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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINE

The tale of a non-league club with millionaire American-based owners is a feel-good story to warm your bones

Francesco Becchetti did his best to destroy Leyton Orient but now they're in the fight to get back to the Football League.

Proper Football correspondent Jim Daly is taking to terraces to take the temperature at clubs who are facing dramatic changes as the season reaches its climax.

You undoubtedly love your football club and would do anything for it, but imagine for a second that one man decides to try and ruin it just because he can.

That’s what happened to Leyton Orient fans.

Italian Francesco Becchetti bought the O’s in 2014 after they had just missed out on promotion to the Championship; he finally left last summer having single-handedly ended the club’s 112-year stint in the Football League with relegation to non-league, leaving him as the most hated man in East London since that hipster who opened a cereal cafe.

Thankfully he departed and with Orient coming to the end of their first season under new owners – Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis and American investor Kent Teague, who sounds more like an American superhero than a vice-chairman – and with Dream Team having just announced sponsorship of the O’s shirts for next season, it felt like the perfect time to jump on the Central line to Leyton and see how fans are dealing with being out of the league for the first time in probably all of their lifetimes.


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Legendary Laurie

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Legendary Laurie

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I strolled the 10 minute walk from Leyton tube to their gritty East London ground in blazing sunshine that made Brisbane Road feel more like actual Brisbane. I passed a statue of Laurie Cunningham; the pioneering black winger who started his career at Orient.

History is such an important part of this club, in fact. The entire first-team of Clapton Orient, as they were known in 1916, were the first football club to sign up to fight in the Battle of the Somme as part of the Footballers’ Battalion, with 40 players, fans and officials enlisted. Many didn’t come home.

100 years since World War 1

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100 years since World War 1

Indeed, at Saturday’s game against play-off chasing Wrexham the teams were led out by the 17th PALS Battalion Band, who also played at half-time to a silent, respectful stadium and when I collected my press pass from reception there was a stirring plaque on the wall detailing the names of those went to the Somme, and those who didn’t return.

Brisbane Road is a mix of traditional old stands with a newer, metallic West Stand and four housing blocks squeezed into each corner, with balconies for some of the inhabitants opening out towards the pitch. I wonder who lives there.

Is it Orient fans who have purposely bought them or randoms who are now forced to watch the O’s every Saturday afternoon?

The East Stand has a gable (that pointy bit on a roof) with LEYTON ORIENT on it, but for some reason it’s nowhere near the middle of the stand, which made my OCD go into overdrive.

If fans are disappointed about being out of the Football League it doesn’t show as the bar in the Supporters Club is absolutely rammed.

Rammo in the main room

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Rammo in the main room

There is a jovial atmosphere in the bar and you wouldn’t know that, less than a year ago, this club was on its knees and the fans at their wits end. There were banners, protests and even a pitch invasion during the final home game of the season against Colchester, with Orient confirmed out of the Football League, which forced the game to be stopped for two hours.

“It was absolute chaos. You couldn’t quite believe how chaotic it had become,” said lifelong O’s fan Martin Belam when I finally get back from the bar with his pint.

“Last season Arsenal fans talked about Wenger destroying their club, but at the same time I was literally going to court appearances where Leyton Orient could potentially have been wound up on the spot. It’s such a gulf in what the experience is as a fan.”

Meanwhile, a cheery lady comes round collecting for the Armed Forces and everyone in the bar to a man puts money in the pot.

The consensus on the new owners is positive.

“They are doing the best with that they can do. They will make mistakes of course,” says Orient fan Daniel Gold when I meet him outside the club shop.

OCD going into overdrive

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OCD going into overdrive

The appointment of manager Steve Davis (not the snooker player) may have been seen as one. The former Burnley, Crewe and Barnsley defender was Travis and Teague’s first managerial appointment last summer but was binned after winning just five of 19 league games with the club sliding down to the relegation places.

“They’re doing all the right things at the moment; actually spending money on players and interacting with the fans,” adds Gold.

“Under Becchetti there was always some element of the fan base complaining about the owners, I’ve not heard any about them yet.”

Former Tottenham defender Justin Edinburgh, who I have fond memories of having too many Panini stickers of in the 90s, replaced Davis and has guided the O’s to mid-table. His decision to place goalkeeping coach Dean Brill in goal has been widely accepted as a masterstroke.

When the teams are announced for the game Brill starts, as does top scorer Macauley Bonne, who has scored 23 goals this season and has been a player Orient have been crying out for in recent years.

Remember this is non-league football

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Remember this is non-league football

I find my seat in the South Stand. The back of my chair is broken so I can’t lean back properly, but at least there is loads of leg room. Some residents from the corner tower blocks have come out to watch the game in their pyjamas.

Bonne spits out his chewing gum and volleys it back into his mouth and already I’m convinced he’s the best player here. He scores a header about 20 minutes in off a Jobi McAnuff cross and I feel like a Premier League scout whose tip has been justified.

The big lad to my left munches on a pie for most of the first-half and the old boy behind me chats for the entire 90 minutes and refers to Bonne as “Macca-lele” every single time he touches the ball. There are lots of dads and sons in matching Orient shirts and not a single hipster in sight.

Wyvern without you

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Wyvern without you

The Wrexham fans are very vocal at the start of the game and three of them are in fancy dress as the Super Mario brothers and a giant banana and I wonder what’s in the water over the border.

The temperature drops massively at half-time and suddenly I feel really underdressed and sheepishly take my sunglasses off.

Towards the end of the game, the Orient fans sing “See you next year” to the away fans and they are suddenly nowhere near as loud as they were in the first half. The loudest cheer from the away end all game is a big Wrexham lad heading the ball back and getting high-fives and hugs from all around him.

The Dragons’ Marcus Kelly then clears a shot over the North Stand and there are ironic cheers from the home fans and chants of “F****** useless”.  The same player misses a huge chance with 15 minutes to go and Orient fans know by this point it’s going to be their day.


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This is the actual moment Orient scored

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This is the actual moment Orient scored

It starts raining in the final few minutes and I really start cursing my choice of outfit.

The final whistle goes, the Wrexham players drop to the ground knowing they’ve stuffed their chances of a play-off place and the Orient players do a lap of honour. McAnuff high-fives a young fan by the dugout and when asked by an older fan if he’ll be there next season said “Yeah mate, we go again” and I feel like I’ve completed football bingo.

After the fans have cleared out I bump into Teague who was holding court with some match day guests by the side of the pitch. He shakes my hand with a strong grip, making me feel like I’m in an episode of Dallas.

“I absolutely love it here,” he says with a giant smile on his face. “It’s better than I expected, I had high expectations but for me to get to be involved in the club the way I am and to get to do what I get to do is just phenomenal.

“Mainly what we want more than anything else is we want people to be proud to wear the badge.”

When I ask what the plan is for the future he is very certain: “Build a team that deserves to be promoted.”

I’m pretty sure my local non-league club doesn’t look like this

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I’m pretty sure my local non-league club doesn’t look like this

“It’s amazing what a win does for the place,” says media officer Elliot Byrne, also with a big smile on his face, as we wait for a player to arrive. When one does it’s club captain Charlie Lee, who came on for his first minutes since a knee injury sustained just six games into his career at the club in August.

He is, to coin a footballer’s phrase, absolutely buzzing just to be back.

“It’s well documented what’s gone on here but from day one it’s been amazing playing for Leyton Orient,” he says barely able to contain his excitement at playing again.

“The owners have just been amazing, I’ve never met people like them to be honest. It’s a club nothing like I’ve been at before; it feels like your local team with local fans but there’s loads of them and we want to win for them,” he adds before turning serious when I ask if Orient fans, after everything they have been through, deserve a bit of success.

“Yes definitely and if I can change anything it will be to be back in the Football League.”

This definitely makes a change from Carling or Carling

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This definitely makes a change from Carling or Carling

I’m personally delighted they have won, not just because these fans deserve a bit of happiness more than anyone but because after visiting MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon in this series and witnessing two home defeats I was starting to think I was a bit of a curse.

Teague and Lee both also touched on a community link being hugely important to Orient and Belam had also mentioned that. “You’re surrounded by West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham here and you’re never going to compete so what can you offer differently?” he said when mentioning Orient had lowered ticket prices and added discounts for members of the emergency services, council employees and more.

“Being a club where people want to take their kids and get more of a community involvement is massively important.”

For many like Gold, though, just having a club to support still, is huge. “Maybe not next season but the season after that I expect us to make a real challenge to get promoted. Things are much better, though, and it’s more enjoyable coming here than it was a year ago. I enjoy coming here now whatever the position the club is in.”

Dream Team are the proud kit sponsors of Leyton Orient from next season. Read more about it here