Football: Long wait for Orient to rise in the east

Cole Moreton reveals why his family will join the play-off pilgrimage
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The Independent Online
YOU NEVER forget your first time. Mine was on a cold spring night in 1978, and it was an intensely spiritual experience. The tension in the air, the surge of the crowd on the terrace, the dazzling floodlights and the emerald beauty of the pitch were all new to me.

And the language - words that I had thought were playground secrets - loud in the mouths of adult men. "Swear words are the poor man's adjective," my dad told me that night before the game was really under way, but when Middlesbrough scored from an offside position he called the referee a bastard. So did I, under my breath. I was in the tribe, at the age of 11.

The result was a surprise. Orient of the old Second Division were not expected to beat opponents from the First Division in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, but they got a scoreless draw up north and won 2-1 at home in front of me and my dad. There were 18,000 others there, too.

I remember the winner as an overhead kick from outside the penalty area in extra time, and dare not look up the official records in case that is not true. It ought to be. "We" were on our way to Wem-ber-lee with Doris Day. The Os have waited a long time to sing Que Sera Sera again.

There should have been three generations on the terrace that night, but my grandfather, Frank, was too ill to come. Time has dimmed my memory of a lovely man, though I recall his shiny hairless head and the sound of snoring on the sofa after tea. They called him "Tanky", not for whatever he did in the desert against Rommel but because he was built like one, and charged through the midfield like a Sherman scattering the enemy. He played for the Os when they were called Clapton Orient, or so the story goes, but it must have been the reserves because he does not appear in the club history. You learn not to question family legend.

So grandad was not there, but I wore his scarf, and we won. Before the next round he was dead. There was no question of supporting West Ham, Spurs or even Liverpool, like the other kids at school after that. Our trip to neutral ground at Stamford Bridge became an unspoken act of memorial, a pilgrimage in honour of the departed man we both loved. We wanted to go all the way for him - but it never happened. The Orient heard the roar of 40,000 Gunners, saw the Arsenal players - Brady, Jennings, Macdonald - and gave up. The legends scored three times without reply then got bored. It was desperately disappointing, but then we did not know that things would get much, much worse.

The Os did well that season and the next, competing with the likes of West Ham and pushing for promotion. At 13, selling programmes for a free ticket, I felt like part of something good. But they just missed out, sold their best players for peanuts, and were relegated. Then relegated again. The crowds drifted away, and the club went broke. Even reverting back to the name Leyton Orient in 1987 failed to raise much interest from the local community.

Everyone laughed at us when the motormouth manager, John Sitton, sacked the captain half-way through a match and challenged the whole team to a fight in front of the TV cameras. Barry Hearn bought the club, tidied up the place and looked like a saviour, but progress under his Matchroom regime has been slower (and steadier) than expected.

And in the meantime, I lost interest. The pride in supporting the local team against all the odds was slowly suffocated by their relentless ability to be crap. It was all just too sad. A flirtation with Spurs felt like betrayal, but now I know that I was not alone, because the Orient have asked for 30,000 tickets for Wembley. We're not fair-weather fans, just people who got sick of standing in the rain all the time.

I always promised that I would not curse my own son by taking him to the see the Os, but Jake is coming to the play-off final with me and my dad, whether he wants to or not. And since the lad is only 18 months old, I'm confident of getting my way. Really, though, this game will complete the circle and end the pilgrimage, two decades after it started. They'll thrash Scunthorpe. They have to, for Frank's sake.