Nathan Critchlow salutes a club who are reaping the rewards after doing things the right way.
Many Leyton Orient fans could be forgiven for whistling, humming or singing the well-known Oasis lyrics ‘Hey you! Up in the Sky, learning to fly, tell me how high, do you think you’ll go?” With the club sitting top of League One and forwards Kevin Lisbie (yes, the ex-Charlton striker), David Mooney and Dean Cox knocking goals in for fun, things couldn’t get much better for “The O’s”.
However, rewind 18 months to February 2012 and things certainly didn’t look as rosy. Having only won two out of their nine league games since the start of December 2011, Leyton Orient fans spent considerably more time looking over their shoulders than staring up at the play-offs and possible promotion. It wasn’t just on the pitch where things were entering treacherous waters. As well publicised, Leyton Orient’s Matchroom’s Stadium is geographically the closest football club to London’s Olympic stadium and, naturally, when West Ham United were selected as preferred tenants, following the London Games, 2012 didn’t look like it was going to be Orient’s year.
Now some football clubs and chairman could be excused for lying down and being steamrolled by the vested interests of the government and Mayor of London who had already ploughed so much of the taxpayer’s money into the Olympic project. However, those football clubs don’t have London-born sports promoter Barry Hearn as chairman. Hearn, who had already saved the club from bankruptcy after becoming chairman in 1995, was not prepared to see the club bullied to its knees again and took his case to those in a position of power regardless of whether they wanted to listen or not. This campaign entailed two high profile judicial reviews, the latter of which is still on going. Cynics would argue that such debate is a waste of time, but Hearn isn’t taking it lying down. I agree with Hearn, why should he?
Such turmoil is usually the kind of back page news which affects the quality of the beautiful game when Saturday comes, and Leyton Orient fans could have been forgiven for thinking that such distraction could leave their season, as well as their fan-base, in tatters. Therefore, going into February the last thing they needed was a visit from Stevenage, an in-form team on a thirteen match unbeaten run. Lying in 15th, a defeat for Orient would have slid the club closer and closer to the dreaded dotted line.
But rather than be distracted the O’s seemed to be galvanized by Hearn’s ‘never-say-die’ approach and under the stewardship of battle-hardened manager Russell Slade (who had already saved the club from relegation once in 2010) they beat Stevenage 1-0. It appeared that, that Stevenage game was the turning point in Leyton Orient’s season and they went on to win 8 eight of their remaining sixteen games, drawing four. This Indian summer saw Leyton Orient charge up the league, ultimately finishing 7th, only one place and 3 points out of the play-offs. However, sadly, such a great run was still somewhat over shadowed in the press by constant talk about the Olympic Stadium.
I even ventured over to the surprisingly impressive Matchroom stadium (worth a trip for its mixture or ‘old-meets-new’ design alone) in March last season for the visit of Carlisle, totally obviously to just how impressive Orient’s run would become. I could feel the buzz around the stadium both before and after the match as over 4,000 fans saw the O’s dismantle the Cumbrians 4-1. Truth-be-told they could have won by 6 or 7 with Lisbie and Cox (who both scored) very impressive on the day. However, walking away from the ground, albeit impressed, I couldn’t help but attribute the score to Carlisle’s demise, rather than the performance of Orient.
Fast forward to 3rd August Orient did it again, smashing Carlisle for 5 away from home. I’ve never made the 626 mile round trip (10 hours in a car) from Orient to Carlisle, but I bet that was worth it for the Orients players and fans alike. However, still my cynicism (and fury at Carlisle) remained and I ignorantly put the result down to chance, again. However, with the naysayers swept aside, the O’s continued their charge winning against Coventry in the cup and Shrewsbury and Stevenage in the League. Admittedly, although Orient haven’t had the hardest of starts to the season (cynicism again) to top a league containing clubs recently in higher league, such as Wolves, Sheffield United, Preston North End, Peterborough United and Bristol City is certainly not a feat to be sniffed at.
The final two weeks of August will be crucial for Leyton Orient. Such early season form naturally has attracted a couple of higher league clubs to sniff around their players (in particular the highly impressive Dean Cox) whilst on the pitch the club have a number of winnable games (Crewe, Colchester and Notts County). Success both on and off the pitch could put the Orient in a commanding position as the league starts to straighten itself out in October and November.
So, twelve months on from the end of London Olympic Games the warm glow of 2012’s summer of sport is drifting into a distant, happy, memory for many. The Olympic Stadium lies quiet and deserted. On the other hand, the nearby Matchbook Stadium is the place to be, awash with optimism.
Leyton Orient, Barry Hearn and the clubs players deserve a lot of praise for doing things ‘the right way’ and the supporters should be very proud of what they are achieving. Having been to The Matchroom Stadium and having sampled the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere I hope they hold on to the likes of Cox and I hope they continue to play their attractive, attacking football. Promotion, or at least the play-offs, would spur the club on immensely and perhaps make the ‘powers-that-be’ think twice about trying to bully them out of their own back yard. West Ham United were in the Championship as recently as two years ago and even starting their bidding for the Olympic Stadium whilst in the 2nd tier. Promotion would certainly help the Orient in their bid to, at least, ground share with the ‘Hammers’.
Even I admit that Olympic Stadium cannot be left to become another ‘White Elephant’ (or another bloody concert venue), nor can it be left to compete with Wembley Stadium. Putting a Premier League club in charge is probably a good idea. But it wouldn’t be a good idea if that idea is at the expense of Leyton Orient. Without the lower league clubs we wouldn’t have the magic of the FA Cup (look at the Leyton Orient v Arsenal FA cup ties from 2010) or the blood and thunder of lower league football. Lest we forget that players such as England’s new hero Rickie Lambert made his name in this league with now Premier League club Southampton. Bayern Munich, Roma and the Milan teams all share their grounds with their rivals, so asking a mid-table Premier League club to share it’s ground with a League One club is hardly like asking Roy Keane to share bunk beds with Patrick Viera. Playing at such a prestigious stadium would do wonders for player recruitment at Leyton Orient, whilst Hearn’s promise to give 1,500 tickets to students and children in the local area can only be a massive boost for grass-roots football.
However, for now Orient’s focus must be on be onwards, and hopefully upwards. If clubs like Bournemouth and Yeovil can climb to the Championship, so can a club like Leyton Orient. That’s just my opinion, but I hope for the sake of the 4,000 dreamers at the Matchroom Stadium this Saturday that I’m right.