On Easter Monday I went to see relegation-doomed Leyton Orient, I was expecting this to be the club's last home game in the Football League after 101 consecutive years. Things didn't go as expected, in what was one of the most memorable games of football I have attended. I ended the game running around the pitch living out childhood fantasies.
Leyton Orient are a club in distress, they play in East London just a few miles from London Stadium. I’ve been to Brisbane Road many times over the years, especially as a child, because the tickets were a lot cheaper than West Ham. It was a no-brainer for my dad, who could take us both to a game for the same price he’d pay for an adult ticket at the Hammers.
The Os are suffering under the inept ownership of Francesco Becchetti. The Italian bought the club from Barry Hearn prior to the 2014-15 season, shortly after Orient lost in the League 1 Playoff Final. They lost out on Championship football after a heart-breaking penalty shootout loss. Three seasons later, Leyton Orient are the worst team in the Football League and almost certain to drop into the Vanarama National League.
I attended the match against Hartlepool United expecting a funeral-like atmosphere. Orient have to win all of their remaining fixtures and hope the teams above them lose all theirs, to stand a remote chance of survival. It's bleak.
Leyton Orient fans hold a protest against owner Francesco Becchetti during yesterday's match. Singing 'Becchetti out' and 'F*** the EFL'. pic.twitter.com/rVSrkXUtgp— FootballLeaguePaper (@TheLeaguePaper) April 18, 2017
Tickets were reduced to £5, which helped create one of the largest crowds I have seen at Brisbane Road in quite some time.
Many fans protested against the owners by arriving at the game in clown costumes - a reference to the circus that the club has become.
We don't have enough time to list all the terrible things Becchetti has done in his three year tenure, but here are some particular lowlights:
- Has had 11 managers since arriving 30 months ago
- Demoted Kevin Nolan from player-manager to player after four months in charge. Nolan had won seven of his 15 games while in charge.
- One time he kicked assistant coach Andy Hessenthaler on the sidelines after a match. Becchetti was given a fine and stadium ban. Strangely, Hessenthaler became manager later that season.
Here’s a list that explains more of Becchetti’s crimes against the club:
I arrived at the game and immediately spotted this colourful sign.
I navigated my way through angry fans singing the infectious “Fuck Becchetti”, the song of the afternoon. It was more ubiquitous than Uptown Funk in 2014.
Orient are led by sixth manager of the season Omer Riza 37, who played with West Ham as youth player between 1999-2002. Riza has to deal with many of his first team players going on strike over unpaid wages; in their place came youth players. Seven teenagers and a 20-year-old played on Monday.
While it's bad the players haven't been paid since March, the real victims are the non-football staff at the club who are also working for free. At least the footballers can find other teams and resume their careers. The regular staff will be on considerably less money and may not find work as easy to come by.
Photographer Simon continues to do his job at the O's yet he has not been paid since October and does not expect to be paid again. pic.twitter.com/pL7LphwUVZ— John Walker (@jwalkerloughton) April 17, 2017
Due to this this lack of funds, the matchday programme has become a joke. This 16 “page” booklet, is created using a single piece of paper masquerading as a programme by folding the pages to give the illusion of depth.
The game itself was most enjoyable with Orient coming from 0-1 down to win 2-1 and give relegation-threatened Hartlepool more worries for the future. As part of the protest fans threw inflatables on the pitch to cause disruption but it was ineffective.
There was a risk that the match wouldn’t have even been played as Orient’s medical staff refused to work after going unpaid for months. A scratch team was drafted at the last moment and had to pick up their official uniform from the club shop on the morning of the match.
Riza’s young team showed excellent determination to come back and win the game. He seems like a good manager and the club should stick with him next season. Riza appears to be getting a lot out of diminished the squad in this difficult time.
As soon as the final whistle blew, fans stormed the pitch to protest against Becchetti’s ownership.
Aim was also taken at the Football League for allowing this situation to happen in the first place. Being on the pitch fulfilled a childhood dream of mine, it was magical.
While I was running around the pitch like a child, there was a serious protest underway.
Barring a miracle, it’s looking certain that Leyton Orient will be dropping out of the Football League this season. It is a real shame that mismanagement has caused such a bleak turn of events for one of the proudest football clubs in London. It makes you appreciate West Ham co-chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan a tiny bit more.
Regardless of the situation at Orient, the players, supporters and manager showed that they will not give up. Their spirited comeback gave fans a slither of hope for next season. The 5,411 fans in the stands were the loudest I have heard for awhile and showed that this situation has brought people together to fight a common enemy.
If you liked this then you should totally check out my blog, my mum says it's "pretty not bad".