IT’S good to see Leyton Orient back in the Football League after two years in the non-league game. Orient are one of London’s most humble, most down-to-earth clubs and certainly most challenged clubs – they have competition from Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham on their doorstep. Indeed, you can see the Olympic site from Leyton station.
Leyton is one of the most diverse areas of London, with between 60 and 70 percent of the local population either black, Asian or from another ethnic minority. More than half of the 40,000-plus people that live across three electoral wards are under the age of 30.
Historically, Leyton has had a reputation for being a down-trodden place, but it has become something of a fashionable neighbourhood to live among young professionals from the City of London, which is only a 15-20 minute trip on the tube. It would be nice to think that Orient could benefit from this gentrification process, but again, Arsenal, Spurs and the Hammers are more likely to lure the floating and upwardly mobile audience.
Brisbane Road, an old fashioned stadium with two sizeable stands on either side of the pitch, has seen better days. From a distance, it is difficult to see its location, there are no towering floodlights to act as markers anymore. Walk through Coronation Gardens and you come across a statue in memory of Laurie Cunningham, arguably Orient’s most notable modern era player. Cunningham made his name with the O’s before joining West Bromwich Albion and forming part of Ron Atkinson’s famous “three degrees” along with Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson. He later played for Real Madrid and Manchester United. Sadly, he died in a car crash at the age of just 33. There have been few more talented or exciting players in London football, let alone in the red shirt of Orient.
The club was on the brink of winning a place in the Championship in 2013-14, finishing third and losing out in the play-offs. From thereon, it has mostly been bad news, finishing 23rdin League One 2014-15 and two years on, ending-up bottom of League Two. It’s interesting that Orient have a lot of sympathisers and football folk who claim to “love the Orient” yet the club’s crowds and history suggests that words do come cheap. When they were relegated, Orient were attracting little more than 4,500 to their home games – when they won promotion back to the Football League, they were drawing 5,300 which was their highest average in five years.
The club is now in the hands of a consortium that bought Orient in 2017, led by current chairman Nigel Travis, a lifelong fan. The previous owner, Francesco Becchetti, was unpopular, to say the least, as the club stared into the abyss. Players went without wages and there were a series of winding-up orders over unpaid debts.
It’s possible that relegation has had a beneficial affect on Orient, although the man that led them back to the Football League, Justin Edinburgh, tragically died in June 2019 at 49 years of age. Edinburgh, who had been in the job since November 2017, was a popular figure with the fans and the players and there was, quite naturally, a huge outpouring of grief and disbelief.
Ross Embleton took over and captured the influence that Edinburgh had on the club. “No-one will ever forget Justin. He’s made an impression, selfishly, on me and my family in a way that no-one I’ve ever met has managed to do. To have known someone for 18 months and to make it feel like 18 years, it is vitally important that everything we do at this Football Club, whether that is me as Interim Head Coach or new players, that Justin remains a pivotal part of that”.
It’s a tough job to take over from someone who left his mark on the club and, equally, to inherit a promoted team. The club lost its leading scorer for the previous two campaigns, Macauley Bonne, a Zimbabwe international who netted 45 goals in 90 National League games. Bonne signed for Charlton earning Orient a £ 200,000 fee.
Orient signed three forwards in the summer, Lee Angol (Shrewsbury), Conor Wilkinson (Dagenham) and Louis Dennis (Portsmouth) and also added Bradford City’s former O’s defender, Josh Wright, to their squad.
They started the 2019-20 season with a 1-0 win against Cheltenham Town, Wright – the last player signed by Edinburgh – scoring the only goal in the second half. Two defeats, away at Macclesfield in the League Cup and at Plymouth, saw Orient struggle to score goals and they went into their home fixtures with Stevenage with just one from three games.
It was easy to see why. Orient produced a lot of good work down the flanks, but there’s a lack of menace in the penalty area. Stevenage were no better and were short on punch. Orient were fortunate in the first period when Stevenage, who lost defender Scott Cuthbert early on, thought they had been awarded a penalty, but the referee and his assistant changed their mind – a quite bizarre incident.
Orient had the better of things and went closest when Stevenage keeper Paul Farman pulled off two saves from Wilkinson and Angol. That said, at the other end, Orient’s Dean Brill prevented a late effort from Paul Taylor. The game ended goalless, which underlined Orient’s lack of strength up front. It’s early days and Orient are clearly still finding their feet back in the league, but the lack of goals will undoubtedly worry Embleton.
As ever, Orient represents a dose of footballing reality in this age of hubris. Although they must surely be relieved to be back among friends, you sense that life will continue to be a challenge for this most local of London’s senior clubs.