NEIL TRAINIS looks back at the greatest year in the history of Dagenham & Redbridge
PUBLISHED: 15:40 02 January 2008 | UPDATED: 13:52 02 July 2010
THE year 2007 will be indelibly inscribed into Dagenham & Redbridge folklore as one that saw a humble local football club shake off its non-league shackles for the first time in its history. Previous seasons had seen the east London outfit come tantalisin
THE year 2007 will be indelibly inscribed into Dagenham & Redbridge folklore as one that saw a humble local football club shake off its non-league shackles for the first time in its history.
Previous seasons had seen the east London outfit come tantalising close to realising the dream of winning a place in the Football League, but that appeared destined to elude them.
Garry Hill, the man who twice almost led the club to an achievement that had gained Holy Grailesque proportions, had finally been bettered come the final whistle on a bright day at Victoria Road on Saturday, April 7.
Dave Rainford and Paul Benson ensured there was to be no choking with the finishing line in sight as they plundered the goals that sunk Aldershot Town and extinguished the dwindling remnants of Oxford United's challenge.
John Still had succeeded where Garry Hill, Ted Hardy and anybody else who has sat in the Daggers' managerial hot seat had failed. The Holy Grail had been discovered.
Moments after the Aldershot players had disappeared back down the tunnel, the Victoria Road pitch had turned into a montage of colour and noise.
Despite the best efforts of the loudspeaker announcer in pleading with fans not to enter the field of play at the final whistle, a hundred or so supporters scaled the small white wall separating the stand on the far side of the ground from the pitch.
They ran to celebrate with players who, just a couple of years previously, they had barely heard of. In the summer of 2004 there had been an upheaval in the wake of Hill's departure and Still's appointment.
Players the Daggers supporters had identified with for seasons had suddenly gone.
The likes of Danny Shipp, Alan Kimble, Chris Piper, Leon Braithwaite, Tarkan Mustafa and Jimmy Jackson had followed Hill out of Victoria Road and been replaced by raw youngsters plucked from Ryman League obscurity.
In the case of Benson a year later, it was intermediate football or park football, where those who want to play on a Saturday afternoon pay subs and erect and take down the nets before and after a game.
The gangly striker arrived at Daggers for the start of the 2005/06 campaign looking in need of a hearty meal to beef him up but after a debut Conference season in which he scored a solitary league goal, he would go on to hit the back of the net 28 times, goals that would catapult his club to the unprecedented.
His progress was comparable to a rags-to-riches story and his maturity from non-league novice to goal-grabbing predator mirrored that of his team's transformation from consolidators to championship contenders.
The Aldershot game was confirmation that a group of fledgling players, who had never even been entertained in the summer as possibilities for promotion, were after all capable of exceeding everyone else's expectations.
The likes of Glen Southam, Danny Foster, Scott Griffiths, Sam Saunders and Sam Sloma had gone some way to realising their potential, individually as well as collectively.
There was a mixture of emotions. Jake Leberl, who was to leave Daggers shortly afterwards, struggled to raise a smile when, drenched with champagne, he said: "I'm not in the least bit surprised that we've gone up. I knew weeks ago that we'd go up so it's not a surprise to any of us."
His response was a sharp contrast to that of Danny Foster who revealed the frenzy that ensued in the dressing room.
"When we got inside the changing room, the boys went a bit mental and the shirt got ripped off my back. I don't know where it is. It was crazy in the dressing room afterwards, crazy," he gasped.
For Still, holding aloft the Conference trophy after the 2-1 win over Ebbsfleet at Victoria Road brought back memories of achieving the feat with Maidstone United in 1989, though Daggers' most successful manager was in no doubt which of the reminiscences he would cherish more.
"It's unbelievable, a fantastic feeling. Someone asked me how this compares to Maidstone but this is my club and that's no disrespect to Maidstone.
"This is an absolutely unbelievable moment," he said, having jumped around, pumped his fists and waved his arms about like someone half his 57 years as the final whistle was blown to signal victory over Aldershot and an unparalleled place in League Two.
"Even if we go up again (next season) it will not beat this moment ever. I was talking to Martin O'Neill recently and he said that regardless of what he's achieved, he thought that taking Wycombe into the Football League in 1993 is the biggest achievement and I feel that as well."
An open-top bus ride around Dagenham was to follow as the players and coaching staff paraded the Conference trophy to the locals who wanted to be a part of the unique celebrations.
A crowd of 4,044 turned up for the Aldershot game and smashed the all-time record for a home league fixture when 3,939 spectators watched Daggers defeat Chester City on the final day of the 2001/02 season.
League Two has proven every bit as arduous as anticipated, failing to catch the imagination of the masses, but Still and his players appear unconcerned by that. They are just grateful to be there.