I can safely say that in 20-odd years of watching live football, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Leyton Orient’s final home game in the Football League against Colchester United, following their relegation last week, was ‘abandoned’ after 84 minutes following a pitch invasion – before sensationally being restarted an hour and half later. The English Football League (EFL) and Police lied to the fans who were staging a protest against their owner, declaring that the game had been ‘cancelled’, which led to fans leaving the ground, before the final six minutes were farcically played out behind closed doors, with the Orient back three simply passing the ball, unchallenged, between them.
I’ve written fully three times before about the trials and tribulations of supporting Leyton Orient over the last three years under the utterly disastrous reign of chairman Francesco Bechetti, and they are here if you want to read the full background.
The too-long-didn’t-read version? A man-child billionaire owner took over a club with a long and proud history, who were on the brink of playing in the Championship in 2014, and single-handedly destroyed them; first via simply incompetent management, and then latterly – when fans staged the mildest of protests in October, following one relegation from League One to League Two and continual baffling decisions – via deliberate sabotage, withdrawing all funding, selling or firing senior players leaving only youth teamers to play, and one-by-one removing staff members to the point where there is now barely anyone left at the club; be that sporting or administrative staff.
A winding-up order came and was adjourned in March after Bechetti failed to pay a tax bill – but then eventually did, for reasons no one can work out – with another hearing due in June. He has continually refused calls to sell the club to anyone else.
As ever, fans looked to the Football Association (FA) and EFL for help and duly none came, with mealy-mouthed statements that amounted to, ‘well, we did the fit and proper persons test three years ago and that was fine, and we’ve asked him nicely if he’ll pay the bills, so he probably will, right?’
A defeat against Crewe last week confirmed relegation out of the Football League after 112 years.
Despite staff and players not being paid for six weeks – a concrete, tangiable example of unacceptable behaviour, with long-serving, loyal staff members struggling to pay mortgages and the rest - the authorities did nothing. So with frustration rising, fans have taken it into their own hands, firstly with a post-match pitch invasion following our last home game against Hartlepool on Easter Monday and then, finally – gloriously – today against Colchester.
There had been rumours of a pitch invasion beforehand, but no one was quite sure whether it would actually happen. The ground was packed, with over 6,000 fans packing Brisbane Road to see what could prove to be Orient’s last-ever home game, should our vengeful owner wind the club up in June.
Colchester took the lead, before a rocket from one of our many youth players Sandro Semedo squared things up. Colchester then scored two in a minute in the 78th and 79th minutes to seemingly wrap up the result.
Then, in the 84th minute: a single red flare went into the Orient penalty area. Clearly a signal for the protest, at first a trickle, and then a flood, of supporters streamed onto the pitch.
I joined them, with the protest clearly a peaceful one. Players left the pitch untroubled. We wanted this game abandoned to prove a point to the Football League. If you’re not going to do anything to help our problems, then we will create a problem for you that you can’t ignore.
I spoke to fellow supporters, there was no malice, just frustration that we had been left to rot by the authorities – the Football League clearly knew that in two games’ time, we wouldn’t be their problem, so why bother doing anything?
I spoke to a steward who told us that he had to ask us to leave, as that was his job and his seniors were observing him, but revealed that he hadn’t been paid in weeks. Maybe eventually he would be paid, but he was on our side and agreed with the protests. His only request? He had tickets for the Joshua v Klitschko fight and wanted the protest to end so he could get to Wembley in time. Fair enough mate.
Our manager asked us to leave the pitch over the PA system, clearly having been instructed to. We appreciated his point of view, but respectfully disagreed.
We spoke to the club’s youth coach Errol McKellar, who was on the pitch with us and gave an impassioned speech to a group of us about how when you buy a club, you are buying a history, and something that is important to families and generations who bond over the love of a club. Leyton Orient, to us, is, to paraphrase Barcelona, ‘more than just a football club’. Errol was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago, survived it, and embarked upon a string of fundraising activities, including a charity match at Brisbane Road, which I attended in 2015. To him, the club means the world.
A policeman came over to try and convince us to leave, telling us he understood our protest, but that we had made it and we should toddle off home as more police were on the way to make arrests. We didn’t buy a word of it; as soon as the protest was over, they’d finish the match and pretend it had never happened: we needed the game abandoned to make our point – after all, it would be the ultimate headache for the EFL as Colchester were in the hunt for the play-offs, with goal difference potentially crucial.
They couldn’t simply abandon the game and award it 3-1 to Colchester, or whatever scoreline, as the Us could justifiably argue that they could have scored more in the remaining minutes, while their rivals could – not quite as justifiably – claim that Orient could have hit back.
The latter point, however, hovered in my mind as the announcer finally said, twice, that the game had been ‘cancelled’. I said out loud: “maybe they’ll just tell us that and then restart the game as soon as we’ve left the pitch”. I didn’t really believe they would actually do that.
Having seemingly achieved what we set out to, we left the pitch and headed to our legendary supporters club.
Having settled down with a pint, it was suddenly announced over the PA that, on police orders, the club was going to have to stop serving, and clear out patrons. All very strange, for there had been no violence, and no threat of any trouble whatsoever.
It soon became clear what was afoot, as Twitter began to inform us that the players were back out on the pitch warming up: we had been lied to, and the game was going to finish behind closed doors.
Some reporters were still in the ground, and the farcical scenes were relayed via social media – the players had clearly got together and decided to see out the final few minutes with the Orient defence simply passing the ball between themselves, with not one single tackle. Hilariously, three added minutes were played.
This pathetic display, with no fans in the ground, was to be the final Football League action that this famous old ground would witness for the foreseeable future.
Soon after, the EFL issued a statement:
The key sentence there? “A decision was taken with the Police to announce that the game had been abandoned, as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct.”
Literally, admitting to the world that the footballing authorities and the police had lied to the fans in order to get a game played, simply as it would inconvenience the conclusion of the league table. A game between Blackpool and Huddersfield in May 2015 which saw similar scenes, and was abandoned, was never finished, because the result did not affect the competition (Blackpool were already down and Huddersfield were comfortably mid-table).
Aside from the obvious issue that both Orient and Colchester fans had been cheated out of watching six minutes of a match they had paid for – more one for the Colchester fans really, let’s be honest – this development opens a seriously worrying can of worms.
What happens the next time a stadium evacuation is announced? Maybe they’re just lying to us again. What happens next time a kick-off time is delayed? Maybe they’re just lying to us again. What happens next time there’s a dangerous crowd control incident? Who can take the word of the authorities seriously?
If that sounds overly dramatic, then let’s dial it back and simply say, if ever there was something proved just what disregard and contempt the Football League and FA has for the fans that make the game what it is, then this is it.
The moral of the story? If your club is the next in line to be saddled with an incompetent, unfit owner, don’t expect the authorities to do anything about it. You’re on your own.