The State of Play at Leyton Orient
With the 2019-20 season scarcely underway, it seems fitting on so many levels that our first Football League related post of the new campaign should focus on Leyton Orient. Back in the 92 after two seasons away, the east Londoners have been assailed by the worst imaginable news in the wake of their promotion to League 2, with manager Justin Edinburgh passing away in June. Here, newcomer to the blog, Andrew John Hodge reflects on recent and upcoming times at Brisbane Road while never losing sight of what will surely be a famous legacy on Edinburgh’s part. Andrew is a sub-editor for Everything Orient while he himself can be followed on twitter at @DasHodge. Also, do bear in mind the setting up of the JE3 Foundation, set up by Justin Edinburgh’s family to raise awareness of heart conditions and the value of defibrillators in public spaces.
For Leyton Orient, the past five years have represented opposite sides of the same coin. O’s fans have endured one of, if not the, worst owners in EFL history in Francesco Becchetti. Now, we have passionate, committed owners who have breathed new life into the club.
There have been equally heartbreaking and infuriating relegations. A century of Football League membership ended with relegation and the prospect of extinction by High Court action, undoubtedly the lowest moment in the club’s history.
We had the delusional ineptitude and interference with team management from the owner – thankfully very much a thing of the past now – but which has given amazing opportunities to a generation of academy graduates who have been crucial to the club’s revival over the past season.
O’s fans finished last season celebrating the joy of promotion back to the Football League, but we have also had to come to terms with the tragic and very saddening loss of gaffer Justin Edinburgh.
That has been hard to process, but Orient as a club are resilient, and the players, the coaches, the directors, all the staff and the fans, are united in backing the team, Justin’s team, to honour his memory with our return to the EFL this season.
The Past Five Years
Just over five years ago, Leyton Orient were a penalty shootout away from promotion to the Championship. This was a real Sliding Doors moment for the club and opponents Rotherham United went on to spend four of the next five seasons in the Championship. Orient plummeted out of League One the next season and continued falling, with a century of membership of the Football League brought to an end with relegation to the National League at the end of the 2016-7 season.
I want to talk as little as possible about that dark period. It is strange, like a nightmare – once it is over, there’s little point dwelling on it.
The Becchetti era was marked by instability and inconsistency, a sharp contrast from the years of progress under Barry Hearn. The Italian owner took the team that came within a whisker of play off success to relegation in a single season. On the way to the play offs, Russell Slade used a tight core of 11 players with little rotation. The next season, Slade resigned following interest from Cardiff after the owners refused the Welsh club permission to talk to him; all of which was despite Slade, and his players, being told that results were not good enough and that he would be sacked. It all ended in bitter acrimony with accusations of tapping up and unfair dismissal. It was one of the first and most serious signs of the destabilisation the owners were bringing to the club.
By the end of the season Orient had gone through four managers, two of them Italians – one with no management experience and one who could not speak English. I recall Orient fan and broadcaster Bob Mills’ exasperation at these appointments and him saying that in the third division of English Football, sometimes a manager just needs to grab a player by the shoulders and shout at him “Don’t do that again!” – it’s a bit difficult to do that through a translator.
Relegation to League Two saw the disintegration of the Slade play off side. After a strong start, winning every game in August, results stagnated with only 3 wins between September and Christmas. That run saw Ian Hendon sacked and Kevin Nolan promoted to player manager. Nolan took Orient within two points of the playoffs before inexplicably being replaced with assistant Andy Hessenthaler – Becchetti was subsequently banned from stadiums and fined by the authorities for kicking Hessenthaler after a 3-2 Orient win over Portsmouth.
In Orient’s last season in the Football League senior players were marginalised, frozen out and then sold on. Club legend Dean Cox was treated particularly shabbily. It was distressing to watch as Orient’s players were sold in January to rivals in League Two – some of them at the other end of the table. Enormous pressure was put on the club’s youth academy players, as the owner ordered senior players he had taken a dislike to be banished from the matchday squad. The ownership were by this time at open war with the fans, a club statement blaming fans and ex players for upsetting Becchetti for poor results was positively Trumpian in its denial of reality.
Things got worse as it became apparent that wages to club staff were going unpaid, as well as tax to HMRC. It was starting to look like there might not be an Orient to save from Becchetti’s clutches. Relegation became inevitable, despite the best efforts of the young side. Thankfully, with the season’s conclusion came the first glimpses of salvation.
Ownership and Financial Outlook
It is no exaggeration to say that Becchetti almost destroyed Leyton Orient. Had HMRC’s winding up petition for unpaid tax not been dismissed, then an Orient phoenix club would have faced a daunting climb from the Essex Senior League back to the EFL – AFC Wimbledon’s journey from the 9th tier back to the football league took the best part of a decade.
When childhood O’s fan Nigel Travis, and Texas tycoon Kent Teague took over the club in the summer of 2017, the club was a basket case. Club staff had not been paid and it transpired that Orient did not even have a working bank account.
The new owners have brought openness and communication where before there was confusion, insularity, and outright falsehood. The final programmes of the 2016/7 season consisted of single pieces of card folded together and with no budget forthcoming and the club rapidly deteriorating, it was all the media team could do to meet the then league requirement to produce such a publication. Under Travis and Teague, the media team have revamped the matchday programme and introduced a lot of slick online content including a weekly Youtube show for fans.
Travis has supported the O’s since he was a boy and is a highly successful executive, notably in the food industry with Papa Johns and Dunkin’ Donuts. Teague didn’t have any connection with the O’s, but has thrown himself heart and soul into the club as vice chairman. He regularly flies over from Texas for games and has become a real fans’ favourite, joining supporters on the terraces at away games and just being a genial all-round good egg.
The owners have backed Director of Football Martin Ling and their managers in terms of acquiring players when they have identified a need. Last season saw Jay Simpson come in on a short-term deal to support Macauley Bonne up front. The Club has maintained and developed good relationships with clubs in and around London and the South East and further afield. The focus has been on creating a feel good, family friendly atmosphere and getting the club back to where they belong in the Football League. At the moment the club is making a loss, but the board of directors has a plan to break even on returning to the league, and promotion keeps us on target in that regard.
Playing Squad and Management
Out of the Football League, Orient lacked any senior players. The task of assembling a squad capable of challenging for promotion from the National League fell to former Orient manager, and current director of football, Martin Ling. A host of players with League 2 and Conference experience were assembled including the return of former O’s players Jobi McAnuff from Stevenage and Dave Mooney from Southend.
The squad assembled was almost certainly up to the task and at least on paper it would have been expected to do so. After a bright start under Steve Davis cracks started to appear. The defence buckled under injury, exposing young goalkeepers Charlie Grainger and Sam Sargeant. Mistakes led to one defeat after another and 17 games passed without a league win. The team gave the ball away too easily, unforced errors were frustratingly common. Teams crossed the ball into the box unchallenged and headed into the net unchallenged again and again.
The owners wanted consistency, they were shy of sacking the man they had appointed. But consistency is not inherently positive. Consistently bad results were the end of Steve Davis. Those who had queried his record at Crewe were vindicated. There was real worry amongst some that Orient were heading for yet another relegation, one that might scare off the club’s saviours from America and put us right back in the lurch.
Justin Edinburgh was appointed head coach on 29th November 2017. He took on a team that had 3 points (no wins) from their last ten games, in 20th Place, just 3 points clear of the relegation spots. The effect he had on the team was incredible. There is no doubt that Justin was a master motivator, a man of enormous charisma, a leader. Orient needed a leader and we found it in him. There are lies damned lies and statistics, but: before Justin, Orient won 23% of their games, under Justin they won 46%. We finished midtable. Our squad, which had looked so despondent, looked ready to fight.
And how they fought. In the Summer of 2018 additions were made, but they were relatively few and to be honest, inconsequential. It was the team that Justin inherited and turned into victors that formed the core of the 2018/9 champions side and the players he relied on were all present in the 2017/8 season – what changed was how Justin used them. Dean Brill was a goalkeeping coach under Davis – now he was number 1 and in the running for the golden glove. James Brophy was a left back; now he was a raiding winger. Josh Koroma was a fringe player before Justin arrived; afterwards he was the most exciting player in the League and secured a move to Championship Huddersfield Town. Full back Joe Widdowson went from a man with at least one mistake in him every game to the pillar of maturity and stability. Craig Clay went from a mediocrity to player of the season, a non-league Steven Gerrard.
The loss of Justin Edinburgh has rocked the club and we have gone from celebrating our return to the football league to mourning the loss of the one who led us there. At such times football fades into the background. The thoughts and prayers of everyone around Orient are with the Edinburgh family and the response from fans across the football world has been fantastic as well.
In keeping with the strong emphasis that the new owners have put on openness, Nigel Travis and Martin Ling explained what they planned to do in video interviews. Ross Embleton, Justin’s assistant, has taken interim charge of the club. Ling drew parallels with his own management career, which started on a caretaker basis and then became permanent due to his performance in the role. What comes across clearly is that Embleton is a part of the owner’s plans for the future of the club whatever happens over the next few months.
The biggest change to the playing squad is undoubtedly the loss of last season’s two top scorers Bonne (23 goals) and Koroma (10 goals) to Charlton and Huddersfield respectively. I don’t think any O’s fans begrudge them their moves to Championship clubs, but there is always that hope that a league winning squad will stick together.
Losing your top scoring centre forward and best flair player is always difficult. Orient have signed Lee Angol from Shrewsbury Town, who looks very much like he will be stepping into Bonne’s shoes, as well as Conor Wilkinson from Dagenham and Redbridge.
Orient built their success last season on the bedrock of a very tight and well-organised defence. In Josh Coulson, they have a Captain who will be very familiar to Cambridge United fans. He is a good organiser and a real threat from set pieces. The end of the season saw Orient use a back three with Dan Happe and Marvin Ekpiteta – two young defenders with enormous potential while between the sticks, Dean Brill has been phenomenal since coming out of retirement in one of Justin Edinburgh’s first and most important interventions upon taking charge.
Happe has attracted interest from some big clubs including Premier League Norwich. He is composed, very good technically and makes very few errors and made his breakthrough as a teenager at the end of the 2015-6 season. Boss Embleton says he thinks the 20 year old would benefit from another season at Orient before making the step up to the next level.
The Next Five Years?
Things are on track at Orient. The new owners have brought optimism, confidence and hope back to the club and they have succeeded in getting the club back to where it belongs at a minimum – the Football League.
The next step will be challenging for and securing promotion to League One. Most fans will be very pleased with that, and any challenge for promotion to the Championship would be a massive achievement.
That’s not to say that promotion from League Two is expected this season, though recently promoted teams have performed well here; as followers of Lincoln City, Forest Green Rovers and Tranmere Rovers can attest.
In the longer term, Luton have gone from the Conference to the Championship with a stadium of around 10,000. It is by no means unrealistic for Orient to aim for the same with Brisbane Road capable of hosting almost that number while Bournemouth, with their 11,000 capacity at Dean Court have shown that it is even possible to reach the Premier League – and stay there.
In the next 5 years I would expect Orient to be in League 1 and preparing for a promotion push. Encouragingly the Chairman sees this as a minimum and wants to see Orient pushing on to the Championship.
There will be challenges ahead. The loss of Justin Edinburgh has hit the players and supporters hard.
The Players must play
for Justin’s memory, and secure his legacy by continuing to play with pride,
hard work and the discipline he did so much to instill.