LOFC Identity Crisis

This issue is about identity, an identity that is being eroded by the actions of Francesco Becchetti. From time to time, we all lose our way in life a little, and need to be reminded of who we are. And that is where we as a club are at this very moment in time.

None of us who chose to support Leyton Orient in the long run do so to expect success on the football pitch. Yes, we all turn up on a Saturday and hope we will win, and yes, we all feel the pain of a defeat. But the reason we chose Leyton Orient as our club, and not Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham, Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea, is that we like to genuinely feel part of a family, community based club. Most of us would have started supporting the O’s probably not realising this, but as you grow older, you get a family of your own, you realise that Orient is glue, a tie that binds families and friends, it gives you a means to regularly catch up with important people in your life. The reason you love Orient is because it is a club that you fundamentally feel part of, connected to everybody within it.

What greater feeling is there than having a day out travelling with your mates to a match you don’t really expect to win, alongside 200 other no-hopers, and then win against the odds? The expectation is low, the humour is high, and the victory is sweeter.

In my time as being an Orient supporter (in earnest since the mid 80’s) this reached a zenith in 2013-14. It wasn’t simply the fact that we were experiencing relative footballing success (even though we were to fail at the final step), that season crystallised all that was good about being a part of Leyton Orient Football Club.

We had relative success on the pitch despite never having spent a penny on players in years, we did it with a manager who had an approach that brought everybody within the club together. We had an owner who had galvanised the club in recent years by fighting our corner against the establishment over the Olympic Stadium, and who led from the front to “Stand Up for the Orient. We even had a CEO who was one of us, who as a young lad banged his drum alongside us fans, and now as a young man (having been given an opportunity by our owner), was creating a profile for himself not just in our football club, but that was being recognised in the wider game.

We had a real depth of pride in the club’s history, brought about by Steve Jenkins’ years of work to research and raise the profile of the story of the club’s contribution to the World War One effort. The growth of numbers in his regular trips to the Somme also created a genuine togetherness, particularly in this year, the century of the outbreak of WWI.

Even the emergence that season of social media at Orient, which made the players more accessible and made you realise they were normal working lads like us fans. It wasn’t just a hashtag, it really felt like everybody associated with the club was moving forward together. All of these factors played their part. None of this stuff happened with short term decision making or an expectation to succeed. Like anything of any real value and substance in life, it happened with years of hard work on the part of many, and came together in a magnificent period of unity.

When I was a young kid, it was my granddad who first took me to watch football. He was from Islington and was an Arsenal fan, and as such so was I. However he took me and my brothers to both Arsenal and Orient matches, and when we reached the age of wanting to go to football matches regularly on our own, our parents insisted we couldn’t go to Arsenal (this was in the mid-80’s and the height of hooliganism) but we could go to Orient. In no time at all we were hooked, we were travelling up and down the country, and we made friendships that will last a lifetime.

Back in 2011 we got our dream FA Cup tie against Arsenal. I have many abiding memories from those two matches, but the stand out memory was this, and it was almost an epiphany. As I walked out of the Emirates, having seen my team lose 5-0, it suddenly dawned on me that I was eternally grateful to my parents that they had steered me towards Orient and not Arsenal. That soulless stadium, that instant expectation to win every single game (and complain if they weren’t winning within 15 minutes), that complete lack of connection between player and supporter, that inability to enjoy your team scoring 5 goals because you expected to. The type of expectation that translates itself all too readily to the modern game’s sense of entitlement.

I was so thankful that I was there with my brothers and my friends, we had had a journey in the cup which we hadn’t expected, and we had enjoyed the ride. I was so glad I was not part of the modern business of the Premier and Champions Leagues, but that I was part of the fabric of a family club where everybody is accessible.

And funnily enough, friends of mine who have followed the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham all their lives, they now have season tickets at Leyton Orient with their kids, because they have seen the meaningful social ties that bind through supporting a club like ours.

The actions of Francesco Becchetti this week have reached a tipping point. Based on the little we know, his treatment of Kevin Nolan and Lee Harrison this week has been disgraceful. No successful manager in the history of football would have been a success if they had been sacked the first time they went on a 4 match winless run. And let’s be clear, promotion this season is not critical to where we all want to be in the long term.

It is clear this week that the (normally silent) majority of level headed, balanced fans are deeply embarrassed by the actions of the owner, and therefore perceived in the wider world, as the actions of our football club. That is what hurts the real fans.

We have clearly returned to the dark days of last season, making a medium to long term decision, and then in a matter of weeks doing a complete U-turn, and all the while the previously good name of this small family, community based club is dragged through the mud.

Becchetti had rightly been given a fair ride to date by the fans. After his error strewn first season, on balance it appeared over the summer that lessons had been learned i.e. not just throwing money at it and bringing in a young manager with an affiliation to the club. Even when the short termism appeared to have returned initially with the sacking of Hendon, however on balance it was easy to understand the decision, given Hendon’s inability to resolve the constant defensive errors, and the immediate and refreshing appointment of Kevin Nolan. Even given some of the mildly embarrassing publicity he has generated (kicking Hessenthaler / holing the squad up in a hotel) was excusable and almost endearing in his public displays of passion, but his actions this week have destroyed all that.

Nolan came in and immediately resolved the critical issue i.e. the defence. He was supported in this by the chairman, as he brought in (largely on loan) his own defensive unit. The initial success was also largely down to the new found responsibility taken by Jobi McAnuff, as he became our main (and largely only) creative outlet. However, international call ups and injury starved us of our creative outlets, and as often happens when a team seeks to become a stronger, more defensive unit, goals became hard to come by. And then confidence drops, and the manager had his first test on his hands. Those of us who have watched lower league level for many years know that the biggest difference between a Championship player and a League Two player is not so much technical, but mental. Confidence drops away so much more quickly and easily as you drop down the divisions.

As a new player and manager to League Two, it is only right that there would be an element of culture shock to Nolan. It has clearly been a shock to Nolan the player pretty much from day one, and now he had his first managerial test, as he was always going to have, but he never had the opportunity to address it.

Outside of a 4 match winless run, he appeared to be doing things the right way across the club. Players seemed happy with the quality of training, and a cogent approach towards youth development was being taken. Admittedly some of the random team selection of last season appeared to have returned since the Hartlepool game, which leads one to wonder if behind the scenes meddling has come into play. But even if promotion wasn’t to be achieved, it felt that with the opportunity to further shape the squad in the summer, there were genuinely good reasons for optimism next season. It appeared our identity was returning, and a manager was rightly going to be given a fair opportunity to mould a squad.

But in one fell swoop we’ve been thrown back to the dark days of last season. In what successful business can key mid to long term decisions and appointments be made in January, and then in April be completely torn up, but still expect things to move forward successfully? I have no idea what business skills are required to succeed in waste management in Italy and Albania, but whatever they are, they do not seem suited to running a successful lower league professional football club in England.

The identity and good name of this football club have again been eroded by the circus of our owner’s constant U-turns. It is irrelevant how much money he throws at this if he is unable to make a decision that he sticks to. The turnover of players and managers will continue to spiral out of control, and eventually he will surely lose interest.

The current model for a club like ours surely has to be AFC Bournemouth. With a wealthy benefactor, they have slowly and surely built their squad and their club. The back 4 that has served them so well in the Premier League this season is the same back 4 that got them promoted from League One. With a sound defensive base, they have slowly strengthened in attacking areas of the team and patiently supported their young manager throughout.

Slowly Turning Toxic
Sadly, as many of us feared at the time of Barry Hearn’s sale to Francesco Becchetti, this togetherness and identity has been eroded hugely. An increasingly toxic atmosphere has developed at Brisbane Road since Becchetti’s arrival, and that is basically due to two key reasons seemingly caused by the man’s impatience. The first is his short-term decision making, and the second is the expectation level.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that the more you expect from life, the less you enjoy and appreciate it. Unfortunately from day one, i.e. his first (or as we now know it, his one and only) press conference he basically promised to purchase any player that Russell Slade desired. The expectation barrier was immediately raised way too high. Even if this was the case, it should not have been publicly announced, as it caused immediate expectations and pressure on Russell Slade and his squad. Inevitably, there was going to be some kind of hangover from the previous season, and time would be needed to integrate the new (and highly paid) players into the squad. But the expectation was set immediately, and the time was never given. Time and time again. Just when it seemed he had learned from these lessons, he has started repeating the behaviour.

The other cause of the increasingly toxic atmosphere is that the short term decision making has empowered the boo boys. We all have reactive ranters / boo boys around us wherever we sit in the ground. You can’t escape them. They frustrate and entertain you in equal part. But as long as they know their ranting and booing actually makes no difference at the end of the day, then they are tolerable. Now, they are armed with the knowledge that the owner does hire and fire at short notice, if they don’t like somebody (and there is always somebody they don’t like, particularly the manager if we didn’t win the last game) they believe their booing will make a difference.

In the central section of the South Stand there is one such supporter, whom we are all on first name terms with. He has entertained us all over the years, there has been at times a real humour to his pitch-side sledging. (Sadly, his more humorous sidekick “get it down the line, round the back, in the onion baaaaag” departed some years ago.) His sledging has been really effective against opposition goalkeepers in the past. But now, he is obsessed with sledging our own players in a provocative, and completely over the top manner. He has engaged both our Captain and Vice-Captain in profane, finger-wagging exchanges this season.

But you have to ask the question, why does he feel empowered to do so now? Because he believes by doing so, there might be a reaction from the powers that be. And so far, he has been proved right.

Brisbane Road was for many years viewed as a fortress, but not anymore. There are many reasons for this, but there is no doubt, and Nolan acknowledged this himself, there is a fear about the players when playing at home. I wouldn’t say the atmosphere has reached a level I would describe as toxic yet, but it is certainly heading in that direction if we don’t take any steps to address it.

What Next?
Like many other fans who have commented on social media this week, I have never before been compelled to publicly comment about the state of our club. However, this week it feels like a sea change and not just an over-reaction to a(nother) sacking.

Like most, I have no idea what the best long term course of action is, and whatever action is taken at this point, you’re not going to get the reaction you want. However, there has never been a single opportunity for formal, open and honest dialogue between Mr Becchetti and the fans. There is a point when you have to say enough is enough, we’re not happy about what you’re doing to our club, and we need to make that clear to you.

I myself have always been slightly sceptical (admittedly from afar) about what value LOFT provides. However, I completely agree with their stance on this issue. We have to let Mr Becchetti know that collectively we are not happy with the manner in which he is running the club, but we do not want it to negatively impact the players.

It is a small and peaceful first step to register our disapproval at the treatment of Kevin Nolan and Lee Harrison, and at Becchetti’s wider running of the club. Having been denied a forum to address these issues directly with the chairman, the message has to be clearly made. I honestly do not believe it will negatively impact the players. Let’s hope that the passions that have clearly built up over the week will present themselves in a positive atmosphere of standing up for the Orient, and cheering on the team from the 7th minute through to the end of the game.

There is no magic answer or course of action to take here, so we have to take small incremental steps, like anything in life, if we want to influence any kind of meaningful long term change. Who knows, maybe in time Mr Becchetti can become a successful owner for Leyton Orient Football Club, but he needs to be respectful of the club and its identity, and for now all we can do is make that clear to him.


4 thoughts on “LOFC Identity Crisis

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