I write this on an overcast Bank Holiday Monday trying, as I suspect most O’s fans are, to rationalise how we came so close to promotion again in a play-off final and yet fell short, for the third time in a row, to northern opponents. Was it the West End of Wembley, the fact that the fourth team always seems to win playoffs or the fact that Slade didn’t bring on Robbie Simpson to score a 40 yard screamer in extra time?
This time we had real hope, unlike the dismal performance in 1999 or the team that fell short in 2001. Orient went into half time with a 2-0 lead after a shaky start, but a combination of bad refereeing, Rotherham persistence and a wonder goal from ex-O’s striker Revell pegged the O’s back. Despite being the better team in extra time, tiredness and a lack of cutting edge saw the game go to penalties, where Baudry and Dagnall missed to give promotion to Rotherham and leave us heartbroken.
Football is cruel, but in truth this game reflected our season; out ahead, only to be pegged back and out ahead on penalties, only to be pegged back and miss out. It goes without saying that what Orient have achieved this season is phenomenal. Joint LMA manager of the year, Russell Slade, has established a solid base of talented footballers that play good, passing football. With the vastly superior budgets of Wolves (and Brentford), it was always going to be hard to sustain an automatic push over 46 gruelling games, but third place was a massive achievement. Nevertheless, the reality is we’ll be playing in League One again next season, travelling to Crewe and Scunthorpe rather than Leeds, Fulham and Middlesborough.
As upset as I am, I’ll still get my season ticket, as I know many other Orient fans will, irrespective of what player or management changes happen in the summer. However, the question remains, where next for these players and this management team that came so close this season and how will Barry Hearn react to yesterday’s events?
Glass Half-full Scenario: Barry Hearn sees enough potential in Russell Slade and the key players to increase investment in the management team and playing squad to prevent fragmentation of the squad, very much as Brentford pushed on after falling short last season. Key players Moses Odubajo, Dean Cox, even though they are under contract, stay rather than leaving for fees. Out of contract players Lloyd James and Elliott Omozusi decide to stay at the club. Hearn persuades Russell Slade to stay longer term and allows him to add to the squad in several key positions, setting Orient up well for a push on promotion again in the 2014/15 season.
Orient finish top six again or pushing for automatic promotion.
Glass Half-empty Scenario: Russell Slade receives an offer from a Championship club and decides to leave move. Offers come in for Dean Cox and Moses Odubajo and are accepted, while Ellliott Omozusi and Lloyd James decide not to take up new contract offers and leave on free transfers. A new manager needs to come in an entirely rebuild the midfield and get the new team to gel. Hearn stays true to form and invests zero in new players or improving the squad.
Orient finish lower mid-table or fighting relegation.
Realistic Scenario: Russell Slade stays. One of Cox or Odubajo leaves for good money. Orient bring in a winger to replace the departing O’s player. James and Omozusi stay for another year. Most of this squad stays and Orient compete, once again, with a small squad. The team doesn’t replicate this season’s success but still manages a top 10 finish. Tough decisions then need to be made in June 2015.
Orient finish 10th
Where next for the “Group that Never Gives Up?”
Overall it’s hard to know what to predict will happen after such an emotional day. Most of the key players are under contract, meaning that for key players to leave, there will need to be good transfer fees, but this team has been in the shop window all season, meaning a club of Orient’s size will not turn down a £1 million offer if it comes in for Moses Odubajo or a high fee for Dean Cox, both of whom are critical to this team.
Much of this also depends on Russell Slade. He was keen to talk to Barnsley when they wanted to discuss the job with him and his stock is much higher after this season’s endeavours, which may make him hard to keep. He may also feel he cannot go further with Orient and want a new challenge, after the disappointment of missing out in the playoffs. May and June’s movements will tell us much about the chances of this Orient team next season.
If this team stays together, there is a chance it could compete again next year. In the background, however, the Olympic Stadium and Barry Hearn’s desire to sell the club still loom large leaving the long-term future of Orient questionable. Orient fans are hoping the squad will stay together and grow, very much as Brentford have succeeded, but for that to happen, Hearn will need to invest even more, not just in the running of the club, but also in the playing staff, which would require a change in his philosophy or a sustainable club that succeeds on its own merits. Either way, it has been a season to be proud of and I hope another is just around the corner. Up the O’s!
Written by Andy Brown, We Are Going Up’s Leyton Orient blogger