This was written in September 2008, i.e. when the just-concluded Beijing Olympics was still uppermost in our minds, and before West Ham were unfairly awarded the stadium from the impending 2012 Games in London, despite Leyton Orient being closer. West Ham will be moving into the former Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season. Orient will still be at Brisbane Road.
Well, now it’s all been and gone and we’ve all had a chance to calm down a bit, maybe it’s time for a spot of serious reflection; what conclusions, if any, what hopes for the future, should we draw from our sporting heroes’ endeavours in that strange and faraway city? My own thoughts – and I speak as someone who was actually there in the stadium – are that we more than held our own for the first forty-five minutes, were unlucky to concede just before half-time, and shouldn’t have taken JJ Melligan off as he was about the only one who seemed capable of getting round the back of the Peterborough defence. I’d then probably add that, even if we did lose 3-0, being able to watch the debacle unfolding whilst leaning on a proper behind-the-goal horizontal railing, rather than squashed up beside a fat bloke with a two word vocabulary, was a definite consolation, as that’s not something you’ve been able to do at Brisbane Road for several seasons now – not since the Orient boardroom elected to bulldoze the North Terrace in order to build some more flats. For a football club, the O’s are very fond of building flats.
Another thing that struck me, as I stood there flicking idly through the programme in a vague effort to distract myself from striker Adam Boyd’s clearly under-rehearsed ploy of trying to disconcert the Peterborough defence by engaging in a series of sub-David Bowie mime routines – man-pacing-fretfully-outside-tube-station-wondering-where-his-date-has-got-to seemed to be his favourite – was that the match was sponsored by Peterborough City Council. And I couldn’t help feeling that this summed up an important difference between London teams and their provincial rivals: outside of the capital, cities and towns take pride in their clubs – particularly in one-team towns like Newcastle, where every other person strolling round Eldon Square Shopping Centre on a Saturday morning is a walking barcode, or Hull, where City’s elevation to the Premiership seems to have revitalised the entire town in a way not seen since the invention of the herring. On holiday in Bilbao last month, I even found myself feeling slightly envious of the way that the whole city – indeed, the whole of the Basque country – seems to identify with the fortunes of Athletic Club Bilbao, whose stadium at the far end of the Gran Vía de Don Diego Lopez de Haro looms over the rainy latticed streets of the Ensanche much like St James’s Park looms over Gallowgate.
Brisbane Road, it has to be said, doesn’t loom over anything much. You could easily walk past Coronation Gardens and not realise that the ground was a mere hundred yards away, a minute’s trepidatious shuffle from the High Road between rows of Victorian terraces. Even the spindly old floodlights which used to glow through the mist on Hackney Marshes on winter evenings have shrunk to modern lo-lighters. And I suppose my grumble is that Leyton, or the London Borough of Waltham Forest, never seems to take much interest in its team, never gets behind it in the way that Newcastle, Hull or Peterborough get behind the teams which – whatever you think about football – represent those cities to the world at large. I dimly remember shopfronts decked with red bunting – and a special red-rimmed souvenir edition of the Waltham Forest Guardian – in the spring of ’78, when the O’s had their moment of glory by reaching the FA Cup semi-final, but I don’t think the council had too much to do with it. Just like I don’t think the council would rally round if the club was in trouble – they even had the temerity to veto our plans for more flats.
And I don’t think the people of Leyton would rally round either, and that’s sad. At school, the only team anyone ever went to watch was Orient, partly because it was cheaper than Arsenal, Spurs or West Ham, but mostly because all you had to do was walk down the road; you didn’t need to get the tube, you didn’t need to get your dad to take you. But no one ever said they supported Orient; in the playground on Monday, the talk was all of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool… and Dirty Dirty Leeds. (Not so much Manchester United, who weren’t much cop back then, and even spent one season down in the second division with the O’s; on the morning of our match against them, all the shops and pubs on Leyton High Road covered their windows not with bunting but with hardboard because – in those dark days of cattle-truck football specials – we feared United’s travelling fans far more than the team. We lost 0-2.)
People even supported West Ham, despite West Ham plainly being an Essex club, whose true rivals are Southend and Colchester, and nothing at all to do with East London – nicking the O’s East, East, East London chant (about as primal a declaration of love as you could wish for, surely?) is just showboating. Orient’s first ground was in Clapton, on the London bank of the Lea – we were Clapton Orient up till World War II – whereas by the time you get to West Ham you can practically smell the shellfish and white shoe polish.
There just seems to be this attitude that the big clubs in London can look after themselves, and the little clubs…. can look at Sky Sports. Which is why the little clubs keep disappearing. The days of being able to watch Leytonstone triumph over their Isthmian League rivals simply by leaning over the moss-topped wall on the elevated westbound platform at Leytonstone High Road station ended when, having merged with Ilford to begat Leytonstone & Ilford, they sold their ground for housing and merged with Walthamstow Avenue to begat Redbridge Forest… who merged with Dagenham to begat Dagenham & Redbridge… who now play in League Two, which is nice for the strange stunted folk of Corned Beef City, where the ground is, but not so good for the sensitive and lissom people of Leytonstone and Walthamstow, who have been left bereft of fifth-class action. But no one cares, because we’re all supposed to support West Ham, Tottenham or Arsenal, and if you see a kid in a red replica shirt on the streets of E10, it almost certainly has Rooney or Gerrard on the back, not JJ Melligan. Given the choice, even JJ Melligan would probably choose not to have JJ Melligan on the back of his shirt.
But maybe this is about to change. Because there are – seriously – plans for Orient to take over the Olympic stadium in four years’ time when all the pointless running in circles and jumping over things has finished. Five thousand people rattling round in a stadium that holds five times that number, and separated from the pitch by a running track, doesn’t sound like much fun, so if it happens that’ll probably be the end of London’s second-oldest football club (only Fulham are older). Or, maybe more likely, the club will be sold to investors with no interest in football or Leyton and rebranded as AFC London Olympic, and marketed with popcorn and cheerleaders, and we’ll play our games at breakfast time so that Hong Kong betting syndicates can watch us live at 3 p.m., and no one will ever again complain about not having a lid for their Bovril.
On the plus side, we could finally get our own back on Man United for that 2-0 defeat.