Reviewed by John Aizlewood for The Sunday Times
Uddin thriving in Dagenham leadership role
Injuries have taken their toll, but John Still’s side are convinced they can upset Southend
"THIS," sighs Dagenham & Redbridge manager John Still, "is as bad as it gets. Things cannot possibly get worse."
"This" turns out to be a wretched run of form which, until yesterday’s 2-0 win against Bury, had seen the Football League rookies record one league victory since the first week of October and a run of injuries that is ravaging a squad that is tiny even by League Two standards. The minor miracle is that they kicked off at Gigg Lane out of the relegation places.
"I’ve never known so many problems with injuries anywhere I’ve been," captain Anwar Uddin added. "Everything is going against us, from late goals to penalties. They say that over a season, things even out. If that’s the case, I can’t wait for the second half of the season."
It wasn’t meant to be like this, even for a club sponsored by their local funeral directors. In May, they steamed to the Conference title, finishing 14 points ahead of second placed Oxford United, a towering achievement for a club formed as recently as 1992, when Dagenham FC merged with Redbridge Forest.
Still’s playing career was ended by a knee injury after one appearance as Orient’s centre-half against Torquay United in 1967, but this is both his second stint as manager at Victoria Road and his second ascension to the Football League. Back in 1989, he managed Maidstone United to the then Fourth Division, only to depart before they kicked a league football, preferring not to swap his day job as a salesman for the perils of full-time football management. Then, he took Redbridge Forest to the Conference in 1991 and managed Dagenham & Redbridge until Peterborough United came calling three years later. This time he did take the full-time option. After spells at Lincoln City, Barnet and Bristol Rovers, Still returned to Victoria Road in 2004, not long after a 9-0 home humiliation by Hereford United. The Daggers retained their Conference berth and set about attaining league status.
As befits a club run and financed by members rather than a board, finances are stable but tight. They travel to away games by train and their wages are among the lowest in the land. And yet, there is hope.
Still, who signed a four-year contract in November, smiles. "This club is more than a job to me. It’s a massive part of my life. I look at the frustrations and turn them into positives. This has been a fantastic journey, and if we’re where we are now at the end of the season, we’re not going down."
Uddin started his career at West Ham, growing up alongside Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. Since then, they have kept in contact, although careers have diverged. Even after a fruitless spell at Sheffield Wednesday and missing a year at Still’s Bristol Rovers with injury, Uddin is upbeat. "When I came here, John said, ‘We’re a small club, finances are tight, but I want to start an adventure. I want hungry players with potential, who have a point to prove, like yourself’. Three years later, we’re in the league and what we’ve been through will always remain in my heart."
Uddin oozes leadership from every pore. Moreover, his Bangladeshi roots make him the League’s first Asian-English captain. Last month, he met Prince Charles at a ceremony for Asian high achievers. "Whether I like it or not, I’m an ambassador for the Asian community," he explains. "Racially, this country has changed so much for the better in the past five years and football is at the forefront of it. I’m the captain of a great club and I’m in the spotlight, so it’s up to me to be shown in a good light and counter the minority who have stereotypical or racist or biased views. It was beautiful to see Charles recognising the Asian contribution to British society."
Uddin’s rhetoric and commitment are almost Churchillian. "I’m back home in the Football League and I’m not going anywhere. I love it and it makes me feel alive. When the chips are down, you’ve got to stand up: if one of my teammates scores an own goal, I score an own goal; if they make a mistake I make a mistake. We’re all level-headed, we’ve all got our feet on the ground because we’re not on great money, we haven’t got flashy cars and beautiful houses. We’re just ordinary people given a great chance and we’re going to make the most of it. Whatever gets thrown at us, we’ll deal with it." And that comes in the shape of a trip to Southend in the third round of the FA Cup next Saturday. "For us, Southend are the next best thing to a Premier League side, but for them it’s the worst draw imaginable," said Uddin. "The bookies will have them as favourites, but on our day we can turn massive teams over."