Perhaps I was naïve to think that we had fate on our side. It’s been an epic journey, from the opening-day trip to Carlisle and subsequent hospital trip to pick up the captain Nathan Clarke on the way home, to the breakfast meetings with Barry Hearn, the coach journeys with Mrs Lisbie’s cooking, the frantic deadline days, the late nights, the early starts, the records broken.
Since this column began back in August what you’ve seen is the inner workings of a football club moving forward as one, where each and every character, from kit man to manager, is doing everything humanly possible to take us to the next level. At the core has been a group of players, assembled without a penny having been spent, bonded by togetherness, who have exceeded all expectations and defied all odds.
It felt like the story had a happy ending. I still believe we deserved a happy ending but it finished in tears at Wembley on Sunday. Having led the League One play-off 2-0 at half-time, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact we won’t be in the Championship next season after we were eventually beaten by Rotherham on penalties. Congratulations to them.
It was a surreal finish. Time seemed to stand still as the players wandered zombie-like around our half of the pitch, some inconsolable, others sat gazing into the distance amid the chaos of Rotherham’s celebrations. The ending is so swift and brutal. It felt like within a minute of us missing our final penalty Rotherham had celebrated and lifted the trophy. Then you realise that, after all the nerves, excitement and 49 games, the season really is over.
The changing room was like a morgue afterwards and it was difficult to see many of the lads in tears. The misery was worse for Clarke and Chris Dagnall, who were escorted off by the drugs testers for a random spot test. The manager, Russell Slade, fulfilled his post-match press duties with a brave face but clearly was hurt.
By the time Rotherham had returned from celebrating our changing room was near empty. Most had headed off to the players’ lounge to meet their families. Defender Mathieu Baudry, credit to him, went to a nearby pub full of Orient supporters to apologise for missing his penalty. We’d dreamt of meeting friends, family and colleagues and heading off into the night as one, but instead we left in dribs and drabs. When I went to board the Tube at Wembley Park, I bumped into a solemn pair of our defenders Gary Sawyer and Scott Cuthbert, heading home to Brentwood, in east London.
The training-playing-training-playing routine is over. The players out of contract will have meetings this week, but the next time the others will see each other is in Las Vegas in a week. The trip won’t be in the context people had hoped, but might get the disappointment out of their systems.
It hurts now, but hopefully in time we can look back on it with some fondness. We gave it our all in front of around 25,000 Orient fans, who were magnificent. The journey across London was spectacular, with flags and support on the Underground, and it was special to see so many friends and families wearing Orient shirts with pride.
Orient is a family club and it was heartening to see dozens of our former stars. They included Peter Kitchen, our hero of 1978, walking down Wembley Way. Then there was John Mackie, our captain when we were promoted in 2006. John, who now runs a fruit-and-veg stall, organised a reunion of players from that promotion team and they were enjoying the day with the fans.
Finally, I want to thank you all for reading the column over the last 45 weeks. It’s been a year to remember and be proud of, that I’ve been happy to share with you. We can rise again. Up the O’s.