Comment: 'We must learn from the near-death of Leyton Orient'Leyton MP John Cryer as part of our MP column series
Five years ago Leyton Orient FC was taken to the brink of oblivion by its then-owner, Francesco Bechetti.
Before relegation to the National League in 2017, Orient were the second longest-standing continuous Football League club in London. The club reportedly boasts the honour of having the most staff and players who enlisted in WW1, with 41 sent to the front, of whom three died at the Somme and many more received career-ending injuries. Orient also gave a start to the talented and enigmatic Laurie Cunningham, the first black player to represent England at senior level and whose stubborn refusal to be cowed by racist thugs paved the way for real change in the game.
To think that Orient's very existence - and the rich history described above - could have been expunged in just a few short years by a reckless owner is enough to illustrate the urgency of the case for reform. So many other clubs have faced and will continue to face the same existential threat, not only due to bad custodians in lower leagues but also due to greed at the top of the game. Plans for a European Super League- which thankfully fell apart as quickly and unexpectedly as they came into being, due to the extreme backlash they received- were a case in point, as are sky high ticket prices at Premier League games.
The fan-led review chaired by Tracey Crouch MP recommended in autumn that there should be a new independent regulator for football. If adopted, this regulator could oversee sustainability, finance and the suitability of owners. Orient, for example, could have been spared their own brush with death had the FA’s existing “fit and proper owners” test not been completely toothless. A code of football governance would be established, as would guaranteed involvement for fans by means of clubs having to establish a “shadow board”, while club heritage would receive greater protection. The women’s game would be treated with parity, player welfare would be addressed and clubs would have to address issues around diversity and inclusion.
I have pressed ministers to adopt the recommendations in full. So far, they have told me only that they accept "in principle" the case for an independent regulator.
Make no mistake: vested interests among the elite will hate many of the proposals and will fight tooth and nail for the status quo or their own version of reform. They will already be in cosy talks with ministers. It is therefore vital that this issue retains prominence until the government announces its plans in the spring. As part of this, I asked the leader of the house for a debate on football governance, with an emphasis on finances.