When Routine Bites Hard: Dagenham & Redbridge v Bristol Rovers, 14 September 2013
First things first: the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham Stadium at the end of Victoria Road, just off the A1112, is a convivial enough place. One of our favourite away grounds, despite the club's complicated, perhaps even chequered history. They give visiting supporters the Traditional Builders stand, by far the grandest in the ground, when other clubs would surely donate only the rickety uncovered end directly opposite. They acknowledge the bleakness of a fourth division match on a chilly autumn day in the grey wastes of ungentrified east London by playing "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as the teams finish their on-pitch warm-ups. They serve tea and snacks in a friendly, no-frills way, and beer at half-time, with a couple of TV screens to show the latest scores. They have Dagger The Dog, a man dressed as a mutt who hurls sweets into the crowd (a good idea in theory, but the only Rovers fans within throwing range were beery middle-aged men, rotund enough not to need the extra E-numbers, yet who didn't seem to be inclined to actually let any of the kids in attendance have the sweets instead). Best of all, this is the only away fixture I can think of where there isn't a sizeable section of the home crowd who spend the whole game facing the away fans, baiting them. In part, that's because the attendance here is too sparse, but even so it's another plus in the Daggers' favour.
For all that, for *all* that, it's depressing coming here as a Bristol Rovers fan and watching one of the best-remunerated teams in the division being thoroughly outplayed by the home side, in front of a well-meaning but hardly atmosphere-building crowd of just 1,400. It's tiring sitting, yet again, above the 'action' and watching the pointless hustle and bustle, the lack of urgency, the absence of *thought*, the draining of confidence, the defensive sloppiness, the inevitable penalty miss, the fans' deflection of blame onto an admittedly incompetent, but not actually partisan, referee. Waiting impatiently yet impotently, at 2-0 down, for the game just to end as Rovers, in dire purple and black striped garb, fall to a sixth defeat in the nine games of the season so far. Hearing the final whistle, and like everyone else, feeling too disaffected and fidgety even to *bother* booing. Instead, an eerie silence descends upon the Traditional Builders'. (Quite different from the last time we were here, then.*)
*RFQ: "Cannot divide by zero"
Much as I've spent - and fully intend to continue spending - swathes of my life mocking the armchair supporters who fix their sights on Madrid, Manchester or Chelsea and refuse even to acknowledge the other hundreds of thousands of teams out there, it's not impossible to have sympathy with such calculated laziness right now. Rovers fans - most much more than I - have put up with a lot, have stuck loyally to their club, have spent money on replica quarters instead of Premier League merchandise, have tolerated several slides to the bottom of division four from a team that, until the 21st century, had never fallen into that league, and that usually features amongst the pre-season favourites for promotion (it's not the 'not knowing' that kills you, it's the HOPE). Oh, it's not been without highs: many fans of top-flight clubs would have envied our 2007 double of 'gracing' Millennium Stadium and Wembley finals. And, deep down, yes I *know* that it's swings and roundabouts, that the highs balance the lows, that even when they don't, that just makes the few highs there are seem higher. And we love real football so much that we even smiled our way out of embarrassments like this one.
But it's still all been part of a 20-year journey from second division journeymen to fourth division underachievement. And sometimes you do feel, *why* support a team who are usually amongst the best-paid in their league, yet so consistently give nothing back? As we file out towards the car park - this is pretty surreal, but sadly true - Bernard Shaw's words describing the closing agonies of Joan of Arc come to mind, completely unannounced. I swear I hadn't encountered them since school, so I must be feeling pretty despairing.
"O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?"
Funny what football does to you.