As we made our way back from what we all hoped wouldn’t be a fruitless trip to Exeter on Easter Monday, my brother and I were discussing the point of travelling hundreds of miles to watch Orient away when deep down we know there will be a negative outcome. He put it this way: “If the inevitable is going to happen (i.e. relegation) then I want to see it – it’s like a condemned man refusing a blindfold in front of a firing squad”. Dramatic perhaps, but he has a point.
After an appalling start to the season that saw us fail to win in our first ten matches, we set about some sort of recovery, with an excellent October (our best month of the season) and reasonable performance until the end of the year, excellent wins at home to Charlton and away at Stevenage have been followed by a dire slump in 2012. As I write this, we have lost 8 and won 2 of our last 10 matches, won only 5 of 20 in 2012 and are headed straight for the League Two trapdoor, with only 3 points separating us from Wycombe and a massively inferior goal difference to all but the bottom three sides.
So why has the season unravelled, or rather why have we returned to the un-winnable ways of our first 10 matches? In my opinion, it’s a perfect storm of events that started last summer:
1 – The Relationship between Barry Hearn and Russell Slade
In summer 2011, Barnsley approached Russell Slade to assume the managerial job at Barnsley. Hearn refused Slade permission to speak to Barnsley and therefore move out of the little flat on the corner of the ground and move north to where his family still lives. His body language and general demeanour at the start of the season was defensive and negative, which didn’t help the situation on the pitch, but when Hearn and the fans stuck with him, things seemed to improve in October. Nevertheless, forced player sales and limited opportunities to progress with Orient are no doubt very frustrating and have contributed to our position off the pitch.
2 – Slade’s limitations
First of all I have a lot of time for Russell Slade. He seems a thoroughly nice bloke and has a good rapport with the Os fans and the players. He also has a good track record: He took Scarborough from bottom of the Nationwide Conference to a high of 4th spot, took Grimsby and Yeovil to the brink of League One and the Championship respectively, kept Brighton up when they looked dead and buried and then did the same with us a year later. He also took us to the brink of a play off place last season and on an amazing journey in the FA Cup culminating in a stunning draw with Arsenal. For these reasons the fans have stuck with Russell despite a really poor season this year. On the flip side, however, he has also been pushed out or resigned after brief initial success and hasn’t been able to replicate form over more than a season. In fact his career win percentage has never exceeded 39% (at Grimsby) and is currently 37% with Orient, albeit with smaller clubs. It has also become painfully obvious in 2012 that he lacks the tactical ability to change things around. Whilst player situations have been forced on him to some extent, his refusal to play players in their favoured positions (even when options are available) and refusal to play certain players (especially the dynamic, if inconsistent, George Porter. His tactical decisions have left fans puzzled, frequently substituting our most effective players. Moreover his loan signings this season have been little short of dire. Overall, the fans are in an impossible position-stick with a manager who’s clearly following a pattern of decline, or stick with a manager who gave us relative success last season in the absence of alternatives. The jury is out.
3 – Player Sales
Several key players left Orient and were either replaced with inferior alternatives or not replaced at all. Key players leaving included club favourite and top scorer Scott McGleish (17 goals), replaced by Jamie Cureton who failed to adapt to life in E10 and just didn’t work out. Moreover, Alex Revell, who scored 13 was not replaced hinting that he was surplus to requirements at the club. This was followed later in the season by two other major departures: Charlie Daniels to Bournemouth and most critically team captain Stephen Dawson to Barnsley, both of whom were out of contract at the end of the season. Losing the spine of the team has seen Orient bereft of ideas, especially a lack of goals and most importantly a lack of cohesion and drive in midfield in the absence of Dawson.
4 – Player Discipline/Unrest
Right back/centre back Elliott Omozusi was jailed for witness intimidation this season and the players contract was terminated. He was not replaced. Moreover, there has been rumoured unrest with several key players (who I won’t name here) that is unlikely to have helped the atmosphere in the squad. Moreover, the loan signings plugged to fill gaps have not shown the discipline needed, with Ryan Dickson sent off twice in his short loan spell. Obviously this is supposition rather than fact, but would also go a way to explaining some of Orient’s problems this season.
5 – Bad loans
In the 2010-2011 season, Russell Slade made some excellent loan signings, with talented youngsters such as Harry Kane, Tom Carroll and Paul-Jose M’Poku adding flair and competition for places in the squad. This season, loan signings have been more panicked, driven by a lack of players in order to plug holes in the playing staff as opposed to supplementing the existing squad. This has resulted in a force fit of players which has not worked. Whilst not wanting to call out individuals, the calibre of loans has also been far short of expectations.
6 – Player Injuries
Orient have used 6 goalkeepers this season and players have been injured at key times (such as the current situation with my player of the season, centre back Scott Cuthbert out for the rest of the season). In combination with selling key players, this has resulted in an unsettled squad this season.
7 – Leadership
One of the biggest problems with the players who have left Orient is that leadership has all but vanished on and off the pitch. Dawson was a natural leader on the pitch and McGleish was a massive presence on and off the pitch for the club. There are still some talented footballers at the club, but they don’t demonstrate leadership on the pitch and this translates into performances, especially when going a goal down.
8 – The six year rule
I just made this up, but last time we came up to League One we lasted around 5/6 years before going down again (albeit the club was in dire straits then) and we’re looking at the same period of time having elapsed again. It would be nice to think it’s not a cycle as it took us a decade to get out of League Two last time!
Hopefully this shows that the blame is not purely at Russell Slade’s door, but is a little more complex than that. So where does this leave Orient this season? Well, we have the same points as Walsall, but a massively inferior goal difference and are 3 points above Wycombe, but also have an inferior goal difference. Wycombe have a harder run in (Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday away, Notts County home, we have Yeovil and Rochdale home and Hartlepool away) but as is often said, winning is a habit, but so is losing. None of the remaining matches will be at all easy, and I just can’t call it this season. Whatever happens, we’ll be there to face it without a blindfold!
Written by Andy Brown, We Are Going Up’s Leyton Orient Blogger