Despite having West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs on their doorstep, Orient have stood their ground and overcome recent adversity to offer an appealing local alternative
29 April ~ It is the lot of the smaller club that they tend to attract attention mainly through cup runs and catastrophes. A plum tie, or a financial crisis, has everyone circulating; small, steady progress, modest success, tends to pass under the radar. The two severe club-imperilling crises I’ve experienced as a Leyton Orient fan – in 1994-95 before Barry Hearn arrived, and two seasons ago when Francesco Becchetti drove the club into the wall at speed – have attracted more media attention than, say, our 2006 League Two promotion or the side that came within a shootout of the Championship five years ago.
It’s a source of frustration, for sure, but bad times often bring out the best in loyal fans, and Orient’s certainly can’t be accused of deserting their club when they hit rock-bottom. A striking feature of our fanbase is just how “inelastic” it is. Crowds don’t go through the roof in good times (though they’re decent enough for a lower-division club in a 9,000-capacity stadium), but nor do they nosedive in the bad. Orient’s average crowd in their last promotion season – from the fourth tier in 2006 – was, at 4,714, only 51 higher than when we plummeted out of the same division, losing 18 home games, under Becchetti’s chaotic reign in 2017. In the past 30 years average crowds have never dipped lower than the respectable 3,436 for the horrendous 1994-95 campaign made famous by the Channel 4 documentary chronicling the travails of then-managers John Sitton and Chris Turner.
Attendances in 2018-19, in which the club have won promotion back to the Football League as champions of the National League and will contest the FA Trophy final against AFC Fylde at Wembley next month, were the third highest of those past three decades – an average of 5,445 turned out for fifth-tier football, a testament not only to the fine side assembled by Justin Edinburgh but to the renewed, relieved enthusiasm engendered when lifelong fan Nigel Travis, backed by American investor Kent Teague, took over in the summer of 2017.
The new regime hasn’t been perfect – efforts at embedding a democratic supporter-stake in the club structure have stalled – but it has largely been responsive and dynamic, adept at harnessing an enthusiasm and cussed, nay eccentric, loyalty that has always underpinned the fanbase.
That cussed eccentricity is significant. Much has often been said about how Orient’s geography counts against them. Hemmed in by West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs – each of whom have built, or had built for them, massively expanded new stadiums since the turn of this century – we have no part of London we can exclusively claim as our own. Yet we have not been squeezed out; east London has room for us too. Enough people like the type of club we are – sociable, accessible, relatively inexpensive – amid the arrogant entitlement elsewhere, though two seasons in non-League have bred an unbecoming “you’re only here for the Orient” cockiness in a few. We’re not used to big-fish small-pond status.
This is something the sporadic suggestions that we’d be better off shipping out to Essex, where a good deal of our longer-serving fanbase now reside, overlook. The churn and change of east London’s population draws in new fans all the time. The social group with whom I’ve attended matches over the years includes people from the West Midlands, the north-east, the north-west, Ireland, Australia and more, numbering former fans of Wolves, Bolton, Swindon, Bournemouth and others. Playing in a densely populated, mixed and cosmopolitan area has more advantages than is sometimes credited.
West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium brought all manner of apocalyptic warnings about how it would damage the club (I sounded some of them myself), but they have not, as yet, come to fruition. That may change as a generation of east London kids grows up having gone to West Ham in greater numbers, but the appeal of Orient should endure.
Optimism does not come naturally to O’s fans, and the outlook for smaller clubs in general remains bleak (anything from EPPP, to the ease with which English football allows Becchetti figures to run amok, to the relentless world domination scheming of Europe’s elite will ensure our continued precariat status), but there’s no reason to think that our club are any less sustainable and viable than they have ever been. As long as they are in good hands. Tom Davies