The Denuding Of Leyton Orient
At around ten to five on Saturday afternoon, the full-time whistle blew at Gresty Road, confirming something that Leyton Orient supporters had seen aware was likely to happen for some considerable time. After one hundred and twelve years of continuous presence, the Os would no longer be members of the Football League from the start of next season. Relegation came in the form of a three-nil defeat against Crewe Alexandra, a result so mundane that it didn’t particularly stick out from any of the other twenty-seven league defeats that the hapless team has managed on the pitch so far this season.
But as occasionally happens when a football club is relegated, in the case of Leyton Orient’s 2016/17 season the actual relegation itself might not even be the most troubling concern of all. Relegation, some might argue, is relegation. If we strip the back-stories of football clubs away from the conversation, the final league table is meritocratic. The team with the most points lifts the title. Those with the least are relegated. What the events of Saturday afternoon in Cheshire represent, however, amounted to something more”, the culmination of a three year long car crash, the story of a football club being taken from the very brink of a place in the Football League Championship to non-league football by an individual with no apparent interest on massaging his own ego.
The warnings from history have been ringing loud and clear over Brisbane Road for some considerable time, now. Relegation is not merely the dropping of a division when the likes of Scarborough, Chester or Hereford United are recalled. True enough, the spirit of these clubs lives on, but that fall from grace can be a startling one, and so bad have been the circumstances surrounding Leyton Orient this season that the fear of relegation – something that has now has already happened – is almost an irrelevance in comparison with the fear of what might yet be to follow.
The club’s current position may yet come to form a symbolically pivotal moment in a broader story. It’s still possible to see how this chapter in the history of the club can end somewhere approaching happily, but with each body blow the sequence of events required for that interpretation of the future becomes increasingly dependent on an increasingly optimistic viewpoint of the short and medium term future. And where the hell is positivity supposed to come from around Brisbane Road, when the last nine months – at least – are taken into account? Two relegations in three seasons and the club now in serious danger of not completing the summer intact. Small wonder the club’s support has a fatalistic air about it at the moment.
Under such circumstances, football supporters should be entitled to protection. The fact that there is an Owners & Directors Test at all is a tacit admission of this truth. It does feel, however, as though this test is way too narrow in terms of what it examines to be a great deal of use. The current iteration of it confirms the owners, not only of Leyton Orient, but also of Coventry City, Blackpool, and Charlton Athletic, and more besides. Football culture has become extraordinarily transitory when it comes to the ongoing gainful employment of managers and players, but owners of football clubs are not even subject to basic tests of competence, never mind the dizzyingly unrealistic levels of expectation placed upon just about everybody else within the game. It’s a matter of forbearance that clearly and markedly ends at the boardroom door.
But should we really expect any better of the Football League? After all, this is an organisation that is merely the sum of its parts, and those parts are the clubs themselves. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, we all know what the current iteration of the Football League is about. The EFL Trophy. The Whole Game Solution. The appointment of Charlton Athletic’s widely-despised Katrien Meire to its board last summer. Their silence on what has happened to Leyton Orient has been deafening, and it is a reflection upon the regard in which those who run the game are held that so few even seem that surprised by this.
We might have expected some form of overarching governance from the Football Association as well, but that particular body seems to have retreated into managing the England team, organising cup competitions, and little else. Ultimately, however, the unmitigated collapse of Leyton Orient is, more than anything else, a failure of governance. Those who were in a position to do something didn’t act, and have shown little sign that they are going to. Indeed, it doesn’t take an reasonably uncharitable feeling towards the Football League to suspect that they might be quietly pleased that this problem is going to be the National League’s from now on, while the reaction of the Football Association could only even be looked at had there ever even been one.
Against such a background, it’s unsurprising that protests have become angrier and more direct. What else, exactly, are supporters supposed to do when the life is being sucked from their clubs before their very eyes? Well, the Football League, an organisation which seems to be on some sort of mission to prove itself unfit for purpose despite the best efforts of its teams in making for interesting and stimulating competition, recently responded to claims that it had asked the Leyton Orient Fans Trust to foot the club’s (presumably unpaid) medical bills with denial, only for it to be gently pointed out that this wasn’t what had happened at all. It was suggested that the League asked the club to request that LOFT paid the bills, a different allegation which hasn’t been denied.
It is illuminating that such a conversation should even be imaginable, and it shines a light on the growing perception of supporters and supporters trusts as being little more than open wallets and purses, to be rinsed clean of every penny. In what other business would the customers – since this is a term apparently so beloved of the modern game – be asked, whether directly or indirectly, to foot a business’s basic expenses? Semantic juggling notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem like a particularly strong advertisement for professional football as a business that such a sequence of events can feel so likely.
In apportioning blame for the fall from grace of Leyton Orient, it’s easy to pin everything on Francesco Becchetti, and it’s far from wrong to do so, for a lion’s share of it, at least. He is the owner of the business. Ultimate responsibility rests at his door. Taking ownership of a football club isn’t just a matter of taking control of a business. It’s also a matter of taking custodianship of a cornerstone of a community. It carries with it a set of responsibilities far greater than merely balancing the books of a company. He has been found to be woefully inept, and the sooner the club is rid of both him and his entourage, the better.
But blame for what has happened to this football club shouldn’t and mustn’t rest entirely with Francesco Becchetti. In its broadest sense, it rests with an entire culture which presumes that someone with no prior connection to a football club pitching up with grand promises is A Good Thing. It rests with those who have excused his actions and behaviour every step of the way, whatever their reasons for doing so may have been. And more than anyone else, it rests with the Football Association and the Football League, governing bodies that haven’t governed, regulators who haven’t regulated, organisations whose silence as Leyton Orient conflagrated before their very eyes was deafening.
We have warned, and warned, and warned that the rules in place were not fit for purpose, and those warnings have fallen upon deaf ears. If nothing else, then even as much as we know about what has happened to Leyton Orient under the incompetent ownership of Francesco Becchetti can only be seen as a failure of English football governance as a whole. Some may have considered this little more than an accident that could have been avoided, but with the benefit of hindsight it actually now feels more like one that was waiting to happen all along.
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