Monday 26th March, 2007
Oxford United 2 Dagenham & Redbridge 2
Oxford. Dreaming spires, fine motor cars, seat of learning and springboard for London football teams going up in the world. Last May it was Leyton Orient fans cavorting around the Kassam Stadium. Last night it was the supporters of Dagenham and Redbridge chanting, clapping, waving and occasionally falling backwards off seats in celebration of, well, a draw as it turns out, but one snatched in the dying seconds that maintains the 11 point gap between themselves at the top of the Nationwide Conference, which confers the gift of automatic promotion to the professional League, and their hosts in second place who seem now inevitably bound for the nerve-wracking playoff clearing process.
The Daggers support, officially 688 but from in amongst them surely comfortably more than a thousand, had plenty of reason to remind Oxford throughout the first half just who was top of the league. Their side was rarely disturbed from its diligently industrious business and had the bonus of a lead claimed in the seventeenth minute when a long throw from Danny Foster was nudged out to the edge of the area only to be driven back in at pace. Oxford keeper Billy Turley saw it late and managed merely to push the ball back into play at the foot of his near post where a posse of players descended on it and the Conference's leading scorer Paul Benson once again claimed the bounty. His twenty-fifth goal of the season capped a highly intelligent display from the tall frontman recruited from the Essex Intermediate league three years ago.
The first hint that the wheels might come off arrived when a trio of Dagenham defenders went for the same unchallenged header three minutes after the interval. Moments later Oxford's bustling right sided attacker Yemi Odubade finally slipped free of the leash Scott Griffiths had kept him on throughout the first period, taking advantage of a caution earned by the left back's earlier dissent to force his way to the byline and cut back a ball that Andy Burgess sidefooted off the top of the bar from eight yards out. Odubade was not reined in for the remainder of the match, but it was from a defender's cross that Burgess's glancing header was spectacularly turned aside by the Daggers' stalwart keeper Tony Roberts as the home side's pressure became relentless.
Finally, the hunting in packs that had served the visitors so well in defence and midfield became their undoing as susbtitute Marvin Robinson helped on a left wing cross and four Dagenham defenders attacked the ball leaving Odubade unmarked as it inevitably broke to him on the right corner of the area. He had plenty of time to steady himself before firing a low shot across the face of goal and into the far corner with twenty minutes remaining.
Dagenham were still coming to terms with the unusual feeling of being pegged back when two minutes later a nightmare moment left them in arrears. The usually dependable Roberts rushed from his goal to chest away a ball hoiked down the right by Burgess. Roberts took a touch and swung his leg to clear but his virtual airshot only succeeded in gently looping the ball into the path of the unstoppable Odubade who instantly hooked it round his shoulder with his unfavoured left foot and had the luxury of watching it glide directly into the unguarded goal from twenty-five yards.
In the space of five minutes the game went from comfortable to almost out of reach as Odubade surged through again and drew a misjudged rearguard clearance that clunked off the top of the bar and away to safety. The nadir was reached as all eleven Daggers were packed in their own six yard box desperately trying to scramble away the resulting corner, but the siege was finally lifted with five minutes left as midfielder Dave Rainford made a world class block on his marauding opposite number Chris Hargreaves just as the Oxford man pulled the trigger from almost point blank range.
The home side, consistent losers of a lead at the Kassam, hung back a little with the three points tangibly in sight and that was all the daylight Dagenham needed. First Griffiths had a low drive saved as the officials began to check their watches before Oxford defender Barry Quinn, sent off in the early season reverse league meeting, sliced a clearance high into the night sky under pressure. Oxford half-cleared the ball as it fell to earth, but back it came to Quinn who this time had it stolen off his toe from behind him as he shaped to make up for his earlier error. The ball was ushered away to the left of the penalty spot where susbtitute Sam Sloma steered it more or less through the onrushing Turley and home to restore parity and effective supremacy.
Oxford managed one more near miss, but seconds later the proto-Promotion party had begun in the away section. "We're just a bad team from Essex!" they chorused self-mockingly, but their brand of high energy, well-drilled football is likely to stand them in good stead when the inevitable elevation to league status is officially confirmed. The hosts, when their wounds have been sufficiently licked, can console themselves that, like the man who won the halftime place kicking competition, the opportunity to be one of the first to visit the new Wembley for the playoff final is theirs for the taking.