Love thy neighbour

James McMahon explains why Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn is concerned about the fate of the Olympic Stadium

On January 28, the Olympic Park Legacy Company will meet to decide the future of the £500 million state-owned stadium centrepiece of the 2012 Olympic Games. Not permitting Acts Of God or natural disasters, by then we will know whether it is West Ham or late bidders Tottenham Hotspur who will be looking to relocate to a new home in Stratford post-2012.

It’s a date that has significance to Leyton Orient too. Orient are the club located closest to the stadium site, one station away from Stratford on the Central line. There was a time when Orient themselves were interested in the Olympic Stadium, club chairman Barry Hearn gushing that the idea was “exciting”, before using the unfeasibility of the stadium’s running track as an exit strategy. Chief executive Matt Porter confirmed as much to the Leyton Orientear fanzine in November 2009, saying: “We had talks, but the track just killed it.”

Track or no track, most O’s fans didn’t share Hearn’s excitement about the proposed move, yet slept soundly knowing logic would prevail, and that the club’s 4,000-plus regulars would be spared the embarrassment of rattling around the 80,000-seat site. Publically, Hearn hasn’t completely given up on the move, telling the Mirror last November: “I’m still interested.” But right now, he’s had more to say about the issue of West Ham moving in next door, saying that it could “destroy” Orient. “It’s a bit like Tescos moving next door to the little shop on the corner,” Hearn told Talksport in October. “Everyone forgets the little shop on the corner and they forget what it adds to the community and how long it’s been there.” It’s a nice analogy, if it wasn’t for the fact the chairman has been publically navigating a move for Orient out of Leyton for the last few years.

Few Orient fans love Hearn, but most are quietly appreciative of the solvency he’s given his local team since buying the club in 1995 – after chairman Tony Wood put the club up for sale for £5 upon seeing his Rwanda-based coffee business destroyed by that country’s civil war. Most criticism of Hearn’s tenure involves grumbling about his perceived lack of ambition – he frequently refers to the club he owns as “Little Leyton Orient” – or his preoccupation with his other (much more successful) endeavours like darts, boxing 
and snooker.

Yet the mooted move to Harlow that Hearn has talked up over the last couple of years – citing a closer proximity to much of the club’s dislocated fanbase – has provoked a smattering of anger towards the chairman. Leyton Orient have moved around London more than most clubs; they were based in Clapton until they took over tenure from Leyton FC at Brisbane Road in 1937. But few would like to see a further move.

Inconvenience and tradition aside, there’s little in it for the club. It’s not like they need a new stadium; Brisbane Road boasts a maximum attendance of 9,271, yet never comes close to filling its capacity. While the land Hearn sold to Bellway Homes for £7.35m in 2003 to build apartments prevents any further expansion, unless current manager Russell Slade coaxes Leytonstone native David Beckham back home to fill the No 7 shirt, there’s scant reason to be thinking about such things.

Yet in light of renewed talk about plans for the Olympic Stadium, Hearn’s scaremongering about West Ham’s proposed Stratford invasion begins to look like a ploy to convince fans of the sense behind evacuation, to Harlow or elsewhere. It may even be masking a more distasteful purpose. Like many owners of lower-league clubs, Hearn financed Orient’s financial shortfall in recent years by lending money to the club – via his company Matchroom Sport – before having Brisbane Road independently valued for £6m. Then in 2008, as reimbursement of the money the club owed him, he bought the remaining 990 years lease on the club’s principal asset from Waltham Forest council.

Many fans believe the O’s could survive even if West Ham were to move in next door. But perhaps Hearn is covertly wishing that such a move would justify the displacement of Orient, leaving him free to carry out undisclosed plans on land the club have called home for almost 70 years. Depending on the outcome of the January 28 meeting, Orient supporters may not have to do quite as much guessing as to the future of their football club.

From WSC 288 February 2011