THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

We covered the Three Kings on December 3 but for the 14th day of the WSC advent calendar we're looking at their home – the Orient. Leyton Orient, obviously. After going nowhere but down since 1989, Martin Ling's unsung east Londoners battled the yo-yoing Mariners with promotion or the agony of the play-offs at stake in June 2006, issue 232. Tom Davies reported

They don’t do triumphalism very well in this part of London. And going into an Easter Monday six-pointer in third place in League Two, with automatic promotion still in their own hands, takes most Leyton Orient fans into completely uncharted territory. This is a club that have not won promotion since 1989 – when a late play-off charge took the Os out of Division Four – and have not gone up automatically since 1970’s Third Division title. Grimsby, a point and a place below Orient, have been up two divisions and back again in that 17-year period. Other teams yomp up and down the divisions with drunken cavalier abandon. But Orient fans look on wistfully as nothing much changes in their landscape. “It was so much easier when we were coming 17th every year,” grumbles one fan in the bustling Birkbeck pub beforehand. He’s joking of course. Well, perhaps half-joking.

The pre-match talk reflects this historically rooted anxiety. Mathematical possibilities are exhaustively pondered – “win today and again on Saturday and they lose and we could be up by the weekend” – before others counter such fate-tempting optimism with gloomy scenarios of falling back to fifth or even sixth just as quickly. In this climate, there is no greater insult than “Jonah!” These are enlightened people, clinging to every superstition going.

I’ll declare my interest: I am one of those anguished Orient partisans. I’ve suffered those 17 under-achieving years. And those “ifs and ands” dominate my thoughts, too, on the familiar walk from pub to Brisbane Road. Leyton High Road rarely suggests evidence of great football passion on a matchday. This remains an unglamorous down-at-heel area, the club – for all their efforts – having had only minor success in attracting its increasingly transient population (old locals mixed with successive waves of immigrants, students, Australians and South Africans on one-year visas – the familiar demographics of modern outer-inner London). But Orient’s support is more mixed and more youthful than it once was – and, unlike at the grounds of their bigger neighbours, you still see groups of unsupervised teenagers at games here.

Today, though, there’s an agreeably high level of pre-match milling-around in the streets. At half-past two sizeable queues have already gathered outside both the ticket office and the away end turnstiles. Rumours circulate that many Grimsby fans have turned up ticketless. But come kick-off most seem to have got in. Despite the “sold out” signs outside two sides, the half-redeveloped ground – which now holds 7,872 – is just over a thousand short of capacity.

Brisbane Road is a ground in transition – a disjointed blend of building site and semi-modern football arena. The cavernous old Main Stand remains and retains its charm, but jutting out of all four corners are half-built blocks of flats, the result of a redevelopment scheme under which the club flogged off land to developers. The sale of these plots provided funding to build the rather charmless new West Stand, which, with its high roof and corrugated executive and “lettable” areas at the back, looks more conducive to a racecourse or Test cricket ground than a traditionally homely lower-division football stadium. The views from here are good but the atmosphere has suffered. Fans wait for the fourth side – site of the former open North Terrace – to be developed, the cost of the West Stand having soared over budget. At the moment, it’s concrete and car parking and the ground is in messy three-sided limbo, another example of chairman Barry Hearn’s stated ambitions not quite going to plan.

It all rather militates against atmosphere, but today’s game is big enough for this to be overcome. There’s singing from all sides 15 minutes before kick-off, a rare enough occurrence in the top flight, in these days of all-seated grounds and concourse bars, let alone three divisions lower. The PA announcer tries to conduct some more chanting from the pitch, always a counter-productive idea that predictably rouses the visitors to lift the decibel level. They still offer the old refrain “Sing when we’re fishing”, perhaps the only fans in the country to sing about local (albeit embattled) employment patterns – Orient certainly have no songs about commuting to the City, driving cabs, printing or working in the civil service.

There is a genuine crackle of anticipation. And well there might be. Neither side was among the pre-season favourites. Orient’s slow rebuilding under Martin Ling was not thought to have progressed far enough to pitch them into a promotion challenge, while Russell Slade’s Grimsby were still recovering from some financial woes that had seen the club threatened with administration (the supporters’ Keep the Mariners Afloat campaign is ongoing as the club seek a new stadium). None the less, the two sides have managed to stay in the hunt, the springboard for both the fine football they produced on their travels in the autumn.

It’s all become rather less fluent now, however, and the first half reflects this, though the sides are missing key creative players in Orient winger Shane Tudor and Grimsby striker Michael Reddy. It’s cagey, like a play-off first leg – the fall-back option of the actual play-offs not easing either side’s nerves. Orient sit deep and Grimsby’s midfield win most 50-50s coming out of the penalty area, orchestrating what little passing is possible. This is one of the widest pitches in the league but it doesn’t feel like it. Grimsby keeper Steve Mildenhall sends a bionic kick over every outfield player’s head and straight into the South Stand behind the opposite goal. His Orient counterpart Glyn Garner catches the mood in a different way, slicing a goal-kick hideously out at the left touchline. The crowd quietens. Orient’s low crosses go straight to Grimsby shirts, their high balls gobbled up by the visitors’ impressive defence, Jean-Paul Kalala and Justin Whittle in particular winning everything going. The home side also hold firm at the back, with the rugged and direct John Mackie, a man who ends roughly one in every two games with his head bandaged up, keeping his back line in order, even after picking up a slight knock.

There are enforced substitutions on both sides – Justin Miller replaces Donny Barnard at right-back for Orient; Grimsby’s Junior Mendes comes on for John McDermott – but the shape at the back and shapelessness in attack remain. Orient wide man Wayne Corden cuts inside from the right – an option he takes on almost every occasion – and shoots straight at Mildenhall. Gary Alexander, the Os’ hard-working top scorer who has failed to score for three months, is booked. The referee begins to get whistle-happy, the game loses even more rhythm and the home crowd gets stroppy. Half-time is a merciful release. Grimsby have looked slightly slicker, but a goal has not looked remotely likely. This is not a good advert for League Two or for the creative potential that undoubtedly exists on both sides, and indeed across much of the higher echelons of the division. Fewer League Two teams now hold fast to the muscular stereotype of old, perhaps mindful that most promoted teams in recent years have played their way up. Usually, Orient and Grimsby conform to this trend, as their respective Premiership cup scalps this season, Fulham and Tottenham, would attest. But today the burden of expectation stymies creative impulses.

Thankfully, the second half becomes progressively more open, further substitutions galvanising both teams. Andy Parkinson comes on for Grimsby and is immediately busy down the right, sending in low crosses that heighten Orient defensive anxieties. Mackie, as is customary, is booked, his tendency to grapple with forwards costing him again. Despite his excellent displays, Mackie often seems to be fighting a losing battle with his own limbs – his head trying desperately and thoughtfully not to foul people, but his groping wayward arms unable to help themselves.

Ling, standing awkwardly on the touchline in an oversized suit, frets and sweats quietly, his assistant Dean Smith taking up most of the shouting duties. They make an attacking substitution, the gangling and tricky striker Jabo Ibehre for Paul Connor, and then another, Lee Steele for Alexander, and the half-chances and corners begin to come. Long-serving left-back Matt Lockwood is at the heart of most of them, his overlapping and tracking-back making him the home team’s most diligent performer today. But the telling final ball is lacking. Former Dundee United and Livingston midfielder Craig Easton, Orient’s creative inspiration earlier in the season, is only fitfully involved. Stalemate beckons.

Attempts by individual fans or small groups to get some more songs going fail to take off. From my East Stand vantage point, I spot some furious clapping and air-punching by a group in the West Stand, but the high roof means no one can hear a word of it – in that much space, no one can hear them scream.

Then, as the 90th minute approaches, we have some excitement, some Actual Talking Points. A left-wing cross drifts over the Grimsby defence and Corden picks it up on the right, does brilliantly to – again – cut inside and suddenly is in space, the sort of space that had been sucked into a black hole for much of the afternoon. The South Stand rises behind the goal, but Corden fails to keep his head down and thumps it into the throng. Knees and seats are punched in despair.

There’s more. Three minutes’ added time are signalled and Grimsby go for the jugular. Marc Goodfellow sends an innocuous looking shot over the top of the defence. It drifts on to the bar and back into play. Hearts flutter. The ball is not cleared properly and a more conventional and even clearer chance is fashioned straight away, as a cross is nodded down for Goodfellow to volley from 15 yards with a clear sight of goal and Garner rooted to the spot. He wellies it wide.

And that’s it, both sets of fans filing out with cause for relief and regret, thanks to that frantic denouement. No one is quite sure whether this constitutes a good result or not, and perhaps we won’t know until the end of the season. But it’s a seventh consecutive home clean sheet for Ling’s side and a well earned point for Slade’s that keeps them well placed (indeed, they climb over Orient the following weekend).

As a home fan, I can honestly say that I haven’t enjoyed a single second. But perhaps our frayed nerves have, as our pre-match pub pundit said, been spoilt by all those years of nothingness. Still, at least we can take some consolation in the fact that our team appear to be handling this situation with a good deal more resilience than we are. There’s three games to go. It feels like three months. It’s the hope we can’t stand.

From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month

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