Leyton Orient are in their secon season in the hands of Barry Hearn and the PR hype continues to flow. Tom Davies looks at the substance behind the talk
It was a bizarre experience: in conversation in a Doncaster pub last month before our game at Belle Vue, a Rovers fan announced his opinion that Leyton Orient were one of the “sleeping giants” of the lower divisions. The Os! Imagine! But 18 months on from Barry Hearn’s takeover of the club that is how some people seem to perceive us – a dynamic, well supported, lean, mean ’90s football club.
And then we strode out into the crisp Yorkshire air and watched our brave lads put in a thoroughly disjointed performance against one of the poorest clubs in England, who deservedly won 2-1. Some giants we are! But that’s Barry Hearn’s Leyton Orient for you – big on rhetoric, small on the incidental details – such as winning football matches.
Over a year and a half into the Matchroom reign at Brisbane Road, the grand promises made by Hearn at the time of his takeover ring rather hollow: a lowest-ever League finish last season and more dross this term has pushed Bazza onto his second manager already, with Pat Holland sacked last month and Tommy Taylor lured from Cambridge to take his place.
The task ahead of Taylor looks awesome. In the last two years the Os have consistently played some of the most joyless football in the land – not necessarily the worst, or the most crude, just the dullest. Barry says he’s had an exciting year and a half since he took over, but I don’t know who he’s sharing his excitement with. It isn’t us. With the exception of Brighton and Man City, Orient probably have the most demoralized set of fans in the country right now.
However, no-one has forgotten that Hearn rescued the club at a time when there didn’t exactly appear to be many takers. Orient seemed perilously close to the brink when Bazza stepped in, plummeting out of Division Two under a bumbling, inert board and the determined but insane on-pitch management of John Sitton and Chris Turner.
Hearn’s arrival really did seem to have changed everything at first. A new manager was appointed, the club shop got a facelift, the price of kid’s season tickets in the West stand was slashed to £10, and Orient even claim to have made a small profit last season. We wanted to believe.
But Barry also introduced gimmicks such as half-time celebrity walk-ons (now pretty infrequent), a distressingly up-beat tannoy man and replaced Herb Alpert’s ‘Tijuana Taxi’ as our signature tune with ‘We Will Bloody Rock You’ (reversed after a season following supporter pressure), none of which has gone down very well.
However, the season ticket offers and the more ostensibly dynamic approach of his regime have been welcomed and gates have risen slightly, but our hardcore of around 3,000 – 3,500 would have ensured that we’d be one of the best-supported clubs in the basement anyway.
But on the pitch, the Matchroom touch has been unable to stop the rot. When Hearn took over he openly admitted that he would spout any old nonsense to the press to draw attention to the club. In the ensuing months he also said we’d win the Third Division title and had the potential to be a Premier League club. Guess which one of these three promises has been adhered to.
We ended last season in 89th place in the League, by some distance our worst finish and it’s scarcely been better this season. We have won away twice and the signings of Les Sealey and Alvin Martin (resented at first because of their West Ham connections) helped tighten up the defence considerably. But the team has developed an almost pathological aversion to scoring goals and it’s hard to see where promotion is going to come from.
For Hearn does not appear to have put that much cash in at all and some very strange things have happened behind the scenes, most notably to the ground. In the summer Brisbane Road’s South Terrace was bulldozed to make way for a new stand (and to allow archaeologists to dig around in the remain for evidence of Bronze Age settlements, thereby encouraging lots of dismal jokes about unearthing strikers). Three months later, the club then announced that it didn’t yet have the necessary funds to build the stand, so in the meantime the levelled area behind the goal would become a car park (a snip at £3 a game), while away fans would continue to pay over the odds for a seat in the Main Stand. No-one knows when the stand will be built.
Uncertainty also surrounds the long term future of the stadium. One minute Hearn says he wants to buy the council-owned ground, the next the club starts talking about negotiations with Waltham Forest Council for a new lease. The cheap jibes of outsiders that Hearn is only interested in the ground’s potential as a snooker and boxing hall may be entirely without foundation, but we’d like to know what he is going to do with it.
The Os supremo’s latest wheeze has been to offer shares for sale to season ticket holders (a minimum of 100 each, at £1 a share), an offer which has both emotional and practical appeal for fans. But the more cynical would be tempted to ask why they should put money in when the chairman seems so unwilling to.
Unsurprisingly, supporter unrest has grown, most of it directed at Holland until his sacking, which diverted the attention of supporters who might otherwise have been screaming at the chairman to spend some money on the team. Tommy Taylor’s appointment surprised many people, who assumed that Martin and/or Sealey would take over, and has cast doubt over both players’ future at the club. Les is rumoured to want out and Alvin (who is missing through injury once again) has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if a managerial vacancy crops up elsewhere.
Judgement on Taylor has to be reserved for the time being, but at least he has some managerial experience and a residual feeling for the Os, having been a respected member of our 1970 Division Three Championship winning squad in the first of his two spells at the club (although his second spell ended in acrimonious circumstances, sacked after a row with manager Ken Knighton, allegedly over claims that Tommy made racist remarks to a black linesman).
Cambridge fans fear, and Orient fans hope, that Taylor will return to his former club to bolster our squad with a few of the players that have taken the Us to the top three of the table, for the squad he inherited at Orient can only go so far.
But he needs to be backed up with cash from his chairman. For at the moment we have a club which claims to be in the black but says it is able to afford neither a promotion winning squad, nor a four-sided ground. It’s pretty hard these days for lower division supporters to have any kind of empathy with our Premiership pals, but Orient are turning into the Tottenham of Division Three – blessed with a high profile, tight wadded, bullshit-spouting chairman who admits to knowing nothing about football presiding over a dull team that hardly ever scores goals. And the bullshit, unlike the football, continues to flow.
From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month