|Letters from Wiltshire #16|
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 14th Nov 2020 14:02
Good morning everyone. Outside the football bubble, and across the pond, we have the soon to be ex-President of the United States walled up in his White House bunker, inexorably going through the Kübler-Ross 5 stages of grief…and in a particularly undignified and un-statesman like manner. Clearly we’ve had [u]Denial[/u] by the bucket-load, [u]Anger[/u] as he lashes out firing those he perceives as disloyal, [u]Bargaining[/u] as his legal team try and force recounts of perfectly valid election results, and no doubt a huge amount of [u]Depression[/u] as he sulked in silence for the best part of a week. Now perhaps, as he nearly slips up when eventually breaking radio silence to address the press, we see the beginnings of [u]Acceptance[/u]. If I’m honest, I’d be quite happy for Trump to keep this up and make the transition as embarrassing as possible for himself and his supporters – and if the police could eventually drag him out of the White House in hand-cuffs, all the better.
[b]Leyton Orient v Colchester United
Saturday 29th April 2017
Sky Bet League 2 (Tier 4)
For Letters from Wiltshire #16, I’m choosing a specific match from the memorabilia collection, and the last time I watched the U’s play Leyton Orient, today’s opponents. We go back to the tail end of season 2016/17, with the U’s right outside the play-off zone, and still in with a remote chance of snatching the last play-off spot. The future was considerably less rosy for Leyton Orient. Their relegation out of the Football League had been confirmed some time ago, but they were in even more disarray off the pitch, all of which could be laid at the feet of one man – Francesco Becchetti.
[b]We want our club back![/b]
Wind the clock back to the end of 2013/14, and there was Orient in the play-off final for promotion to the Championship, up against Rotherham United. They were agonisingly close to achieving it too, going into a 2-0 lead, only to be pegged back to 2-2 by Rotherham, and then after extra-time taking a 3-2 lead in the penalty shoot-out, before Rotherham goalkeeper Adam Colling saved their last two spot-kicks to give Rotherham a 4-3 victory. Watching on was Becchetti, who clearly saw a business opportunity in Orient, and bought out Barry Hearn’s 90% share in the club in the summer.
Some have been critical of Hearn (an O’s supporter himself) selling his share in the club to Becchetti, but that would be unjustified. In a [i]Telegraph[/i] interview in 2017, Hearn did describe selling to Becchetti as “[i]an absolute disaster[/i]”, but he went on to say “[i]Three years ago, I was so optimistic about the future of Leyton Orient it’s not true. Because I saw a man with enthusiasm and passion, who was moving to London, had loads of money, gave the fans what they were always asking me for: ‘When are you going to get your chequebook out?’ Well, he got his chequebook out and this is what’s happened[/i]”.
What followed through 2014/15 was a sad litany of dreadful, even bizarre performances both on and off the pitch, which saw Leyton Orient steadily slide backwards from that pinnacle. Becchetti did initially put money into the club, but it wasn’t matched on the pitch, and in September manager Russell Slade had seen enough and walked. Kevin Nugent took over, but he was replaced a month later by Becchetti’s man Mauro Milanese. Becchetti sacked him as manager in early December, bringing in Fabio Liverani. However, the turmoil had left its mark on the pitch, and nothing could be done to avoid relegation at the end of the season – when Becchetti sacked him too.
Giving up on his Italian contacts, next in the managerial hotseat for 2015/16 was former defender Ian Hendon. Hendon’s Orient started well, but then faltered, and in January – yep, you guessed it – Becchetti sacked him. During this time, some of the already circulating rumours about Becchetti’s ‘style’ of management really began to emerge. For instance, believing it would help team bonding, Becchetti ordered the team and some club officials stay for an entire week at the Marriott Hotel in Waltham Abbey, just five minutes from the club’s training ground. I think that’s called incarceration?
Hendon was temporarily replaced by Andy Hessenthaller, before Kevin Nolan took over as player-manager. By April, with Orient outside the play-off zone, Nolan was replaced by…Andy Hessenthaller. Nolan stayed in a playing role through to the end of the season, but it wasn’t enough to get into the play-offs – they finished 6pts behind 7th place AFC Wimbledon (who, incidentally, would go on to win the play-offs).
Bad enough as things had already been, the summer of 2016 was when things really started to turn ugly at Brisbane Road, with a flurry of departures from the club, including fans’ favourite Dean Cox, who had his contract terminated “by mutual consent” (pfft). More would follow, and by the start of the 2016/17 season Orient were virtually unrecognisable as the side that had challenged for promotion. The club was in free-fall, and between September and March had been through five different managers when Omer Riza took over. Becchetti stopped paying staff for two months, so the PFA had to step in and loan players half their wages. Financially the club was in a mess, with reported debts of £5.5m, and at a High Court winding-up hearing Becchetti was ordered to either sell the club or settle the debt. He did, eventually, sell his interest in the club to a consortium led by supporter Nigel Travis, but the damage had already been done to Leyton Orient.
[b]The coup de grâce[/b]
I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Brisbane Road, invariably regardless of the result, so with promotion still a possibility, myself and Alfie took the train up to London Town on a bright Saturday morning for what we hoped was going to be an enjoyable day out. There is always a big turn-out from the Faithful, and more often than not quite a few of the Old Guard barsiders will surface. Sometimes a grim and fearsome bunch, but at least they’re our grim and fearsome bunch. With the boy in tow, today wasn’t a day for getting messy in the Coach & Horses before the match, but I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity for at least one. As always, the atmosphere inside was rocking, and it was looking like it was going to be a better than usual following at the match.
Picking up tickets at the small booth on Brisbane Road itself, together with a ‘programme’ that comprised a folder up single A1 sheet that was stark testimony to the financial plight of Leyton Orient, we headed into the ground past countless O’s supporters carry flags and banners that basically had one simple message – “Becchetti Out!”. The away stand was filling up already, but we managed to squeeze ourselves in near the back, before the last-minute flood of those left in the Coach & Horses finally arrived – eventually 1,257 vociferous U’s supporters would pack out the away stand. Looking around the ground, there were of course all those banners and flags on view, but otherwise the O’s supporters were strangely subdued. Not that our supporters let that get in the way, who with the drum backing, were in full voice, and would remain so throughout what turned out to be one of my stranger football away-day experiences.
The U’s lined up:
3….Matthew Briggs (Macauley Bonne 70’)
23..Sean Murray (Doug Loft 73’)
9….Chris Porter (captain)
Much as I’m sure we all had tremendous sympathy for what Leyton were going through, facing relegation after 112 consecutive years as a Football League club, we still had a job to do if we were to snatch a play-off spot. The U’s were clearly not going to let emotion get in the way and took the game to a somewhat piss-poor Leyton Orient right from the start. Eastman had an effort that was saved for a corner, and from that Elokobi saw his header well-saved by Sargeant the goalkeeper. Brindley also went close with a decent free-kick that just curled over the bar. On 26 minutes, the deadlock was finally broken, when Fosu timed his run to perfection to head home at the back post from a perfect Eastman cross, and the away end went ballistic.
To their credit, whilst I was expecting that to be the key that unlocked a fragile Orient defence, it actually spurred them on somewhat, and for most of the remainder of the first half Orient were probably having the better of it, though without really creating any clear cut chances. Walker in particular did well to block Kennedy’s header on goal, albeit he had to scramble to collect it at the second attempt as he spilled the first save. Still though, for the most part, silence from the home fans, and a deafening raucous barrage from the U’s faithful, complete with blue flares on occasion.
Into the second half, and after what was a fairly even uneventful five or so minutes, Orient’s Portuguese winger Sandro Semedo finally gave the Orient supporters something to cheer about – and some! Picking the ball up just inside our half, he raced forward and left fly from 30 yards with an absolutely unstoppable drive which swerved and dipped ferociously to find the top corner behind Sam Walker – who could do nothing but watch and marvel at the effort. If you going to get relegated out of the Football League, that wasn’t a bad way to score the last League goal at Brisbane Road.
Despite their goal, still the U’s were on top, and on 78 minutes were justifiably back in front when Fosu’s trickery turned the Orient defence inside out, before squaring for Chris Porter to tap into an empty net from a few yards out. The away end was in bedlam, and we were still celebrating when Macauley Bonne put the result beyond any doubt, turning well in the box to drive past Sargeant into the far corner – not particularly firmly struck, but with deadly accuracy.
[b]”[i]Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over…[/i]”[/b]
And that should have been that, but with five minutes to go Orient supporters began their pitch invasion – barely a trickle to begin with, but in the end a flood, and the two teams had to leave the pitch whilst play was suspended. It was by and large a good-natured pitch invasion, just honest Orient supporters who wanted to protest about the handling of their club – men, women, kids, supporters of all ages, creeds and colours gathered in front of the main stand, and neither the police nor the stewards seemed particularly interested in doing anything about it.
There were some comical moments in all of this – whoever it was who managed to get on the tannoy to try and persuade the supporters to leave the pitch was very amusing – if only for his repeated and increasingly frustrated attempts to get the supporters to “LISTEN!”. Our support, never one to miss a chance, then chimed in with “[i]Clap Clap – ClapClapClap – ClapClapClapClap – Listen![/i]”, much to the amusement of the home fans. At one point many of the Orient supporters came across to ‘confront’ the U’s fans in the away stand, which certainly did get the police and stewards attention for once, but it turned out to be just a mutual show of support for each other, with massed chants of “Becchetti Out!” and “Stand up if you hate Southend!” shared between the U’s and the O’s.
Eventually, by about 5.30, it was clear to me the match probably wasn’t going to re-start, so me and Alfie left for Paddington station and the train home. I found out later that it was announced over the tannoy that the match had been abandoned about 15 minutes after we’d left. An hour after that, sneaky referee Carl Boyeson bought both teams back out to finish playing the last five minutes and injury-time to ensure the result stood. Video of those final minutes is quite amusing, as both teams just took it in turns to pass the ball around at a walking pace without making any effort, just to use up the time before the eventual final whistle at approximately 6.50pm.
[b]Leyton Orient 1 (Sandro Semedo 52’) Colchester United 3 (Tariqe Fosu-Henry 26’; Chris Porter 78’; Macauley Bonne 80’)[/b]
[b]On the Road[/b]
There was a final twist in my tale for that day – when we got back to Paddington station we discovered that all west-bound trains were cancelled because of a major signals failure at Didcot Parkway. Crap! GWR were their usual spectacularly unhelpful selves, offering no other solutions than announcing that tickets valid for that day would also be considered valid for the Sunday as well. Poor beleaguered platform staff were being swamped by passengers demanding solutions, answers etc. – it was chaos.
At the time, Alfie relied on daily medication each morning, which obviously I didn’t have with me, nor did we have any overnight bags, nor even the faintest idea where on earth we could stay that night (by now it was well after 7pm). I rang GWR to see if it was an option to go down to Waterloo, head across to Bath via Salisbury, and back to Chippenham from the opposite direction, but they couldn’t even guarantee those trains would be running because of the disruption, so I really only had once choice left – get an Uber.
A bit less than £200 later, me and Alfie finally got home about 9.30pm. To cut a long story short, what then followed was a protracted discussion/ dispute with GWR about my taxi fare, which finally Transport Focus had to get involved with. Having initially sent me a derisory £10 travel voucher by way of compensation, Transport Focus eventually forced GWR to reimburse both the taxi cost and our train tickets – oh, and they forgot to ask for the travel voucher back too 😊.
There’s a chap on YouTube who goes by the name of Palmers FC, who visits football grounds making ‘On the Road’ vlogs, and it so happens he was at Brisbane Road that day so his video is definitely worth a watch. Incidentally, check out “Geography Man”, who is actually in the background of my photo above of Alfie outside the Coach and Horses.
Up the U’s
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Letters from Wiltshire #35 by wessex_exile
As many were predicting, time finally ran out for Steve Ball mid-week, after the U’s lost 2-1 at home to Exeter City. Although a considerable improvement in score-line compared to the 6-1 thrashing they handed out at St James Park earlier in the season, apart from the first 10-15 minutes and very brief glimpses throughout the remainder of the game, it was a poor performance, leaving Robbie Cowling with no choice. After a brief interlude, Robbie named Wayne Brown as our new Interim Head Coach (that’s caretaker as far as I’m concerned), and after an even briefer interlude, Robbie and Wayne in a joint statement put to rest any lingering concerns about Wayne’s attitude to race. If Wayne can show the same sort of leadership on the training ground and in the dressing room as he used to show for the U’s on the pitch, I am certain he’s going to do very well in the job.
Letters from Wiltshire #34 by wessex_exile
I won’t dwell on Robbie’s latest message to the supporters – we’ve all read it, and we’ve all probably drawn our own conclusions about what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. To me, bottom line, I suspect the clock is now ticking for Steve Ball (at least), turn around this terrible form pretty damn quick, or start clearing out your locker. Regardless of personal opinions on any of the individuals concerned, I would like to think none of us actually wants to see people made redundant in the current climate. But, these are difficult times that require tough decisions. If Steve Ball is up to the job and can turn this around, I’ll be more than happy to support him. If he’s not, he has to go before irreparable harm is done…and we all know what that will look like, we’ve been there before…
Letters from Wiltshire #33 by wessex_exile
Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Letters from Wiltshire #32 by wessex_exile
Fifty years ago yesterday, Colchester United of the 4th Division pulled off the greatest cup giant-killing ever, beating 1st Division Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road. Watched by 16,000, and the Match of the Day cameras, Dick Graham’s U’s, a rag-tag band of mostly aging journeymen, defied the odds to defeat arguably the greatest club side in Europe at the time. “The greatest cup giant-killing ever” is a bold claim, and over the years various football magazines and websites have run their own polls of which was the greatest. Whilst that day at Layer Rd always features, as the years have gone by other feats fresher in the memory have been put forward as a candidate – we probably all remember Ronnie Radford’s screamer against Newcastle, Sutton’s exploits, or even Bradford City quite recently at Stamford Bridge – but these pale into insignificance when you pause to reflect on the Don Revie side that we beat that day. Sprake, Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Giles etc – all full internationals, all household names – the only one missing was Billy Bremner, and that was because he was injured. By comparison, all we had to offer was Ray Crawford – at his peak arguably on a par with some in the Leeds side, but that peak had been ten years earlier playing for Ipswich and England. Eleven heroes didn’t just try and hold out against Leeds United, they took the game to their illustrious opponents with such tenacity, grit and no small amount of flair, and before we knew it, the U’s were 3-0 in the lead. As legs tired, Leeds got back into the game with goals from Hunter and Giles, but we held firm – typified at the death by Graham Smith pulling off an impossible save to ensure the U’s achieved [b][u]the greatest cup giant-killing ever![/b][/u]
Letters from Wiltshire #31 by wessex_exile
And so the dust settles on another transfer window closing, and despite (my) expectations that the possibility of incoming business was going to be remote, we have instead seen a veritable flurry of activity, with no less than three coming in. Big Frank Nouble, making a very welcome return on loan from Plymouth Argyle, of course needs no introduction. Neither really does feisty Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu, here on loan last season, and this time signed full-time from Charlton Athletic for an undisclosed fee. Actually paying hard cash for someone did come as a surprise, presumably offset by the sale of Cohen Bramall to Lincoln for a similarly undisclosed fee. However, the fact that the Addicks have insisted on not only a sell-on clause, but a rarely used buy-back clause too, suggests (a) Wiredu’s signing fee probably wasn’t too high, and (b) Charlton are protecting those finances with these clauses. The last one, which would have been a complete surprise for me were it not for a contact leaking me the news earlier yesterday, is left-back Josh Doherty on loan from Crawley. Josh was only announced once outgoing left-back Bramall was confirmed, and presumably his loan is directly related to part-time fashion model, TV and radio celeb and former left-back Mark Wright signing for Crawley on a non-contract game-by-game basis in December. We have also released seven from the academy, Ollie Kensdale, Miquel Scarlett, Sammie McLeod, Michael Fernandes, Ollie Sims, Danny Collinge and Matt Weaire, and I’m sure we all wish them the best for the future.