Fans fear unhappy ending in Orient saga
Two years ago, Leyton Orient were a play-offs final victory away from promotion to the Championship.
They currently lie mid-table in League Two, having just sacked head coach Ian Hendon after a run of four wins in 21 league games.
The club’s Italian owner, Francesco Becchetti, faces accusations in Albania of fraud-related offences and is the subject of extradition proceedings. He completely denies any wrongdoing.
Even when Orient win, they make headlines for the wrong reasons, with Becchetti accepting an FA charge of improper conduct for kicking assistant coach Andy Hessenthaler after the Boxing Day victory over Portsmouth.
And with West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium next season threatening to hit attendances at Brisbane Road, the future is not looking bright.
So what’s gone wrong at Orient? When long-time owner Barry Hearn sold to Becchetti in June 2014, optimism and ambition was the order of the day.
“There is no question that Francesco is going to take the club further forward than me,” Hearn said at the time. “I’m only a multi-millionaire and these days that’s nothing in football. I am comfortable with the changeover.”
“Big wages paid to certain players helped to destabilise the previously strong spirit within the Orient squad”
But, less than two years later, with the threat of extradition – and potentially prison – hanging over the Italian, how things have changed.
Following Becchetti’s takeover, long-standing manager Russell Slade left the club early in the season. Caretaker manager Kevin Nugent succeeded by Mauro Milanese and then Fabio Liverani before Christmas 2014.
A disastrous second half of the season meant that Orient were relegated from League One. Liverani, with just eight wins in 27 matches, left the club by mutual consent in May 2015.
Mat Roper, joint chairmen of the Leyton Orient Fans Trust, believes big wages paid to certain players helped to destabilise the previously strong spirit within the Orient squad.
“We will probably never know the exact reasons, but I would think that firstly the players brought in on massive contracts had a detrimental effect. We had a hard working team, all very together and on a similar wage structure.
“This was broken up in stages including the signing of ‘big name’ players on fabulous wages which in turn created a ‘them and us’ situation.”
“On Orient’s future, Roper admits: ‘No-one really knows, and that’s the worrying part’
Roper said the managerial merry-go-round has also played its part. “We simply became a circus, ending up with a guy [Liverani] with very little first-team managerial experience who couldn’t communicate with his players in training – sort of says it all!”
And what about the shadow of the legal and extradition proceedings against Becchetti – does the Fans Trust have any plans in place if his ownership of the club comes into question?
Roper said: “We have been working with other trusts to formulate a recovery plan. This is looking at what would be needed in any interim period if the fans were asked to make a play for the club – even in the short term.”
The plan deals with issues such as staffing, management, finance, Football League rules and is being formulated by asking other clubs who have found themselves in similarly precarious situations.
Roper said: “As always, the big problem would be finance. Even if the wage budget this year was even more sustainable than it actually is, most clubs the size of Leyton face the major headache of financing the club on a short-to-mid and then long-term basis.”
On Orient’s future, Roper admits: “No-one really knows, and that’s the worrying part.
“When Mr Becchetti took over, I wrote in the fanzine that this would probably either mean a miraculous rise to stardom or complete and abject failure, with no in-between.
“With 18 months under his belt, we have had five managers, one relegation, his personal court case, a large turnover of staff and many other rumours besides – unfortunately that doesn’t make good reading.”
Hope for the future?
“My own personal view is that we need to be very cautious, but if Mr Becchetti would be happy to meet with the fans, listen to others far more experienced in the world of lower division English football, yet still put money on the table to grow the club in the right areas, then there is no reason he cannot make a massive success out of Orient.
“We seem to be stagnating, and that is just as dangerous as dropping downwards as complacency in all areas can see clubs die a slow death”
“Firstly by putting us back in the second tier of English football but, just as importantly, building a legacy for the club off the pitch regarding such areas of new support, community initiatives, ground redevelopment, etc. As much as it pains me to say it, you only have to look at a club such as Brentford as a good example.
“This is one of the biggest things that I think Mr Becchetti has got wrong – not listening to the previous owner and CEO, who if working alongside him could have built (and still could) an exciting future for Leyton Orient.
“The biggest worry for me, aside from things like Mr Becchetti’s court case, is the lack of forward planning. We seem to be stagnating, and that is just as dangerous as dropping downwards as complacency in all areas can see clubs die a slow death, which is far more painful.
“But who really knows how this will all end?”
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.