Leyton Orient: The Harlow Connection
If there is one thing that we can all be reasonably certain about over the next year or two, it’s that a lot of things are going to blamed on the “credit crunch”. More specifically, a lot of things that are nothing to do with the “credit crunch” are going to be blamed on the “credit crunch”. If an employer with no significant financial problems fancies withdrawing a few staff perks or laying off the odd hundred people or so: “credit crunch”. Don’t fancy paying your bills, even though you’re working and nothing relating to your financial position has changed? “Credit crunch”. All of this brings us, strangely, to Leyton Orient Football Club.
This time last year, Orient had a decent chance of making the League One play-off places before fading to finish in mid-table. The sense of torpor at Brisbane Road has continued this season, with the club currently fourth from bottom in the table and staring relegation in the face. Crowds are down, and Orient are struggling to attract people from their local area, with much of their support now coming from Essex. Brisbane Road has, over the last few seasons, turned from being one of the most attractive football grounds in London to visit into an ugly mess, with apartment blocks occupying all four corners of the ground. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the club has been looking for a new home for some time, but now there have been worrying stories that, having been linked with the Olympic Stadium in Stratford (which will be scaled down after the 2012 games), they are to uproot twenty miles, from their East London home to Harlow in Essex.
One doesn’t have to scratch very hard at the surface of this story for the smell of entrepreneurship to start filling the room. Barry Hearn took over the chairmanship of Orient in 1995, and Brisbane Road was renamed “The Matchroom Stadium”, after his group of companies, not long afterwards. He has overseen the development of Brisbane Road with mixed results. The stadium is now largely a modern all-seater stadium, but the construction of apartment blocks in all four corners of the ground would make further expansion tricky, possibly leaving the club limited to their grounds current capacity of 9,200. The blame for the clubs current problems has been lain at the door of, unsurprisingly, the “credit crunch”, although whether there is anything in this is open to question. Orient, sandwiched uncomfortably between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United in North London, have always struggled for support. It is rather more reasonable to argue that it is the clubs poor form this season which is the reason for falling crowds rather than any external factors.
If there does turn out to be anything to this story (and the source is a good one, and it was quite possibly fed to himself by the club itself), there are several reasons why this is would be a bad idea. Firstly, Harlow already has a football team. Harlow Town may only play in the Ryman League Premier Division, but they have been the towns representatives for one hundred and thirty years. Harlow Council say that they support the move but only if Harlow Town are unaffected by it. It is, however, impossible to see how they wouldn’t be. With any move requiring planning permission to build the required new stadium, a hostile council could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle. It’s up to Harlow Town, however, to mount a persuasive argument, should this become a more concrete plan. Secondly, there is a matter of travel. Harlow is poorly served by public transport links to London. Even if the majority of Orient’s support comes from Essex, Harlow wouldn’t be any easier to get than East London simply because it happens to be in Essex. The risk of alienating their existing support without there being any replacement is a very real one.
Finally, there is the small matter of whether it would actually make any difference to their fortunes in the first place. The club may well pick up extra support from people within the town of Harlow, but this may well be offset by losing just as many who, even if they do travel in from Essex (or, indeed, other parts of London), identify with the club and the area in which they play. People who will no longer see Leyton Orient as “their” club. It doesn’t seem to make moral or practical sense to jettison many of those that have stuck with the club through thick and (largely) thin down the years to go chasing a possibly mythical untapped well of residual support. In addition to this, the Milton Keynes fiasco occurred with FA rules in place to prevent clubs moving more than ten miles away from their base. They broke all their own rules over that, but the public outcry may ensure that they are more rigorously kept to the next time someone tries to move away from their traditional home.
For the moment, it seems that the idea is just being put out there to gauge how far the idea of moving the club can be pushed. Ultimately, many of Orient’s current problems would not be solved by moving away alone. By all accounts, there are problems with the match day experience at Brisbane Road that the club could easily resolve, such as the ease with which people can buy tickets on the day and the atmosphere inside the stadium. It might also be worth pointing out that they may be more successful if they get out and become more active and vocal, not only within their local community but across the whole of London. It is a truth of the nature of modern city living that immediate locality has less and less to do with which football club people choose to support. Rather than simply thinking, “People in Leyton don’t care about Leyton Orient, we’re moving out”, they might find it to be more profitable to think, “We’re not successfully marketing ourselves in in our immediate locality or across the city that is our home. We should do something about that”. In a city with an urban population of over eight million people and more than a dozen professional football clubs (the supporters of whom all seem to hate more or less all of their rivals), there is plenty of space for Leyton Orient to grow as a football club. Provincial Essex will not provide a problem to their current dilemmas that good management is unable to.