About 40 years ago, I was visiting Brisbane Road for a second division game and left Leyton station in search of the ground. As I did, I asked a slight lad with a kit-bag the way to the Orient. He said, “I’m heading there, just follow me”. A couple of hours later, I spotted this youngster on the pitch and he was running the opposition ragged. It was none other than Laurie Cunningham.
Of course, Cunningham went on to better things, forming part of the famous “Three Degrees” West Bromwich Albion team and then Real Madrid. He wasn’t the only gem that was unearthed at Leyton Orient down the years.
Today, Leyton Orient are looking ahead to 2017-18 as a non-league club. In 2016-17, Orient had four managers and former players called the club “a madhouse”. It is sad to see a club like Leyton Orient tumble into non-league football in the manner they have fallen, although calm heads are needed to ensure the Os can halt their slump. Right now, the officials of a London sporting institution should be working hard to assure supporters that non-league is not the end of the road. Lincoln City can surely provide some inspiration.
However, the 10-point margin between bottom and 23rd suggests that Orient have some deep problems to solve. It’s not easy being a small fish in the big pond that is London, and with Tottenham, West Ham and Arsenal on your doorstep, it’s not difficult to disappear from view. Non-league football often struggles in the capital and Orient, who have always had to battle against the odds, now find themselves with the fresh challenge of competing on a more uneven playing field. What’s more, the east end of London is a veritable graveyard of former clubs – witness Walthamstow Avenue and Leytonstone.
But whatever happened to the Orient? No, it is not a drawing room drama set during the dying days of empire, but a question that all London football people are asking at the moment. Was it not just a couple of years ago that they were trying to get into the Championship? Indeed, in 2013-14, they missed out on promotion in the play-offs, but a year later, they were relegated to League Two.
But what do we find now? The club’s owner, Francesco Becchetti, has been given until mid-June to sell the club or pay off all his debts to creditors. Players went without wages, apparently, forcing some to leave. And former owner Barry Hearn resigned from his role as honorary president, commenting that he could not be associated with any company that does not pay its staff their due wages on time. The problems seem to be piling up. Only this last month, the club faced a second winding-up order over unpaid debts.
It does make you wonder what sort of state Orient will be in when they make their bow in the National League come August. Gates at Brisbane Road averaged 4,500 in 2016-17, which was 15% down on the previous season – only Lincoln and Tranmere pulled in better crowds than that figure, which means that if Orient get off to a good start, they will be among the best supported at non-league level. Orient desperately need their fans and the emotional ties that supporters have with their club will probably see people come out in force to get behind the beleaguered Os in their hour of need. Only two clubs in the last 10 to be relegated from the Football League have seen their gates increase in their first campaign in the National League – Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham – and generally, crowds drop by more than 20% for a relegated club. What would that do to Orient’s already stressed finances?
Doubtless, Orient’s loyal band will look nervously at York City as an example of how a downward spiral can impact a club dropping out of the Football League. The Minstermen may have played at Wembley recently in the FA Trophy final, but they suffered a second successive relegation in 2016-17 and will be playing in National League North. It’s a warning – York were nine points adrift of safety when they were relegated from the league.
Equally, Orient fans might be wondering whatever happened to all those east London non-league clubs that used to exist and why they are no longer around. In order for Orient to ensure they don’t disappear into the ether, they need a response to this setback. Non-league is not the end of the world, but it is hard to swallow when you’ve had more than 100 years of Football League fare to dine on. We welcome the Os to the non-league fraternity and wish them well, if only for the wonderful memories of Laurie Cunningham, Peter Kitchen, John Chiedozie and others who have lit-up this often overlooked corner of London.