Leyton Orient fans collect money outside the ground. Photo: Reuters
Home and Away
by Peter Simpson
Home and Away
by Peter Simpson

Never-say-die: Leyton Orient are down but not out after Football League relegation amid fan furore

Protest greets drop into non-league ranks for first time in 112 years as anger grows towards Italian owner Francesco Becchetti

As football commentaries go, it was one of the best – up there with legends like ‘They think it’s all over ... It is now’ Kenneth Wolstenholme, Brazilian Milton Leite and his elongated ‘Goooool!’ and Norwegian “Maggie Thatcher. . . Your boys took a hellva beating” Jorge Lillelien.

Last week, listening to the English Premier League commentary on the radio, the studio host cut into the Premier League coverage to tell listeners we were going across to a League Two side Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road stadium where an incident was unfolding.

Alas, the name of the reporter was lost in the din of a Saturday afternoon live sports endeavour, but his description of the unfolding scene is etched in the memory; whoever he is, he caught the mood perfectly.

The referee had stopped the game against Colchester United in the 85th minute and the players were darting for the tunnel, he said.

“It’s extraordinary scenes here. Supporters are on the pitch protesting, peacefully,” he relayed.

“The fans are now sitting down in front of the executive box ... It’s a family atmosphere. There are parents with their young kids making their feelings known,” he went on.

You didn’t need a television screen to witness this act of defiance because the image formed perfectly in the mind’s eye.

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Orient supporters were now singing in full defiant voice “sit down for the Orient!.” Visiting Colchester fans remained in the stands, solid to core and united and applauding those on the pitch.

“There’s no way that this game is getting finished today. Orient fans in open rebellion now,” on went the commentator.

No matter. How the spirits were being lifted – who needed the Anthony Joshua against Wladimir Klitschko bout later that evening when you had so many plucky Davids taking on a tyrant?

Who needs the drama for Premier League race to catch Chelsea and for Europe when you have a live revolt late on a Saturday afternoon?

No doubt the thousands listening were also clenching their fists and egging the Orient supporters on.

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This what the fight back, the gritty resistance, against the corrupt sounds like an epic battle to save the dignity of this old London club, one with an illustrious history that had survived wars, financial crashes and riots, but was in three short years reduced to ruins by an owner out of his depth, thrashing in the mire of his own greed and incompetence.

The past and future offered only bleakness for Orient supporters. Orient had dropped out of the Football League for the first time in 112 years following the previous week’s defeat to Crewe Alexandra.

And on June 12, a winding-up petition will be heard in the courts to settle a £250,000 (HK$2.5 million) debt.

And from the owner on these two calamities that threaten to wipe the club from existence, there has been only silence.

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Yet here were the fans, sitting down, singing, making a noise, standing together and letting the world know they were still in the fight, staring down the 360 challenges fearlessly.

Orient employees risked the sack for the cause. Before being paid, they issued a statement calling on the Football Association and the English Football League to help them – a lifeline to save them from the tyrant who had grabbed ahold of their club and wrung it dry, their livelihoods under threat.

The English Football League have sought answers from Italian owner Francesco Becchetti about his plans for the club in written form, but had received no reply.“Silence is not an acceptable response,” the English Football League said.

Silence has long been the signature sound of the coward. This weekend fans from all other the country are gathering on Saturday for Orients last game in the Football League at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road.

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A march will commence at 4pm from the town’s famous Pleasure Beach and round off with a rally just before kickoff. There will be a fans’ fixture between a Blackpool XI and a Clubs in Crisis fans’ XI.

Live music and drinks will complete this historic day of action which has been named in honour - ironically - of the 20th anniversary of the first such Fans United protests.

In 1997, supporter groups from across the country and beyond rallied behind Brighton & Hove Albion as the south coast club faced financial ruin, ultimately and saving the Gulls.

Two decades on from the show of solidarity, newly promoted Brighton are a phoenix risen from the ashes, a tale of riches and glory to rags a back again all thanks to fan power – a journey we so dearly hope Orient will emulate.

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Later on the radio last weekend, Orient fan Stuart eloquently called in and summed up what has gone wrong at his club.

“There’s only one person to blame. The reality of that is that the owner that came in three years ago, who single-handedly has destroyed a football club,” he said. “But there’s one thing for sure; we won’t die, we’ll come back stronger.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Never-say-die Leyton Orient are down but not yet out