As things turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered that much anyway. With just over an hour played in yesterday’s final round of matches in League One, though, it looked as if there was a chance that Leyton Orient might just have been capable of performing some sort of great escape. Two goals up away to Swindon Town with the home side having had their goalkeeper sent off, and with the other matches involving teams at the bottom hanging delicately in the balance, though, it had started to feel as if an unlikely climax to a dismal season for the Os might just about be achievable.
It didn’t turn out this way, though. At The County Ground, Swindon Town hauled their way back into the game and earned a point while, at the Weston Homes Community Stadium, Colchester United earned a one goal win over Preston North End which not only ended Preston’s hopes of automatic promotion to the Championship, but also rendered Swindon’s comeback against Leyton Orient as broadly irrelevant. Orient might have clung on to win this match, but Colchester’s second half goal against Preston meant that they would have been relegated on goal difference had they done so anyway.
The contrast with this time last year couldn’t be much more stark, in the case of Leyton Orient. Twelve months ago, supporters were looking forward to the League One play-offs after having finished the season in third place in the table. The adventure didn’t end there, either. Having beaten Peterborough United in the semi-finals, they were a penalty shoot-out from promotion to the Championship. This, however, was a step too far for a team that had performed magnificently throughout the course of the season. Orient were beaten from twelve yards by Rotherham United, and will start next season in the Football League’s basement division after a year that has witnessed a season of torment and torpor at Brisbane Road.
Were this merely a story of decline on a football pitch, Leyton Orient’s season might not have caused the furrowed brows that it has. After all, strong teams – particularly at smaller clubs, where financial imperatives frequently take precedence over anything that could happen on the field of play – break up all the time, but the story of the club’s disastrous season on the pitch has been mirrored by events away from it, with the team seeming to have suffered from the after-effects of new owners who swept into the club last summer on a wave of hyperbole, but who have singularly failed to deliver on the bold claims made on their behalf.
Boxing promoter Barry Hearn was, of course, the public face of Leyton Orient Football Club for many years, but at the end of last season Hearn made for the exit, handing ownership of the club to Francesco Becchetti of the Italian/Albanian renewable energy and waste management firm Becchetti Energy Group. “If I was West Ham I would be petrified of this fella,” said Hearn, never a man who could be accused of under-selling, of the club’s new owners at the time that the takeover was completed, while Becchetti didn’t seem particularly interested in keeping a lid on expectations either, adding that, “I am already envisioning a Championship club.” Ten months on from the completion of the takeover, however, these bold claims now sit in the gutter alongside the team’s dismal 2014/15 season.
With some money spent on new players and the manager that had taken the team to third place in the League One table the year before there was little to suggest that supporters shouldn’t have shared the optimism of the club’s new owner, and early season form seemed to bear this out. In the League Cup, Orient showed a little gumption in seeing off a stubborn Plymouth Argyle side in a penalty shoot-out and then gave Aston Villa a bloody nose in the next round of that competition, wining by a goal to nil at Villa Park. League form wasn’t setting the world alight, but wasn’t completely disastrous either. So, where did things start to go wrong?
It would be simplistic to blame what was to follow completely on the departure of Russell Slade at the end of September. League form had been a little patchy prior to his departure, Slade’s decision to leave the club in favour of Cardiff City did, however, set in motion a chain of events that led the team to a state of instability from which it was ultimately unable to recover. Kevin Nugent took over on a temporary basis, but soon made way for Mauro Milanese, who had arrived at the club during the summer as its sporting director. Milanese, however, lasted just six weeks in the position before moving back to his previous position and being replaced by the former Italian international Fabio Liverani at the start of December, meaning that Orient had managed to get through four managers before Christmas.
There may or may not be anything wrong with switching managers until the right balance is found, of course. After all, Watford underwent similar turbulence earlier on this season and ended their season promoted to the Premier League. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion, however, that they were the exception rather than the rule, though, and that Leyton Orient’s experience of the 2014/15 season is rather more typical of that which faces the club that gets through a clutch of managers in a comparatively short period of time. From this point on, Orient were unable to recover their season, and a run of seven games without a win at the end of the season only seemed to compound the sense of dislocation that had come over the team. The year before, running on a tight budget, Orient had come within a hair’s breadth of achieving a most unlikely promotion. All the money that Francesco Becchetti threw at the team, however, could not replace the sense of togetherness that had taken the team as far as it went the season before, though.
The inside of a football club can carry a febrile atmosphere about it, with conflicting egos and interests often butting against each other with varying degrees of explicitness, and the backroom set-up of a club has to be delicately balanced in order to minimise the negative effects of this. Perhaps the players at Leyton Orient went into this season in the wrong state of mind, having forgotten exactly what an achievement getting to third place in the final league table and to the final of the play-offs was in the first place. Such attitudes, however, do not necessarily have to be set in stone, and it is surely the responsibility of the management of the club – whether the management of the team or at a boardroom level – to act positively in order to arrest any problems as and when they become apparent. When a team that is in an increasingly desperate position near the bottom of the table cannot win any of its final seven league matches of the season, it starts to feel as if that chain of command either has broken down or is breaking down.
If there is a word that best describes Leyton Orient’s 2014/15 season (other than those that have likely rained down on the players from the stands at Brisbane Road over the last few months), that word must surely be “rudderless.” The loss of Russell Slade may have been inevitable – the lure of the Championship and a sense that things might have peaked the previous season may well have left Slade a dead man walking in one way or another before a single ball was kicked – but the lack of communication with supporters over who was to replace him and the farcical situation of having three managers in as many months following his departure most certainly was not. Ultimately, responsibility for what has gone wrong at Brisbane Road this season rests squarely with Francesco Becchetti. He needs to learn the lessons of this season if he’s not to come close to killing Leyton Orient Football Club, because at this precisely this period in the club’s history, Orient cannot afford to fall into decline right now.
At the time when a decision was being made over what to do with it, much was made of the possible effects of parachuting a Premier League football club in a couple of miles from Brisbane Road upon Leyton Orient. Well, West Ham United are offering the cheapest season tickets in the Premier League next season, and in the face of such potential commercial pressure in their locality, Leyton Orient needed to be more successful than they have been this season. A more successful season in League Two next season might be a chance to arrest the decline of the last nine months, but the question of whether the current owners of the club are capable of overseeing this is a valid one and Orient supporters might well be forgiven for believing that they’ve seen little since last summer to indicate that they are. This season, the policy seemed to be “throw money at it,” and little else. If Leyton Orient is to regain its composure and sense of purpose next season, it will likely require more nuance than this from those that run the club. Should they be unable to do so, it seems likely that Leyton Orient might well be learning a whole new definition of the phrase “waste management” over the next couple of years or so.
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