O’s top at Christmas, but Olympic Stadium spectre looms large

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It has been a tumultuous week in the football world. Vincent Tan has shown his true colours at Cardiff. Not content with sacking the head of recruitment and changing the clubs colours, he is now threatening to sack the man who brought them into the Premier League, Malky Mackay.

Hull’s owner Assem Allam is behaving in a similar way, threatening to change the clubs name to Hill Tigers, telling supporters who oppose his views that they can “die when they want”. So it would seem that owners are a mixed bunch, and when they behave in an outrageous manner, there is no way to stop them. The Premier League and FA show their usual impotence in such important matters. While fans need to be careful what they wish for, they are often not consulted or finances dictate that they have little choice.

Another key development this week concerns the continued wrangling over the Olympic Stadium, masterminded from Leyton Orient’s side by O’s Chairman, Barry Hearn. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) revealed it has no objection to Hearn negotiating an agreement with whichever firm ends up operating 2012 Games centrepiece. The upshot is that Orient could negotiate a rental deal with whomever wins the tender to the new owners will be when it is put out to tender next year (bidders include Live Nation and AEG).

Hearn claims that the prospect of Orient using the stadium every other weekend would be attractive to whoever manages it because it would provide the kind of regular guaranteed income a music concert or other one-off event could not. Hearn is quoted as saying “West Ham won’t want to hear this but the news that came down is they have no problem with me renting the Olympic Stadium and playing my fixtures there. It’s only a question of what rental I agree with the new operators. That’s a major breakthrough for me.” Hearn’s previous plan was to sell Orient’s present home at Brisbane Road if they moved into the Olympic Stadium but he admitted that would now depend on what length of deal was on the table.

While nothing has been agreed as yet, this new development is major concern to many Orient fans. Hearn’s original intention was to get similar rights to West Ham i.e. a 99 year lease, and while this is not going to happen, Hearn revealed on Twitter that he would be happy with a 10 year lease (he hasn’t ruled out less than 10 years either).

This would leave the way open to sell Brisbane Road, while leaving Orient with a tenuous renal agreement with the stadium management company, very similar to the situation between SISU and Coventry City (see Twohundredpercent’s excellent posts on the subject.) This could see Orient homeless in 10 years or sooner, with no guarantees over what the management company could charge (Hearn has stated £500k per year or double if Os make it up to the Championship, but as ever the devil is in the detail).

Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Sports purchased Brisbane Road for £6m in 2009 and now offers a 20 lease year back to Leyton Orient with rent reviews every 5 years. He says the whole Brisbane Road area is zoned for residential planning which could fetch significant value if redeveloped but claimed he is only interested in getting his £6m back and any excess profit would be ploughed back into Leyton Orient if he became a tenant of the Olympic Stadium.  Iain Dale covers this in his November interview with Hearn for his West Ham blog.

Maybe it’s just me, but this is a red flag! It is quite clear that Barry Hearn has been keen to get out (he always claims “on the right terms, to the right buyer”, whatever that means”). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the club are already operating at Hearn’s behest, both at Brisbane Road and in the future at the Olympic Stadium. I would love to believe in our Chairman’s altruistic nature, but Hearn is a businessman, and unless he can make a decent return, he will look for an exit strategy.

The Olympic Stadium rental deal gives him just that and will leave O’s fans high and dry- with any operator of the Olympic Stadium. Who is to say that there will not be any deal to renegotiate the terms of the lease, or indeed whether there would be any consultation with fans over the length and terms of the lease (very unlikely), or indeed any clauses in the contract?

Notwithstanding the more superficial details of West Ham- named stands, colour-scheme of seats and the fact that Orient would look daft playing in a 55,000+ capacity stadium (and the fact that the majority don’t want to move – Hearn dismisses those naysayers who see us “doing a Darlington” as lacking ambition or the ability to dream), at the heart of every fan’s ambitions at Orient is a sustainable club that will survive.

Most are not buying the fact that a move is synonymous with success (I am sceptical that we have 30-40,000 fans that will come along because we move stadiums), although Hearn is thrusting this message across as Orient are presently top of League One, which makes the message about ambition more palatable.

While the future is highly uncertain off the pitch, on the pitch the Os have made it to Christmas top of League One, a phenomenal achievement considering the size and playing budgets of a number of clubs in the league. The first half of the season has been a whirlwind, with consistent performances and sublime football at times, including stunning wins away at Peterborough, Swindon, Brentford and others and demolition of Tranmere, Carlisle and Notts County. Moreover, the Os have made it to the third round of the FA Cup. Many were highly sceptical as to whether Russell Slade could take the club further in 2012, after a poor previous season but continuity and massively improved performances of key players in 2013 has seen the club push on from an excellent 7th place finish in the 2012-13 campaign.

Quality passing football has been mixed with excellent fitness and determination. Even when conceding, Orient have managed to stay in games and recover from a losing position. The main concern, following the 3-2 home defeat to Crawley, where the Os were missing Elliot Omozusi, David Mooney and Dean Cox, is the depth of the squad when beset by injuries and suspensions.

Much will be revealed about our promotion ambitions with the two away games and Gillingham on Boxing Day and Wolves on December 29. Should Orient come through those games with positive results, then there is a good chance that we will be in contention right the way through to the end of the season.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and be careful what you wish for, especially football club owners bearing gifts….

Written by Andy Brown, We Are Going Up’s Leyton Orient Blogger

Andy tweets at @OrientMeatPie

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