English Football

Something stirring in East London

leyton-orient-east-stand1Most clubs have “had their moments”, but Leyton Orient are one of those outfits that can count the significant milestones in their history on one hand. In fact, they seem to have changed their name more often than they have made headlines.

Before lining up at Brentford on Monday September 23, Orient had a 100% record at the top of League One. There’s never been a more appropriate time for the Os to  show a bit of ambition, for in three years’ time, their celebrated East End neighbours, West Ham, will move into the Olympic stadium less than a mile from Brisbane Road.

Some people believe that the Hammers’ relocation will signal the death knell for a club that has struggled to make its mark for years. Yet neutral fans have a strong affection for Orient for some strange reason. Maybe it’s the name, or the fact that Brisbane Road has always been a homely and friendly place. It’s a no-pressure zone that acts as a retreat for fans of Spurs and West Ham when they fancy a night off from following the Premier roller-coaster. There’s always been an air of “good old Orient” among London fans, perhaps a little patronizingly.

Orient’s chairman, Barry Hearn, has been pitching for his club to use the Olympic Stadium and despite failing in his attempt, will take the case to the House of Lords. Hearn’s a persistent chap and has offered to donate the profits from any future sale of Orient to the body responsible for the Olympic Stadium.

Orient’s 4,000-plus average attendance would be dwarfed by the huge ground, but there is a chance that a new home at nearby Stratford would bring in more spectactors.

Doubtless there is a school of thought that was once championed by Max Griggs, the former chairman of now defunct Rushden & Diamonds, who built a super stadium on the outskirts of nowhere and said “if you build it, they will come”, which they did to some extent, until they didn’t. But just how much up-side is there in Orient’s latent support? Over the past decade, they have averaged between four and five thousand, but last season, in which the club finished seventh in League One, they recorded an average gate of 4,002, their lowest since 2005 and 1,200 per game down on Orient’s 2007-08 average of 5,210.

Could Orient bring in more? In 1970, when they won the old FL Division Three, as champions, led by that larger-than-life character Terry Mancini, they had an average attendance of 11,369 and it went even higher in 1974 when the club just missed out on promotion to the very top flight with 11,793 turning up every fortnight at Brisbane Road. When the Os did reach, for one short-lived campaign in 1962-63, they averaged almost 17,000.

It’s so different today, of course, with lower league football less attractive for youngsters and a huge shift in the demographics of the area around Orient. Around 70% of residents in the club’s catchment area are either black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. It is also one of the most deprived districts in London with more than a third of its children living in poverty. Unemployment is touching 11%, relatively high for the capital. And the area is considered a crime hotspot. So, a lot of hurdles for Orient if they are to move beyond their loyal 4,000-odd people.

But on the pitch this season, Russell Slade and his team are doing their best to change the club’s fortunes. Slade, something of an anomaly in professional football management in that he never played the game for a living, but he’s quick to remind people that managers like Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho didn’t have glorious playing careers.

Slade was appointed in 2010 and has built a team that seems to be coming to maturity this season. The campaign could not have got off to a better start. I bumped into Orient fans making the long and arduous opening day journey to Carlisle, the sort of away trip that demands devotion and stamina. I came across them on the return trip later that evening and when they were asked about the score, they responded “5-1”. A pity, I thought, a long way to go for a thrashing, before realizing it was 5-1 to Orient!

They haven’t looked back. They’ve since beaten Shrewsbury (3-0), Port Vale (3-2), Crewe (2-0) and Notts County (5-1) at home and Stevenage (1-0) and Colchester (2-1) away. What’s more, people are actually talking about Leyton Orient players – veteran Kevin Lisbie and the experienced David Mooney, for example, have been scoring for fun this season and have already netted 13 goals between them in the league. And in the Capital One, Orient beat Coventry 3-2 before taking Hull to extra time and narrowly losing to the Premier new boys.

Seven straight wins the league represent Leyton Orient’s best ever start to a season. And with 21 goals in seven games, there seems to be no better place to go for entertainment than the Matchroom Stadium, Brisbane Road. Long may it continue.

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