Part 5: The Only Way is Essex

It was twenty years ago this August when the top flight broke away from the rest of the Football League and formed the FA Premier League and officially (well in the eyes of Sky Sports at least) created Football as we know it. One other lesser recognised twentieth anniversary however is that of one of the youngest football clubs in the whole of the top four divisions of professional football in England – Dagenham and Redbridge FC. Despite the recent nature of the Daggers’ formation however, the background to their history goes back as far as the roots of Football in the Eastern hemisphere of the metropolis itself. It involved an amalgamation of three of the biggest names in Amateur Football who between them won the FA Trophy once, the FA Amateur Cup seven times, the Isthmian League twenty times, the Athenian League six times, the Essex Senior Cup twenty-six times and the London Senior Cup twenty-three times.

The story starts in 1881 in Ilford, which at this point was a mere Essex village with a population of just 7500 people, yet to be subsumed into London’s great urban sprawl. It was here that a group of young men had formed Ilford Alliance FC, which was later renamed just plain Ilford FC. The club were on the forefront of early amateur football, winning the Essex Senior Cup in 1888 and were entrants to the inaugural FA Amateur Cup in 1893. They were also founder members of the Southern League when it was formed in 1894. As the Southern league was soon to become to be dominated by professional sides such as Tottenham Hotspur, Millwall and Southampton however, staunch amateurs Ilford came to be out of their depth – finishing bottom of the table with just one point in 1896. As a result of this, they had voluntarily withdrawn from the Southern League and joined the newly formed London League, which Arnold Hills of Thames Ironworks had been instrumental in establishing in order to preserve the amateur ethic within the London Footballing scene.

By 1905 the London League had merely become an outlet for many of London’s professional sides to field their reserves, therefore Ilford – along with other prominent amateur sides within the London area such as Clapton FC, the Casuals and London Caledonians had formed the Isthmian League to provide a genuinely competitive Amateur Football League for sides in the London and Home Counties area. By the 1920s Ilford had come to prominence within the amateur game by winning the FA Amateur Cup back to back in 1929 and 1930. Also playing in Isthmian League were Leytonstone FC, who were founded in 1886. By the late 1930s they had come to dominate the Isthmian League, winning the title on seven consecutive occasions between 1937 and 1951 (taking into account Football’s seven year break for the Second World War). They had also won back to back FA Amateur Cups in 1947 and 1948.

The growth of amateur Football sides on the outer eastern fringe of the metropolis during the inter-war and early post-war years had coincided with population growth as a direct result of suburban expansion from house building schemes enacted by the London County Council, with ‘out-county’ Council Estates built in parts of West Essex – such as the Becontree and Harold Hill Estates - as part of David Lloyd-George’s ‘Homes Fit For Heroes’ policy after the First World War. Despite not being part of London itself for at least another four decades, the West Essex fringe had been ideal for house building due to the availability of open, empty space close by which could be bought up at a cheaper price. There had also been a great expansion of private sector house building in the 1930s, which saw London’s urban area expand at a rate greater than it has done before or since.

One such beneficiary of this had been Walthamstow Avenue FC. The side were formed in 1900, coinciding with the population of the town increasing ten-fold from that of just 30 years prior. The Avenue however only came to prominence after 1930, as a result of the suburban expansion which occurred in the North of Walthamstow and into nearby Chingford, of which the club with their home base at Green Pond Road were able to exploit with the aid of the tram link between the two areas. During the 1930s they had dominated the Amateur Athenian League for most of the decade. After the war they joined the Isthmian League, which they won at their first attempt and had built a reputation as one of the most feared sides in the amateur game winning the league a further three times over the next decade, as well as the FA Amateur Cup in 1952 and again in 1961.

They were however most famed for their FA Cup exploits, particularly reaching the 4th Round in 1953 against Matt Busby’s Manchester United, who were at this point the reigning League Champions. On the way they had disposed of league sides Stockport and Watford and heroically held United to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. The amateurs however were beaten 5-2 in the replay, which had been a home fixture played at nearby Highbury (below) attracting a crowd of 49,000.

The scorer of all of their three goals against United had been a future title winner with Chelsea in 1955, Jim Lewis, who as an amateur would represent Great Britain at three Olympic Games. The Avenue’s Green Pond Road ground had also been used for Football in the 1948 London Olympic Games, bringing in an attendance of 21,000 to watch Turkey v China. Ilford’s Lynn Road Stadium was also used for France v India, attracting a 17,000 attendance, who were for the most part amazed that the Indian side had taken to the field barefoot. Despite this perceived handicap, it took a last minute goal from the French to eliminate India 2-1. As a result of the stir caused by this game, FIFA had outlawed playing barefoot at the 1950 World Cup Finals, which was cited as a reason for India’s withdrawal despite having qualified for the tournament.

The final side involved in the story of the Daggers’ pre-history are Dagenham FC, who were founded as late as 1949. The club were formed on the back of the rapid growth of the town in light of the construction of the Becontree Estate which started in 1921. At the time it was – and in fact still remains – the largest public housing development in the world. This saw a ten-fold increase in the areas population within ten years, which was followed by the opening of the nearby Ford Motor Works site (below) in 1931. Dagenham FC had reached back to back FA Amateur Cup Finals in 1970 and 1971, however losing on both occasions. Within a few years the Amateur Cup was to be abolished and replaced by the FA Trophy, of which Dagenham reached the final of in 1977, however, were to be beaten finalists again that year.

Until the late 1970s, all four sides – Leytonstone, Ilford, Walthamstow Avenue and Dagenham – were four separate independent Footballing entities. However in 1977, due to financial difficulties Ilford FC were forced to sell Lynn Road Stadium to Fairview Homes, who in turn built a housing development on the site. Just three years prior Ilford had reached the last ever FA Amateur Cup Final before its abolition, of which they lost to fellow Essex side Bishop Stortford 4-1. The club had bought a site to build a new ground, on land which had been a former RAF airfield in Fairlop. However after tax deductions they were not left with enough funds from the original proceeds of the sale of Lynn Road to re-develop the site. In the meantime they were tenants of Leytonstone FC, before deciding to merge with the club in 1979 to form Leytonstone & Ilford FC. Initially a success, the side were Isthmian League Champions in 1982 and Runners Up the following year, however by 1985 they were running at a considerable loss and themselves were forced to sell their ground at Granleigh Road and ground share with Walthamstow Avenue at Green Pond Lane.

By 1988 Walthamstow Avenue were ‘incorporated’ into Leytonstone & Ilford, who in turn won the Isthmian League the following season but were denied entry to the Conference League as their ground was not deemed fit for purpose and were forced to relocate to Victoria Road to ground share with Dagenham FC. The club had in the meantime found a site for a new ground and thus changed their name to Redbridge Forest FC after their chosen new home area on the borders of the London Boroughs of Redbridge and Waltham Forest. The move however fell through, leaving the club stuck at Victoria Road. Redbridge Forest were crowned Isthmian League Champions in 1991 and as Dagenham’s Victoria Road Stadium (below) was suitable for Conference level Football, coupled with Dagenham’s financial turmoil, a decision was reached to merge the two sides for the 1992/93 season.

The decision however was not universally popular with fans of Dagenham FC, as seen from Derek Robinson’s article in When Saturday Comes magazine in July 1992, claiming that: ‘with the committees of both clubs having shown a complete inability to handle money, I give Dagenham & Redbridge FC five years at the most……And that's being generous’. The club however have long since survived and thrived – achieving both financial stability and a place in the Football League as a result. The club however are not particularly popular with the Football purists. In 2007, their Conference League fixture with fellow merger created side Rushden & Diamonds was the subject of David Stubb’s When Saturday Comes article, which referred to the match as ‘a case of Pariah v Pariah. The whole business of mergers is not just confusing and depressing, but a source of some bitterness to other Conference fans in particular – the lower leagues, far from being gentler pastures of homelier, more authentic footballing culture, would seem to be more vulnerable to these sorts of dealings and enforced uprootings. Such amalgamations remind me of 1970s comics, when Tiger “merged” with Jag’. Much of this dislike however is largely lost on Daggers, as ‘among the Dagenham fans….or even among the websites, it’s hard to gauge any particular mood of defensiveness or siege mentality. They seem oblivious to that – a case of “no one likes us, we don’t know”.

Dagenham and Redbridge however are not to be confused with another similarly named side operating out on the far Eastern fringe of London’s urban sprawl – Redbridge F.C. – despite a few shared similarities, such as their creation through a merger between two separate sides previously based in Dagenham - one of whom were based at the Daggers current home of Victoria Road. Until 2004 they had been known as Ford United FC, who were created by a merger in 1958 between Dagenham based sides Ford Sports and Brigg Sports – the latter had even reached an FA Amateur Cup Semi-final in 1954 against Bishop Auckland, which was played in front of a 58,000 crowd at St. James' Park, Newcastle. The newly formed club had longstanding links with the giant Motor Corporation which bore its name, having played their home games at the Ford Sports Ground in Romford until 2000, when the Ford Motor Company refused to grant anything other than a yearly lease of the venue to the club – something which Isthmian League rules had not permitted. The club then moved to the Oakside Stadium (below), a ground which was shared with Barkingside FC in the borough of Redbridge.

In 2004, despite being as high as the sixth tier of English Football, Ford United had an average attendance of only 150, of which the club attributed to a lack of geographical reference point within their chosen moniker. Therefore the decision had been made to rename themselves as Redbridge FC in order to ingratiate themselves with the local population. Dagenham and Redbridge objected to the name switch, insisting that they were ‘not happy about another team taking half of their name and will be making their feelings known to the Football Association’. Their protest however fell on deaf ears, largely because unlike the Daggers, Ford United were actually resident within the Borough of Redbridge. However their attempts to further their fan base have largely been dashed by two successive relegations from the Conference South to Ryman League Division One North, where Redbridge FC now currently resides.

Around the same period in which Ford United were ‘stealing’ their name, a local rivalry had also built up between Dagenham and Redbridge and Hornchurch FC, due to the fact that the latter had poached several ex-Daggers players and manager Garry Hill. Their free spending habits had saw them dubbed the ‘Chelsea of the non-league’ and saw the club rise from Division Three of the Ryman League to the top of the Conference South within a few short years. They were reported to have a playing budget of £1.2 Million, despite having only average gate receipts of around £30,000 per season. However, their financial benefactor, the Double Glazing firm Carthium Group, incurred over £7 Million of debt and went bust, and along with it so too did Hornchurch FC in 2004. Therefore any threat posed to the Daggers by their upstart neighbours – be they poaching the club’s name or personnel – turned out to be minimal seeing that the club rose up into the Football League and reached as high as the third tier of English Football by the close of the decade.

Despite sinking back down to just six points off the drop back to the Conference last season, the Daggers now start their sixth consecutive season in the Football league and rather than looking to non-league Hornchurch or Redbridge for rivalry, it’s the more established Football League opposition of Southend United and Barnet that provide the Daggers main source of rivalry for the 2012/13 season. And if anything, finally indicates a rare era of stability for a Footballing entity which has shape-shifted and its way through non-league Football throughout the decades.