar wasn’t enough of a warning sign, the second certainly was. Just seconds later a second ball in from the right found that man Taylor again to drill home the equaliser.
Giving away the lead for the second time in the match, it certainly seemed like it simply would not be our day. If nerves were frayed before, they were positively frazzled now.
Instead of galvanising Rotherham the goal appeared to kick ourselves into action, and we came roaring back in the best possible manner. Green’s corner fell to Barbados international Jon Nurse, who finally broke the Millers’ resolve for good this time with a side-footed effort to send the Daggers contingent berserk for the third time.
The final whistle was probably the single best moment I’ve had as a football fan, and watching my side collect the trophy brought a lump to the throat. Nobody could have expected a club of our size to make it into English football’s third tier, but we did it after three promotions in just 11 years.
For our manager John Still, who played for Dagenham and whose father supported the club, it was extra special. He has now led us to two of those three promotions on a fraction of most League Two clubs’ budgets, let alone those in League One.
True to our roots as a small family club, the fans, players and management celebrated together as one. Captain Mark Arber posed for countless photos with the trophy, but was more than happy to share the victory with the supporters.
A wonderful end to a wonderful day.