Leyton Orient drop into non-league with their future uncertain

May 25, 2014 appeared to be a minor blip for Leyton Orient. A surprisingly good season, the club’s best in 32 years, culminated in an agonising defeat on penalties to Rotherham in the League One play-off final. Soon after, long-standing owner Barry Hearn sold up to wealthy Italian Francesco Becchetti. ‘We’re going to be the envy of every small club,’ said Hearn at the time, with Becchetti promising promotion to the Championship ‘as quickly as possible’.

In reality, what should have been an exciting new dawn for the east end club gradually unravelled into a nightmare that came to a head on Saturday. Relegation out of the Football League for the first time in 118 years already confirmed, a pitch invasion and subsequent ‘abandonment’ ensured Orient played out the final five minutes of their last home game without any of the fans who have watched their club crash and burn in the space of three years.

 

Becchetti has overseen an extraordinary turnover of managers in and out of Brisbane Road. Russell Slade, mastermind of the play-off final campaign, lasted just eight games before being forced out to Cardiff, and ten others have come and gone since. Instability has become the norm under the Italian’s watch, and not just on the field. Player and staff wages were paid late for February and March, and a winding-up petition against the club has been adjourned until June, with administration a real possibility.

Dave Victor, long-time Orient radio commentator, and fan since the seventies, says Becchetti has shown “incredibly naivety” in trying to run the club. “I think he’s trusted the wrong people, like Mauro Milanese [sporting director then manager, 2015] and Fabio Liverani [manager, 2014-15] because of what they achieved in the Italian game, rather than what they view of lower league English football. He’s made some terrible mistakes and it did feel in December that he’d walked away from the club in terms of supporting them financially and that seems to be the turning point.”

Just a week before Hearn sold the club to Becchetti, the club ended their legal fight to West Ham moving into the Olympic Stadium. The stadium is under two miles away from Brisbane Road. Orient complained during the bidding process that the ground would be too close to theirs and later applied to move into the stadium. However both were rejected. Victor believes this may have swayed Hearn into the selling the club, and played a role in the club’s subsequent struggle.

 

“I always thought West Ham’s move put the club’s future in jeopardy no matter who was the owner,” he tells BTG. “I have a much bigger problem with Boris Johnson and the FA than I do with Francesco Becchetti. Everything else is a result of that decision. Orient’s future was at risk at the point of the decision to allow West Ham, with an enormous taxpayer’s subsidy, to move into the Olympic Stadium. They have these incredibly cheap season tickets which Leyton Orient were never going to be able to compete with.”

The EFL and FA have been criticised by O’s fans and staff for their lack of action surrounding the club’s crisis, especially in the period before March’s wages were eventually paid. “The fans have no idea why they have taken so long to get involved in the situation. If this was a Premier League club or a high profile Championship club there is no chance this would be allowed to happen, so why allow this to happen at Leyton Orient,” says Steve Nussbaum, host of podcast OrientOutlook. “What Becchetti has done to this club in three years is unbelievable really, but the supporters have never been more united.”

Orient have reportedly racked up debts of around £9m in the Italian’s three years, and Victor believes this may lead to further problems. “I don’t think it’s a done deal that they’ll be accepted into the National League because of their financial situation. And if that was the case, and I think it’s a real possibility, then I think we have to look to LOFT.”

LOFT, the Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust, have emerged as a much-needed potential light at the end of the tunnel. They have, through their regeneration fund, raised in excess of £140,000 through various fundraising efforts supported by fans around the country, including a collection at Spurs’ recent home game against Bournemouth. “It’s been quite heartening in terms of supporter solidarity,” says Tom Davies, vice-chair of LOFT.

“Initially we had this idea as the crisis developed this season that we needed to set up some kind of fighting fund for any emergencies if the club suddenly found itself staring at a big crisis, needed new ownership quickly or even if we liquidated and needed to start again from scratch.” He’s keen to stress, however, where the money won’t be going. “It’s definitely not to meet current debt’s. The current debts at the club are Becchetti’s responsibility. He ran them up irresponsibly and we’re not going to bail him out.”

 

So, what does the future hold for the Os, in particular next month’s winding-up order?

“If administration happens, and we can get investors behind us, then we’ll be able to take the club out of administration with a new ownership structure,” says Davies. “I think the last few months have shown that there is a passion and determination to keep Leyton Orient going in some form. Everyone’s come together and put a lot of ideas in, a lot of thought, a lot of commitment. There’s some good among the bad.”

Victor thinks Orient can draw on the success of a fellow London club that was reborn. “Starting afresh there’s that opportunity of setting something up that actually is loud and proud in that ‘we’re not a professional football club’ in the way you expect a professional football club to be. That a fans-owned football club in the capital I think has a future. Wimbledon have shown that, and I think it is possible at Leyton Orient.”

25 years an Orient fan, Nussbaum remains defiant despite his side’s rapid decline. “The club will always exist no matter what happens. Whether a new buyer is found before June 12th or the club has to go into administration this club will survive. The last three years have been like a whirlwind, but we’ll all pull through this together as a fanbase, get through this and come back stronger than ever”.