Leyton Orient Football Club stand on the brink of extinction.
The League Two club, the second oldest professional outfit in London, the first side to offer up their players to fight on the frontline in World War One, the club Harry Kane scored his first professional goal for, face liquidation on March 20 after being served a winding-up order from the High Court over an unpaid tax bill of £250,000.
It’s a sad demise for the East London club, who were on the brink of the Championship just three years ago to where they currently stand, deep inside the League Two relegation zone staring Conference football in the face.
Why? It’s simple – because if destruction seen at the club over the past three years can happen to Orient, it can happen at your club, too.
Everything was going swimmingly at half-time of the League One play-off final at Wembley in May 2014.
Orient were leading 2-0 over Rotherham thanks to goals from Moses Odubajo and Dean Cox, and the fans inside the national stadium were finally thinking the unthinkable – Leyton Orient might reach the second tier of English football.
But dreams are often dashed within seconds in football. Rotherham’s Alex Revell, devastatingly cast aside by Orient three years previously, scored twice in five minutes to level the game, and the penalty shootout to decide it after 120 gruelling minutes dealt the final blow to Orient’s hopes.
What has followed in East London since then has seen dreams turn into a nightmare. Orient’s long-term owner Barry Hearn sold the club after the play-off defeat, an act one can’t blame Hearn for – he himself had bought the club famously for a pound in 1995 as a knock-on effect after previous owner Tony Wood’s tea crop had gone up in flames during the savage Rwandan genocide.
19 years was long enough for the sports promoting kingpin, as he had his hands full after successfully cornering the boxing, snooker and darts markets.
Hearn sold the club to Italian waste management millionaire Francesco Becchetti, who, like a broken record for new football club owners, spun the same hits as the rest of them – promise a higher quality of football, splash the cash, and issue baseless soundbites of making Orient great again.
Now, after three years of ownership which has seen relegation to League Two, the sacking of seven managers, Becchetti himself being handed a six-match stadium ban for kicking then-assistant manager Andy Hessenthaler on the touchline, things have come to a head for the Italian rapscallion.
And we’re only just scratching the surface about everything wrong at Orient currently. Manager Danny Webb recently admitted some of the players are only being paid £150-a-week as they are still on their youth contracts – unsurprising, as last weekend’s match against Newport saw seven players aged 20 or under start for Orient.
Then there was the selling of top scorer Jay Simpson and playmaker Dean Cox, the transfer listing of a number of first-team players, and the truly bizarre statement in which Becchetti said the players weren’t performing because they ‘missed him being at the games’.
However, this isn’t just about Orient. This is about the plethora of clubs to now find themselves in a similar situation. Ask any Nottingham Forest, Coventry, Leeds, Charlton or Blackpool fan about the way an owner can single-handedly come to a club and destroy decades, if not centuries, of work that we, the fans, have helped build, and they’ll tell you a similar story.
The footballing authorities’ systemic failure to allow the likes of Becchetti, Fawaz Al-Hasawi, Sisu, Roland Duchatelet et al to run ruin over some of the nation’s greatest and most historic clubs is shameful. The so-called fit and proper person’s test is seemingly a distant memory, and Orient are just the latest in a long line of footballing catastrophes.
This is not really about Leyton Orient. This is about the way football clubs are able to go from positions of consistency and calm to the edge of the abyss due to destructive ownership time after time.
This is not really about Orient fans, either. This is about all of us, who care about football in this country. If we all claim to be part of the football family, we should all be angry when we see a club like Orient dragged through the dirt by a wildly incompetent owner. If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it.
And we, as fans, have to just suck it up. A club like Orient relies on fans to keep itself going at the best of times – any side outside the top flight aren’t blessed by the riches of TV money and parachute payments to keep themselves afloat, so it’s down to the few thousand fans that manage to drag themselves to yet another home defeat to ensure the upkeep of the club.
Monday 20th March could be D-Day for a club rich in history and formerly full of heart. But thanks to Becchetti, the pulse of the second oldest club in London is almost flat-lining. The only inch of hope now is in the hands of Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust, who recently launched an ambitious plan to raise £250,000 as a fighting fund to save the club from its impending doom.
Because if there is no clearer indication of what football is really about, it’s always the fans. The fans were there before the owners came and went, they will be the ones to save the clubs from their perilous states, and they will be there until the final whistle finally blows.
This feature is part of our Save The O’s campaign. To find out how you can help save the second oldest football club in London, click here.