LONG READ: In 2017, the grim reaper came knocking for Leyton Orient. Following a damaging ownership, Orient were seemingly destined for liquidation but were ultimately saved. Tom Kelly investigates Orient’s three-year nightmare and their subsequent recovery.Embed from Getty Images
A short stroll around the outskirts of Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road offers a glimpse at the remnants of a civil war between themselves and their former owner Francesco Becchetti. Three years have passed since the Italian’s departure from Orient; however, the souvenirs of his ill-fated regime remain.
Stickers adorn the walls of the east stand. One reads ‘Becchetti out’, while another ripped off a 1969 film-classic and bluntly labels Becchetti as ‘The Italian Nob’.
The football club quite literally stared death in the face but completed the seemingly impossible task of narrowly escaping liquidation.
Overtime investigates how Orient survived and overcame their near-death experience, and how the club are “aggressively” campaigning to see a change in how football clubs are run in this country.
“When I say it in this way, I do mean it. When we got to Leyton Orient, every single piece of the football club was broken,” Kent Teague1, Orient’s new co-owner, tells The Athletic as he reflects on the first day that he walked into the club.
“Everything from as far reaching as the perception of the club by the UK at large, all the way down to an individual relationship with a vendor, a staff member, a coach or a player. It was all completely broken.”Embed from Getty Images
Brisbane Road had become the site of a warzone, the nucleus of the football club shattered, and the new owners left to pick up the pieces.
The story starts in 2014. Orient faced Rotherham in the League One play-off final and they led 2-0 at half-time, credit to a Dean Cox tap-in and a Moses Odubajo wonder-strike. However, much like the subsequent ownership, it all came crashing down.
Rotherham levelled the score in the second half and the remaining spot in the second tier was to be decided on penalties. The east London side were just a single kick away from keeping their Championship dreams alive, up stepped Chris Dagnall. Saved.Embed from Getty Images
Unfortunately, this was just the start of Orient’s three-year nightmare.
Following the play-off final defeat, former owner Barry Hearn sold his 90 per cent share of Orient to Becchetti for £4m. Hearn claimed, at the time, the reason why he sold his stake was because he believed that Becchetti could take the club further forward than he ever could2, as the Italian even openly envisioned the club playing Premier League football in the future3.
However, what came to fruition was the end of Orient’s 112-year stay in the Football League and the rumoured accumulation of millions, upon millions of pounds worth of debt.
But despite the criticisms Becchetti has faced since, you simply can’t deny his initial good intentions, as he treated the O’s financially during the early periods of the takeover. Albeit, the Italian still managed to portray some early warning signs according to former boss Russell Slade.
The ex-Orient boss occupied the managerial hot seat for four years prior to Becchetti’s arrival but was sacked just a matter of months after the new regime came into power. Slade has since spoken to TalkSport4 following his dismissal in 2014 and discussed the differences between the two owners, as Becchetti seemingly opted for a more hands-on approach.
“I worked for a really good chairman in Hearn. Why do I say he’s a good chairman? He makes you feel like you’re working with him rather than for him – big difference there.”
He continued: “We were losing Odubajo, it was time for the lad to move on and upwards. I said, ‘I’ve got a really good replacement, Sam Clucas.’”
To which Becchetti dismissed Slade’s request and responded: “No, no. He plays in League Two. We need players from above.”
Following this, some truly impressive names started to enter the frame such as Jobi McAnuff and Andrea Dossena. The former featured for Reading in the Premier League while the latter previously donned the shirts of Liverpool and Napoli.
All of a sudden, Orient’s squad had transformed into what can be described as League One’s answer to The Avengers, as Becchetti had assembled some of the finest names in the Football League.Embed from Getty Images
So, with a wealth of footballing talent across the pitch and a wealth of cash in Becchetti’s pocket, nobody quite expected what was to follow in the coming months. At the height of Orient’s demise, Hearn spoke to BBC Sport5 in 2017 and shared his regret of selling the football club.
“He (Becchetti) seemed passionate about what he wanted to do, and he has done what he told me he was going to do – he has injected many, many millions of pounds into Leyton Orient.”
He later added: “Looking where we are now, I would never have sold if I had thought this was going to happen,” and also stated that “hindsight is a wonderful advisor.”
Becchetti, who changed his official title from chairman to president, invested heavily into Orient. However, the Italian’s footballing gamble hadn’t paid off. Essentially, he strolled into the Brisbane Road casino and placed his pocket-full of chips on the Orient-red for the ball only to land on black.
Arguably, the players weren’t performing to the standards that Becchetti expected and the club was spiralling towards relegation from League One, despite being promotion candidates the season prior.
McAnuff6 summarises his personal performances during his first stint with the club as he tells Overtime, “Over that two-year period, I just didn’t feel like I hit the levels I was capable of doing.”
It was a rather grim period in Orient’s history and Dossena’s supposed off-the-field antics typified it all. Slade’s suggested signing Clucas ultimately joined Hull City and snatched a handful of goals in the Premier League, while one of Becchetti’s star signings was arrested in 2015 based on suspicions of shoplifting7 – though authorities didn’t take any further action.
McAnuff is one of few players who featured under both the previous and current owners, as the now club captain was exiled from Orient during his first stint but returned following Becchetti’s departure.
He admits that his original move to the football club didn’t live up to expectations. “I heard so many good things about Orient before I came, but it was a complete culture shock to be perfectly honest.”
Much like a child, Becchetti treated the club like his beaten teddy bear, with different areas of Orient being slowly ripped apart and there was no sign of the Italian surrendering his toy. Essentially, leaving it armless, legless and, to be honest, anything else-less.
Within this instance, the omitted arms summarised the lost reach and contact between the fans and its staff. The supporters soon lost patience with Becchetti, as he hired and fired ten different managers within the space of 36 months.Embed from Getty Images
Former Orient managerial-victim Omer Riza8 describes the atmosphere under Becchetti as “fragile” and states, “there is more to ownership than what we see on the surface.” A key anecdote from Becchetti’s three-year reign symbolised this.
Becchetti, evidently a passionate individual, came under fire during his second year at the club as he physically assaulted Andy Hessenthaler, who was assistant manager at the time.
After a narrow Boxing Day victory over Portsmouth, Sky Sports News9 reported that Becchetti decided to take a seat behind the coaching staff for the second half and reportedly provided instructions to the management.
After the final whistle, the assistant manager exchanged words with Becchetti which followed with the Italian kicking Hessenthaler in front of the entire stadium. Following the incident, Becchetti was slapped with a £40,000 fine and a six-game ban.
Despite assaulting his employee, the club stated10 that their president’s actions were ‘good natured’ and the Italian denied any violent conduct, according to the Independent11.
Amongst fans at least, this incident was a real stand-out moment as many questioned that if he was perfectly willing to do this in front of thousands of onlooking supporters, then what exactly happens behind closed doors?
After questioning McAnuff about the craziest behind the scenes story from the Becchetti era, the Orient captain responds in a jokingly manner, “god blimey” – as he insinuates that there were plenty to choose from.
McAnuff openly admits that he has to bite his tongue a little through fears of being sued but did reveal one story where the players felt an element of Becchetti’s wrath. Albeit, not to the level to which Hessenthaler suffered.
“We were going to Notts County away and the day before the game, we were told to bring some overnight stuff. We never normally stayed up after a game, but we were basically told that if we didn’t win, we had to stay away,” McAnuff explains.
“People at the club felt like we weren’t taking the situation serious enough and their answer to that was to keep us away from our families.”
However, following his response, he was quick to state: “That was just one of many, many things that occurred during that time.”
As the curtains came down to the 2014/15 season, Orient were relegated from League One to the fourth tier. The following season was a fairly stable campaign, as the O’s finished 7th in League Two. Nevertheless, the cracks started to appear as Becchetti banned a handful of players from the first team squad, including McAnuff.
The Jamaican international shared a story with The Guardian12 about how he was ostracised from the first team and spent the 2015/16 season training with the youth side.
He recalled returning from Copa América for pre-season and was told by the Orient manager at the time, “sorry, but you’re not going to be allowed to train with us. You’ve got to train with the kids.”
According to McAnuff, pre-season was quite a shock to the system. He went from facing-up against Lionel Messi that summer to then featuring in a youth team game against semi-professional side Bishop Stortford.Embed from Getty Images
The 2016/17 season signified the chaotic conclusion of Orient’s 112-year stay in the Football League, as Becchetti seemingly lost complete control of his sinking ship. The Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust, which was an independent supporter group, openly began to criticise the owner which later caused a ripple effect amongst the rest of the fan base. With his pride and credibility damaged, Becchetti took the opportunity to address the supporters in January 201713.
George Sessions14, a sport journalist who previously covered the club for the East London Advertiser, highlights that this statement was one of the more bizarre moments of the Italian’s ownership.
“The statement he released, which clearly had been run through Google Translate, summed it all up,” the journalist recalls.
“At a time when the O’s were battling relegation and fans had been calling for answers, he releases a statement, which actually went under the name of chief executive Alessandro Angelieri, mentioning how ‘Mr Becchetti doesn’t play on Saturday’.
“In short, it was complete nonsense and essentially a chance to write propaganda where he criticised certain players, talked up his own great traits and blasted the fans.”
Throughout this investigation, Overtime has provided both Becchetti and his Italian entourage of backroom staff the right of reply since January 2020, to which they didn’t respond.
Within the final months of his ownership, Becchetti walked away from the club which left LOFT to “deal with the media”, as board member Mat Roper15 tells Overtime. Former chief operating officer Vito Miceli, who was the only member of the Italian entourage that attended fixtures at Brisbane Road in the final months, declined to speak to the Daily Mail16 in April 2017 regarding Becchetti’s intentions.Embed from Getty Images
On the performance front, Orient’s displays on the pitch had coincidentally taken a nosedive ever since Becchetti’s arrival, but the severity of the situation really came to light in March 2017.
At this point, Becchetti failed to pay the players and staff wages which resulted in LOFT taking a much tougher stance on the Italian. They aggressively campaigned against his ownership and demanded Becchetti to surrender the club.
Referring back to Becchetti’s metaphoric beaten toy, the teddy bear’s absent legs symbolised the lost base support, as the O’s no longer had any financial backing which made the possibility of liquidation seem inevitable.
Although never officially confirmed, it was alleged that the O’s were in around £9-10m worth of debt, via The Guardian17. However, the club did receive a winding-up order from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in March 2017, for £250,000 worth of unpaid taxes18.
With this media-known debt being widely publicised, The Athletic asks Teague whether the debt was higher than originally reported, to which he scoffs and says, “trust me, it was a lot higher than that,” – to which he emphasises ‘a lot’.
Regarding the confirmed debt, Teague kept his cards very close to his chest and stated that due to various non-disclosure agreements he was unable to reveal an exact figure. Though, a small anecdote from when the American first arrived at the club paints the picture of Orient’s financial situation under Becchetti.
Teague revealed in a previous interview with the Financial Times19 that when he arrived at the football club, Orient didn’t actually have a bank account. Instead, the football club was operated exclusively by cash, which in hindsight certainly raises a few eyebrows.
Therefore, Teague explains how the consortium returned the football club to a sustainable and a less financially-suspicious position.
“When we bought Orient, we found the club in a certain financial position. How it works for us is that we fund an entity called Eagle Investments, who then loans the money to the football club and they operate on these loans.
“These are not personal loans and Leyton Orient never owes me any money, they owe Eagle.” Within the interview, Teague also made it abundantly clear that the objective of this ownership group is not to make money, and instead aim to make Orient as financially self-sustainable as possible following the previous regime.
Without exaggeration, Becchetti’s ownership wasn’t just a car crash, it was a seven-car pile-up between the third and fifth-tier junctions of English football. Aside from the crippling debt, the club suffered two relegations in three years. Teague, a charismatic man who’s rarely seen without a joyful grin, was even speaking with a lower tone when discussing Becchetti.
“We knew that we were in a turnaround situation. Not only financially, but Becchetti had ruined relationships with the staff, the coaching staff, the players, the academy, essentially every piece of the business,” he says. “With Francesco, because of the way that he operated the club he also damaged the club’s relationship with the general public and with the borough.”
With the Orient president’s back firmly against the wall and the debt collectors closing in, Becchetti reached into his pockets for the final time. According to the Independent20, the Italian cleared the £250,000 debt owed to HMRC in the latter weeks of March 2017, but Orient weren’t in the clear just yet. They also owed £36,000 to Waltham Forest Council and many employees of the club went months without pay.
Although some of the playing staff have the ability to look at their bank accounts with a subtle element of smugness, not everybody employed by a football club has that luxury. These are normal people, working behind the scenes, and are probably more concerned about putting food on the table rather than what designer brand to buy next.
So, when Becchetti failed to pay the staff wages, this placed some hard-working individuals in financial peril. Simon O’Connor21, a photographer who has been employed by the club for 17 years, reveals to The Athletic his difficulties of securing a paycheque during this period, as the club owed him thousands of pounds.
“To say I was getting tired and worn out by the excuses that kept coming from Miceli would be an understatement. ‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll get paid soon – I promise.’ I never believed any of it,” O’Connor explains.
Phil Othen22, Orient’s match-day announcer during the Italian’s reign, also reveals to Overtime: “Personally, I was owed over £1,000.”
Therefore, after multiple relegations, employees who went months without pay and the club arguably being run in the form of a tyrannical regime, enough was enough as far as the fans were concerned and LOFT led the charge to a new dawn in Orient’s history.
Unfortunately for the O’s, with a handful of seasoned professionals exiled from the squad, this left predominantly a group of inexperienced teenagers to fight relegation. Ultimately, the youth side struggled to find the brake pedal of the Orient Express, as it was seemingly destined to plummet towards non-league.
However, with the threat of liquidation still looming, it wasn’t too late to stop the full extinction of Orient. Roper, the board member who helped spearhead the movement, explains LOFT’s role in dethroning Becchetti.
“The trust worked on three fronts. These were investigations into Becchetti’s activities at the club and also research into his activities away from football,” Roper reveals to Overtime.
“Secondly, we were instigators of two protests, the first during the second season of his ownership when we asked fans to take their seats in the seventh minute, as Becchetti had gone through seven managers in that time. The second much-larger scale protest was planned alongside the Blackpool Supporters Trust for our home game with Blackpool in year three.
“Finally, we devised and wrote a recovery plan from scratch in the event the club was wound up. This plan was to be used if the club went into liquidation but did also deal with the club surviving in its current form and being resurrected either under fan ownership or with new owners.”
Roper later adds: “We also attempted to talk to the English Football League and other organisations, tried talking to possible new owners, dealt with the media and attended court twice for bankruptcy hearings.”
LOFT played an integral part in securing the foreseeable future of Orient, largely credited to their aggressive campaign style and tireless volunteer work. Following the announcement of the O’s winding-up order, the Trust raised £180,000 in an attempt to keep the sinking ship afloat for just a little longer.
McAnuff, who has a strong rapport with the fans, recognises and applauds the efforts of the supporters during this challenging time.
“I always feel a lot of sympathy for the fans because of how much they’ve given to this football club,” he says. “I think without them, there might not be a Leyton Orient.
“I know for a fact that especially members of the supporter’s clubs went to great lengths to do bucket collections and tried to raise money from other football clubs just to try to keep things ticking over.”
For many passionate Orient supporters, the sheer mention of April 22, 2017 would even bring a tear to the eye of the emotionally tinned. 407 fans made the 185-mile trip to Crewe Alexandra to watch the O’s lose 3-0.
This was the infamous day that Orient dropped out of the Football League, for the first ever time.
To add further salt to the wound, Dagnall, whose missed penalty put a halt to Orient’s Championship dreams back in 2014, captained Crewe to victory that day.Embed from Getty Images
Following away defeat and already relegated, Orient fans had one final home game to make their frustrations heard and they took their opportunity. On April 29, 2017, Orient faced relatively local, yet bitter rivals Colchester United.
With the score at 3-1 in favour of Colchester and ten minutes left on the clock, Orient supporters invaded the turf of Brisbane Road to protest against the regime. Thousands of fans remained on the pitch for over two hours and despite their shared long-standing hatred, both Colchester and Orient fans chanted in unison – ‘Becchetti Out’23.
While fans angrily protested, the leftovers of Orient’s hierarchy pleaded to the supporters to vacate the pitch over the PA system, to which they responded by effectively telling them where to stick it.Embed from Getty Images
In an attempt to clear the pitch, the game was ‘abandoned’, only for the fixture to later continue and the final whistle to echo around an empty stadium. Sessions, reporting for the East London Advertiser, was there that day.
“It was a bizarre and unique experience. When the game was abandoned, there was no suggestion it was temporarily so everyone was preparing for the usual format after a game has finished where we would finish our reports and wait for the managers to come out,” he explains.
“It was soon made clear the club had a plan to finish the game, one way or another, so we had to wait before the players returned. At that stage, we weren’t sure how the final five minutes would play out and we were thinking about the strange prospect of anyone scoring a goal in front of an empty ground.
“As it turned out the players just kept the ball between themselves, which just added to the weirdness of the occasion.”Embed from Getty Images
Fortunately for Orient, Becchetti finally surrendered his beaten toy. On June 22, 2017, he sold the club to a consortium made up of Dunkin Brands chairman Nigel Travis, an Orient supporter, and American businessman Teague24. The self-proclaimed crazy Texan explains how the complimentary duo came to rescue Orient.
“Nigel already had a relationship with Becchetti, and he knew him. Francesco, I think, trusted Nigel to a large degree,” he says. “I think when it became apparent that there was the possibility that we could actually acquire the club for an appropriate amount, that’s when my ownership possibility became real.”
Teague also reveals that he didn’t waste any time before getting involved with Orient: “Within 45 minutes, when Nigel told me what Becchetti was looking for, I said: ‘Yes, let’s go.’”
In terms of a funeral, Orient were at the stage of being lowered into their deathbed, but Travis and Teague rushed to the graveyard just in time to pull the football club out of their Becchetti-dug pit. To recapture the sense of Orient and an element of familiarity, the new ownership resorted to re-hiring former staff, starting with Martin Ling.
The former Orient player and manager was appointed as director of football just 24 hours after the consortium acquired the club. However, Ling was met with a momentous task as he told The Telegraph25in 2017.
“When I walked into this office on June 23, I had three staff members and nine players, the oldest one was 19. Everyone else had gone through the door.”
Ling continued: “We had no scouting network. We had no physio. Which meant we couldn’t train.” Teague also went onto explain that Orient had to re-negotiate with the landlords of their training ground as they also went months without pay.
Much like the consortium’s strategy to bring in familiar faces, Ling replicated this with the playing squad, with McAnuff being the most notable return. Speaking about his second stint at the club, McAnuff reveals what convinced him to return to Brisbane Road.Embed from Getty Images
“I felt there was a mission and there was a target. I spoke with Martin (Ling) and he just said, ‘you’ve just got to meet the new owners, they’re completely different’. The first question was to make sure that none of the previous regime was going to be there still and that was the case.”
Through the hard-work of multiple people behind the scenes, Orient had a full 25-man playing squad and backroom infrastructure before their first competitive game in the National League.
Nevertheless, after speaking to a number of fans prior to Orient’s March clash with Cambridge United, they reflected on this time and much like following a ghastly war, the mood was pretty poor.
At one point, Orient were challenging for a place in the Championship and then they were rotting in England’s fifth tier. In terms of stature, Orient weren’t just a big fish in a small pond, they were arguably the size of the pond itself.
The National League was renowned as an infamously difficult league to be promoted from, with the only avenues being if you finished the season victorious or if you were promoted through the play-offs. Steve Davis initially led the charge for Orient in non-league but was ultimately sacked after a few months due to poor performances.
He was replaced by the late, great Justin Edinburgh – seemingly the final piece to the promotion puzzle. Former O’s midfielder Ebou Adams26, who spoke to Overtime back in 2018, opened up about Edinburgh’s intentions once he arrived at Brisbane Road.Embed from Getty Images
“The manager spoke to us and said that the target was promotion,” Adams recalled. “This is a big club and we should have never been in this league.” The following season, Edinburgh’s side were pushed to the very end by the likes of Solihull Moors, Wrexham and Salford City but ultimately managed to top the table and gain promotion.
A scoreless draw with Braintree Town on April 27, 2019 marked the date where Orient returned to the Football League. Nearly two years to the day that supporters angrily invaded the turf of Brisbane Road, the fans were now storming the pitch for a very different reason.
As he shared the pitch with thousands of Orient supporters, McAnuff raised the National League trophy high above his head which was met by an almighty roar that undoubtedly echoed across east London. On a truly emotional day, McAnuff reflects on the famed-April afternoon.
“To enjoy that real special moment of getting promoted was amazing. You could see the joy and relief in thousands of people’s faces. We knew we were back in the Football League, where we certainly belong.”
For both Travis and Teague, their motive for buying Orient was crystal clear from the start. In the words of Teague, “I want our fans to be so proud of Orient and that they’re prouder of the club than they were yesterday.” A relationship with the fans is at the epicentre of the consortiums beliefs and they want to eradicate the out-dated traditions of how owners and the supporters converse.
“We believe that the ownership group should have a direct link to the club and to the fanbase,” Teague says.
“We directly engage with the fans, almost on a walk down the high road and shake your hand environment. To a lot of owners of UK clubs, this is completely foreign to even the idea of how they would interact with the fans.
“I think that’s most important. For an owner to communicate to the fans that they care and that they care deeply about the club.”
Teague also believes the wisest decision the board has made since their arrival was making co-owner Travis the chairman of Orient. The businessman supported the club as a youth and Teague recognises, “the fans know that Nigel is one of them.”
Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming support for the current consortium, Travis and Teague has still attracted an element of critiscm from elsewhere. Carl Fletcher, who became the first permeant manager following Edinburgh’s tragic death, was sacked after just 29 days under the current ownership.
Whilst speaking to The Athletic writer Peter Rutzler in February, Fletcher subtly criticised the current consortium and stated that they didn’t treat people nicely nor respectfully27. Travis defended the board’s decision to sack Fletcher on TalkSport28, as they claimed, “the cultural fit wasn’t right”.
Though Orient’s worst days of narrowly escaping liquidation are behind them, the club were fortunate to secure investors. Not every football club is this lucky, with Bury springing to mind.
Teague explains how Orient are campaigning for change in football, as he exclusively reveals to Overtime how the club have taken their concerns regarding football ownership in the UK as high as the EFL and the Football Association.
“We at Orient are engaged in an increasingly aggressive conversation with the EFL and the FA about how clubs are run,” Teague assertively states. “We are increasingly becoming aggressive about saying certain things need to be put into place to ensure that these clubs cannot, shall not, will not, ever go out of business.”
The club has suggested a range of different approaches. These include an automatic three-point deduction if players haven’t been paid within 48 hours of when they were supposed to. If this occurs for four months in a row, then it would be an automatic 12-point deduction – “no conversation”, as Teague describes. Most notably, the following is Teague’s most significant proposed addition.Embed from Getty Images
“We believe that every club should be required to carry a level of insurance that ensures that their debts or operating costs are covered.
“If the owners decide ‘I’m not going to put any more money into the club’, which may or may not have happened at Orient – you can decide whether if that was may or may not.
“But let’s say an owner decides they may not want to put more money into a club, the club then doesn’t have any money. So, staff don’t get paid, players don’t get paid, people don’t get paid, and then the Queen wants to understand why nobody is getting paid.”
The battle doesn’t stop there, as LOFT’s Roper shares what they are doing to hold these governing bodies to account. In the words of the board member, “the EFL and the FA simply have to change.”
LOFT are currently championing a handful of changes, with the most eye-catching addition being a far more stringent owners and directors test. On October 21, 2019, EFL executive chair Debbie Jevans told the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee that prospective Bury buyer Steve Dale didn’t provide any proof of finances but still managed to acquire the club29. This demonstrates that a far more stringent test is needed to provide greater protection to these clubs.
The Trust has approached the EFL and the FA about their proposed changes and states, “LOFT will be continually fighting for change in football to prevent episodes such as we had at Orient.”
With an element of past experience under their wing, Roper also shares that the Trust has actively offered support to other “crisis” clubs. “We have given advice and a donation from our fund to Gateshead fans, have held meetings with and advised Bury on their situation and are currently very active with assisting the ‘Push the Boundary’ group at Oldham Athletic.”
Unfortunately, the resurrection of Orient is an exception, not a rule. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that this new forward-thinking attitude is now prevalent within an ownership group and subsequent supporter organisations. Within our chat, Teague promised that both himself and Orient are taking both short and long-term steps to ensure that something like this will never happen again.