Leyton Orient: Getting All Wound Up
A four-one defeat at Stevenage last night has left the bottom of the current League Two table making for distressing reading for Leyton Orient supporters. Still one place off the bottom of the table, Orient are now six points adrift of safety, and worse still the club’s recent run of form, which has seen it win just two of the twelve league matches that it’s played since beating Crawley Town on Boxing Day, gives no hint that this particular team is in any way capable of reversing the collapse that has led it to this dark state of affairs in the first place. In just a few weeks time, Leyton Orient could be playing non-league football for the first time in one hundred and twelve years.
As things stand, we might forgive Orient supporters looking to just about anything as a distraction from the dismal condition of the team at the moment, but this morning’s news that the club has been issued with a Winding Up Petition by Her Majesty’s Revenues & Customs over an unpaid tax bill, which has been reported as being for unpaid tax and PAYE and amounting to a not inconsiderable £250,000, is unlikely to calm them very much. The club was presented with the petition on the second of February, and has until the twentieth of March to pay the amount in full. There is little indication that it has the wherewithal to do so at present.
That HMRC should have issued such a petition comes as little surprise. Since losing preferred creditor status as a result of amendments to the Insolvency Act a little over a decade ago, football clubs have been a clear target for the tax collectors. News outlets are frequently peppered with stories of clubs being issued with them. Perhaps the most notorious offender in this respect may be Southend United, whose chairman Ron Martin has been in an ongoing battle with HMRC for as long as he’s owned the club. Southend paid off their last winding up petition amount in January of this year.
So, if this is a routine procedure that is used to leverage money due for unpaid taxes and no Football League clubs have gone under as a result of their service in recent years, what do Leyton Orient supporters have to be troubled by? Well, the key question in these matters isn’t that the petition has been served, it’s what the club’s reaction to it ends up being, and Leyton Orient has hardly been run on a stable basis since Francesco Becchetti took ownership of it in the summer of 2014. Becchetti has fallen silent and sullen since fan protests against his management of the club began last autumn, with nothing being invested in the team during the January transfer window and an astonishing statement being issued by the club, which seemed mostly interested in absolving the owner for the desperate straits in which it finds itself at present.
It is this tendency towards the throwing of toys from the pram that is most likely to trouble Leyton Orient supporters, with regard to the current administration’s behaviour. If what matters now is what the response of the club turns out to be, there seems little to be enthusiastic about. As things stand, the club has four options over next three weeks or so. It could pay the amount due in full by the date of the court hearing, which is on the twentieth of March. It could enter into administration, which would protect it from being wound up but which would incur a ten point deduction, which would but seal its relegation from the Football League. It could contest the amount due, although it would have to provide clear evidence as to why this is the case. Or finally it could just completely ignore it and be wound up in court next month. Given the petulant way in which the club has been run of late, it is this last option that will be troubling supporters the most at the moment.
This news is only likely to add a sense of urgency to a Special General Meeting that had already been organised for tomorrow evening by the club’s supporters trust, the Leyton Orient Fans Trust. Alarmed by what it has come to understand of the club’s predicament over the last few months, the trust has prepared a disaster recovery document, exploring all of their options, should the club’s position continue to deteriorate. These include administration, liquidation and even what might be necessary to set up a phoenix club, should the worst come to the worst. It seems difficult to believe that interest in this meeting won’t spike as a result of this morning’s news. For all their preparation, however, this remains uncharted territory for supporters of the club. At present, what happens over the next three weeks is somewhat out of their hands.
For the time being, though, Francesco Becchetti remains the key to getting this situation unlocked. Becchetti has already revealed that the club is up for sale and he claims that he has already turned down one offer for it because it didn’t meet his valuation of it. It is to be hoped that, even in the event that Becchetti can’t be trusted to act in the club’s best interests at all times, he can be trusted to act in his own. The club being wound up will see him lose everything that he – or those on whose behalf he may be acting, if some are to be believed – has put in, whilst the points deduction and near-certain relegation that would accompany such an event would significantly downgrade the value of the club that he is attempting to sell. A quarter of a million pounds – presuming the reported figure to be true – is a lot of money but unless Becchetti wants the club to crash in flames, it would likely be money well spent. The question is: can he see the urgency of the club’s position for what it is?
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