Leyton Orient’s slide out of the football league and why it matters
Leyton Orient have been relegated from the Football League for the first time in 112 years, but worse than that, they could be about to go out of business. The second oldest football club in London is on the verge of extinction, but does anybody really care? Does it really matter if a club, with an average crowd of less than 5,000, in a city of almost 9 million disappears? There are plenty of others to support, clubs offering better football, better facilities, a better “leisure experience”.
Travel a few miles in any direction from Brisbane Road and you will find a Premier League team. Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham are all a short distance away. There are lots of smaller teams to choose from too.
If Orient fold, crushed under the designer boot of the vindictive, spiteful Francesco Becchetti, people will probably forget all about them in a few years.
Without a team to play in it, the former chairman Barry Hearn can get on with selling the ground he still owns and Brisbane Road can be turned into luxury apartments to fuel the gentrification of E10. Leyton Orient will be wiped off the football map. They will not be the first football club to go out of business and will not be the last.
There will be a few tears shed, a sharp jolt of pain, a brief flurry of publicity, a smidgeon of regret that more could not be done, a short pause to reflect on their loss, but life will move on quickly. The memory of little Leyton Orient’s demise will soon fade. There will be a new season around the corner, more hype, more hyperbole. There will be more pieces to write about the tribulations of the national team, more complaints to be made about the number of foreign players depriving home grown talent of first team opportunities. Who cares about the plight of a team that has spent one solitary year in the top division when there are features to write about the latest club to catch the eye of the self-styled football hipsters?
Who is bothered if a small English one that has spent the last three decades in League One or Two could be wiped out by a shady Italian businessman, who looks and talks like an extra from The Sopranos?
Football is booming, it does not need Leyton Orient. They are irrelevant, a relic. A small community club in a capital city that stopped paying attention to the wishes of small communities a long time ago. Call it gentrification, call it globalisation, call it what you want, Orient are not part of it. Orient are the equivalent of the family-run bakers, put out of business by a 24-hour supermarket. They just don’t know it yet. This is capitalism, this is economic Darwinism. Orient are victims, but there are always victims of progress. There is always collateral damage. Get on with it. Tottenham are building a new stadium, Arsenal already have one and West Ham are just down the road, so why would you need to go to watch a team that plays poor football in a poor stadium in a poor part of London?
That is why West Ham were able to sell Upton Park, for their own financial gain and move into the Olympic Stadium. You can see the Queen Elizabeth Stadium from Leyton. The Borough of Waltham Forest was one of the host boroughs in 2012, but who cares about legacy when you’re worried about an athletics stadium becoming a White Elephant on the edge of a huge shopping centre?
West Ham were gifted a new home, even though both the Premier League and Football League supposedly have rules preventing a club moving ground it if it is to the detriment of another. Orient’s survival did not matter then and does not matter now.
Orient’s protests were ignored, dismissed because it was more important for an Olympic legacy to have a tenant in a stadium designed for athletics than it was to protect a little club with a few thousand social media followers.
Orient are not going out of business because West Ham are on their doorstep, flooding the market with discounted tickets, trying to attract more families to their larger new home. That would probably have been a slow, lingering death…
Instead, Orient are being killed swiftly by Becchetti, a man who wanted to be loved, but has only caused pain and ended up despised. A man who can clear an unpaid tax bill of £250,000 overnight, but cannot pay the club’s photographer the £6000 he is owed. Since the court case in February revealed HMRC had belatedly been paid, the players and staff have not received their wages.
Becchetti has destroyed Leyton Orient because he is a clueless, spiteful megalomaniac who filled his fiefdom with his friends and countrymen regardless of intellect, competence or apparent interest in football.
He arrived with money, but no knowledge of the English game, no understanding of the club he had bought, just a despot’s desire to build a little kingdom for himself in London. He meddled in team selection, fired or forced out managers with ludicrous regularity – ten in two and a half years – and when the supporters dared to question things, he lost interest. When they protested, he vowed revenge.
It seems, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t oppose men like Becchetti. He will hurt you and those you love. Yet, the 51 year old, who was almost deported to Albania last year on corruption charges, was deemed a fit and proper person to own a football club by the Football League, who have been shamed by their silence since.
In November, Becchetti, who bought a £22m mansion in Mayfair shortly before he bought a football club for £4m, apparently left Orient to die on the back of the debts he had racked up in a crazy, irresponsible reign.
A club that was a penalty kick away from the Championship in 2014 is now bottom of League Two. The club is supposedly up for sale, but potential buyers claim they cannot get hold of the owner. Despite the fact the tax bill was paid in March, there is still a winding up order hanging over its head because of the failure to pay other basic bills.
Others have documented this process elsewhere and can do so better than me. What I am asking is whether I really care if the club I’ve supported all my life ceases to exist. Do I still have an emotional bond to a team that I no longer watch every other weekend?
I’ve supported Leyton Orient all my life (in fact like most supporters, I still call them Orient because that is their proper name) but I moved away a long time ago. I write about football for a living, I turned my hobby into a job and have enough misery to chronicle following the game for the Daily Telegraph in the North East. Orient are my team, my club, but also my past. I’ve moved on, life moves on.
This is a process I have been through. I tried to remain emotionally detached, a vain attempt to spare myself suffering, but I could not do it. Of course, I care.
Leyton Orient Football Club is not my life, but it has been the only constant in it. I realise that every major event, every stage, every shifting moment, is connected in some way to this daft, infuriating football team.
It defined my childhood, inspired my education, gave me my sense of humour, united my family. It has brought some joy, but mostly pain. Yet it has always been a wonderful, happy distraction from life’s trials and tribulations. I did not have to support Orient, I could have chosen any team in London, but where my dad trod, my brother and I held his hand and followed.
I have more vivid memories of supporting Orient than anything else. From the early childhood ones, of being trapped in a laundry basket while my parents listened to the full-time scores on the radio, of being a mascot. Kevin Godfrey was my favourite player: a hugely talented (at least I thought so) if a little flaky winger with a huge Afro.
Early days going to games; five people crammed into a car, the steam that came off the piss-filled concrete troughs that passed for toilet facilities on an uncovered terrace. Sitting on the wall at the front, my legs dangling through the metal cage that penned us in. A policeman telling my dad I had to get down because a stray shot could break my leg – being put back in the same spot the following week – the collective gasps as news of the Hillsborough tragedy spread across the terrace via updates from transistor radios…
The relationship with my parents… their values… my mum screwing up a racist leaflet from the National Front, tossing it in the face of the man who had given it to her and telling him to “fuck off”… My 5 foot 6 inch mum running after a thickset, shaven headed gentleman from Birmingham, who had tossed a newspaper on the floor, ordering him to pick it up... I called an opposition player a “big poof” once, mum immediately scolded me, pointing out that one of her friends, whom I was particularly fond of, was gay and would be mortified if he heard me.
My dad coughing and jumping up and down in excitement whenever there was a free-kick in a dangerous position… being brutally dismissed when I tried to comfort him during my first relegation experience: “It’s over, it’s no use, we’re bloody useless…” My uncle coming over for lunch before games or tea and crumpets afterwards.
I was a ball boy for three years, saw punch-ups in the tunnel, stole sandwiches from the sponsor’s lounge, chatted to players who weren’t in the squad… I used to stand in front of the away end, the opposite stand to where my family watched. It was about coming of age, a symbol of my growing independence. I liked the harsh humour of away supporters, the hostility, the conversations. I was spat at on more than one occasion and almost sparked a riot when, after being mocked by Stoke City supporters, I waved and pointed out Orient were winning 1-0.
I ran to kick a ball back on to the pitch once, slipped and fell over, much to the delight of the Tranmere Rovers supporters behind me.
It was around that time that I asked my parents why there were lights at the back of the main stand. I was told it was the press box where the journalists sit. I was bewitched, people were paid to watch football… a seed was sown.
When we moved out of London, my train journeys down from Ipswich to home games brought me and my dad ever closer. I talked a lot, I still do. He read the paper and responded occasionally. Moving home, into an alien town, an alien way of life, Orient were a source of comfort. They were my roots.
Another move, a few years later, to Sheffield, and more trips across the north of England, Mansfield, Scunthorpe, Oldham, Stockport, Barnsley, Doncaster, Huddersfield… One always sticks out, a trip to Hull the night after I’d been to a party and had not slept. Orient lost 2-0. I slept all the way home on the train. Dad was worried about me. Mum accused me of taking drugs.
By the time I went to Newcastle University, I knew who I was – a Londoner living in the North. I was happy to be different, confident, able to get on with anyone, from anywhere.
I took a group of my friends to an away game at Darlington. A 0-0 draw. We were warned not to go into the pubs near the station, but did so anyway. The locals bought us drinks rather than punched us, impressed we’d come so far on a Tuesday night. My friends said it was the worst game of football they had seen, but we still talk about it when we meet up, two decades later.
It was during that time that my dad became seriously ill. Heart disease. He had a triple bypass operation. Mum received a call, there were complications, internal bleeding the doctors could not stop. When we arrived at the hospital, dad appeared on a bed with tubes attached, nurses and doctors running alongside him on the way to the operating theatre. He looked grey. He looked dead.
Mum stayed with him. I returned in the morning. Dad had not said a word. He still looked grey, dying. I told him Orient had lost the night before and we were going to be relegated from the Football League. He groaned, opened his eyes and murmured something before slipping out of consciousness again. It is the only thing he remembers from those 48 hours. Orient survived. So did he.
Fast forward, through my 20s, Orient were crap. I rarely went to games. I had begun working as a football journalist, my weekends were filled with other clubs and their disappointments. Family reunions, though, were always at Brisbane Road. The Edwards men, uncle, brother, cousin. Mum had lost interest and returned to her first love Leicester City – which worked out well in the end.
I met a girl, she became my wife. I took her to a game, she moaned and complained, but I loved her for it. She liked talking to the people we met, the weird and wonderful array of characters who decided Orient were the team for them.
I took her initially sceptical brother and father to a game too. They were converted. Orient fans looked confused when two Geordies started leading chants at Carlisle. We bonded, we became family too.
When Orient drew 1-1 with Arsenal in the FA Cup, the entire Geordie side of the family watched it in the pub with me. We celebrated like we had won the final. Someone scoffed, “You didn’t even win…”
“You’ll never understand” I replied.
A few years later, my wife became pregnant. We were thrilled, until we lost the baby in the most tragic of circumstances, just a few weeks after we had told everyone the good news and shared scan pictures.
It was a terrible time, horrendous, particularly for my wife who feared she was too old to have another baby. My daughter never breathed for herself. I battled depression, but won. My wife fared less well. Months of anguish and anxiety.
The following season, Orient were superb. The best team for more than 30 years competed for promotion to the Championship. Miraculously, my wife became pregnant again. A little boy. She was scared the same thing would happen. So was I but I never told her that. I was the strong one.
Orient brought me so much joy that season. They were the best possible distraction. For my dad’s 70th birthday, I pulled some strings and got him a signed shirt with the number 70 on its back. He got it framed and put it on a wall, I framed the picture of him holding it, a huge smile on his face, standing next to his brother.
A few months later, Orient beat Peterborough in the play-off semi-finals and I cried for the first time since collapsing into the arms of my father-in-law when my daughter died. My wife laughed, a sound I had always cherished, but which had become all too rare.
We had already booked a holiday to Portugal. It clashed with the final at Wembley. Deep down I knew what would probably happen. Orient always hurt you… I decided I’d rather miss the final and Orient win, than miss the holiday and Orient lose. In truth, I didn’t want to leave my wife when she was pregnant in case anything happened to her or the baby.
We arrived at our apartment just in time to watch extra-time. We lost on penalties. I stormed out, throwing something (I don’t know what) at a wall. I sat, alone on a bench, for a long time. I cried again. I asked God if he was listening. I don’t normally pray, but I did then. I asked to protect my son, to let him live. I didn’t mind about Orient, it was just football and Orient wouldn’t die. My son might.
I just wanted him to be safe. For my wife to be happy again. A few months and 28 hours in hospital later, Felix arrived. He is amazing.
Felix was born a Geordie. He will never be a Cockney living in the North, like his dad. He may well support Newcastle United, but he will also be an Orient fan, because as my eldest nephew wrote on a family portrait, “We are Edwards and Orient is our team.”
A few days after being asked to write this about the plight of my football team, I received the news that I have skin cancer. Melanoma, the same disease that killed one of my friends a few years ago. As Orient face a fight for survival, it turned out, so do I. They can cut the cancer out of my body and will. I just wish someone could remove Becchetti too.
So yes, I care whether Orient survive. Orient have been with me all my life. They have generally been a huge disappointment, but they have always been there, the good and the bad, the tough time, the upheaval and trauma. They will help me now.
Whatever happens, Orient will return in some shape of form because I’m not the only one who cares. We are small, but we are not weak and we do matter. Up the O’s.