As I write this, Orient sits atop League One and in the second round of the Capital One Cup, strange territory for a team that are notoriously bad starters under Russell Slade. A literally thumping 5-1 win at Carlisle on the opening day had thrills, spills and headaches, especially for Os centre back and captain, Nathan Clarke, who was knocked unconscious and out cold for 30 minutes after going head first into gravel on the side of the pitch after a “robust” challenge from Carlisle captain Lee Miller saw the Us skipper sent off. Clarke later emerged on the team coach looking like a giant panda with two black eyes and cut and bruised but otherwise OK. This was followed by a less convincing, but no less exciting performance against Coventry that saw the Os sneak a 3-2 win and condemn Coventry to their second 3-2 defeat in four days.
Things can change very quickly in football and O’s fans know all too well the old football cliché that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. Nevertheless, the great start this year is a major improvement over last year, as Orient did not manage a single win until September and the year before the start was far worse!
So what has been the reason for Orient’s great start, can it continue and what is needed to continue the success?
Orient went into pre-season off the back of a strong finish to the 2012-13 campaign, similar to our 2010-11 performance, landing an identical 7th place in League One. The contrast with 2011-12 was stark as we seemed destined for the bottom four and only narrowly escaped. Last season, our revival began with an 8 game run in November a massive upswing in performances, punctuated by the return to fitness of veteran striker Kevin Lisbie (as well as veteran midfielders Cook and Rowlands and central defenders Scott Cuthbert and Nathan Clarke) which saw Orient surge up the table.
I was lucky enough to get to a number of our pre-season games and the first thing that was evident was the cohesion in the team. Orient swept a decent Chelmsford side away 7-0 and thumped Welling 4-1 with relative ease. In addition to winning a prestigious friendly 2-1 against New York Cosmos, the most telling aspect was the lack of turnover in the squad, with the nucleus of a successful team kept in place, with a few valuable additions to the team. Results aside, the team played with fluency and an inherent understanding of each other’s games that comes with playing together all the previous season. This translated effortlessly into the first game of the season where the team played with the same understanding.
Continuity: Summer Transfers
Close season activity was steady and focused. The main emphasis was on signing up out of contract players, particularly top players such as Mathieu Baudry (central defence/defensive midfield) and Romain Vincelot (midfield), both very astute signings. Striker David Mooney re-signed and poor performers were offloaded (Griffith to Port Vale and Symes to Burton). A settled back four including Baudry, Nathan Clarke, Scott Cuthbert and Gary Sawyer were all contracted for the season as are the core players in midfield and up-front, which was crucial for stability. Striker Shaun Batt joined us permanently after a loan from Millwall, West Ham reserve keeper Jake Larkins also signed as did promising trialist striker Yohann Lasimant, winger Johnny Gorman, released by Wolves and robust midfielder Marvin Bartley on loan from Burnley.
Losing Charlie MacDonald, Cook and Rowlands that we couldn’t afford due to the 60% salary cap means we may live or die by loans next season should we get injuries, however.
Off the Pitch
Most O’s fans would agree that despite the distraction of the Olympic Stadium shambles up the road, that the club is becoming much more professional off the pitch in terms of its sponsorship, community engagement and fan engagement. This is not to say that the club was poorly run before, but simply that there is a greater sense of professionalism that is evident off the pitch that is translating to confidence on the field. The Olympic Stadium issue has also galvanised Orient fans behind the #standupfortheorient campaign.
Scoring Goals for Fun
There is not getting away from the fact that all of Orient’s attacking players are on fire this season. Winger Dean Cox has three in two games, Kevin Lisbie has three in two, Mooney, James and Odubajo are all playing superbly as well. Eight goals in two games is evidence of a team with confidence that can always score goals!
Can we beat 11 Men?
So far, both the teams Orient have played have had their captains sent off, so it will be interesting to see how we get on against 11 players for 90 minutes!
2013-14 Season Outlook
Despite a great start, League 1 still looks tough this season, even though teams like Coventry are already in turmoil. Neither Orient or Walsall fans (who have had a similarly good start) are getting carried away, but we’ll enjoy it while it lasts!
Personally, I would be very happy with an upper mid-table finish, ideally sneaking into the playoffs. Every year the clubs with larger budgets and squads will survive the winter months more effectively and smaller squads will find it hard to compete when injuries and suspensions set in (along with the wage cap!). Slade deserves much credit for turning things around at Orient from our precarious position last October. Continuity and stability at the club is really helping on-pitch performances. Few injuries and Slade’s ability to wheel and deal in the loan market will prove pivotal to another successful season, and who knows, maybe we could even “do a Yeovil”?
Written by Andy Brown, We Are Going Up’s Leyton Orient Blogger