The most iconic instant of Leyton Orient 2016-17 campaign is probably the final home game played against Colchester. The O’s were already relegated from the Football League to the Conference for the first time in 112 years after a 3-0 defeat at Crewe the previous week. The clock marked the 85th minute, when fans invaded the pitch to complain against the board, throwing their season tickets to the ground. They were particularly angry with the Italian owner Francesco Becchetti. He was accused of killing the club, leading it in a disastrous economic situation with more than £10m of debt and a bad management.
The game was stopped and resumed two hours later, without people on the bleachers. The Football League said in a statement that “the match had to be completed to maintain the integrity of the competition” and that the two managers agreed with this decision. Colchester won 1-3. It was the worst way to end a ruinous season. No fans, no cheer, no atmosphere inside Brisbane Road, just a feeling of vacuum and disappointment.
The relationship between Leyton Orient and Becchetti started in July 2014, when the 50-year-old tycoon with interests in renewable energy and waste management bought the club for £4m. Two months earlier, the O’s had lost the Championship play-off final against Rotherham. The team had been long at top of the table and manager Russel Slade had managed to build a loan based group with players purchased as a free agent, focusing on young players grew up from the academy.
Despite the defeat, the board expected that period was the start of a bright future, in order to achieve other good outcomes. Barry Hearn, the previous owner who had been in charge for 19 years, said in a press conference: “I think I have found the perfect man. He has so much money to spend and I know he is a valid person. During our first meeting, I noticed a shimmer in his eyes that I really liked”.
Hearn was wrong. That was the beginning of a narrative with a storyline initially comic, then paradoxical and finally dramatic. Becchetti had never experienced in football. He was CEO of an Italian volleyball team based in Rome in the 90’s, but he was primarily known to have been the founder and executive director of Agon Channel, launched in 2013. It was the first Italian television that broadcasted abroad. Its headquarters were in Tirana. The opening ceremony was magnificent with Nicole Kidman as a guest star.
Meanwhile, if the issue relating to television seemed to be going in the right direction, in football they began taking a turn for the worse. The 2014-15 season was the first with Becchetti in charge. He sacked Slade, even if he had achieved the best results in Leyton Orient’s recent history, replacing him with Kevin Nugent. But this is not all, and changes were only just at the beginning. The way Becchetti appointed managers was not what we could call “professional”; it was instead a means to satisfy his fancies and reluctance towards a championship he did not know well. In December 2014, he hired Roberto Gagliardi, a former Non-League goalkeeper, as goalkeeper trainer. This decision was, in part, to help him out with language. Becchetti made other bad choices and the worst was probably the appointment in summer 2014 of Mauro Milanese – former Italy and Inter Milan defender – as sporting director, and Alessandro Angelieri – who had been the head of commercial affairs at Agon Channel – as the new chief executive. Leyton Orient, the second oldest football club in London, began to have the traits of an Italians colony. However, none of them was familiar with the English football work environment.
Milanese kept the job until January 2015, when he was dismissed following claims of misconduct and excesses on the transfers market: it is believed, for example, that players like Darius Henderson, Jay Simpson, Jobi McAnuff, Andrea Dossena and Gianvito Plasmati got paid £7,500 a week, while team’s average wages were no more than £2,500 per week.
The last manager hired for the 2014-15 season was Fabio Liverani. He was an Italian too, and his experience was disastrous like his fellow countrymen. He did not know English, he needed a translator and he looked like disoriented as if he did not know what to do or not to do.
And to make the situation even more ridiculous, in February 2015 Leyton Orient was the subject of a reality TV show in Italy; the winner would have had the chance to sign a professional contract with the club. This was Becchetti’s idea, who said that the reality show, broadcasted on Agon Channel, was not a distraction – the O’s were bottom of League One, six points adrift of safety – but a way to increase club’s appeal. «People are talking about this talent show – he said – and the opportunity we are giving young Italians to come to London to live this great experience, with regards to both the city and British football».
Nothing went as planned: the reality was a blunder (no one signed for the club) and not well received by fans, who considered it as a farce; most of the old staff left since the beginning of the season, players often didn’t know the starting XI until one hour before kick-off and were intolerant with Liverani, who spoke in Italian using Gagliardi as translator. Moreover, team shape was not the best, there was no communication with supporters and Becchetti wanted to be fully involved in side’s selection.
Leyton Orient ended League One season at bottom of the table with 8 wins and 27 defeats. It was the point of no return and club was relegated to League Two.
But the worst was yet to come, both for Becchetti and Leyton Orient. In June, the Albanian government seized his assets and issued a warrant for his arrest. He was accused of fraud and money laundering over a failed hydroelectric scheme that had cost millions of euros in unpaid taxes. Becchetti would have injected that money into his companies in Albania and in his bank accounts. His legal proceedings led to shut down Agon Channel and to request of extradition in Albania to face trial.
Season 2015-16 started well, with former captain Ian Hendon on the bench as manager. However, the club rushed in a short time in the middle ranking of the table and Hendon was sacked in January. He was replaced by Andy Hessenthaler, Hendon’s assistant manager, the protagonist of a clash with Becchetti that induced the owner a six-match stadium ban. It happened after Orient’s home win against Portsmouth on Boxing Day. Becchetti kicked Hessenthaler on the pitch after the final whistle. He was found guilty of violent conduct and fined £40,000 for the incident; a few months later, Albanian extradition application against Francesco Becchetti was dropped.
Leyton Orient ended the season at the 8th place, six points adrift of League Two playoff. Hessenthaler was confirmed but was relieved in September 2016, after three wins from nine games. Then came another Italian, Alberto Cavasin, sacked two months later after a run of eight defeats in 10 games.
The situation was not better neither off the pitch. The board was struggling to pay players and supporters reunited in LOFT (Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust) had been protesting against Becchetti, asking him to sell the club. He said he would be willing to do so, for a figure of not less than £4m, the same price he paid during his takeover.
Leyton’s umpteenth manager, Andy Edwards, lasted until January 2017 when he quit to take a youth coaching role with the Football Association. His successor was Danny Webb, 33, who resigned only two months later after a bust-up with the owner over his interference in team’s selection. He became the 10th man to leave the job in less than three years under Becchetti’s management.
All Leyton Orient’s troubles has now been reaching their boiling point. Three of the best players departed, letting a squad containing a strong youth and inexperienced elements, while Becchetti refused to approve any signings in January and has not attended a match since November. In March, the club faced a winding-up order over unpaid £250,000 tax bill to HMRC.
Last April, the High Court heard that the bill had been entirely settled, but winding up order has remained and Orient has been given until June 12 to find money to pay several creditors, such as club photographer Simon O’Connor, Central Circle Event Management Ltd, who provide match-day stewarding, and the London Borough of Waltham Forest.
Becchetti promised that he would put another £1m into the club to clear debts. Fans did not stand idly by while situation had become more and more critical. They felt Leyton Orient were in “mortal danger” and decided to put together a “fighting fund” and secure a proper future to Orient, including a possible “phoenix club” modelled on AFC Wimbledon. LOFT raised about £180,000. The deadline was 12th June: if Becchetti had not paid or sold up, the club would have been faced administration and subsequent liquidation.
Orient succeeded in pay off debts to these creditors and the winding-up petition was dismissed by the High Court in London. About one week later, a consortium led by the Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins chief executive Nigel Travis completed its takeover from Francesco Becchetti. Orient was officially rescued as the new owner confessed to having been a passionate O’s supporter for his entire life. It was the beginning of a new era: Travis’ philosophy will look at club’s stability, right structures and people, an inclusive and positive atmosphere as well.
Becchetti’s management had risked destroying a 136-year-old side because of his power trip matched with his lack of forethought and common sense. The issue was tough, but finally, the O’s managed to win the most important game of their existence.