Fans vent their frustrations as Leyton Orient face up to an uncertain future
LONDON -- First came the smoke bomb, lobbed into the Leyton Orient penalty area to release plumes of red smoke into the sky. Then came the supporters. Initially it was just a handful of young men, boisterous and exuberant. Then it was almost all of the home supporters, bound together by fury, united in defiance. They had nothing to lose because everything they had has already been taken.
They did not fear the docking of points because they've hardly got any. They did not fear retribution from the English Football League (EFL) because they will leave its jurisdiction in seven days, having had their relegation from League Two confirmed last week. They did not fear financial punishment because they loathe their club's owner and doubt he'd pay up anyway. The end was nigh. And they had no intention of leaving quietly.
Orient's last league game at the Matchroom Stadium this season ended in chaos on Saturday evening; a fitting denouement given their campaign and, indeed, the entire reign of owner Francesco Becchetti.
When the Italian businessman took over in 2014, the club had only just missed out on promotion to the Championship, England's second flight. In less than three years, having used 10 managers and having been embroiled in one controversy after another, Orient are heading for the wilderness of non-league football. If they even make it that far.
On June 12, a court will consider a winding-up order and determine the future of a club that has been in existence since 1881. Supporters hope Orient will be put into administration and then pass into the hands of a new owner. But they also know that it could be liquidated and cease to exist entirely, hence their desire to protest, possibly for the last time.
"Sit down for the Orient!" pic.twitter.com/Fcbr1j9vKd- Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) April 29, 2017
With minutes left in the 3-1 defeat to Colchester, Orient followers gathered in front of the main stand where the owner might sit. Becchetti was not present -- he last attended a game in 2016 -- but they chanted for him to leave as if he was.
Fans raged against Becchetti and against the authorities -- the EFL and the Football Association -- that, they believe, have abandoned them. And though everyone from stewards, to the police, to the stadium PA announcer, to manager Omer Riza, to local celebrity Errol McKellar, begged them to leave the pitch, they did not yield. Only when told the game had been officially "cancelled" did they celebrate -- the first time they've done such a thing in a while -- and then depart.
Earlier on Saturday, the club announced that April's wages had been paid. This is not generally the sort of thing that warrants a news release, but this is Orient: March's money was only paid on the evening of Monday, April 24, for example. Players have been given financial loans by their union, the Professional Footballer's Association, but the rest of the staff have had no such protection.
"It's been tough for us," one employee told ESPN FC on condition of anonymity. "We try to be there for each other and the support from the fans has been incredible. They know we're having problems; that some of us have had to relocate and they've sent up a fundraising site for us. I think we've all considered just walking away at some point, but we want to get through it and get to the end of the season."
Strikes have been considered in the dressing room and club office, but such talk is unlikely to turn into action: "It would put us all in breach of our contracts, meaning that we wouldn't receive any money going forward or any money that we're owed," the employee explained.
Meanwhile, repeated efforts by supporters to open a dialogue with the club have ended in failure. Becchetti hasn't been seen at the club since he was, in his words, "offended" by a protest against his ownership last November.
Chief executive Alessandro Angelieri hasn't been seen at the club since last year either -- a January statement was his most recent official comment -- and, though chief operations officer Vito Miceli does remain, he refuses to speak to anyone, including a local newspaper reporter who cornered him at a recent away game. ESPN FC requests to speak to Becchetti, Angelieri and Miceli were declined.
"We'd seen a steady improvement in our fortunes that culminated in the defeat on penalties in the Playoff Final (vs. Rotherham in 2014)," Tom Davies, vice-chair of the Leyton Orient Fans Trust (LOFT) tells ESPN FC. "After that there's been a spiral of decline. [Becchetti] promised to spend money and he did spend money, but it unsettled the team. He quickly put pressure on manager Russell Slade and Slade left shortly afterwards for Cardiff."
From there, it has been one manager after another, a string of appointments that is most imaginatively reviewed by Orient supporters' "12 days of Christmas" song.
Davies and his fellow LOFT members have spent recent months rattling buckets, appealing for fans to contribute to a fighting fund. But they've also found that supporters of rival clubs have been just as eager to contribute.
"We raised £7,500 at the Tottenham-Bournemouth game," Davies said. "There is a sense of solidarity with other clubs and the support we've had is heartwarming. And fans at our level know what it's like. They know that it's a case of 'there but for the grace of God.'
"It's an emergency fund," he continues. "If the worst comes to the worst it will help with the formation of a phoenix club, but we don't want that to happen. Ideally, it would be used to fund a stake in the club alongside new owners, in the same way that Swansea supporters have 20 percent of the club. I think that's a reasonable aim. One thing we have to be clear on, though, is that the money is not for clearing Becchetti's debts."
That sentiment was echoed on Saturday at a pre-match demonstration. Approximately 750 supporters assembled by the bandstand in nearby Coronation Gardens, encircled by the carts of curious, but grateful local street food vendors.
The fans gathered like mourners paying their respects. Some were quietly seething at the present, but others preferred to remember the club in past, better times. Keith Oliver, a supporter for more than 50 years, wore a faded T-shirt commemorating those 2014 playoff adventures.
"I put this on this morning," he told ESPN FC. "I considered a black shirt at first, but I saw this and I thought: 'That's the last time I saw us before [Becchetti] took over. And so I thought it felt significant; a wish to turn the clock back. When we walked out of Wembley that day, we were gutted, but philosophical. And then (owner) Barry Hearn sold us. We started off the next season under Becchetti and we thought: This will be interesting. We were optimistic, we were hopeful. And then it all started to go bad. We thought: We'll give the guy a chance; he's doing his best. And then we realised that, actually, the problem was him.
Oliver added, "if there's a team with the name Orient, wherever they're playing at whatever level," that he'll support them but was adamant that he and many others will not buy season tickets if Becchetti remains as owner of the club.
The rally is about to start. Simmering rage is palpable. So much frustration here and a profound sense of abandonment. pic.twitter.com/S1mDXEqtFA- Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) April 29, 2017
In the last chance to see their team play at home before the curtain falls on the season next week with a 500-mile round trip to play Blackpool, the first-half mood was subdued, with the exception of sporadic "Becchetti Out!" shouts.
Colchester led at the interval through Tarique Fosu's 26th-minute goal, but Orient supporters livened up seven minutes after half-time when Sandro Semedo slammed home an equaliser from 30 yards.
However, in the space of three error-strewn minutes for the home team, Chris Porter and Macauley Bonnie each scored to give Colchester a 3-1 lead. With five minutes remaining, the red smoke bomb landed silently and acted as the cue for fans to stream onto the pitch, full of anger and frustration.
Abandonment seemed inevitable, but there was one last twist. Nearly two hours after the first supporter had entered the field, and with the last of them having drifted away, a small group of stewards hurried to clear the piles of litter in the centre circle. They also began to refix the goal nets and replace the corner flags.
But, as a Football League statement later confirmed, the "abandonment" was an audacious feint, designed to clear the stadium. And so the last league football to be witnessed at the Matchroom Stadium for the foreseeable future was a passionless, pointless session of keep ball, watched by a handful of journalists and a collection of bored-looking stadium employees.
It was one final insult for Orient fans -- as if they hadn't suffered enough -- and a strangely fitting way to mark their club's demise.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.