Be careful what you wish for...
THE proverb ‘Be careful what you wish for’ should act as a warning for all fans who cling to the belief that success and silverware will automatically follow the arrival of the supposedly mega-wealthy new owner.
Nowhere is this saying currently more apposite than at League One’s Leyton Orient, where the fans had long been divided over the merits of previous owner Barry Hearn’s stewardship.
Since his takeover in 1995, a number had been grateful for the financial stability that he’d brought, and were prepared to accept the boundaries imposed by this prudence; but others felt that this caution represented a lack of ambition in a sport which should be all about going for glory.
However, the sale of Hearn’s Matchroom Sport’s 90 per cent stake in the club to Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti, in the summer of 2014, has resulted in a period of considerable upheaval, with Orient finding themselves in the lower reaches of the division, and employing their fourth manager of the season by the beginning of December.
Following on from last season – when the promotion dream only slipped away in the penalty shoot-out of the League One play-off final against Rotherham – the relatively poor form and managerial changes of this term have left fans disappointed by the club’s inability to continue moving forward.
But how realistic were the expectations for 2014/15? There was always a thought, niggling away at the back of the mind after the defeat to Rotherham, that maybe last season was a real one-off; that this particular group of players had had one of those years under manager Russell Slade when they had played out of their skins, when practically everything they had tried had come off, and when good for- tune only deserted them in their final match.
Following Becchetti’s takeover in July, there appeared to be, from the very start, a certain coolness between the new owner and the manager, which rapidly became frosty when, after a disappointing start to the new season, Slade was told that he had one game to save his job.
Although he survived, the background grumbling continued, and so it came as no great surprise that when Cardiff City’s approach for him was rejected by Orient, he was prepared to resign in an effort to move the process forward.
Assistant manager Kevin Nugent stepped into the hotseat following Slade’s departure, but was replaced at the end of October by the
club’s sporting director Mauro Milanese, who himself was only in charge for eight largely unsuccessful games before reverting back to his previous role and making way for fellow Italian Fabio Liverani.
Despite the managerial musical chairs, the elephant in the stadium at Brisbane Road concerns the plans of the owner. Previously linked with a possible takeover at Reading – a oneclub town – Becchetti now finds himself in possession of a club which struggles to survive in a kind of footballing Bermuda Triangle, with Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham at the three points.
Formed in 1881, the club is the second oldest in London behind Fulham, and had a variety of names in its early years, only settling on Clapton Orient just before the turn of the 20th century (the latter part of the name is believed to have been the idea of a player who was also an employee of the Orient Shipping Company).
During the same period, and on through the first few decades of the 20th century, the club exhibited something of a wanderlust, playing home fixtures at a number of different grounds, including two league matches at Wembley Stadium in 1930.
However, seven years later they finally settled in Leyton’s Brisbane Road, and after the Second World War their name was changed once again, this time to Leyton Orient (there was to be yet another change in 1966, when the ‘Leyton’ was dropped, only to return again in the 80s). Success on the field has been sparse; finishing top of the old Division Three (South) in 1955-56 was followed six years later with the runners-up slot behind Liverpool in Division Two, and an automatic place in the top division.
Unfortunately, once there the lack of quality in the team was cruelly exposed as they finished bottom of the table with only six wins, and ten points adrift of the side immediately above them – Manchester City. By 1966 Leyton Orient were back in Division Three.
However, rejuvenated under manager Jimmy Bloomfield they were Division Three Champions in 1969-70, and took up residency in Division Two until 1981-82, when they started a gentle slide which culminated with a place in the league’s fourth – and lowest – division by the middle of the decade.
Since then, two more promotions either side of a relegation have seen them occupying a position in League One (the old Division Three) since 2006.
The FA Cup has offered some glory without silverware. A memorable comeback from two goals down against Chelsea in 1972 led to a 3-2 victory and a place in the quarter-finals.
This was bettered in 1977-78 when a run fuelled by the goals of striker Peter Kitchen was only ended by Arsenal in the semi-final.
So, just what are Becchetti’s plans? He owns a club where, because of the aforementioned proximity to neighbours who consistently play at a higher level, there are problems attracting and retaining support (the average attendance last year, in a campaign in which they challenged for promotion until the very last kick, was still below five-and-a-half thousand).
The changing demographic of the area around the ground has further exacerbated these issues, with many life-long fans having moved out to the commuter towns in Essex, to be replaced by largely immigrant communi- ties who don’t appear to have an interest in, or perhaps don’t feel comfortable, following a football club.
In addition, ownership of the ground itself was retained by Hearn, although Becchetti claims that there is an option for the club to buy if they so wish at some stage in the future.
At the time of last summer’s takeover there was talk – from both Becchetti and Hearn – of expecting Orient to be playing in the Championship within a couple of years at most, and players such as Jobi McAnuff and Jay Simpson – with experience at a higher level – were brought in.
But the team’s form has remained patchy at best. Even accepting that League One this season – with the exception of the top four teams – is close points-wise, and while an extremely strong second half of the season might see Orient move away from the depths where they currently wallow, and – at a considerable stretch of the imagination – challenge for the lower two play-off spots, it seems more likely that the club’s hierarchy will be delighted to simply retain their place in the division this term.
The assault on the Championship will therefore almost certainly have to wait until next season at the very least, and the owner may be required to display so far unseen levels of patience when confronting the problems to be surmounted on the way.
On the day he passed the reins to Becchetti, Hearn stated that ‘it’s a good time to be a Leyton Orient supporter’. While not all of the fans will agree with him on this, there may be a number who now not only look a little more favourably at the relative stability of his days at the helm, but also know just how careful you should really be with your wishes.
Thanks for the cheque! Barry Hearn, right, is all smiles after selling Leyton Orient to Francesco Becchetti
Just two of the bosses this term, Mauro Milanese, left, and Fabio Liverani