Going off the rails with the Leyton Orient Express

The East London club is surely the craziest in England. With a colourful Italian owner, and now the recent appointment of Kevin Nolan as player-manager, it’s hard to divert your gaze from the trainwreck that always awaits them just around the bend.

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The news that Kevin Nolan was to be appointed player-manager of Leyton Orient was met with some astonishment and a degree of excitement. Nolan? Player-manager? But why the surprise? This was simply a case of Orient being Orient. The ex-Hammer and veteran striker has a wealth of playing experience but nothing on the managerial side. That said, the O’s owner, Francesco Becchetti, was willing to take the gamble, and however it ends up it is sure to be eventful.

For his first foray into management, Nolan couldn’t have chosen a trickier task. Working under Becchetti won’t be easy. This is an owner who was recently handed a six-match stadium ban and a hefty fine on top of that for booting the assistant manager up the backside after a Boxing Day victory over Portsmouth.

It was a truly bizarre incident and one that serves to remind Nolan that even winning might not be enough to satisfy Orient’s eccentric owner.

And that’s not all. Last November after a depressing defeat to Hartlepool, the Italian ordered the team to remain in a hotel for a week. This practice is apparently quite common in Italian football, and it also has a name, ‘ritiro’, literally meaning retreat, or withdrawal, but which entails an intense period of bonding in order to boost morale. The Orient players, however, were aghast that they could not return home to see their families. Becchetti ultimately calls the shots and on several occasions he has come worryingly close to assuming managerial duties altogether — Nolan will have taken note.


“From Primark to Harrods’”

Given his erratic decision-making, what Becchetti expects of Orient is unclear. When he first bought the club from sports promoter, and Dagenham-born Orient fan Barry Hearn, the deal was met with optimism. Here was the man Hearn had singled out to take Orient to the next level.

Hearn had taken Orient as far as he could. After saving the club from the brink back in 1995, Hearn ran a tight ship. In contrast to today’s extravagant forms of punishment, hotel stays were out of the question. The boxing-enthusiast packed the punches. Orient climbed steadily up the divisions earning a famous and very lucrative FA Cup replay against North London giants Arsenal.

No longer the club for a fiver that Hearn acquired in 1995, Becchetti bought Orient for the sizeable sum of £4 million in 2014. Now was the time for Orient to think big and to move out of the shadow of its neighbours (East London rivals West Ham be warned). Hearn, with third-person pomposity, declared as much when the deal was first announced:

“The stingy Barry Hearn is gone and the extremely wealthy Italian owner — who’s not an idiot, he’s not going to just throw money at it — is making a commitment and will give the club a budget it’s never had in its existence. The manager, Russell Slade, said to me the other day ‘it feels like I’ve gone from Primark to Harrods’ and I think that sums it up.”

Fast-forward two years and that dream has quickly turned into a nightmare. Four managers have been fired in the space of 15 months as Orient were relegated to League Two.

The renewable energy mogul’s own future is also unresolved. Becchetti was arrested in October by the Metropolitan Police after the Albanian government issued a warrant on charges of alleged tax evasion, money laundering and fraud over the failed construction of a hydroelectric power plant. Becchetti’s Leyton Orient adventure hangs precariously in the balance as he awaits an extradition verdict.

The grand plan of assembling a team ready to join the elite — similar to the likes of Premier League minnows Bournemouth — does not look as though it will ever be achieved under the current ownership. Perhaps Primark was the best fit for Orient after all.


The return of the circus

If there is one tradition that Becchetti has continued at Orient, it is the propensity for things to unravel in a farcical fashion. Leyton Orient just love to serve up a soap opera. It’s deeply-rooted in their DNA. The little East London club have a long history of dealing in the downright absurd.

On his own television channel Becchetti launched and broadcast a reality TV show about Leyton Orient in which trialists from Italy competed to win a professional contract for the club. It was shockingly bad.

However, it all seemed very familiar. During the tumultuous 1994–1995 season, Orient were the subject of a fateful fly-on-the-wall documentary by a film student who couldn’t quite believe her luck and the access she’d been granted. It was astonishingly good, so good that Channel 4 ensured that they acquired the rights to Orient: Club for a Fiver. The low-budget production only added to the film’s raw insight on life at a club nosediving toward the abyss and a manager losing his marbles in the process. John Sitton is that manager’s name, and his lengthy diatribes, delivered to his players in the dressing room, have assumed legendary status:

“You, you little cunt, when I tell you to do something, and you, you fucking big cunt, when I tell you to do something, do it. And if you come back at me, we’ll have a fucking right sort-out in here. All right? And you can pair up if you like, and you can fucking pick someone else to help you, and you can bring your fucking dinner. ‘Cos by the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll fucking need it.”

This was Sitton at his supreme best delivering a truly riveting, undiluted and impassioned team talk. What better way to get your players onside than offering to fight them? It was TV gold, but such is the curse of inviting in the cameras that Sitton would in fact never manage again. Thankfully, Twitter exists to help @TheRealSitts vent his lingering bitterness, but 140-characters will never be sufficient for a man so eloquent.


The dying breed of the player-manager

Sitton and the long list of those culled after him serve as a warning to the new man on just how treacherous the managerial position at Orient is. The pressure is further intensified when required to juggle two roles simultaneously.

The player-manager is a dying breed in the frenetic world of football management, and for a good reason. Increased media attention ensures that a manager’s role extends far beyond the confines of the dressing room and the training ground, there’s nowhere to hide. However, Nolan is undoubtedly made of tough stuff. The Merseysider is a natural born leader and was nurtured by one of the most bullish bosses in English football. A disciple of Sam Allardyce, the duo formed football’s most enduring bromances, enjoying long stints at both Bolton and West Ham together. Big Sam believes this is the ideal acid-test for his surrogate son in management:

“Now he’s accepted it, he has to learn extremely quickly. I went to Limerick as player-manager and managed more on the field than off it. That’s a great asset to have in your first job, because you can affect everything on the pitch. He can manage a situation as they happen on the pitch, and if he can score the goals he can then it will be good for Orient and good for him.”

In his first game in charge, the team registered their first victory in a month with a two-nil away win over Wycombe Wanderers. Then on Tuesday evening, with Orient struggling to break down a resilient Newport, and with the home crowd growing frustrated, Nolan put on his bib and started warming up down the touchline. “He’s coming on!” the Brisbane Road faithful cheered. Ten minutes remaining and the scoreline still goalless, Nolan couldn’t resist the temptation. The chant “Super, super Kev, super, super Kev…super Kevin Nolan!” rang around the ground.

What ensued was a predictable onslaught of pantomime banter. Nolan’s first contribution was to misplace a pass which brought groans from the home support and calls for him to be taken off (voluntarily of course). To top that, with magnificent sarcasm, a lone fan heckled: “Get back to West Ham mate!”

Who’d be a player-manager? There’s something inherently mad about it. However, Nolan eventually eased to the occasion. With the clock ticking, the big burly 33-year-old striker demonstrated some of his Premier League nous with a smart run into the area, his cutback met onrushing teammate who was bundled over as he went to head the ball. Penalty! Would Nolan take it? It looked as though he might for a second, but the gaffer had more sense. He passed the buck to Jay Simpson. Goal. Three points.

The Mighty O’s are now in the play-off places, Kevin Nolan has a 100% win ratio; the train is back on track. However, at Orient if one thing is ever for certain it is that the farcical is never far away.