Jobi McAnuff: ‘I didn’t think Orient fans saw the true me – that’s why I came back’

Jobi McAnuff’s unfinished business has helped take once troubled Leyton Orient to the verge of a Football League return

‘Still top dogs,” the postman says as he hands over a couple of letters to Jobi McAnuff on his doorstep in north London. The Leyton Orient captain smiles back – with good reason. It is the morning after Orient picked up a point at Solihull Moors to leave them on the verge of sealing their return to the Football League almost two years to the day since they were relegated and faced the threat of extinction under the disastrous ownership of Francesco Becchetti.

McAnuff has made more than 700 appearances across an impressive 20-year career, won promotion to the Premier League, represented Jamaica in the Copa América, swapped shirts with Lionel Messi, and walked out in front of 70,000 people in a Gold Cup final against Mexico, yet the only thing on his mind right now is facing Braintree Town.

A draw at Brisbane Road on Saturday will be enough to win the National League title and clinch automatic promotion. “That would rank right up there, because of everything that this club has been through,” McAnuff says.

Everything he has been through at Orient, too. The adage in football is that you should never go back, yet McAnuff’s return to Brisbane Road two years ago was about personal redemption as much as anything else.

Signed shortly after Becchetti took control in the summer of 2014 with grand ambitions, McAnuff endured a miserable two years in his first spell, not helped by the Italian ordering him to train with the youth team in an attempt to force him out.

Some players would have moved on at the end of their contract and never looked back. McAnuff is not that sort of person. In his eyes, he had unfinished business at the club and the fact Orient had hit rock bottom, after losing their Football League status, was not going to discourage him from re-signing from Stevenage in 2017.

“The biggest thing for me was that I felt I had a point to prove at the club,” says McAnuff, who previously played for Wimbledon, West Ham, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Watford and Reading.

McAnuff has now scored at least one goal in 18 consecutive seasons since his debut in 2001. His opening goal of each campaign:

2001-02: Wimbledon v Rotherham Div One*
2002-03: Reading v Wimbledon Div One*
2003-04: Wimbledon v Wigan Div One*
2004-05: Cardiff v West Ham Champ
2005-06: Wolves v Crystal Palace Champ
2006-07: Ipswich v Crystal Palace Champ
2007-08: Sheff Wed v Watford Champ
2008-09: Watford v Burnley Champ
2009-10: Coventry v Reading Champ
2010-11: Burnley v Reading Champ
2011-12: Bristol City v Reading Champ
2012-13: Manchester United v Reading FA Cup
2013-14: Birmingham v Reading Champ
2014-15: Scunthorpe v L Orient Lg One
2015-16: L Orient v Yeovil Lg Two
2016-17: Grimsby v Stevenage Lg Two
2017-18: L Orient v H’artlepool Nat Lg
2018-19 L Orient v Dover Nat Lg

* Second tier, pre-Championship rebrand

“A lot had happened in my first two years at Orient. And from my point of view – and I would always look at myself first – I was nowhere near the level I wanted to be at during that time, for various reasons, including some off‑the‑field stuff. And because of that I didn’t feel the Orient fans had a true reflection of me, not just as a player but as a character. And that’s something that never sat well with me, because I try to give everything out on the pitch. So I didn’t want to finish my career with that hanging over my head, going to Orient and failing basically.”

Orient were relegated from League One in 2015, after what McAnuff describes as “an absolute car crash of a season”. Becchetti had already gone through four managers and just appointed a fifth – Ian Hendon – when McAnuff returned for pre-season after playing for Jamaica in the Copa América.

Jobi McAnuff
Jobi McAnuff says Leyton Orient’s promotion back to the Football League would rank among the best experiences of a 20-year career. Photograph: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“There was a Second XI game, and the gaffer phoned me and said he’d been told I had to play,” McAnuff says. “I was thinking: ‘I’ve just come back from playing against Messi and now I’ve got to play against Bishop’s Stortford.’ But I did it. I played, we won and I scored. Ian was really pleased with my application and attitude. Then I got a call from Ian saying: ‘Sorry, but you’re not going to be allowed to train with us. You’ve got to train with the kids.’”

The contrast between Orient then and Orient now, McAnuff explains, is “night and day”. After operating under a regime he says was “basically a dictatorship”, Orient have owners who are “a dream to work with”. Kent Teague, a Texas businessman, is the principal backer, and McAnuff is full of praise for the way the club is run.

“With the older regime, who I don’t even really like talking about, it seemed as though they knew best all the time. But [the new owners] have been really keen to ask the players and the manager. “There are things they want to improve long term. But there are certain things that can be done to improve the results now. Kent had a chat with a few of us senior lads at the back end of last season and asked: ‘What can we do that is going to help you win a game on a Saturday?’”

It says much about the mindset of McAnuff and his teammates that they asked for better equipment in the gym and investment in the playing surface at Brisbane Road, rather than upgraded hotels for away trips. Their whole approach last summer was geared to mounting a promotion challenge and McAnuff credits Justin Edinburgh, the manager, for instilling the winning mentality that has also seen Orient reach the FA Trophy final, where they face Fylde in three weeks’ time.

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McAnuff views that trip to Wembley as reward for the supporters, one of whom recently told him how she had gone around all the local football teams a couple of years ago, rattling buckets to raise money for a club on the brink. He also makes a point of mentioning some of the club’s unsung heroes, such as Lindsey Martin, Orient’s long-serving secretary, and Adrian Martin, the kitman who is a diehard fan. “They’re working there through the bad times for the love of the club and they’re the ones who really get hurt,” McAnuff says.

Listening to McAnuff speaking for more than an hour, it is easy to understand why he is so highly regarded by the other Orient players, who say that, at the age of 37, he still sets the standard every day in training.

McAnuff knows his history, too, which shines through when he answers a question about what makes Orient a special club by talking about going to see the play, The Greater Game, which tells the story of how fans, players and staff of Clapton Orient, as they were then known, signed up to fight in the first world war.

More than a century on and McAnuff is looking forward to leading Orient back to where they belong and completing the job he set out to do when he returned two years ago. “From a personal point of view it’s fantastic. But this isn’t really about me,” he says. “This is about Orient as a club coming from the ashes to get back into the League.”