The Orient express is going places - FA & League Cups - Football - The Independent

The Orient express is going places

West Ham row aside, one loss in 20 games means Slade's group will be ready when Arsenal come calling today

In the Olympic Suite at Brisbane Road hang photographs commemorating the club's few triumphs down the years; mostly promotions from the lower divisions, but also reaching the 1978 FA Cup semi-final against today's fifth-round opponents, Arsenal. That it is one of the more recent pictures illustrates how hard times have been these past decades.

Now, they are on a welcome run with one defeat in 20 games and a push towards the League One play-off places, prompting the irrepressible chairman Barry Hearn to joke: "We're in danger of going into administration through win bonuses." He can well afford it, not least because this season's run from first to fifth round of the Cup will mean breaking even for the first time in his 16 years in charge.

Earlier in the season, Orient were in the bottom two but Hearn, who has generally treated his managers well, kept faith with Russell Slade, whom he calls with typical understatement "the best manager in the world", and believes to be destined for higher things.

Slade was brought in last April, charged with saving the Os from relegation, which along with taking teams to play-offs is the sort of job he specialises in. Failure as a player pushed him early into coaching; no hardship since, as well as A levels, he has a degree in sport and teaching experience. "I was playing in Notts County reserves and coaching there, and was manager at 34, when you think you know everything and really you're wet behind the ears. So I really cut my teeth at Scarborough, where the club went into administration. More recently I seem to have become a firefighter rather than promotion-seeker but hopefully I can restore that again."

He is humble enough to feel honoured rather than insulted to be called a poor man's Arsène Wenger and would be entitled to point out that in terms of available resources he has usually been poor indeed. That requires different qualities in a manager, not least dealing with the new breed of cosmopolitan players found even at lower Football League levels. "There's two sides, the coaching and then the management of people, which Arsène does exceptionally well, and that's what I try to do. The changing-room has changed, it's so diverse now and you have to deal with individuals totally different from 20 years ago. That's a special skill today."

But for all that, both Hearn and Slade genuinely appreciate the commitment and tenacity of their revamped squad. "They all want to be here, and want to be successful," he says. "I don't think that's always been the case that players want to be at Leyton Orient." He even lives next door to one of them, his captain Stephen Dawson, in one of the flats that Hearn cannily had built on all four sides of the ground.

Slade's knowledge of the lower leagues has proved invaluable when seeking recruits for a League One club. So he knew all about players like Dawson, a chirpy Dubliner signed from Bury in the summer who has proved one of this season's successes, along with goalkeeper Jamie Jones, released by Everton. Obtaining young loanees from Tottenham has proved profitable and the veteran Scott McGleish is still scoring goals.

Slade is adamant that Orient, who have won away to Championship sides Norwich and Swansea, are a footballing side who will not desert their natural style any more than Arsenal did against Barcelona in midweek. "We like to play, move the ball and I think we're the third-highest pass completion team in the League."

It is probably the first time in his career that he has found himself in a geographical area surrounded by so many larger clubs; one of whom are determined to move even nearer. Sitting on the third floor of the main stand, Slade can see the Olympic Stadium that West Ham intend occupying and he shares the concerns of his chairman, who on Friday met the Premier League's chief executive Richard Scudamore to discuss the matter. "A club like Orient, a 130-year-old family club, needs to be considered," Slade argues. "I don't think one of the big clubs should just come in and bulldoze a League One club as if we don't matter. We matter to a lot of people."

West Ham were more welcome visitors when they helped set a ground record of 34,345 at Brisbane Road for an FA Cup tie in 1964. Today's capacity is a more modest 9,300. Slade says of the task: "We've earned the right to have a crack at Arsenal. If we play them 20 times, we'd probably lose 19 but we have to believe that in that one game we can get a positive result."

Which would be worth another photo or two in the Olympic Suite.

Leyton Orient versus Arsenal is live on ESPN from 3.30pm today

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