It’s not often I get angry about the plight of football clubs I don’t support. Maybe I should. Perhaps we all should.
For what has happened at clubs such as Leyton Orient could happen to any club. Yes, any club. We are all only one crazy owner away from disaster.
This summer it will be seven years since the club I have supported since 1968 came very close to a fate that would have seen a massive football club go to the wall. Sheffield Wednesday faced a winding up petition. The taxman wanted a £550.000 debt paid. Or else.
One of the better known football club owners came to their rescue. Milan Mandaric may have critics elsewhere, but Wednesday fans believe he saved their club from possible extinction. Once stabalised, Mandaric sold the club to a man who appears to be one of the more honest foreign investors. It’s a case of so far, so good since Dejphon Chansiri took charge at Hillsborough. We were lucky. Not so the followers of Leyton Orient.
I am furious on behalf of the loyal O’s fans. They didn’t deserve to be treated in such a shabby manner.
We can all have a soft spot for clubs other than our known. That’s not patronising, it’s just a fact. For all manner of reasons, some of them inexplicable, we take a shine to another football club.
I first stood on the Brisbane Road terraces back in the 70’s, the decade in which I watched the most Sheffield Wednesday games. Season after season, despite living in London, I followed the Owls all over the country at a time when they were at their worst (I do laugh when younger supporters moan about ‘only’ being in the play off places). Yes, my middle name is masochist.
I recall fondly Orient players like Bill Roffey. He was not the most famous footballer to ever wear the Leyton Orient shirt. That honour probably belongs to the late Laurie Cunningham, a player before his time.
In the 70’s, when The Sweeney was must watch television, arrests were commonplace at football matches. But going to watch Sheffield Wednesday at Brisbane Road was an enjoyable expeirence, win, lose and draw. It was a friendly ground to visit. You went there with none of the fear of going to Millwall, where us original London Owls had to accentuate our accents (Cor blimey, guv’nor) on arrival at the tube station. That is where you were greeted by the junior thugs. They eavesdropped the conversations of strangers and, if they so much as smelt a northern accent, they ran ahead to tip off the Millwall hooligans who had graduated to full membership of a violent crew whose reputation preceded them.
Fast forward to 1992 and a meeting with an O’s fan called Brian Allen, who remains a mate to this day. When working together in London, I’d join him and his pals on the open end for some Orient home games. What Richard Keys would today call ‘banter’ was prevalent. O’s supporters could be witty, foul mouthed, moaners and at least one of them was a saveloy short of a picnic. But I loved it. The post match session in the bar at the ground was often more entertaining than the match.
At Brisbane Road you were open to the elements, which was fine by me. The day they covered the Kop at Hillsborough was, for me at least, a sad one. The terracing of my youth has never felt the same since the Queen officially opened the covered, steep terracing. I grew up on the Kop, watching Wednesday come wind, rain or shine.
In much more recent times, I was far from alone in thinking Barry Hearn was bad news for Leyton Orient FC. Indeed, for as long as I can remember, Orient fans heaped abuse on Hearn. A man who didn’t exactly go out of his way to endear himself to supporters.
The accusations from the fans were many and varied. He was in it for the wrong reasons, he turned a football ground into a housing estate with a pitch in the middle of it, he would sell the club down the river.
Happier days. Leyton Orient fans at Wembley
Today, in 2017, it’s possible we owe Barry Hearn an apology. As he ended his nineteen year reign as Orient Chairman, it looked as though the team would be promoted to the Championship. Dizzy heights. On May 25th 2014 Leyton Orient led Rotherham United 2-0 at half time in the League One play off final at Wembley. Surely, not even Orient could throw that lead away from there, could they?
They did. The game ended 2-2 and Rotherham won a penalty shoot out 3-4. But perhaps this would be the beginning and not the end. A new owner promised to invest millions. The hope was that his money would make the difference and that Orient would be promoted the following season.
The man in question was Francesco Becchetti (photographed below). An Italian businessman with a background in waste management and recycling, he’s turned out to be a rubbish owner.
Becchetti passed the so called fit and proper test prospective football club owners are meant to undergo. I’ve no idea how. Well, I do. The test is a joke. An insult from the football authorities to all football supporters.
Speaking this week, Barry Hearn said: “Looking where we are now, I would never have sold if I had thought this was going to happen. At the time I thought it was perfect for everybody – fans, myself, the club.”
Of the man he sold the club to for £4 million in July of 2014, just weeks after that play off disappointment, Hearn says: “He had a very engaging personality. He seemed passionate about what he wanted to do, and he has done what he told me he was going to do. He’s put in another £7m or £8m – at a lower league club do you know what you can do with that type of money if you spent it wisely? You can become a Championship club!
“It is just that putting the money in, and spending it wisely are not always the same thing.
“It looked like the perfect exit for me three years ago, and the perfect future for Orient. We all thought we’d found a passionate owner with loads of money who had ambition, and goodness me, you just could never ever foresee anything as bad as this.
“I don’t regret selling the club because I’d done 19 years, a big shift, I’m not far off 70 now and there’s a certain time when you just say, ‘boys I’ve done enough’.
“But if I had known it would turn out like this, I would never have sold the club. We couldn’t have known, though.
“We needed some success and we had it – we were a kick away from getting into the Championship on a budget of about £1.5million a year and it was a very well-run club.
“It seemed to be the natural exit route for me, but when a billionaire doesn’t know how to run a business, you’re staggered, because there have been so many inept decisions it’s scary.
“Ten managers in two-and-a-half years says it all – you should sack yourself after ten managers.”
Now Leyton Orient football club faces the same fate that my own club was lucky to swerve in 2010. Being wound up.
Hearn says: “What type of person does this? Where I come from, in my lifetime, we pay our bills, we pay our dues and we take what cards God serves us.
“So for me to see Leyton Orient in the papers with the Inland Revenue claiming money – it’s abhorrent to everything I stand for.
Francesco Becchetti has been a disaster for a once proud football club and its loyal supporters. Despite comfortably beating the only team below them in the league last Saturday, Orient are five points adrift of safety and look set to play non league football. And that’s the best case scenario. They may cease to exist as a business.
Who knows if the crazed Italian owner will pay the HMRC the £250.000 they are owed. It’s loose change to him. Life and death to Leyton Orient FC.
And if you think such a fate could never befall your club, think again. Ask those who support former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers or the supporters of FA Cup winners Coventry City, who face League 2 football next season and could go the same way as Orient. Nottingham Forest, Blackpool, Charlton Athletic are just three other clubs ruined by reckless owners.
Without a care, these owners have taken once stable football clubs to new lows. They’ve asset stripped, created financial havoc, picked the teams, sacked loads of managers and often ridiculed or threatened legal action against the fans who continue to spend their hard earned money supporting the club.
I hope Leyton Orient stay up. You have to remember the following. It has taken less than three years to take the club from having one foot in the second tier of English football, to a very uncertain future.
Why should you care? Simple. It really doesn’t matter whether you support a big club being used by its overseas owners as a cash dispenser, such as at Manchester United. It matters not a jot if your club was a founder member of the ruinous Premier League, as was the case with Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday.
The fate that has befallen Leyton Orient fans really could happen to you. Or me.
Remember that the next time a new owner promises to take your club to places you have never been before.
It might be the only truth they tell.