Eye Witness Assessment: Leyton Orient and Preston's Summit Meeting
At the start of the 2012-13 season, blogger Chris Lines posited the theory that that year’s League One title might be there for the taking and a shot shy Sheffield United, a Doncaster which bounced back far more easily than one might have expected and a Tranmere team that simply fell off a cliff did help the division live up to that billing. A year on, however, and the whole situation has intensified dramatically.
The play off zone is littered with those aiming to set points records and maintain best ever starts with Leyton Orient and Wolves having conceded just two losses between them before Saturday while a buccaneering and unfortunate to be relegated Peterborough United, a resurgent Preston North End, a Bradford City fresh from cup exploits and promotion, a Swindon Town boosted by the addition of choice members of Tottenham Hotspur’s second string and last season’s nearly men Brentford have all begun to jostle in what looks like a fiendishly difficult competition.
So it was with some anticipation that I took the Central Line to Brisbane Road on Saturday to witness two of the key pretenders in action – the home side buoyant from having delivered the single most impressive result that any team has managed this season – a spectacular 3-1 win over Peterborough in their own back yard – and Preston looking steely and resilient under serial promotion winner Simon Grayson.
A visit to the Matchroom Stadium has the reputation as one of the best away trips in the country and no wonder. The path to the understated suburb of Leyton is peppered with appealing attractions – fine pubs aplenty in Bethnal Green and amid the back streets of Brick Lane, lunch opportunities from scores of nations, easy transport links and the chance to peek at the revitalized East London of the 2012 Olympics.
On arrival, things only get better – with the supporters bar an absolute thing of joy. A pound to get in and free if you are a card carrying member of the Campaign for Real Ale, a revolving array of beers would keep any fans happy while the walls of the one room space are festooned with tales of Orient past – a trip to the 1978 FA Cup semi-final the one that really stood in the memory of this writer – while I supped contentedly from a pint of Oscar Wilde Mild from the Mighty Oak Brewery, Supreme Champion beer of Britain in 2011.
Affable service and a community feel replicate the mood at some of the country’s more characterful non-league grounds while the villains who are behind the monstrosities thatthat serve as most club bars these days should take note. Not that the stadium itself is traditional mind – save for a wondrous gable atop the main stand. The encroaching tentacles of the booming East End property market reached these parts long ago and, having rendered neighbouring Hackney and Mile End well nigh uninhabitable for new residents save for the super-rich, are now choking Leyton in their grasp.
Hence, the Matchroom is now buttressed by a cluster of modern dwellings and some of these even afford a prime view of the pitch itself while given that two of the stands seem temporary in construction, a feeling of transition is perhaps confirmed by the Olympic Stadium wrangling the club has been involved in – why anyone would want to up sticks of a Saturday to see Sam Allardyce’s West Ham or AVB’s faltering Spurs is beyond me amid such genial surrounds, especially with the team previously prefaced with Clapton enjoying such a wonderfully superb season.
As kick-off approached, the atmosphere, fuelled by the excellent beverages, began to mount and the acoustics provided by the wooden seating and low roof of the old stand allowed a sell-out PNE contingent to gain the vocal upper hand – all to the tune of ‘Jump around if you hate Blackpool’ and a wondrous adaptation of the Inspiral Carpets ‘This is how it feels’ – ‘This is how it feels to be Blackpool, this is how it feels to be small, this is how it feels when your team has no fans at all’.
The visiting Lilywhites, decked out in their traditional yellow away kit at last, gained the upper hand from the first whistle – showing considerably more vigour in the tackle and fifty-fifty challenges – while Orient, as Os blogger Matt Simpson remarked in the wake of the match, looked ‘pumped and primed for a pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll around a bird sanctuary.’
John Welsh, once captain of Tranmere, epitomised the effort, controlling a midfield bereft of Orient’s French playmaker Romain Vincelot. Keith Keane alongside him assisted in the parrying of the all too sporadic attacks of the east London side while such solidity was matched at the back by Australian Bailey Wright, just 21, and developing into one of the division’s best central defenders. That’s due to this mobility – he’s an athletic presence with a great leap and an energetic attitude to competition that belies his years. With utility man Jack King also looking rocklike alongside him, the barrier always looked like it would be too much for the Os to break through.
Elsewhere in the back four, Scott Laird, a rare surviving recruit from Graham Westley’s ill-fated spell at Deepdale and Tom Clarke – facing up to his brother Nathan – did all that was asked of them at full back even if the latter found it much harder after the introduction of Shaun Batt. Meanwhile, Declan Rudd, guilty of two howlers when PNE lost at Peterborough in the Autumn, caught everything and looked tremendously assured – he is keeping another fine netminder in Thorsten Stuckmann out of the team after all.
Of course the best teams defend from the front and if North End fans perhaps expected more in terms of goals from Kevin Davies when the marquee signing arrived in the summer, his ability to detain two defenders at once, and sometimes a defensive midfielder into the bargain, is invaluable – all providing the platform for an increased cutting edge that has become apparent in recent weeks.
That has come from Chris Humphrey, ever dangerous here on the right wing and now having resisted the competing claims of the likes of recent returnee Jeffrey Monakana and Will Hayhurst to cement a place in the team, and Joe Garner, who backed the opinion of our League 1 previewer John McGee that his best position is as a central striker with a gutsy display here – volleying in a Keane cross in superb fashion to settle the contest.
But it’s the arrival of Paul Gallagher that has really provided Preston with the subtlety that a previously typically workmanlike Grayson team needed – his clever chip was characteristic of the man and almost gave the Whites a 2-0 lead early in the second half – and the unruffled skill that has led no less a judge than Sven Göran Eriksson to liken his dead ball delivery to David Beckham’s was on constant display. Gallagher really rose above the helter-skelter nature of the proceedings and, having scored a treble against Barnet in the cup last week, constitutes a brilliant temporary signing for the Lancashire men.
Given their domination, Russell Slade rather oddly described the visitors as ‘negative’ in his post match comments although he was right perhaps to cite the absence of Vincelot in those central areas. Only when fellow Frenchman Mathieu Baudry came on did the match become more even, former Southampton youngster Lloyd James enduring a disappointing afternoon, while Dean Cox, busy in the early stages, failed to have as much influence as usual cutting in from the left – Batt was to prove another astute introduction on the manager’s part and the game was almost tied in injury time only for substitute Robbie Simpson to spurn an opportunity.
There’s no doubt that this was a deeply unconvincing display and the succession of long balls to which the team resorted towards the end, while understandable, did them little credit. To boot, the centre back pairing of Clarke and Scott Cuthbert looked jittery while hitherto lethal forward pairing Kevin Lisbie and David Mooney was ineffective.
As a Reading fan, I was bemused when supporters wrote off the Irishman during his spell at the club, Mooney’s opportunities having been limited – the one match I did see him play saw him perform very well in a League Cup victory over Burton Albion and the competition for places at a team in the upper reaches of the Championship would always be too tough. So, I’ve been quietly pleased to see him do so well this year, especially after looking less than prolific earlier in his career in Leyton.
So can this Orient maintain the challenge or will they go the way of last year’s Wirral Rovers? That’s impossible and unfair to say on the basis on one viewing – and results have simply been too good to write them off – indeed, on a recent edition of the We Are Going Up podcast, I tipped them to last the pace alongside Wolves, with Peterborough to drop out of the automatic placings.
We therefore hope to provide a more rounded view of the Os’ chances in future weeks – Marvin Bartley looks a powerful presence in central midfield and Moses Odubajo shuttled well between wing and full back depending on who else was on the pitch, while the aforementioned contributions of Batt caused Preston many problems in the dying minutes, Jamie Jones looked capable in goal and Cox has the air of a leader. Sitting pretty at the top brings with it attendant pressures and the spirit of the London Road victory shows that there is more to this Orient team than a failure to beat a very well drilled Preston would suggest. In all, it was a terrific football league afternoon which leaves one craving for more as Christmas approaches.