If you are not familiar with the club or this season’s events, please read each set of events in the boxes before reading the following part of the article to get a better background understanding.
Key timeline of events: July-September
July 7th 2014: Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti purchases Matchroom Sports’ 90% stake in Leyton Orient Football Club for a reported £7m to become majority shareholder.
July 8th 2014: Chief Executive Matt Porter steps down from the role after nearly 9 years, but remains part of the club’s Board on an advisory level.
August 1st 2014: former QPR defender Mauro Milanese is installed as Sporting Director, with Alessandro Angelieri appointed as new CEO.
August 8th 2014: UNCONFIRMED – on the eve of the season, the new owners informed the players they intended to produce a fly-on-the-wall documentary, threatening to withhold player bonuses if they refused to agree to being filmed
September 13th 2014: after a 2-0 home defeat by Colchester United, Milanese enters the dressing room during the post-match team talk and announces that Slade will be sacked if they fail to win the next game. This is confirmed by Slade himself in his post-match interview. Orient had 6 points from 6 league games at the time.
September 16th 2014: Leyton Orient draw 1-1 at Notts County despite dominating for long periods, yet after post-match talks with the owners, it is revealed that Slade is to remain as manager.
September 19th 2014: Slade emerges as main target for Cardiff City’s managerial post, rated odds-on favourite with most bookies’ to be the club’s next manager.
September 23rd 2014: Becchetti publishes an article in the matchday programme, stating that the ultimatum was merely a bluff, and that he had denied Slade permission to speak to Cardiff. Orient lose the game – a League Cup tie vs Sheffield United – by a goal to nil.
September 24th 2014: Slade resigns at close of business, stating a breakdown in relationship with the new owners.
September 25th 2014: Assistant Manager Kevin Nugent is made caretaker manager of the first team.
When Francesco Becchetti took over Leyton Orient last summer and invested millions into the team, nobody foresaw that the club would be preparing for League Two football a year on. Yet under the new ownership which was meant to propel the club to the next level, last week the Os suffered the ignominy of being likely the most expensive squad ever to be relegated from the third tier, 12 months after losing the play-off final on penalties. As the season unfolded, so did a catalogue of extraordinary events, with fans guessing what exactly is going on at the club and trying to piece together the jigsaw.
Frustrated supporters have taken to social media and penned articles outlining the many key turning points. Rather than regurgitate this, I’d like to use the club as a case study on how and why mismanagement affects on-pitch performance. While this is limited by not knowing an exact behind-the-scenes narrative, using one’s own working experience can help arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
To take what many saw as the first big error, giving a group a kick up the backside to get them to perform better is commonplace in any industry, but to do so in the form of a dressing room ultimatum is unconventional. Placing the situation into context, these were manager Russell Slade’s players whom he had developed and moulded into a team with a very strong spirit. A change in ownership doesn’t have to affect those below, but as a player, a new man coming in and singling out your manager, whom you hold in high esteem, in front of you and your teammates, would be the best way to form a negative opinion of him and begin questioning the hierarchy.
Orient drew the next match, but Slade stayed, and won the one after that. They played like a team under the impression they needed to throw everything forward to save the manager his job. A message from Becchetti followed in the matchday programme, making the point (in a rather odd way) that threats are made to get a reaction but not carried out.* Clearly it wasn’t interpreted this way. In the immediate short-term, you could say the threat worked, but it clearly isn’t a sustainable way to get performances out of a team. In football, people are always working out how teams play. There comes a point when nullifying tactics kill any attempt to just outwork the opposition. Threatening employees with the sack every time performance dips isn’t good management.
October 1st 2014: Matt Porter steps down from the club’s Board of Directors, having allegedly received an e-mail from Angelieri requesting his resignation.
October 4-9th 2014: Nugent tells the press that he has received an offer to be permanent manager, which Milanese then dismisses as a rumour. Nugent then says at the end of the week there is an official offer on the table.
October 16th 2014: Nugent is officially appointed interim manager at the club until the end of the season.
October 22nd 2014: the club confirms that it will be the subject of a reality show on Becchetti’s new TV station – Agon TV – which will follow a group of Italian youngsters competing to win a pro contract with the club.
October 26th 2014: Milanese is appointed manager after Nugent takes 5 points from 6 league games. Nugent remains as coach.
December 8th 2014: Milanese returns to Sporting Director role after 4 points from 5 league games. Fabio Liverani is appointed as the club’s fourth manager of the season – his previous managerial experience totals 7 games in charge of Serie A outfit Genoa.
December 20th 2014: after a 2-0 defeat at Barnsley, Orient winger Dean Cox admits confidence is low in a post-match interview and says the players have difficulty in understanding Liverani’s instructions during games as he doesn’t speak much English.
January 26th 2015: Milanese parts company with the club, allegedly after falling out with manager Liverani over player recruitment policy.
January 31st 2015: Liverani publicly criticises his players after a 4-1 home defeat by Scunthorpe United, accusing the players of moaning and being disruptive, he says they will now have double training sessions and no more days off. Orient sit 23rd with 26 points from 27 games.
After Slade’s position became untenable, morale was clearly on the floor. Once he, the manager they played for, was gone, there was little purpose in maintaining the intensity of his last two games as there was no job to save anymore. This was reflected in the displays under Nugent and Milanese – though it also has to be said the Os were also tactically out thought on a couple of occasions, namely the defeats by Rochdale and Port Vale.
It’s quite easy to notice a lack of confidence on the pitch, but it’s often interpreted as a lack of effort. A typical symptom is players taking the safer option and being more reserved – instead of carrying the ball or looking for a pass they give it to the nearest man, instead of making a run at the heart of the opposition to stretch them they hang back for an insurance pass, instead of sprinting out to press they hold their position and protect the space behind them rather than in front of them. Or they take the decision they should take a split second too late, as they haven’t trusted their instincts. This happened often in the short spell under each manager, as the team took just 9 points from 11 league matches.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Milanese wasn’t respected by the players, who were likely already finding the situation farcical. That the team suffered some comfortable defeats under him is no surprise. The same can be said for Liverani, who likely didn’t realise the enormity of the task facing him when becoming manager number 4. His public criticism of the players after the home defeat by Scunthorpe, for example, can be interpreted as his frustration at being unable to get them on his side.* As new manager, it’s not your job to sympathise with the players about what’s happened before, rather to give them a lift. Clearly Liverani wasn’t able to do that – it could simply be that he’s a very poor manager, but his main shortcoming lay in failing to get the players to play for him, which made it an uphill struggle from the beginning.
When players on the other team are organised and know what decisions and what runs to make, they get on the front foot as they can push you further back the pitch – even if they are worse players individually. Players working well as a unit less often have to be screamed at to get into a position or push up 10 yards; everything flows more seamlessly. It’s happened on too many occasions this season, for example, that a winger may push up to press a full-back, but the midfield player playing next to him won’t move up with him, or cover the space he has vacated, which lets the opposition players play around us. It’s the manager’s job to work on the team’s shape and gameplan. The players help each other execute it on the pitch, but if they can’t, it’s hard not to believe that they aren’t fully prepared.
February 13th 2015: the Evening Standard publishes an article alleging the club to be in turmoil – there are reports of employees wanting to leave, a lack of work done in training on team shape and players doing their own teamtalk in the tunnel before the 2-0 loss at Colchester in January (all UNCONFIRMED).
February 14th 2015: Orient claim a surprise 3-2 victory at Chesterfield, midfielder Marvin Bartley tweets: “Don’t often tweet about football but the win today was the best way to silence the mole in the camp! #TogethernessWillSeeUsThroughThis”.
March 28th 2015: at half-time in the home game against Port Vale – which the Os won 3-1 – Becchetti instructed the matchday announcer to inform striker Darius Henderson of the owner’s dissatisfaction at the player’s late arrival, having missed the start of the game after being stuck in traffic.
14th April 2015: Orient lose 1-0 at home to Doncaster Rovers to begin a run of 3 straight defeats and a slide back into the relegation zone.
1st May 2015: captain Nathan Clarke admits in an interview that the players have let off-field problems affect them.
3rd May 2015: Orient are relegated to League Two after drawing 2-2 at Swindon Town in their final game, with a points total of 49 from 46 games. The season ended in a 7-match winless streak.
7th May 2015: rumours surface that the club is under a transfer embargo for as yet failing to file their accounts for 2013/14, something that both the club and the Football League refuse to deny.
7th May 2015 – present: several of the club’s staff reveal that they will have double training sessions 4 days a week for the next 2 weeks.
13th May 2015: Fabio Liverani is sacked as Leyton Orient manager following the club’s relegation.
The upshot of this in how games pan out is that the opposition regularly dominates the game against us. It is a symptom of low morale and uncertainty. Even during the mini-run, we found ourselves on the back foot and having to defend our 18-yard-box. To Liverani’s credit, in some cases he would make a tactical switch to swing the game in our favour, but he couldn’t rely on pulling this out of the bag each game. Even towards the end of the season when we desperately needed the points we found it difficult to get the upper hand.
In the vital game at Coventry in April, they were camped in the Orient half until Liverani brought on Lloyd James to add a centre-mid, which restricted the space they had been playing in. Coventry’s chances dried up and Orient won 1-0. Orient rode their luck more against Gillingham on Easter Monday – the Gills passed the ball around Orient comfortably and raced into a 3-1 lead after an hour. The response was to bring on Darius Henderson and, with the assistance of their most physical defender going off injured, Gillingham were pushed right back into their box with Orient going shit or bust, and the game finished 3-3. Not lucky, but the warning signs were there.
The game against Doncaster in mid-April was a bridge too far; after the break, Doncaster worked out that squeezing the space in midfield would do the trick. 10 minutes into the second half, they scored the game’s only goal. Our response was again to chuck everything forward in a masterclass in how not to chase a game, but they were able to handle this panic move and pick us off with ease time and again to relieve any pressure. The point is that you can’t keep getting away with allowing disadvantageous situations to happen, before hoping for a turning point. It’s more practical to work on giving yourself an advantage from the start.
It makes perfect sense – if players aren’t confident enough to show for the ball early, pressing them will hardly fail as they are always forced long, which allows your team to get a solid shape and build attacks from there. Wave after wave of attack soon follows. Yet a similar system at least in terms of formation worked a treat for Orient in 2013/14, as the organisation and morale levels were exactly the opposite.
Moreover, the manager clearly doesn’t have the players’ respect if they are disruptive in training. If players disrupt sessions, not enough is covered in the week, especially on how the team should set up. Players won’t have a clear idea of their jobs and it translates into a lack of organisation on the pitch, none of which is conducive to regaining morale. The whole thing puts a mental block on players where giving that bit extra they’re unaware they have is concerned. Lack of confidence isn’t simply conveyed by players looking timid during a game, rather as I mentioned earlier by players taking the safer choice or even no choice at all.
All this before we even get to players tweeting about ‘the mole in the camp’* and the captain saying he disagrees with his manager in an interview.** That doesn’t need much explanation – a manager in control of his side would never let that happen in the circumstances.
Another big knock-on effect the entire mismanagement has on the playing side is a different XI fielded every week. This is due to both ‘injuries’ and players underperforming. It’s not simply a case that there have been weak links in the Orient team this season; every team we’ve put out hasn’t been able to get results, no matter the combination in defence, midfield or attack. Players are therefore taken out as they’re not performing, get replaced by players who also fail to impress, and in turn drop back to the bench.
I put injuries in inverted commas as it’s no coincidence that the injury list has been far longer than in previous seasons. Enforced changes due to injuries aren’t bad luck; when things are going well, players are always available as they want to give that bit extra in the tank and will break the pain barrier to do so. On the other hand, the psychology of form is such that knocks and fatigue affect you more when morale is low.
All of the above can easily be countered with the suggestion that the players should just get on with their jobs. I think this is what they’ve tried to do, but been unable to do so due to a total lack of direction. Dragging yourself out of low morale isn’t as easy as telling yourself you’ve got to get on with your job. You can even tell yourself this on the pitch but subconsciously lack the courage of conviction to put yourself in certain situations, and this leads to games developing as described – the other team takes charge. You hide behind doing the things which are enough to not make you stand out as bad, but it’s not enough to beat your opposite number.
Continuing to lack confidence in those above you as well as yourself can only lengthen this battle. I get that the worry that the players failed to even motivate themselves for a relegation fight. As a collective, perhaps, but as we’re all different as human beings, it could be that one or two had that drive back one week and the next game it was another bunch. Unfortunately, that isn’t a reliable way to get results. Remember this is largely the same group of players that gave absolutely everything last season and almost went up, going toe-to-toe with two comfortably bigger sides (Wolves and Brentford). It wasn’t just a few players who didn’t play as well this time – every player was affected.
Since I’ve almost finished preparing this piece, it’s emerged that Orient’s players are being made to train past the end of the season until May 24th.* It’s unclear who is behind this, but judging by fellow pros coming to the players’ defence on Twitter, it wouldn’t seem a well-thought out idea. There’s a reason why no team whose season has finished does this, and why other players are so surprised at it. Liverani has paid for relegation with his job, which all told is the right decision. He was never going to get the players on his side, and a man in charge who can’t earn the players’ respect is always going to negatively impact the team’s fortunes. And I’m sure more will be revealed as time progresses.
There’s a great deal more that happened which would also appear to have destabilised the club off the pitch – a respected CEO leaving the club and being replaced by a man with no experience whatsoever, the hiring of a Sporting Director who had some control over player recruitment before he left after just 7 months. It isn’t necessarily an incompatibility of footballing cultures, but the change in management structure didn’t work in this case. People were hired by the owner who were never going to be on top of their work to ensure a smooth running of the club. When this meets the playing side and no real understanding of how football works on the pitch is present, things end up looking like a joke. And nobody in their job takes a good view of incompetence above them. That’s why 2014/15 was such a disaster for Leyton Orient.