As the feelgood factor engendered by the actual games themselves starts to recede to being just a memory, the question of the future of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford is starting to rear its ugly head again. Its acquisition by West Ham United seems to be, for better or for worse, a done deal with the next stage in that process now being the thorny issue of how the conversion of the stadium from an athletics stadium will be funded, with yet another row now brewing with the owner of Leyton Orient, Barry Hearn. Hearn has claimed, through Orients official website, that handing the Olympic Stadium to West Ham alone would amount to subsidising the club’s £90 million debt. West Ham have countered by stating that, “West Ham United have strict obligations of confidentiality under agreements, relating to the Olympic Stadium concessionaire tender process, which we continue to respect” and that “we are frustrated that we cannot counter some of the recent inaccuracies reported about our bid in the media.”
Hearns viewpoints on the Olympic Stadium over the last three or four years or so have shifted and changed with the seasons. After initially stating disinterest in it, he then loudly protested at the bidding war between West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur because of the potential damage that could be done to his club from having a Premier League club parachuted in on its doorstep. After this, however, he came out in support of the Spurs bid for the stadium, to extent of writing to both Spurs and the Premier League to express this support, before finally requesting to share the stadium with West Ham United once their bid had been confirmed as the successful one. And as if this hasn’t been enough, this week he suggested that if Orient were to be allowed to share the stadium with West Ham he might even change the clubs name from Leyton Orient to London Orient.
It is a curiosity that London has no significant football club which incorporates the name of the city into its name. At present, London All Peoples’ Sports Association (known as London APSA), which is based in Clapton, plays in the Essex Senior League, whilst London Colney FC – which is based just outside St Albans in Hertfordshire, around twenty miles from London – plays at the same level of the non-league game in the Premier Division of the South Midlands League. The potential appeal to an investor of a club called London Orient should be obvious, particularly if that owner happened to come from the Far East. Hearn has promised that he will consult with supporters groups in the event of any of this coming to pass, but whether these words are little more than amelioration aimed at those whose gut reaction is to baulk at such a change or not isn’t an easy question to answer.
The supporters of Leyton Orient might not necessarily be as united in opposition to such a name change as other clubs might be, because it has been in this position before. Founded as Glyn Cricket Club in 1881, it changed its name to Eagle Cricket Club in 1886 and then Orient Football Club – reflecting its base in East London, with the word ‘oriental’ having its roots in the Latin word for ‘rising’ or ‘emerging’, referring to the sun rising in the east – two years later. The name-changing didn’t, however, end with this. Orient became Clapton Orient in 1898, and following their move to Brisbane Road in 1937 its name was changed again, this time to Leyton Orient in order to reflect the clubs new base. Three decades later in 1966 the club truncated its name back to Orient Football Club after the Borough of Leyton was absorbed into the London Borough of Waltham Forest, and this name stayed in place for twenty-one years before a new chairman, Tony Wood, took the decision to change the name of the club back to Leyton Orient following a campaign by the Leyton Orientear fanzine.
While talk of a name change will, of course, grab headlines in the press, though, it rather feels as if this might even be the least important aspect of any continuing developments in relation to Barry Hearn, Leyton Orient and the Olympic Stadium. What may be a far greater concern to the supporters of the club might be the potential prospect of a club whose average home attendances for their three home matches so far this season has been 3,500 people playing in a stadium with a capacity of 60,000. There have been few greater white elephants in the history of English football than The Darlington Arena, the 25,000 vanity project built by George Reynolds in 2003 which ended up being a significant cause in the death of Darlington FC, and Orient supporters are right to be concerned about watching their team play in a stadium which is clearly unsuitable for their needs.
Hearns answer to this obvious criticism is to seek to drastically increase Orients fanbase. Hearn stated during the week that, “We are going to give free season tickets to under-18s in London, students and members of the Armed Forces, and free family season tickets to new residents of the Olympic Park housing”, but this could well turn out to be a misguided idea. Quite aside from the small matter of the morality of whether some people should be getting free season tickets to watch the team play based on their occupation, whether they are bringing their families or whether they’ve bought a flat at the Olympic Park, there is also a financial consideration to be taken into account here. Could Orient continue – and this is presuming that such a venture would attract this level of interest in the first place – to run themselves sustainably on crowds of 30,000 if upwards of four-fifths of those 30,000 people were not paying for their season tickets? Hearn states that “that any profits from the sale of Brisbane Road will be directly invested into the squad to give us the chance to succeed” but for how long, realistically, could such an amount of money last without significant increases in revenue? Lump sum amounts of money have a tendency to not go very far in modern football.
Leyton Orient supporters have become rather accustomed to taking the words and deeds of Barry Hearn over the last few years. At this stage, the clubs future remains in the balance, although there remains a good chance that much of what he has said over the last few weeks could be little more than brinkmanship to try and talk the mayor of London out of allowing any club use the Olympic stadium, which would, ultimately for Orient, be the ideal resolution to this last couple of years or so of grappling with the future of an edifice that still runs the risk of becoming yet another Olympic white elephant. There is merit in what Hearn says about the danger of the public ending up funding the conversion of the stadium for West Ham Uniteds use, but the fact that he frequently gives indication of primarily being concerned in his own best interests rather than anybody elses makes it more difficult to take his claims seriously than it might otherwise be. This doesn’t mean, however, that his argument should be ignored completely. If West Ham United want a 60,000 capacity stadium, with all the financial benefits that they would get from it, they should pay the entire cost of its conversion. Whether either Leyton or London Orient would benefit from moving there as well, however, is a different matter altogether.
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