Early in my career, I was advised never to start a presentation with an apology. Similarly, I should probably have avoided beginning a piece on a lower league football team with a well-worn cliché, but it’s undeniable that life for Leyton Orient fans under Barry Hearn’s chairmanship has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, although there have been more downs than ups.
When Hearn bought the club from previous chairman Tony Wood in 1995, documented in the now infamous Orient: Club for a Fiver shown on Channel 4, the Os were effectively bankrupt, and had just been relegated back to what was then Division Three. Fast forward on seventeen years and relegation to League 2 was narrowly avoided in 2011-12, following a poor season under Russell Slade. Plus ça change…
There are now bigger issues afoot for fans of London’s second oldest league club. Back in the heady days of 1995, Hearn’s initial vision was to seek better facilities, better entertainment and better football, as if the last two ambitions were somehow unrelated. Most recently, he’s been looking to Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration, declaring that ‘I have a dream’ and that Orient ‘could create an innovative and creative way forward and maybe do something quite remarkable’. This future vision is clearly linked with the future of the Olympic Stadium and while much of the country continues to debate Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, the issue causing sleepless nights just down the road in Leyton is the potential impact of the eventual decision of the London Legacy Development Corporation on the future tenants of the stadium. Could we survive with West Ham less than a mile away? Could we really survive in the Olympic Stadium with an average home gate below 5,000, whether as single tenants or in a ground sharing arrangement?
Time will tell, but whatever the outcome, at least the long suffering Os fans did see something quite remarkable on the 6th May 2006, in more ways than one, when Martin Ling took the club back to League 1. This came after eleven fallow years under Pat Holland, Tommy Taylor and Paul Brush, the only successes being two wrenching play-off final defeats in 1999 and 2001. An ex Os player and youth team coach, it’s fair to say that Ling’s appointment left much of the club’s support underwhelmed, but he quickly won respect with improved league positions between 2003-05.
A year later in 2005-06, however, Ling achieved something that no manager had done since Jimmy Bloomfield in the late 60s, leading the club to an automatic promotion.
So what did Ling instil in the class of 2005-06 that his predecessors had failed to do? First, he produced an Orient side which was able to win away from home on a consistent basis. Shortly after Hearn became chairman, Alex Inglethorpe’s last minute winner at Northampton in September 1995 prompted a pitch invasion from the away end, much to the bemusement of everyone else at Sixfields. This seemingly unremarkable victory was hugely significant seeing as it was the first league success that the travel weary fans had witnessed away from home in almost two years.
In contrast, a decade on, Ling’s men were unbeaten in the league away from Brisbane Road until just after Christmas, before crashing 4-2 at Wycombe. Surprising defeats at home were thus balanced by victories on the road. Equally importantly, when the away form inevitably dipped, wins were picked up at Brisbane Road, with just one home defeat in 11 games after Boxing Day, including eight clean sheets. Two of these games, a 1-0 win over Wycombe and an Easter Day goalless draw with Grimsby, were excruciatingly tense affairs but the points were vital come the end of the season.
This miserliness at home was so unlike Orient teams of the past and owed much to the centre-half pairing of John Mackie and Gabriel Zakuani, a hugely successful combination of guile and raw talent, Zakuani subsequently moving onto Fulham for a reported sum of £1m at the end of the campaign.
A goal difference of +16 at the end of the season, some way behind the eventual champions and runners-up, Carlisle and Northampton, respectively, reflects a side that were difficult to beat but seldom cut loose, with the exception of a 5-1 Boxing Day thrashing of Rushden and Diamonds, including Craig Easton’s goal of the season effort from distance. However, the team possessed two strikers with lower league pedigree in Gary Alexander and Lee Steele, as well as club favourite Jabo Ibehre. Matt Lockwood, one of the best left-backs at the club for many years was also an expert from the penalty spot, scoring six during the season, including two in consecutive games in the run-in against Boston and Mansfield. The forwards were ably supported by two underrated midfield players brought to the club by Ling, Michael Simpson and Easton, making 86 appearances between them during the season.
Crucially, Ling’s signings during the season were astute ones, notably Wayne Corden and Paul Connor. Corden, initially signed on loan from Scunthorpe, was probably one of the most gifted players to play for Orient during Ling’s time as manager. A skilful wide player, I was lucky enough to see him score a fantastic goal on debut in a 1-1 draw at Notts County, finishing off a flowing move involving the majority of the Orient players. Connor, signed from Swansea in January, chipped in with five goals from 16 starts and proved a valuable acquisition.
It’s often been said that cup runs are a distraction but another important factor that season was the belief that emanated from some highly entertaining and effective performances in the FA Cup. Following victories against Chesterfield and Rushden and Diamonds, the Os were rewarded with a third round London derby at Fulham. The travelling fans accounted for half of the 13,000 crowd on a drizzly Sunday in January and they were rewarded with a 2-0 half-time lead through goals from Joe Keith and Craig Easton. While Fulham pulled a goal back early in the second half and Glyn Garner saved a Collins John penalty, one of a number he was to make during the season, the Os held on with some ease for a deserved 2-1 win. This was followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat at Charlton in the fourth round but critically, the manner of the performances appeared to give the squad the renewed belief that by sticking to their neat, attacking style of football that Ling had them playing, they could achieve their ultimate goal of promotion.
No account of the 2005-06 season is complete without reference to what is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic games that many Orient fans will have ever witnessed. Going into the final game of the season, away at Oxford, the Os found themselves a point ahead of Grimsby, who were entertaining already promoted Northampton. To add to the drama, Oxford needed a win to avoid dropping out of the Football League for the first time since being admitted in 1962. The tension was palpable among the 4,000 strong Os following and despite a bright start, Oxford took the lead, only for Easton to head in from a cross by Corden, following a typical, twisting and turning run down the right flank.
A neat chip by Alexander, when put through by a combination of Lockwood and Steele, was followed by an immediate Oxford equaliser midway through the second half but at this point things changed as news came through from Blundell Park that Grimsby had taken the lead. At 2-2 and with the game entering stoppage time, it looked likely that home and away fans would be left to rue missed chances. What started out as a day so full of hope for both sets of supporters looked destined to end in despair. While the play-offs were guaranteed, you sensed that the disappointment of failing to secure automatic promotion would have proved too much for the players to bounce back from, something Ling subsequently acknowledged.
The season, however, had two final twists. Entering the 95th minute and with both teams throwing everything forward, news came through that Grimsby had conceded a late equaliser. As the away support celebrated and Ling beckoned his players back to defend what was now a promotion clinching draw, Orient continued to push forward and when Alexander slid the ball into the penalty box, ex-Oxford player Steele had the simple task of rolling the ball into the net. Pandemonium followed, with Ling and his assistant Dean Smith running along the touchline while the Orient team celebrated in front of the away end, full of deliriously happy supporers, many having never experienced such emotions. This was Leyton Orient after all. We just didn’t do success.
Reflecting on the 2005-06 season in the ever popular Leyton Orientear, Tom Davies noted that that magic minute at the Kassam Stadium ‘was, by a massive distance, the best sporting experience ever’. The billions of people watching the Olympics over the next 10 days may have difficulty in understanding that 30 seconds of lower league football could ever lead to such emotions. That’s understandable of course and I remain open-minded but I’d be surprised if any future sporting moment surpasses that memorable conclusion to a wonderful season. For that, I’ll be forever grateful to Martin Ling and his squad of players.