Visibly impressive in League Two

MANY years ago, Radio Five Live hosted a sports debate show from the Moss Rose. Before the programme, each of the guests were asked to say something into the microphone to check for sound levels – and Jimmy Armfield came out with: “Why is Macclesfield the hardest ground in the Football League to find?”

I suspect Macc’s claim to that title has since been surpassed by Accrington – you can’t even see the Crown Ground until you’re practically inside it. Some clubs in League Two, it seems, are less visible than others.

Macclesfield and Dagenham and Redbridge, who met at the Moss Rose today, are two of the less glamorous names in a division where most of the publicity this season has centred around Notts County. There are people who can give you chapter and verse on Sven, Sol and Munto Finance who would struggle to tell you the name of Dagenham’s ground.

(Then again, I’d struggle to tell you the name of Dagenham’s ground these days. It used to be Victoria Road. Now it’s official title is, I think, The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium, thanks to a sponsorship deal with the local council. If I’m wrong, and the ground’s title has changed again, then I apologise.)

A shame, really, as Dagenham have had a better start to the season than Notts County. Under John Still’s astute management, they’ve climbed to second in League Two and look a decent bet for promotion.

Like Macc, the Daggers are a former Conference club who have managed to build themselves a solid base in the Football League. And like Macc, they’re doing it on a fraction of Notts County’s budget. You may have heard of their goalkeeper Tony Roberts, who played in the Premier League for QPR several eons ago, but the rest of their squad are not big names.

“Spotting talent outside of the Football League is increasingly an important role for managers at this level,” wrote Macc boss Keith Alexander in his programme notes today. “And John Still certainly has a good eye.

“The Essex leagues are very strong, and over the years have proved to be a very good breeding ground. Dagenham are ideally suited, despite the presence of the London clubs, to take advantage.”

There’s no better example of Still’s eye for talent than leading scorer Paul Benson. Still discovered the striker playing in the Essex Intermediate League. Benson struck 28 goals to help Dagenham win promotion to the league in 2007, and has hit a further 39 for the club since.

But one thing Benson isn’t doing any more is taking penalties. He ballooned one over the bar during last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Bradford, and vowed never to take another. On the back of that, the Barking and Dagenham Post ran a poll asking its readers who should replace Benson on penalty duties. Benson still got 15 per cent of the vote, and came second in the poll. Then again, perhaps not everyone was taking it seriously, as even Still got one vote.

The penalty issue would become significant right at the end, but the game’s first spot-kick came at their end. Having already been reduced to 10 men – Abu Ogogo sent off for an ourageous over-the-top challenge on Macc midfielder Hamza Bencherif – the Daggers went behind to a soft first-half spot-kick.

Nobody in the ground even appealed as Macc striker Matt Tipton jumped with Daggers midfielder Stuart Thurgood inside the box. Referee Oliver Langford saw a push, pointed to the spot and Tipton converted, sending Roberts the wrong way.

It was an entertaining first half, in the stand as well as on the pitch. A few rows in front of the press box, a Macc fan tried to lift his team by repeatedly shouting: “Win the ball! Win the ball! Come on Blues, win the ball!” He would occasionally break this up by yelling: “Come on! Let’s have a goal!”

Macc should have had another goal before the interval, as Ricky Sappleton and Colin Daniel both hit the post within a minute of each other. Sappleton, a young striker on loan from Leicester with the powerful build of Emile Heskey, curled another shot against the post early in the second half, then sub Ben Wright also struck the goalframe.

Any team hitting the post four times are entitled to consider themselves unlucky – but Macc finally got their second goal midway through the second half, as Sappleton ran on to Tipton’s through pass, rounded Roberts and ran the ball into an empty net.

Game over? Not quite. It was only just beginning.

When Wes Thomas pulled one back after a classy one-two with Benson 12 minutes from the end, Macc started to look a little jittery. Then Tipton, already on a booking, stupidly got sent off for kicking the ball away (not for the first time in his career, either).

Two minutes into stoppage time, Macc paid for their inability to kill the game off. Paul Morgan handled Benson’s shot inside the area, and the referee pointed to the spot again.

And the taker? Not Thurgood, who topped the Barking and Dagenham Post’s penalty poll. Certainly not Benson. No, the man given the job of rescuing a point for the Daggers fell to captain Mark Arber, who only came third. He blasted the ball into the roof of the net to make it 2-2. Good penalty, too. He should take them more often. And an excellent come back from Dagenham, who showed plenty of verve despite losing full-back Scott Griffiths to Peterborough in the week.

There was still time for Arber to hit the post with the last header of the match – but it ended as a draw. Good game, I thought. “Bloody rubbish,” shouted a Macc fan walking past me as the final whistle went.

Alexander had few words of praise for the referee. He said: “Once the referee sent one of their players off and gave us a penalty, we’ve all been in the game long enough to know he’s going to even things up. And that’s exactly what he did. He sent one of ours off and gave them a penalty.
“But I’d have taken a draw before the start. They were second in the table and flying, and I think we’ve been excellent.

Still was pleased with the fact that his team kept going for it even though they played for 80 minutes with 10 men. He said: “When we went down to 10 men, we never went 4-4-1 – we went 3-4-2 and took a chance. We thought we’d be brave. If we’re going to get beaten, we’ll get beaten, but let’s try and win it. I would sooner have lost 3-2 trying to win 3-2.”

It’s an attitude that should take Dagenham a long way this season. And if it takes them all the way to promotion, they might even start getting as much attention as Notts County. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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