Re-living the Essex sunshine as City travel to Dagenham

Dagenham & Redbridge vs Bradford City match preview

@Victoria Road on Saturday 3 March, 2012

It was a gloriously warm April day in Essex. An extra cold cider was enjoyed pre-match outside a nearby pub, while we admired each other’s sunglasses.

Tomorrow will be my first visit to Victoria Road – home of Dagenham & Redbridge – since that infamous 3-0, play off-ending defeat back in April 2009. The shadows from that afternoon still seem to linger over the club.

A forlorn Stuart McCall came over to us away fans at full time; I’ve never seen him looking so dejected.

The then-City manager first asked us what we thought of the referee’s decision to disallow a Peter Thorne goal, at 0-0, right in front of us City supporters, for a supposed push on the Dagenham keeper. “Should’ve counted” we all told him, a view shortly afterwards backed by referee Pat Miller who told McCall “I believe I’ve made a mistake and I’m sorry”.

By then it was too late, with the three goals City went on to ship in virtually ending flagging promotion hopes. McCall had vowed to quit if he couldn’t get the Bantams into the play offs. He was now apologising to us away supporters for not being good enough and asking for a chant of “Stuart, Stuart” to cease because “I don’t deserve it”.

McCall ended up being persuaded to stay by City fans, but there was to be no happy ending as 10 months later, under pressure, he quit after failing to mount a promotion push. City ended the 2008/09 season in 9th; McCall left with the Bantams in 16th place; they ended that campaign in 14th under Peter Taylor; and last season 18th under Peter Jackson. This time around, a midweek thumping of Barnet has placed us in a season-best position of 18th.

No where near to promotion since that afternoon at Dagenham three years ago.

This week’s BBC Yorkshire football programme, Late Kick Off, featured a hugely enjoyable interview with McCall. Now manager at Motherwell, the City legend has done a superb job turning Britain’s only other professional claret and amber football club into the best team in Scotland outside the usual Glasgow suspects. While City have slumped over the past two years, Stuart has soared.

To my dying day I will argue that we were wrong to drive McCall away from this football club. I and others used to receive a huge amount of abuse and ridicule for backing McCall during his final days and after he left; but it was telling that, in time, some of the people who chased McCall away admitted they had been wrong to do so.

Getting rid of McCall did not do this club any good at all.

Sam Saunders opened the scoring for Dagenham that sunny April day. A great run and shot, but surely someone should have stopped him?

At the time Dagenham were also going for the play offs. Dagenham manager John Still prepared for the game by using an opposition scout report Archie Christie had arranged, which concluded the 2009 City side was nice to look at but had a soft centre that could be got at. Certainly once Dagenham went 1-0 up, there was no sign of a visitor comeback from McCall’s expensively assembled side. They were easily bullied into one damaging defeat too many.

Three years on the City team of today can be accused of many things, but soft certainly isn’t one of them. Manager Phil Parkinson has instilled the sort of tough backbone that seems to be a feature of every promoted team we’ve waved past us during our four-and-a-half years in League Two. It means City can at times be ugly to watch and less pleasing on the eye, but they are never bullied.

Yet despite good form of late, during the first half of this crucial week in City’s season Parkinson had to endure a huge amount of criticism from a minority of fans for having the nerve to play 4-5-1 in a home match. There were even calls for the club to get rid.

City’s recent history is littered with so many examples of the folly of sacking managers that it’s boring to go through it yet again, but the worry is how little ever seems to be learned from the likes of McCall’s tenure. Criticism is good if it remains constructive; but when it is of the fierce and over-the-top-nature we saw post-Hereford, it only serves to damage the relationship between manager and fans and creates unnecessary pressure.

Fine, question the wisdom of playing one up front at home (made a lot of sense to me for what it’s worth, as it seemed more attacking winger-wise), but the last thing City need is yet more instability. Parkinson deserves the right to have time to turn this club around.

At Barnet on Tuesday those same ‘negative’ tactics produced City’s biggest win on the road for a decade, and the argument has been adapted to “it’s okay to play 4-5-1 away, but not at home”. Yet the new formation has now delivered seven points from nine. If another win is achieved tomorrow, are we really going to demand Parkinson abandons it against Accrington at home?

Paul Benson charged through on goal with defenders seemingly racing back at half-pace to stop him. He made it 2-0 with some ease.

Last November Benson almost signed for City following weeks of tough negotiations, but the deal fell through because a medical revealed his legs wouldn’t last the duration of the three-and-a-half year contract he was about to sign.

Benson subsequently moved to Swindon, and is in flying form for a team which is leading the way at the top of the division. 7 goals from 12 games – 5 in his last 5 – leave us wondering what might have been. There is no doubt Benson would have made an instant impact at Valley Parade this season and – with Swindon due on the last day – the scenario of City needing a result and Benson sending us down is, for now, not impossible to envisage.

Yet the club refused to commit to buying a player who probably wouldn’t last the contract distance; refused to pay a huge sum of money that there would have been no chance of re-couping. In a season plagued by short-termism, perhaps this is one crumb of comfort to hold onto when assessing the leadership of the club.

Without Benson, City are on course to avoid relegation and – although they will need a proven goalscorer of his calibre if they are to progress to promotion contenders – there should be some money left in the bank to progress next season, instead of having blown everything now.

At 2-0 it was all over anyway; but just for good measure Mark Bower and Rhys Evans got mixed up in comical fashion and Ben Strevens made it 3-0.

The huge sense of disappointment felt that day overshadowed what for the most part should have been an enjoyable season, with City around the top seven until that late collapse of form in March. A few more wins are still needed this year to banish relegation fears but, assuming that is achieved sooner rather than later, the focus will turn to whether this team can become as good or better than the McCall one of three years ago.

It has been a strange season for measuring where we really are. The league table suggests we’re poor, but the high turnover of players has led to a steady improvement under Parkinson – especially over the past three months.

For the previous 13 games, City have amassed 21 points. Had the season begun on 25 November, the Bantams would currently be sitting 9th in the table having played a couple games less than a number of their League Two rivals.

Assuming this improvement can be maintained, we can go into this summer feeling confident that the spine of a promotion-chasing squad is already in place, and that only a handful of additions will be needed. We will hopefully see an evolution in playing style to befit those loftier aspirations, but the achievements over the past three months personally give me a lot of confidence in Parkinson – and are why I find the recent digs towards him difficult to stomach.

City head to Dagenham without David Syers, Simon Ramsden and now Michael Flynn, after the Welshman had to be taken off early at Barnet due to an injury. Will Atkinson came on at Underhill and enjoyed his best performance for the club to date, so should start tomorrow in the hole behind Craig Fagan in the attack.

The midfield will be unchanged, with Kyel Reid in outstanding form right now, Deane Smalley slowly growing into an effective player on the opposite flank, and Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill developing a fine understanding in the centre. The back five should also be unchanged providing Luke Oliver is fit enough for two games in a week. Andrew Davies, Rob Kozluk, Marcel Seip and Jon McLaughlin were the other Underhill heroes who kept a first clean sheet since Boxing Day.

The promotion dream melted away in the April sunshine at Dagenham. Who would have known the decline and misery that would follow?  

Three years and three City managers later, the stakes for both sides going into tomorrow’s game are hugely different. We’ve endured a few false dawns in the quest to better the 9th place of 2008-09; but there’s a growing sense of optimism that, recently, we have performed a U-turn from the backwards direction we’ve travelled ever since that sunny day at Dagenham three years ago.

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2 replies

  1. I’d almost forgotten we were aspiring to promotion as recently as 2009!

    The worst thing about McCall leaving is we’ll probably not be good enough to attract him down to our level again, so we’ve had our shot and we blew it. He also wins by being far more gracious about his departure in the Late Kick Off feature than the club ever was.

    4-5-1? Well I think the system works, dependent on personnel. Fagan makes it work brilliantly, Wells less so as he would rather play off a big man like Hanson.

    For the record, much as I still miss Stuart, and will continue to do so, i think Phil Parkinson is doing an excellent job – in particular I really admire the discipline and grit and determination (not to mention the obvious improvement in fitness he has overseen).

  2. Phil Parkinson has got off to an impressive start in his tenure as Bradford City Manager. Having had a summer of missing out on top name after top name in Clayton Donaldson, Gary Jones etc we started the season with a weak largely inexperienced squad. Phil’s team is subsequently taking shape and his tactical awareness is paying dividends with what he’s been left behind by the previous managerial regime.

    I as much as the next City fan wanted Stuart to succeed and was there on that fateful day in 2009 behind the goal at Dagenham listening to his obvious frustrations, echoing ours. The writing was on the wall and those there knew it was only a matter of time until we were looking at another albeit painful change. Maybe in hindsight the chants of ‘Stuart Stuart’ can be seen as last battle cries, but continue he did with sadly no fairy tale ending.

    Just as Dagenham’s new away stand took shape behind that very goal that summer, so does City’s new team and so with signs of encouragement the future to me looks brighter than that day in 2009.

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