With Orient supporters taking to the streets against their owners alongside Blackpool fans this past weekend, Leyton Orient Fans' Trust (LOFT) chairman Doug Harper tells us more about the club's predicament and what supporters are doing about it...
LOFT was formed in 2001. We did not form when there was a crisis, as was happening at some clubs at the time, we decided to form with a 'just in case' scenario. We wanted to be ready if anything DID happen.
You have to be prepared at any time for anything. At the inaugural Supporters Direct meeting, I spoke over a pint with Kris Stewart from Wimbledon. I said to him that we were both in the same boat, neither team was in any kind of trouble but it was good to have the cushion of a trust 'just in case'.
Fast forward a few months and there we were at Dulwich, at AFC Wimbledon's first game with a lot of other trusts, supporting something that no one had thought possible and with Kris as chair of a brand new team.
It gave hope to every fan of every team and as they say, the rest is history.
Hopefully Leyton Orient are not going to end up with a phoenix club, that is by far the worst case scenario and our position is different to Wimbledon. There are plenty of options before that happens.
For most of our existence, we have been a critical friend of the club. There have been a few issues that LOFT and the club have disagreed on, but nothing as serious as what we have now.
Our membership has trebled in the past ten weeks, a sign at just how worried the fans are. Our AGM a couple of weeks back also exceeded expectations and sadly not everyone could fit into the function room.
The most talked about resolution was the first of three on the night – calling on the owner of Leyton Orient Football Club, Francesco Becchetti, to either set out a plan for how he will change the way he runs the football club, or put the club up for sale. Our manifesto for the first of these options is clear, and you’d think would be obvious for any football club to run properly:
- A CEO and senior management team who understand the workings of our football club and can do their jobs unhindered
- A manger put in place that understands the lower English Leagues, who is allowed to do his job unhindered
- A sensible and consistent transfer and wages policy with the manager having the last word on transfers
- A communications policy starting from the top as has been constantly promised, including an annual AGM from the club
Committee member Adam Michaelson is leading a recovery sub-committee which has been focussing on disaster planning and how LOFT could help the club recover from such scenarios. He explained that the evidence is clear of a lack of good business management at the club, and that our research shows there is a distinct possibility that our owner Mr Becchetti's funding of the club could run out.
The sub-committee is planning around a number of scenarios that could lead to LOFT having to step in, and is planning to be ready if and when any of those scenarios arises - clearly the best outcome is if we can negotiate quietly with Becchetti on an exit that doesn't harm the club further.
Work continues on putting together a finance and management package - this isn't ready yet, we are looking at the end of the season when we foresee this could be a crunch time for the club, regardless of this season's outcome on the pitch.
What is important in our situation is a strong committee and that is something that LOFT has. Skills, dedication and passion in every department and it certainly makes my job a lot easier.
Another decision that was confirmed at our AGM was to have a joint protest with Blackpool Supporters Trust under the joint banner "We Want Our Club Back", at our recentl home game against the Tangerines..
Blackpool supporters' disaffection with the way the Oystons are running their club has been well documented and has seen the side plummet down the leagues. Our friends at Blackpool jumped at the chance and it seemed the right thing for both trusts to do.
We all marched from The Birkbeck Tavern, the public house where LOFT was launched in 2001 and made our way to the ground. Like the AGM the turnout was way beyond expectations with hundreds of fans chanting "We Want our Clubs Back" as well as all marchers from both clubs chanting "Stand Up For The Orient" and "Oyston Out".
Marking the fact that both clubs were formed in the 1800s, the trusts asked for the 18th minute of the game to be the time that the Orient fans sang "Stand Up for the Orient" and the Blackpool fans sing their equivalent; again a lot of fans took part in this, holding up protest cards we had printed displaying "We Want Our Club Back".
It is always heart warming to see different sets of fans standing together. We have a lot more in common than a lot of fans realise.
We are the ones that will be there when the latest owner has got bored and gone off to find another plaything, sometimes having to pick up the pieces. At the moment there are rumblings in the trust movement to try and pressure the powers that be to be more strict with their rules on owners. Hopefully as has proved in the past, strength in numbers can put us all in a strong position.
For the past few weeks I have been quoting an old lyric from The Doors. To me, it seems apt: "They got the guns, but we got the numbers".
I was put in contact Doug Harper (LOFT Chairman) via a mutual contact at the FSF in mid-October 2016 – and things moved pretty quickly. After a few calls and email exchanges we set up an email group with a view to staging a joint protest at the Orient v Blackpool fixture in November.
The response from the Blackpool fans to lend their support to the Leyton Orient supporters, a club seemingly just at the beginning of their troubles, was pretty overwhelming.
Blackpool fans are a few more years down the line with our struggle so despite talk about ‘protest-fatigue’ setting in, it was heartening to receive an enthusiastic response from the Blackpool faithful.
Quite a few people (80% of those who travelled with me in fact) travelled over 200 miles each way purely to support the protest and had no intention of entering the ground – this perhaps demonstrates the level of disconnection which many Blackpool supporters now feel from their club.
I won’t harp on about the situation at Blackpool but when owners fail to invest, ridicule their fans and even litigate against them it’s unsurprising that what over 10,000 season ticket holders has fallen to under 2,000 in only five years.
I suspect the majority of boycotters will never set foot in Bloomfield Road again until the current owners move on. As they claim there is no chance of this happening it looks like we are in for a long battle: they started it and we are up for it.
On to more positive matters it was great to meet Doug and his colleagues from LOFT and I speak on behalf of all Seasiders when I say I hope things turn around quickly and they get some stability and proper direction from their current owners.
As both Doug and I have a love of music maybe Blackpool Supporters’ Trust should quote from a band that has strong links with Blackpool which follows the non-violent theme: “Guitars are our guns and words are our weapons”.
- Andy Higgins, Blackpool Supporters' Trust
The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.