The final home Football League match at Brisbane Road was always going to be an emotional affair. After one hundred and twelve years, the curtain was brought down for Leyton Orient in a manner in which the club’s supporters have become wearyingly familiar over the course of the last nine months or so, with reasonably a comprehensive home defeat against a Colchester United team that still harbours outside hopes of snatching a play-off place come the very end of the season. It seems difficult to believe that the Os were a penalty shoot-out away from Championship football less than three years ago.
What unfolded yesterday, however, was something else altogether, a final slap in the face for supporters of the club from authorities who have otherwise shown precious little interest in the way that has been going on at the club over the last three years or so. With six minutes of the match left to play and Colchester leading by three goals to one, Orient supporters invaded the Brisbane Road pitch to protest against the club’s owner Fransesco Becchetti and the inertia of the Football League and Football Association in not heeding the warnings of the direction in which the club was moving.
The supporters – who, we should be completely clear, were entirely peaceful in their demonstration – couldn’t be removed by stewards, and a subsequent announcement was made confirming that the match had been abandoned. This, however, was a lie, a ruse concocted between the Football League and the Police to clear the pitch and ensure that the match was completed, and so it was that, at twenty to seven in the evening and with the ground otherwise empty, the players trotted back out onto the pitch and played out the final few minutes of the game before the referee finally blew the whistle that brought the curtain down on more of a century of home league football for this particular club. The Football League later issued a statement which said:
The Sky Bet League Two fixture between Leyton Orient and Colchester United has been concluded behind closed doors. The decision to play the match to a conclusion was agreed with both Managers and with the support of the match officials. The Police and Stadium security staff were happy for the match to restart and this took place at approximately 6.40pm.
Despite requests for the fans to clear the pitch, there wasn’t sufficient movement to allow the game to restart following a pitch invasion. A decision was taken with the Police to announce that the game had been abandoned, as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct.
However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition and in respect of Colchester United’s position of being able to qualify for the Sky Bet League Two play-offs.
There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s begin at the beginning. First of all, it should really go without saying that what is to follow is not a reflection upon Colchester United and their fight to get into the play-offs at the other end of the table. It is always unfortunate when another club gets dragged into protests that are nothing to do with them. In an ideal world, no-one would wish for this. It is also worth recognising that the situation at the top of the table is very tight indeed. At the time of writing, there are just three points between Carlisle United in sixth place in the table and Mansfield Town in twelfth place, with one game of the season left to play. Goal differences between the teams are also, broadly speaking, very close.
The desire to finish the match, therefore, is entirely understandable. But what, exactly, was being finished at Brisbane Road at twenty to seven on Saturday evening? Colchester United’s players might as easily have been adversely affected by the delay of nearly two hours before restarting the match as those of Leyton Orient might have been. This gap meant that even describing this as “restarting the game” sounds a little like a logical leap too far. Effectively, the two teams might as well have been playing a five minute long mini-match. What would the reaction have been, had Orient scored two goals in that five minutes (no matter how vanishingly unlikely that seems, considering the team’s shortcomings this season)? Would other clubs around the play-off positions have had cause for complaint had Colchester rung up a further couple of goals in those final few minutes, when the match could otherwise have been abandoned and the result allowed to stand at three-one to the visitors? It’s a complicated set of questions, to which there probably isn’t a definitive answer.
That there is something fundamentally distasteful about the Football League, the match referee and the local police conspiring together to lie to all present in order to clear the pitch, however, feels real enough, and the League’s subsequent statement on the subject only seems likely to add fuel to a fire that hasn’t completely burned itself out, just yet. The use of a phrase like “maintain the integrity of the competition” is spectacularly uuhelpful. We have discussed on here before the extent to which what has happened to Leyton Orient over the last three seasons has been largely caused by a spectacular failure of governance on the part of the Football League and the Football Association, and the fact that there are rules in place of any sort regarding club ownership is a tacit admission of the fact that there are people from whom clubs do need to be protected. So, if the Football League are prepared to collude with the police to lie to people in order to get the last five minutes of a football match played having done precisely nothing with regard to Becchetti over the previous three years, what “integrity”, exactly, is being protected here?
Furthermore, whilst officials from the Football League and the police may well have spent much of last night congratulating themselves on having got the last five minutes of this match played, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that what they’ve actually done is little more than kick a fundamental issue into the long grass for a further week or so and little more. On the last day of the season next weekend, Leyton Orient play their final match of the league season at Blackpool, another club whose supporters have been in open revolt against their owners over the course of this season. Unsurprisingly, further protests are planned for Bloomfield Road next weekend, and the circumstances surrounding this match are further complicated by the fact that the home side are themselves in the middle of the group of clubs seeking a play-off place.
With the likelihood of a pitch invasion higher than probably any other in the country (Blackpool’s home Championship match against Huddersfield Town in May 2015 was abandoned after a pitch invasion demonstration), there is a distinct possibility that the decision made by those concerned yesterday could amount to the opening of a can of worms, the results of which we may only see next weekend. The atmosphere for the match between Blackpool and Leyton Orient next weekend was always likely to be febrile. The vast media attention to yesterday’s events at Brisbane Road, coupled with that feeling that comes with knowing that they’ve been lied to, only seems likely to have an inflammatory effect on next weekend’s match. But we shall see.
Ultimately, though, it is probably apt that Leyton Orient’s one hundred and twelve years of home matches in the Football League should have ended in this way. Having been denuded by an owner who doesn’t seem to have a single clue about what he’s doing, supporters who have been imploring the authorities to pay attention to what has been happening to their club have been met with a wall of silence, only for the League to be all over the club when there is a danger of five minutes of football not being played. It says a considerable amount regarding the apparent priorities of the Football League that this should have been the case at the end of such a completely horrendous story.
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