Orient Return To The Promised Land

Never in doubt.

Except for when it was, that is.

Going into the final day of the National League season, the league title was Leyton Orient’s to throw away. Results on Easter Monday had decisively swung their way at the top of the table, leaving them three points clear of Salford City and Solihull Moors at the top of the table, with a five goal superior difference over Salford and eight over third placed Solihull, meaning that even if they lost their final home game of the season against already-relegated Braintree Town their rivals would have to rack up big wins away to Hartlepool United and Dagenham & Redbridge in order to catch them. The cameras of BT Sport were present and correct, and a big crowd was expected for the promotion party. What on earth could possibly go wrong?

The flies in the ointment were primarily psychological. So familiar are Leyton Orient supporters with the myriad ways in which their club has let them down in the past that nerves were still jangling, despite the unlikeliness of the circumstances that would have been required to conflate for them to miss out. The club’s inner “Orientness”, if you will. But there was also another potential banana skin upon which they could slip. Braintree Town may have been relegated several weeks ago, but this coincided with the start of a run that had seen them win four of their last five matches. If they were going down, they were going down fighting, and with the scores from other matches being more or less immediately available to everybody, the possibility of things spiralling out of control as a result of “news from elsewhere” felt plausible, if not quite likely.

With a crowd of more than 8,200 inside Brisbane Road and the cameras of the television company beaming Orient’s day around the country, it took less than four minutes for the hint of a chill to start blowing around the stadium. Adam Rooney had given Salford an early lead at Hartlepool, the sort of goal that four thousand pounds a week should really buy any club playing in the National League. A Braintree goal coupled with Salford extending their lead would take the title north instead. On this occasion, however, the collapse didn’t follow. There were half-chances at either end, but Orient and Braintree ultimately played out a largely event-free goalless draw. The atmosphere inside the ground only really started to relax, however, with news from elsewhere. Rather than playing the half-expected role of end of season milquetoasts with nothing to play for, the Hartlepool players’ professional pride had kicked in. Salford had Matt Green sent off for a second yellow card in first half stoppage-time, and an equalising goal five minutes into the second half allowed Orient the luxury of not having to worry quite do much about what Braintree might do to them.

The celebrations stepped up a gear with twenty minutes to play, with news of a second Hartlepool goal, scored by Nicke Kabamba, and six minutes later a third Hartlepool goal put the destination of the league title beyond any reasonable remaining doubt. With Solihull Moors labouring to a one-all draw at Dagenham (when they needed to win and overturn a goal difference of eight if Orient conceded), the party started well before the final whistle, culminating in a joyful pitch invasion when the final whistle blew at Brisbane Road. Hardly surprising, really. This was Orient’s first league championship of any flavour since lifting the Third Division title in 1970, and only the third league title they’ve ever lifted, with the other having been Third Division South title, claimed in 1956. This is the experience of the supporters of many clubs, of course. The entire football world revolves around the ultimate goal of winning trophies, but for some clubs this can be a once in a decade or even once in a lifetime experience.

Leyton Orient’s National League title win is all the more noteworthy for what it followed. It’s only been five years since Orient were a penalty shootout win away from Championship football in the League One playoff final at Wembley. Defeat in that followed by the disastrous sale of the club to Francesco Bechetti, who burned through eleven managers and two relegations in his three years of hopeless mismanagement. As the club dropped out of the Football League for the first time since 1905, there were legitimate fears that the club’s problems were only just beginning, that there was still a long way for Orient to potentially fall, even though Bechetti finally got out of the club and allowed new and altogether more sensible ownership to take over in his place. The National League, however, is rugged terrain and last season began badly, but the appointment of Justin Edinburgh as manager in November 2017 further steadied the ship and the team eventually ended last season in thirteenth place in the table.

A couple of hundred miles north-west, of course, sat a formidable challenge for the club, if the league title was to be won. Salford City’s recent ascent following the involvement of Manchester United “Class of 92” alumni (and in particular the at times embarrassingly fawning coverage they’ve received from the BBC along the way) has hardly endeared the club to many others within the non-league game, but popularity doesn’t win league points and the club’s signing of the aforementioned Rooney on a wage from of £4,000 a week from Scottish Premier League club Aberdeen highlighted the extent of Salford’s spending, and the financial imbalances that exist not only within the National League itself but also between the lower divisions of the English game and near the top of the Scottish game. Salford, however, didn’t start their season particularly strongly. After drawing at Orient in the opening game of the season, defeats in their next two matches hinted that they might not be quite as invincible as had been assumed before the start of the season. In the event, though, it was the two straight defeats at the end of the season that cost them most dearly. A home defeat against Fylde last weekend gave Orient a little breathing space going into yesterday’s matches. Their capitulation at Hartlepool yesterday merely settled Orient nerves still further.

Yesterday’s results meant that the runners-up spot was claimed by Solihull Mooors. Only formed in 2007 as a merger of Solihull Borough and Moor Green (hence the name), Solihull Moors ascent to the National League was something of a surprise in itself and considerable credit has to be given to manager Tim Flowers, who got them to this position after finishing in fourteenth and eighteenth place in their first two seasons at this level. Flowers’ previous managerial experience had come with nine games in charge of Stafford Rangers almost a decade ago and extremely brief stints at Northampton Town and Kidderminster Harriers. Considering the vast gulf in resources available to the two clubs, their achievement in finishing above Salford is highly noteworthy, and with the play-offs for the other promotion place now to follow, the two clubs could yet meet again this season at Wembley in the final of this particular end of season jubilee, with a place in the Football League at stake.

Leyton Orient will have Wembley on their minds as well now, albeit under very different circumstances. Such has been the all-encompassing nature of their league title run-in that their own trip there has become half-forgotten, but an aggregate win against Telford United last month booked them a place in the FA Trophy final next month against Fylde, another club in the National League play-offs. It’s likely that this day will be quite a celebration for Orient supporters regardless of the result, but the opportunity of completing the non-league “double” feels like a perfect send off for a club whose arrival in the National League was almost entirely down to a period of disastrous ownership in the first place. As such, Leyton Orient remain a cautionary tale for the supporters of all lower division clubs, not only of the dangers of new owners drifting into a club and the terrible effects that this can have, but also on the effects that well organised protest can have on getting rid of these carcinogenic presences and the fact that football clubs can be rescued and turned around under the right ownership and with the right pieces in place.

It was tighter than they probably would have wanted and it took them two goes, but Leyton Orient got there. There is a very long list of clubs who can testify that the National League can be much more difficult to fall into that it can be to clamber out of in an upwardly direction, and getting out of any division with only one automatic promotion place will always be an enormous challenge for any club with ambitions of bettering itself. Salford City or Fylde could yet prove the mantra that money speaks louder than anything else in modern football, but neither of these clubs are guaranteed promotion, especially not with the National League play-offs now having been expanded to take in six clubs. None of this, however, is really the concern of Leyton Orient this morning. The Os are back in the Football League and have a trip to Wembley to try and complete the non-league double. That’s all that will matter to their bleary-eyed supporters, today.