A winding-up petition against the League Two club has been adjourned until June and worried Orient fans were there to follow developments
In the end it takes just seven minutes. The high court in London decides not to liquidate Leyton Orient, or place them in administration, but instead accepts a promise from the owner, Francesco Becchetti, that he will put another £1m into the club to clear its debts. But it has been a gruelling day for fans of a club that just three years ago was on the brink of the Championship.
There had been a small cheer in Court 1 at the Rolls Building as Leyton Orient’s name was read out for the first time. Around 40 fans have made it inside to observe the winding-up hearing that might have ended up closing a football club that has existed since 1881. Some wore scarves, another had a blazer embroidered with the club badge, a third stood with his arms behind him, clutching his season ticket. There was also a smattering of press people, who mostly, like me, have a connection to the club.
The fans were nearly all men of a certain age – who else has time to turn up to court on a Monday morning to observe? Word went out that there were only 23 seats for the public in court, and so a queue formed at the door about an hour before the hearing was due to open. Before the case, opinion was divided among the supporters waiting to get in.
“I just want to get him out,” said one supporter about Becchetti. The court case is the culmination of three disastrous years of ownership by the Italian. Having acquired the club from Barry Hearn following Orient’s League One play-off final defeat on penalties in May 2014, Becchetti has given 10 managers the seemingly impossible task of keeping him happy, received a six-game stadium ban for violent conduct, and seen the team drop from being within spot-kicks of reaching the Championship to almost certainly exiting the Football League. “How to ruin a club in three years” is a constant refrain on social media.
It was quite difficult to get people to go on the record in the queue. One man doesn’t want his boss to know he has come when he should be at work. Another is worried about further upsetting the owner. Online criticism of Becchetti has been, in the words of one fan, “quite vicious”.
All possible future scenarios seem to worry somebody in the queue. One explains that he fears Becchetti selling up. “When most people sell clubs,” he says “they do it with the best interests of the club at heart. I can’t see him doing that.” Another fan wonders, with a club that does not own its ground and is reportedly in so much debt, what there is to sell.
A lot of people are hoping for the case to be adjourned, to give the club time to come up with a payment plan. It would defer the threat of administration and postpone any points deduction until beyond the end of the season. But with the team bottom of the league, seven points from safety and coming off the back of 4-1 and 5-0 defeats, league survival seems unlikely in any case.
As at any gathering of supporters, there is discussion about the team. A rumour sweeps the queue that someone has it on good authority that representatives of the owner have been approaching players about signing on for next season – indicating that maybe Becchetti, rather than selling, intends to hang on. One player’s name is mentioned as wanting to stay – there are some groans, then somebody pipes up: “But he might be quite good at Conference level.”
One of the barristers speaks to me before the hearing. I wonder if it is an unusual day at the office for him. He says that it is “slightly busier than it usually is, but not that much to be honest. It’s a crazy experience, this court.”
The Orient case is 75th on the list. There is a lot for the fans to sit through before the future of their club is to be decided. The man next to me ticks each case off the printed list we have all been given. There aren’t enough seats for everybody. “It’s like the Central line this morning, isn’t it?” chimes one fan. “Choc ices, anybody?” calls another.
The cases whistle by, most lasting only a couple of minutes. There is a dispute over the value of a house that might be used to pay off a debt, with an appeal that if the court grants the winding-up petition, it would leave vulnerable adults who rely on the company for care services without anywhere to stay. It puts it into a bit of perspective. It’s football, not life or death.
The Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust has been preparing for a range of scenarios, raising more than £100,000 for a regeneration fund that, in the worst-case scenario, could be used to set up a phoenix club. AFC Orient would have a good chance of playing home matches at Brisbane Road, as the owner of the Matchroom Stadium, Hearn, has indicated that a new club would be allowed to play there rent-free for a season. It is unclear though at which step a new club would be able to join the league pyramid structure, with a worse-case scenario of joining the Essex Senior League alongside teams such as London Bari, Clapton FC and Wadham Lodge FC being a possibility.
Once the hearing starts, it is revealed that Becchetti has settled in full the debt to HMRC that caused the case to be brought forward. But four other creditors have come forward, including the club photographer who is owed £6,000, and the company which supplies matchday stewards, which is owed just over £18,000. Becchetti’s lawyers state that he intends to inject £1m into the club within the next eight to 10 weeks. The local council is also a creditor, and after some dispute, the case is adjourned until June.
Afterwards, feelings are running high. There’s a brief skirmish outside with choice language between fans with opposing views about how supporters have handled the situation. “It’s that kind of language that’s got us here,” shouts one guy. Another fan is sceptical: “He says he is going to put in a million pounds. I still think we are in trouble.”
It is a massive relief that the club has not been liquidated. Football has a weird way of throwing up coincidences and emotional narratives. If the club had gone out of existence, it would have meant that the last goal scored at Brisbane Road, their home since 1937, would have been by Mathieu Baudry. Fan favourite and former captain of Leyton Orient, he was one of the players who missed his penalty in that 2014 Wembley play-off final, which set off the chain of events that got us here. He did not celebrate his goal for Doncaster on Saturday, and later tweeted out his support for Orient on their big day in court.
They will be back there again on 12 June. The saga of Becchetti’s ownership of Leyton Orient continues.