When Leyton Orient played Notts County in this same week last September, they were a club riding the crest of a wave. Their 5-1 victory that Tuesday evening was the seventh of eight straight League One wins at the start of a season that brought their highest league position since 1982, albeit with the ensuing pain of a play-off final shoot-out defeat by Rotherham.
When Orient faced Notts County three days ago the mood could not have been more different. Last Saturday, after the 2-0 home defeat by Colchester, the club’s director of football, Mauro Milanese, had issued their manager, Russell Slade, an ultimatum in front of his players: win at Meadow Lane or lose your job. Milanese was relaying the words of Francesco Becchetti, Orient’s billionaire president who spent an estimated £7m to buy the club from Barry Hearn in July.
Orient’s 1-1 draw in the East Midlands did not seal Slade’s fate; the 53-year-old was told to carry on in “a frank and honest exchange with the president, with a plan to go forward”. Yet the rejoinder that this plan “still involves me at this moment in time” does not speak of long-term stability.
Shaun Derry, Slade’s opposite number at Notts, described the pressure he is under as “absolutely bonkers”. The 311 travelling supporters showed their feelings with “Stay Slade” banners and according to Mat Roper, editor for the past 23 years of the Orient fanzine Pandamonium, “at least 85 per cent don’t want him to go”.
Now in his fifth season at Orient, Slade is English football’s fourth longest-serving manager, yet the example of Massimo Cellino at Leeds suggests that, for a certain breed of Italian club owner, longevity is as desirable as plate of soggy pasta.
Becchetti, whose background is in renewable energy and waste management, does not have Cellino’s history of sacking managers as this is his first football club – he did once own the volleyball team Roma Volley and enquired initially about buying Reading. Yet his circle have not spoken to explain events this week and Orient fans could be forgiven for wondering where their club are heading. As Roper adds, they had “18 years of stability with Barry Hearn, where you knew what you were going to get” and now there is “that nagging doubt in the back of your mind”.
There is no denying Orient have started badly but their player recruitment drive began in earnest only after the takeover in early July and they have been playing catch-up. Slade brought in seven new players and sold one – Moses Odubajo to Brentford for £1m – and so has a less settled team. Only two players, Nathan Clarke and David Mooney, have begun every match while, of the high-profile recruits from the Championship, striker Darius Henderson has scored three goals but winger Jobi McAnuff has struggled so far.
The result is a mixed bag of performances: they are unbeaten away and won at Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup but at home, in front of Becchetti, they have failed to spark: defeated 2-1 by Chesterfield and held 0-0 by Walsall before last Saturday’s loss.
After Hearn sold Orient, he told The Independent on Sunday: “I really can envisage a day in the not-too-distant future when all 92 clubs here, from the Premier League downwards, are under overseas control.”
A year ago, one national newspaper described Slade’s motivational messages in the Orient dressing room. “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there,” read one.
The motivational value of standing a man on the edge of the precipice and warning him the push will come must have got lost in translation.