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This is what it's like to support the craziest football club in the UK

Seven managers, two divisions & a chairman wanted in Albania

This is what it's like to support the craziest football club in the UK
12 April 2016

As long as there's Leeds, it's OK.

That's what I've been saying to myself over the past two years of insanity that has engulfed my club, Leyton Orient.

Until today.

That's when, upon hearing the news that our player-manager Kevin Nolan was about to be dismissed after a mere 15 games in charge - having to suffer the ignominy of continuing as a player while his assistant Andy Hessenthaler 'takes charge' - but with chairman Francesco Becchetti seemingly picking the team and 'coaching' from the stands - with the latter effectively becoming our eighth 'manager' in under two years, I was finally forced to admit that our circus has officially become the biggest and most ridiculous in the UK.

Most people will be only dimly aware of what has happened at a humble East London League 2 side over the past couple of seasons, but - objectively - it's a pretty incredible tale.

After 20 years of solidity under boxing and snooker impresario Barry Hearn, who bought the club in 1995 and proceeded to balance the books, run a sensible business and generally keep the club on an even keel, the club was sold to mysterious Italian billionaire Francesco Becchetti, a man who had made his fortune in waste disposal and recycling, as well as expanding into running TV channels in his native Italy and Albania.

Hearn, never one to shy away from a soundbite, told excited fans that “We’re going to be the envy of every small club,” and that neighbours West Ham should be “petrified of this fella”.

Old Barry can rarely have got anything more wrong in his entire life.

Barry in happier times with Theo, the Orient mascot

Os fans had just experienced the pain of watching their side lose on penalties at Wembley, after being 2-0 up at half-time in the play-off final in 2014, with a side that had outperformed all expectations and galvanised the whole club, led by the popular and likeable manager Russell Slade, when Hearn sold up. Spirits were raised with the prospect of huge funding that would surely make that promotion a reality within a year or two. Just a couple of tweaks here and there, and we'd be on the up, establishing ourselves as a Championship club and, who knows, knocking on the door of the Premier League.

Sadly, it's been nothing but downhill since then.

After bringing in a host of older, experienced players on big wages (the likes of Jobi McAnuff and Darius Henderson) which upset the balance of the squad, popular figures behind the scenes at the club left, communication between the club and fans became non-existent, save for some excruciatingly badly-written press releases, before Slade, then one of the league's longest-serving managers, was given an ultimatum after just seven games of the season. He soon departed, to be replaced by assistant Kevin Nugent, whose time as caretaker went on and on - seemingly due to the owners having absolutely no idea who to appoint.

Eventually, he was replaced by a man already in the building - sporting director Mauro Milanese - who, clearly out of his depth, was then replaced by novice Fabio Liverani, a man whose only managerial experience was one win in seven matches in charge of Genoa. Hardly the CV of someone to take us forward, and so it proved.

Liverani was, in all likelihood, one of the most clueless managers to have ever graced a touchline. And I've watched Orient for over 20 years.

Fabio Liverani, shouting something that none of the players could understand, no doubt

Never managing to master English, he gave baffling press conferences, including one memorable occasion when he kept referring to "the big house". Meanwhile, there were reports from players - since verified - that they couldn't understand any of his team talks and had to work out their tactics in the tunnel before games. His team selections became increasingly erratic, seemingly picking names out of a hat - and there's every chance that this is genuinely what he was doing. After winning just 8 out of 27 matches (and God knows how we managed that many), just 12 months after having one foot in the Championship, Orient were relegated from League One.

During my honeymoon.

Throughout this disastrous season, Orient became a laughing stock after running a 'win-a-contract' reality TV show contest back in Italy on Bechetti's Agon channel, which led to the sort of viral-for-all-the-wrong-reasons monstrosities seen below.

So, did Becchetti learn some lessons for his second season? After all, we all make mistakes, don't we?

In a word: no.

After at least heeding the not-entirely-unreasonable request from fans that he appoint a manager who could speak to the players, Liverani was put out of his misery and the largely-untested Ian Hendon was brought in as manager for the start of this season. Meanwhile, after his method of outspending everyone else had led to relegation, Becchetti decided to go the other way and drastically reduce the wage budget.

A blistering start got our hopes up, before performances, and the results, tailed off, and Hendon was relieved of his duties in January with the club lying in mid-table. However, before this, our esteemed owner was hit with an extradition order to Albania to face trial over fraud-related activities - which he has so far managed to resist - and was then banned for six matches after kicking his own assistant manager Andy Hessenthaler after allegedly getting boozed up during the game. And that was after a game we'd won.

Nonetheless, like the eager puppies we are, Orient fans got their hopes up when Kevin Nolan - a perennial captain of almost 500 Premier League appearances and 99 career goals from midfield - was appointed as player-manager. Yes, he was inexperienced as a manager, but was surely going to be a leader, and could drag us to promotion by dominating games on the pitch - surely a given, considering he was dropping three entire divisions from the previous season.

To be fair, our hopes were not unfounded. He got the team playing again and - up until the last four matches - had an impressive record, with 7 wins and a draw from his first 11 games in charge; albeit while he, as a player, struggled for form. But while our last few matches have made it clear that his playing days might be better left behind him, Orient fans were still certainly right behind him leading us into next season with a full preseason and his own squad in place.

And then came today's bombshell, revealed, as ever, by a surge of rumour and leaks long before an official announcement - a scenario that is both deeply unprofessional, and insulting for a man of Nolan's undoubted calibre.

But, then, what do Becchetti and his cronies care? They own the club, they can do what they like.

Should we even be complaining? Leeds United fans have had to endure similar embarrassment, while Blackpool's plight is arguably much worse. Charlton, too, have seen their beloved club reduced to a meaningless plaything.

Leeds United's own cartoon villain chairman Massimo Cellino

It's easy to criticise the clearly-insufficient 'fit and proper persons' test, but it would have been impossible to know that Becchetti would behave in this manner before he took over.

But what's terrifying is how little can be done once these people are in power and ruining important institutions that are embedded into their localities. Under Barry Hearn, the club did great work in the community, winning many awards in the process. Now, the powers-that-be rarely communicate with the fans, treating it as their personal plaything. And, most worrying of all, recent accounts from the club reveal a £4.5m loss run up in the last season. If Becchetti loses interest and decides to up sticks, the club could die.

As the likes of AFC Wimbledon have shown, a club being taken away from you is not necessarily the end of things - and can herald a glorious new start - but it's by no means guaranteed. Plenty of new phoenix clubs, set up after League teams went to the wall, still flounder in the depths of the non-leagues.

The fan-owned AFC Wimbledon celebrate promotion back to the Football League in 2011

Of course, in the world of the Premier League and billion pound TV deals, who in the wider world cares if a badly-run fourth tier club goes to the wall?

Well, I do. And so do thousands of other supporters, for whom life would not be the same without their team to watch at the weekends, and their fellow fanatics to celebrate and moan with. Of course, it's the nature of economics that some clubs will simply run out of money - many operate on the breadline - but if Orient finish, it will be due to the whim of a petulant billionaire who simply got bored.

So what's it like to support the craziest club in the UK? Interesting and exciting at first - now wearying and depressing; as a club that I used to take pride in giving chances to its managers simply discard them at the first sign of trouble, while no player or coach in their right mind will want to come and join the circus that's unfolded. From a committed, likeable group of players who strained every sinew to take us to within a whisker of the Championship, to this current shambles in less than two years.

It used to be the hope that killed you, now it's the helplessness.

Still, we'll all be there on Saturday at home to Dagenham & Redbridge, hoping against hope that things will start to become normal. But I wouldn't bet on it happening any time soon.

(Images: Rex/Getty)