The 2013/2014 SkyBet League Two got up and running on Saturday afternoon and unsurprisingly for one particular team it started with defeat. That team of course, was Dagenham & Redbridge. A combination of atrocious defending and inconsistent marking ensured that Wayne Burnett's first game of the new campaign ended in defeat to one of the division’s promotion favourites.
It's slightly disappointing to say, but for most Daggers fans that set out up on the trip to Lancashire, defeat seemed almost inevitable. Graham Alexander had recruited well over the summer, bringing in League Two quality in the form of Steven Schumacher and Ryan Cresswell amongst others. Daggers meanwhile had completed minimal transfers over the close season, with forward Rhys Murphy and centre half Brian Saah the only likely starters.
All of this and more was discussed on the trip up to the distant North-West which began at 6:30am, before meeting at Chadwell Heath for 8am. After gathering several others along the way we reached Euston in good time to make our Orient filled train at 9:30am. With a lack of seating, sol, and a blow up doll all on the same carriage it was sure to be an eventful journey. After nearly departing at Wigan North-West we arrived at Preston just after 12:00 where we changed onto the luxurious Northern Rail service.
I moan about public transport in London, but when you step onto a Northern Rail service it makes you really appreciate what you've got. Two carriages of misery, toilets that didn't work and a distinct lack of seats - welcome back to the North, Daggers fans.
|The front of the stadium.|
With half an hour of toil completed, we finally arrived at Blackpool North just after 13:00. Thanks to the blustery sea breeze wearing shorts no longer seemed like a good idea. At least it was warmer than our last trip to Highbury in March! With the taxi's already and waiting we hopped in and headed along Blackpool promenade to Highbury Stadium, located a good 15 minutes away from real civilisation.
Once there our first port of call, naturally, was Jim's Bar - the Fleetwood Town clubhouse. And it is without doubt, one of, if not the best clubhouse in the whole of League Two. It's so swanky it feels like a nightclub. Leather seats litter the pristine wooden flooring whilst "booths" are also available for groups of supporters. All of this is completed by a vast array of TV's all over the bar, including two in each individual booth. If you go to Fleetwood this season, I can't recommend this place highly enough.
A good hour and a half was spent drinking Cider in the company of the home supporters with several songs exchanged as 15:00 edged ever closer. As the bell tolled for final orders (at 14:40?!), we headed towards the away end and went in through the automated turnstiles. The cold concrete concourse greeted us as we went along and up the stairs into our seats for the afternoon.
For the second year running at Fleetwood we had been allocated the Parkside Stand as our support didn't warrant opening the terrace behind the goal. As our mini allocation began to fill up, the sprinklers rose from the ground to douse the pitch underneath the "blazing" Lancashire sun. With little over 5 minutes until kick off, that anticipation for the new season began to rise like it does every year. The pitch was in pristine condition and the supporters were full of optimism (maybe not for both sides). The new season was finally here.
The teams emerged from the tunnel to a rapturous round of applause from both sets of supporters, eager to see their relatively new look sides in competitive action for the first time. The pre-match pleasantries took place before the Daggers XI came over to clap the 133 travelling fans that had made their way to this secluded corner of Northern England.
Fleetwood Town: Davies, Hogan, Cresswell, Roberts, Jordan, Schumacher, Hughes, Brown, Sarcevic, Ball, Crowther.
Dagenham & Redbridge: Lewington, Femi, Doe, Saah, Hoyte, Howell, Ogogo, Bingham, Scott, Murphy, Elito. Subs: Seabright, Reed, Conners, Dennis, Woodall, Shields, Obafemi.
As expected Daggers lined up in a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 formation which saw Abu Ogogo revert to central midfield and Gavin Hoyte to right back. With Luke Wilkinson still sidelined Brian Saah partnered Scott Doe at centre half. Billy Bingham started in midfield whilst a front two of Rhys Murphy and Josh Scott would be assisted by Medy Elito. Tricky wingers Sean Shields and Louis Dennis remained on the bench alongside new signing Afolabi Obafemi.
With the huddles completed and the photographs taken, the teams lined up to begin the new 2013/2014 season. The referee blew his whistle and we began. Surprisingly it was the visitors that started on the front foot. Despite the early momentum, Fleetwood quickly asserted themselves and Chris Lewington was soon forced into action to deny David Ball's drilled shot with less than three minutes played.
The early pressure from the hosts continued before eventually manifesting itself into a crucial mistake by the visitors. Billy Bingham was caught with the ball just outside his 18 yard box and was forced to track back and concede a corner. From the resulting set-piece, the hosts took the lead. Ryan Crowther's floated ball towards the back post was perfect for debutant Mark Roberts who escaped his marker to power home his header with just four minutes played.
Wayne Burnett attempted to gee up the troops but by the time his enthusiasm could muster a response, Daggers found themselves two goals behind. Jeff Hughes, who once scored a hat-trick against Daggers whilst at Bristol Rovers latched onto a loose ball twenty yards out before rifling it past a crowd of defenders and into the corner of the net for 2-0. By all means I didn't expect to win this match, but to be 2-0 down inside 10 minutes was shambolic - criminal even. Oh well, only 4130 minutes of the season to go lads.
The shell-shocked visitors now had a mountain to climb against one of the promotion favourites and already it seemed as if the game was beyond our reach. Nevertheless the Essex outfit persevered and nearly pulled one back five minutes later, but Medy Elito's delivery evaded all of those in the box before drifting out for a goal kick. Unusually Daggers looked fragile at the back and but for another fantastic stop by Lewington, Hughes would have taken his tally for the afternoon to two.
Burnett's favoured passing style was being implemented in part, but it was a simple ball over the top that brought about the Daggers response. Billy Bingham picked out the arcing run of Medy Elito who beat the offside trap for the first time, before advancing and squaring for debutant Rhys Murphy who slid in to net his first ever goal in English football. After a disastrous opening, with 25 minutes gone we were suddenly back in the game. Optimism was renewed and we began once more.
After such an explosive start the match soon quietened down and turned into more of a midfield scrap. Unfortunately for Daggers it was the Cod that were winning the majority of the battles as the visitors continued to look too lightweight in midfield. When we did get the ball, our main outlet was down the left where Medy Elito looked to get a run on the full back, but failed miserably.
Following Gavin Hoyte's booking Daggers almost found an equaliser. The ball was played down the channel to Murphy who controlled brilliantly before bamboozling his defender and curling a shot just inches wide of Scott Davies' post. It was a glimpse of what Murphy was capable of despite an ultimately weak shot. We've lacked a striker with a bit of imagination since Gayle's departure; hopefully Murphy can feel that void.
His miss meant Daggers still trailed 2-1, a scoreline that was nearly extended just before the break. The Daggers defence were forced to defend two more corners, with Chris Lewington called into action once more to ensure that the deficit remained at just the one during half time. It wasn't an ideal half, but to go only one down at the interval after a disastrous start can be considered acceptable.
In our brief 15 minute respite I decided to head down to the concourse to sample what minimal food Fleetwood had on offer. After seeing the menu, I decided against it. I mean, they're called the Cod and they don't even serve fish, it's an outrage! We soon headed back up to the stand where a slightly drunk Bill (@EssexDaggerBC) was optimistic for the second half.
The second half began in earnest and Daggers were immediately looking to find that elusive equaliser. Another Elito ball into the box was cleared away before Murphy narrowly failed to get on the scoresheet once more when a cross was pitched just a yard or so in front of him. That was made even more frustrating five minutes later when Daggers were undone from yet another set piece. This time it was former Southend centre half Ryan Cresswell who was left unmarked to head home past Chris Lewington despite the best efforts of Brian Saah on the line.
All of the early hard work in the second half had been undone as a result of lackadaisical defending once more. With that we were back to square one, a two goal deficit against what will probably turn out to be one of the strongest defences in the league - what chance did we have? Well if Rhys Murphy's creative runs were anything to go by, we were still in the game. He escaped his marker once more but was unable to provide a telling finish as the Fleetwood defence mopped up the danger.
With a goal looking increasingly unlikely, Burnett acted to make a double change. Medy Elito and Josh Scott were withdrawn to be replaced by Afolabi Obafemi and Jake Reed. Josh hadn't really made much of a contribution to proceedings, but playing in an unfamiliar wide left position that should come as no surprise.
Both sides continued to attack in search of goals at either end for different reasons. It was the hosts that came closest from yet another set-piece, but this time Scott Doe was on the line to make a sensational last gasp clearance to prevent the scoreline extending to 4-1. Up the other end Obafemi came close whilst Jake Reed also looked creative without really threatening the Fleetwood Town goal.
By the time Brian Woodall was introduced on 87 minutes, the game was already over as a contest. After enduring four extra minutes of pain, the referee blew his whistle to signal an end to the first match of the season. The phrase going through my mind at this point was something along the lines of, "Same sh*t, different season." Oddly enough we looked ok going forward, but it was our exploits at the back that are a cause for real concern - especially where set pieces are concerned.
In reality it was the start that killed us. That and our inexplicably bad defending from set pieces. If we can tighten our defence and improve on our organisation then we'll be a markedly better side ahead of next week - but Rome wasn't built in a day of course. The key thing for me is to play players in their favoured positions. It's so frustrating seeing Abu play in centre mid, a position where in a passing orientated outfit really doesn't suit him. I'd much prefer him playing at right back, a position where he excels.
A similar case to this is that of Josh Scott. He was forced out wide on the left on Saturday, a position that really didn't suit him. If we want to get the best out of Josh has to play down the centre. But then you have the dilemma of what to do with Murphy, who, by all accounts looks to be our biggest goal threat this season. It's a difficult situation and one that Burnett will do well to manage.
Having briefly dissected the afternoon’s performance in my head, we journeyed back past the jubilant home fans and into the rammed Fleetwood clubhouse to drown our sorrows. We even had our own booth, although we were avoided like the plague. One more pasty and half a pint of cider later we departed for Blackpool North, only to have to spend an hour at the station waiting for our Northern Rail service back to Preston.
Harry (@HarryBird94) and Bill stocked up on fosters for the train journey home, although quite how Bill was still standing was a mystery to us all. Having arrived at Preston we quickly switched onto the Virgin service before commandeering an old couples table to enjoy a jolly on the way back to Euston. After three hours (perhaps the longest of our life) we arrived back at Euston at around 22:45.
Having parted ways with Wilson, Mike and Matt the rest of us took the short walk to Euston Square before hopping on the Metropolitan Line back to Liverpool Street. Another quick change saw us onto the overground service where we arrived back at Chadwell Heath soon after 23:30. To say it had been an exhausting day, was an understatement. Eighteen hours of laughs and misery in equal measure, you've got to love football.
A little side note to the day is quite how Fleetwood will sustain their ambitions. I know they have backers, but to have just 2500 at home on the opening day after paying around £200,000 for a player is simply not sustainable. When you couple that with the brilliantly cheap season tickets they offer, especially for Under 16's (they're free), it's a shame that so many aren't taking up the offer. I like Fleetwood, but you wonder whether in the long term it'll all work out.
Now though we turn our attention to tonight's clash with League One promotion favourites Brentford in the League Cup at Griffin Park. Personally I'd love to see Shields and Dennis given a go on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, but whether that'll happen I don't know. We've lost on all six of our previous first round ties, so maybe, just maybe, we can finally get a win in this competition. But probably not.
Thanks for reading and remember to follow me on Twitter @NickMurphyDRFC. Oh and for the record, I will always hate Fleetwood's goal music.