James Cracknell on where Orient go next after their painful Wembley defeat
Chris Dagnall stood there just staring ahead at the goal, unable to move. Barely five yards behind him, out of sight but not out of earshot, was a mass of joyous Rotherham United players and staff sprawled all over the Wembley turf.
With the help of two of his teammates, Dagnall was finally dragged away from the scene of Orient’s devastating denouement.
The most memorable season in O’s recent history had begun with a 5–1 thumping of Carlisle United, but ended with a tame penalty kick at Wembley. And with it, the hopes and dreams of 24,000 fans were crushed.
But there’s always next season, right? The fear among fans, of course, is that this was as it good as it might get. Both Orient’s Wembley goalscorers, Moses Odubajo and Dean Cox, are widely rumoured to be attracting the interest of Premier League and Championship clubs. Between them the pair scored 29 goals last season and losing both would seriously weaken Russell Slade’s team.
Last year Orient started with eight straight league victories. They were top of the league in February but had to settle for third place after a poor run of form in March. They beat Peterborough in the play-off semi finals to set up the clash at Wembley against Rotherham. Two first-half goals from the aforementioned wide men put Orient 2-0 up. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
The O’s players still went on their end-of-season trip to Las Vegas, promised by owner Barry Hearn as reward for reaching the play-offs. Expectations are now sky high. Average attendances grew last year by 36 percent and the club had to ask Wembley for extra tickets after selling out their initial 20,000 allocation for the play-off final.
A slow start in 2014–15 could dent confidence after such a painful end to 2013–14. Will those new fans stick around if Orient drop back into mid-table, the position they had occupied for so many years previously?
I am probably well placed to answer that question, since I am one of those ‘new’ fans myself. Some might even describe me as ‘fair weather’ since I only began watching Orient with any regularity after they reached the top of the table. My support for the O’s probably began on that February day in 2011 when Jonathan Tehoue blasted in a last-minute equaliser against Arsenal in the FA Cup. I was watching in the Northcote Arms on Grove Green Road, and felt compelled to rise-up and celebrate along with the rest of the pub as the goal went in.
On such moments can lifelong loyalties be born, and I was on the pitch at the end of the Peterborough game, applauding the lads long into the night. I went to Wembley and I even persuaded my girlfriend and her daughter – “I hate football” – to go along too. Now that I am settled in the area, supporting Orient comes naturally to me. It is a reflection of the pride I feel for living in this part of East London.
The club is well run and feels much more accessible and fan-friendly than those of a greater stature in higher divisions. The tickets are still reasonably priced and the players obviously care about the club, rather than just the size of their wage packets.
So don’t worry, O’s die-hards. I’ll be back next season, whatever the weather. This club has my backing, come rain or shine.