Tom Davies from Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust on the plight of Waltham Forest’s 136-year-old football club
Leyton Orient have never been one of London’s glamorous football clubs. Hemmed in by West Ham United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, we have relied instead on hard-bitten local loyalty, family friendliness and community spirit to survive. And survive we have, as London’s second oldest professional football club.
We may not bring Waltham Forest to a standstill every fortnight, but Orient have a devoted fanbase and an affectionate and deep-rooted relationship with their local borough. It can be seen in the club’s community schemes, the tickets offered to local schoolchildren, and the excitement generated during rare times of success, such as when 24,000 of us went to Wembley less than three years ago to watch an excellent O’s side fall agonisingly short of promotion to the Championship in a play-off final defeat to Rotherham United.
Yet Orient’s 136-year history is now in grave peril, thanks to three seasons of reckless, irresponsible ownership by one man; Francesco Becchetti. The Italian businessman, whose family fortunes come from the waste management sector in Italy and Albania, has overseen the most dramatic slump – not just in the team’s playing fortunes but in the club’s off-field management and standing – that Orient have ever seen.
His time at Brisbane Road has been characterised first by reckless over-spending on players, the break-up of a successful team, the regular hiring and firing of mostly inexperienced and inappropriate managers, a huge turnover of players, relegation from League One, protests against the owner, and now an apparent withdrawal of funding that has resulted in players being forced out, the squad being stripped to its bones, almost-certain relegation out of the Football League, and the non-payment of bills and creditors.
The non-payment of one such bill, to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), led to a winding-up order at the High Court in mid-March, which was adjourned when that tax payment (thought to be up to £250,000) was settled. With it came a promise from lawyers for the chief executive that £1million will be put into the club to settle debts with other creditors, who include Waltham Forest Council and a number of small local contractors. Whether that promise can be kept, and whether it secures the football club’s future, has been met with justified scepticism. Quite simply, the owner needs to sell up and leave.
The court hearing has also prompted a huge fight to save the club led by us at Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust (LOFT). We have been looking to secure new ownership for the club, taking legal and financial advice, preparing financial recovery plans and fundraising. We have raised well over £100,000 in less than a month for a ‘regeneration fund’ to help cover contingencies arising from new ownership, possibly leading to a democratic stake in the club for supporters.
The response has been heartwarming and overwhelming, not just from Orient fans themselves but from the community in general and football supporters across the UK and beyond. It has shown that this is a club worth fighting for. The council, and local MP John Cryer, have also thrown their weight behind the campaign and have been working with LOFT in trying to rescue Orient.
Our fundraising has included signed shirt auctions and social events; two benefit gigs have been arranged at Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow, one featuring local band Steve White and the Protest Family and performance poet Attila the Stockbroker on Saturday 1st April, and a sold-out Red Imp Comedy Club night on 10th April, featuring Bob Mills and Romesh Ranganathan.
A football club, after all, is a valuable sporting and social asset, not an irresponsible rich man’s plaything. It’s our club, and we will fight for it all the way.
To donate to the LOFT regeneration fund:
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