Southport start the 16/17 Vanarama National League campaign with one of the toughest tests of the season, after the fixture list handed The Sandgrounders an opening day trip to Dagenham & Redbridge.
Relegated last season after finishing 23rd in League Two, Dagenham & Redbridge join the National League alongside York City, and are listed amongst the favourites to gain promotion straight back into The Football League.
Dagenham’s cause for optimism centres around manager John Still who rejoined The Daggers in 2015 for his third managerial stint at the club. Not content with a place in League 2 after winning The National League in 2007, Still took Dagenham one step further to League One via a trip to Wembley, defeating Rotherham United in 2010.
Dagenham struggled in League One and were relegated in their maiden season. Still left the club in 2013 after 9 years, opting to join Luton Town, where he again lifted the National League trophy.
Wayne Burnett took over the managers job at the club following Still’s departure but lost his job in December 2015 after a poor start to the season. Still returned to Dagenham after leaving Luton but was unable to prevent The Daggers sliding back into The National League.
Inevitably, with relegation comes upheaval. 17 players left Dagenham over the summer, with 13 taking their place, including a number of promotions from the club’s youth squad. Returning to the National League has forced Dagenham to close their youth academy, and a shareholders meeting to discuss new investment and potential sale of the club is imminent.
Andy Bishop will have to ensure Southport are at their best to take anything away from Victoria Road, but The Port could find some advantages in playing Dagenham early, before John Still’s side finds a rhythm and a run of good form.
Southport do have their own reasons to be optimistic of taking a result away from Dagenham having strengthened during the off-season after the decision to award Andy Bishop the managerial role on a permanent basis following survival relegation at the end of last season.
When asked of his ambitions for the season at Sunday’s Meet The Manager session, Bishop stated that 12th was an aim he considered to be realistic and achievable and pointed to the retention of Gary Jones as his best signing of the summer. Liam Nolan is expected to retain his place in the side and build on a series of promising and encouraging performances throughout last season.
Aside from retaining Louis Almond, who at his best is a match for any National League side, Bishop moved quickly to add James Caton to the squad after contract negotiations with Lincoln City broke down to ensure Southport had quality out wide. Port have a number of attackers capable of scoring goals, but James Gray looks set to lead the line for the first game of the season.
At the back, Josh Thompson will also be looking to build on last season’s performances and will be joined in defence by the club’s new Vice Captain Neil Ashton, who has produced some encouraging displays during pre-season. Further defensive reinforcements have been signed with Keil O’Brien, Joe Kearns and Chris Doyle joining the club. Andrai Jones will see out the second year of his two year contract but injury prevents Jones from selection on Saturday along with Chris Doyle who is expected to be sidelined for three to four weeks.
This will not be the first time Southport play Dagenham away on the first day of the season. Fresh from winning the Conference North in 2004, Liam Watson’s team travelled to Victoria Road. The squad that day included the likes of Steve Dickinson, Earl Davis and Steve Daly but was not enough to stop Dagenham romping home to a 3-1 victory.
Port have played Dagenham five times since the opening day in 2005, the most memorable being our most recent encounter. After taking a valuable draw away at Victoria Road, Port hosted Dagenham in a replay for The Emirate FA Cup 1st Round in November 2015. John Marsden and Danny Hattersley scored the goals to defeat Dagenham 2-0. Port went on to beat Eastleigh to earn a memorable third round tie against Derby County.
Victory at Dagenham may be difficult but is certainly possible. Trust In Yellow coach travel is now sold out, and with a large number travelling independently or living local to London, Port will be backed by a sizable travelling section of supporters.
Kick off on Saturday is 3pm – and the Matchday Live service will be available for free to registered SFC Online users.