“I have always been opposed to foreign players and foreign owners because I’m a Little Englander, but I now realise I have been restricted in my vision,” said Leyton Orient owner Barry Hearn in July 2014. “Things are changing and business is business. It is just a question of how much money, and it is only the foreigners who have that sort of money.”
Hearn was wrong; twice in fact. His self-confessed ‘Little Englander’ status was deeply misguided, but so too was his belief that it is always a question of how much. Money might make football’s world go round, but Hearn’s beloved club are proof that it can hinder more than help in the wrong hands.
“Now I believe I have found the perfect new owner. We’re going to be the envy of every small club,” Hearn would say during that same press conference. Those words might not be written on Leyton Orient’s gravestone, but they certainly form part of the eulogy. There is plenty of competition for the title, but Francesco Becchetti might just be the worst owner in the Football League.
As ever, the arrival came with its own distinct fanfare, a facade for what would follow. While Hearn discussed Leyton Orient becoming a powerhouse in East London, issuing a pointed warning to West Ham that they should be “petrified”, Becchetti talked the talk in the way that new owners are often prone to do. Promotion, proud history and progress were all ticked off. There must be a shared script by now.
Hearn has a reputation as an optimist, but his positivity hardly appeared misplaced. Leyton Orient’s season had ended in heartache at Wembley, but Russell Slade had led the club to the League One play-off final and secured their highest league finish since 1982.
With added investment, reaching the second tier of English football was a realistic ambition, and Becchetti had the funds for the task. He was hailed as ‘one of the richest men in Italy’ by the Daily Telegraph, having made his fortune through the Becchetti Energy Group and waste management services.
As a section of Arsenal fans now chant about Arsene Wenger killing their club, it’s difficult not to question a loss of perspective when, less than five miles away, supporters are fighting a far more pressing battle. The Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust (LOFT) are working tirelessly to ensure a future – any future – for their club, but also to keep busy, like cleaning the house in the week before a funeral.
The headline is that Leyton Orient owe around £250,000 in unpaid taxes, and face a court hearing on March 20th to decide the club’s long-term future. If they do not settle their debts to the HMRC, they face the threat of administration and ultimately liquidation. Mercifully, a statement from the EFL indicates that an agreement will be reached to ensure payments are made. But even that claim raises a degree of scepticism given everything that has happened over the past few years. How did it ever come to this?
The winding-up order is not the cause of Leyton Orient’s problems, but the effect. They are a club who have been crippled by mismanagement and steered to the bottom of the Football League by an owner whose omnipotence is matched only by a lack of forethought and planning.
The current level of debt presents itself in the macro and the micro. The court case continues to hang over the club like a thick, suffocating smog, but the bad news seeps from every pore. For last Saturday’s home game against Grimsby, Leyton Orient could only produce a 16-page matchday programme – and even then only after lengthy discussions with Bishops Printers and Alchemy Creations over previous work that has reportedly remained unpaid. They are just two of a number of local and national creditors concerned by the club’s perilous financial position.
Decline at clubs in the Football League is sadly not unusual, but Leyton Orient’s rapid fall since the League One play-off final in 2014 is still eye-opening. Having missed out on promotion on penalties that day, they now face relegation from the Football League less than three years later. With nine games remaining, the gap to Cheltenham is seven points. Orient have lost 13 of their last 16 home league games.
When relegation comes and comes again, the tendency is to share the blame between playing staff, manager and owners in somewhere close to equal measures. Whatever is going on off the pitch, the more casual fan might insist that the players should at least give their all and earn their money.
That is nonsense, of course. Footballers, as with employees in any industry, are affected by their working environment. Pushing for consistency on the pitch amid turbulence at boardroom and managerial level is akin to building a house on quicksand.
“We found it difficult as established players, but it is especially hard for those there now,” former longest-serving Orient player Dean Cox tells The Set Pieces. Cox left the club last September, a move he has a mutual agreement not to give details on, but almost sounds relieved as he says the atmosphere makes progress impossible.
“Some people think it is an excuse, but what we had to deal with on a day-to-day basis are things I’ve never experienced in 15 years of playing. It’s very hard to block it out. Players don’t know if they’re getting paid, the staff don’t know if they’re getting paid, staff are leaving because they’re worried about their jobs. It’s not a nice place even to look in from the outside.
“The lads there now don’t know if or when they’re going to get paid. They don’t know if they will be able to pay their mortgages. And then you’re asking them to go out and win the division…it’s a lot to take.”
The stories of Becchetti’s time in charge are the stuff of unlikely soap opera storylines, comical were they not concerning a 136-year-old social institution. There’s the one about the abandoned attempt to extradite the owner to Albania to face fraud charges; paying former Italy international Andrea Dossena £7,500 to play in League One; his six-game ban for running onto the pitch and kicking his assistant manager Andy Hessenthaler; and the club’s reality TV show – despite players’ reservations – that aired on Italian television.
Slightly more concerning, in a sporting sense, are the accusations of interference in training and team selection, and the departure of several established players that has left a first team comprised largely of youngsters. “I could have gone to Northampton the day before the transfer window ended, but I didn’t want to leave so I said I didn’t want to go,” says Cox. “Then I was told they had lined up a replacement, and basically that I was surplus to requirements and to go somewhere else. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay.”
Then you have the managers and chief executives, arriving and leaving on a conveyor belt of broken dreams. Becchetti has employed ten different managers during his brief tenure, and if the quantity alone wasn’t an issue, the quality certainly has been. Key positions within the club have gone to Italian compatriots with no experience of English football and often no ability to speak the language, starting with the removal of well-respected chief executive Matt Porter.
“Why would you rip the heart out of the club, bringing in a load of foreign chief executives and managers who didn’t speak English?” asks former Leyton Orient favourite Matt Lockwood, clearly incensed by the situation when we speak. “It was never going to work. It was always a recipe for failure, and that was clear to see.
“It’s actually quite impressive. To kill a club in three years, how is that even possible? Even if my five-year-old daughter was in charge, she couldn’t have done it. Especially with the money spent on it. Some of the people he brought in were useless, and offered nothing to that football club. And the only people who are going to suffer are the supporters, who have loved that club all their lives and are going to be left to pick up the pieces.”
Having steered the ship into the iceberg, Becchetti’s next trick was to leave the wheel. Last November, Leyton Orient and Blackpool fans joined together in joint protest at their owners; Becchetti’s response was to throw his toys from the pram.
“Mr Becchetti did not like the fan protests because at the beginning of the season everyone, supporters included, praised the club for their summer transfer business,” chief executive Alessandro Angelieri said in January. “Thereafter Mr Becchetti doesn’t play on Saturday.” The owner also claimed that he inherited a “squad without future”, an ambitious leap given the club’s position now and then.
“The idea that an unqualified rich man bellowing at them on the training ground, or from his seat in the stand, inspires the players, when results have slumped so dramatically since the takeover, is laughable,” says Tom Davies, vice-chair of the Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust.
Laughable is a word that Davies, Lockwood and Cox all use, but this is a niche strain of dark humour. Becchetti has said that he wishes to sell the club, but only for the right price. Having allowed it to reach the point of a winding-up order, who would pay the asking price rather than letting the club fall into administration and picking it up far cheaper down the line? Even if the tax debt is paid off in court, the club is only moving in one direction. Relegation looks a certainty.
The shared mood is one of resignation, in the short-term at least. “If they have to take a points deduction, or have to go into administration, they will take that on the chin,” says Cox. “It is perilous enough anyway. Go down, but go down with a new owner with fresh ideas and a fresh start.”
As ever, the only hint of a new dawn comes from those who have suffered most. Leyton Orient’s attendances have predictably plummeted, but supporters have regrouped and are resurgent. LOFT have set up a regeneration fund for when the opportunity to intervene eventually arrives.
“It has become increasingly clear that a serious crisis could be just round the corner, and it would be in our interests to establish some kind of fighting fund to deal with specific contingencies, particularly around a potential change of ownership, or to meet immediate short-term needs,” says Davies.
“It also has a symbolic effect of demonstrating that there’s a demand, and an affection, for a sustainable professional Leyton Orient. We reached £60,000 within less than a week.” The fund has now broken through the £90,000 mark.
Importantly, this money will not be used to bail out the current owner. “We should not be clearing up his mess,” Davies reiterates. “This was discussed at our recent meeting and there was no mood in the room that we should be paying bills that are Becchetti’s responsibility.”
Lockwood and Cox, with their combined 650 appearances for Leyton Orient, are desperate to help in any way they can, donating memorabilia for auction but also seeking a more hands-on approach at the club. Lockwood says that his multiple applications for the manager’s job have all been completely ignored, while Cox imagines a time when he can return to his natural footballing home.
“I never wanted to go, but was put in a position where I had no choice,” he says. “If not now then as a coach, a manager, in any capacity. Any way I can help, I will. I’ll do anything. I’m indebted to that club.”
By then, Leyton Orient’s 112-year stay in the Football League will surely have come to an end. The tax bill may well be paid, but that won’t solve the club’s deepening problems. If anything, it will only cause the asking price to be raised, increasing the bitterness of this sorry situation.
“You couldn’t write a worse story if you tried,” were Cox’s first words when I asked him about Orient’s sad decline. And he’s right. It might not matter to everyone in football whether Brisbane Road continues to host league football, but it should.
This is a fan base forced into crisis and a club that is having its heart ripped out. If it can happen to them, it can happen to your club too.