Witnessing The Death Of A Football Club: Leyton Orient

On February 11th, 2011, following submissions from over a hundred interested parties, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) (née Olympic Park Legacy Company) decided unanimously to award Premier League side West Ham United and the Newham Council as the first occupants of the Olympic Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. While many other groups and clubs had bids rejected - most noteworthy among them fellow Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur and the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) - not being awarded the Olympic Stadium as a new grounds was hardly a crushing blow, but more a case of wishful thinking and a call to pursue other options and move on. Often lost amongst this shuffle of urban development and bureaucratic pencil pushing is the fact that there is one organization that would be severely hindered by a popular Premier League side moving to the Olympic Stadium, and that’s a club who currently reside not a stones throw from the 80,000 seat coliseum: League One side Leyton Orient.

Founded in 1881 by members of the Glyn Cricket Club, Leyton Orient Football Club is London’s second oldest club behind Fulham and is a club steeped in tradition even with only enjoying one season of top-flight football, in 1962-63. Despite posting a horrendous record for the better part of the 90’s, Orient finished 7th last year in League One, two rungs below the Premier League, missing out on a playoff position for promotion to the Championships by one place. Orient’s current ground is Brisbane Road in the borough of Waltham Forest, North East, London. It seats 9,311 - though typically draws only half of that - has above-average pies, soggy chips and tea that’ll burn your lips three shades of purple on a brisk January afternoon. A small fish in a big pond dominated by the likes of the Arsenal and Chelsea, in recent years, the Orient has become notorious because of its owner Barry Hearn. Hearn, an English accountant and sports promoter, bought the club in 1995 from then-chairman Tony Wood during turbulent times for a laughable £5 as Wood’s coffee-growing business in Rwanda tanked during the civil war. Hearn saved Leyton Orient from the brink of financial doom and was able to infuse some experiences from other sports ventures to help keep Orient afloat.

Surely you’ve wondered why snooker and darts are so popular and well televised in the UK, besides the obvious correlatives of alcohol and inactivity? Well, you have Barry Hearn to thank for that. His promotions company Matchroom Sports is responsible for the growth of not only snooker and darts in the UK, but also other sports that Westerners would consider fringe. He is a staple of the boxing promoting industry, having represented the likes of Naseem Hamed and Lennox Lewis, and is responsible for Fish-O-Mania, a fishing program on Sky Sports that has been broadcast for 19 years. Barry Hearn’s takeover of Leyton Orient has been instrumental in its ability to stay afloat and is precisely the kind of chairman that separates many of the Premier League sides from those in the divisions below. He loves his club, is hands-on and involved in most decisions and takes much of the blame on his shoulders when things aren’t going well. He is active on Twitter @BarryHearn and is not afraid to take criticism from fans, providing a level of transparency many football fans would love to see from the people that run their clubs. Hearn doesn’t have exorbitant savings like that of owners in the mold of Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich or Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, but he does hold the same rights as proprietor as does any other of England’s 96 professional football clubs. Other clubs might fail because of poor financial practices or over ambitious owners and boards and the debilitating circumstances of going into administration; Leyton Orient could dissolve because of the threat of having a Premier League club in its own backyard.

Constructed for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and located in the North-East of London, the 80,000 seat stadium was always destined to be home to a major football, rugby or cricket club or governing body. When the shovel first broke ground in May, 2008, it was understood that the stadium would provide not only a host of jobs and growth in an area that desperately required positive development, but also an opportunity for another group to step in post-Olympics to carry on the legacy of the games, the regeneration of the neighborhood and maintain the ground’s distinctive physical character.

On August 18th, 2010, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) began accepting formal applications for tenancy of the Olympic Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Once the period to submit applications had closed on September 30th, 2010, over a hundred solicitations had been received and the OLPC created a shortlist of desirable organizations and clubs. In the end, two primary bids were considered: that of West Ham United and the Newham Council and from Tottenham Hotspur and AEG. Despite AEG’s backing, the Tottenham bid always seemed the second choice, especially after London Mayor Boris Johnson backed West Ham United to move from Upton Park at Boleyn Ground as the club expressed interest in keeping the 9-lane elite Mondo track surrounding the pitch. Doing so would ensure the Olympic Stadium remained a world-class track & field venue, while also taking away from the atmosphere of the football ground, with fans significantly farther away from the pitch than any other Premier League stadium.

Some West Ham fans would say this isn’t necessarily an evil, especially with the constant solar eclipse provided by skipper Big Sam Allardyce. West Ham also expressed a desire to reduce the seating to 60,000 and then embraced the £100 M conversion to do so. This accommodation by West Ham was integral in the OLPC’s decision because it allowed the stadium more options as a venue, able to host NFL preseason games once the NFL’s contract with Wembley expired in 2017, the aforementioned international track competitions and other events. The Tottenham bid requested that the capacity remained at 80,000 seats, in addition to wanting to have the track removed. From the offing, the OLPC stated that they wanted the Olympic Park to remain as a venue for athletics competitions. A few months later, in February 2011, the OLPC picked West Ham United as its desired tenants for the Olympic Stadium. The mayor and the British government on March 3rd, 2011 finalized this decision.

Both Leyton Orient and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs applied for a judicial review to overturn the OLPC’s decision. Despite Tottenham’s desire to acquire funding to build another stadium, both sides carried through with the process as they both had valid claims. Mayor Boris Johnson stated that he’d consider discussing a way of publicly subsidizing parts of a new stadium for Tottenham Hotspur if they’d withdraw their concessions for a Judicial Review. The review was to be announced on October 18th, 2011. A week before the outcome of the judicial reviews was announced, on October 11th, 2011, the agreement to sell the stadium to West Ham United and the Newham Council collapsed. The OLPC had become weary of Tottenham’s legitimate claims for the Olympic Stadium and the decision to give West Ham preferred bidding rights, thus deciding that it was a viable possibility that a football club could use the Olympic Stadium following the games of 2012, but only as a tenant, paying a reported £2 million annually in fees. With this, the stadium would remain in the realm of public ownership save for further legal action on the behalf of the interested parties.

In May of 2012, the mayor’s office took over command of the OLPC, rebranding it as the London Legacy Development Corporation as preparations were being made for the massive conversion of the Olympic Stadium to a multi-purpose facility.

Following the suggestion made by the LLDC, Leyton Orient football club submitted a formal request to the Football League to move into the Olympic Stadium and become tenants in an attempt to overturn the decision. Leyton Orient Football Club Limited Director’s Report and Financial Statements, for the year 2012, states that:

"The directors remain concerned about the adverse effect on Leyton Orient Football Club Limited of the decision by the Premier League, the LLDC, Government and others to allow West Ham United to take tenancy of the Olympic Stadium. The club are considering their position as to whether it will be taking any legal action to overturn this latest decision as the occupation of the Olympic Stadium (only 1.5 miles from the club’s ground) by West Ham United will affect the future viability and long term survival of the club at its current location”

Witnessing The Death Of A Football Club: Leyton Orient

Legal follow-ups proceeded at a snail's pace, as expected costs for the conversion and the renovation skyrocketed with the intended date of reopening pushed back from 2014 to August 2015. Following months of jumping through hoops and bureaucratic nonsense, West Ham United were once again determined to be the most viable tenants for the stadium, this time paying an annual rent for their tenancy, and agreeing to pay back any costs for the upgrading and installation of football-specific lights before ten years. The Olympic Stadium was to be kept as a multi-purpose facility. In February of that year, a £2.5 M annual rent payment was agreed upon by the LLDC and the owners of West Ham United, and a month later, on the 22nd of March, a 99-year lease agreement was signed for occupation for the 2016-17 season.

With the same fervour and intensity previously displayed amidst a judicial review, Barry Hearn stated that the LLDC did not perform their due diligence in investigating a possible ground share program with West Ham United. Hearn also stated that if his claim for a review was denied, that he would take a step back and end his campaign to claim the Olympic Stadium as Leyton Orient’s. Naturally, Hearn’s judicial review was denied, and in typical Barry Hearn fashion, he redacted claims to submit to the LLDC’s decision stating that:

"We are not going to be bullied by the big boys. We have enough resources and friends on our side to take this fight well into the next decade, if necessary. We want a groundshare at the Olympic Park and we think we have an unanswerable case for that being the real legacy of the Olympics.”

As efforts to convert the stadium are being made and continue to drag on, so to does Barry Hearn and Leyton Orient’s struggle to survive. Even without the impending threat of a Premier League side moving-in across the street, Leyton Orient is a club with a dire financial outlook. In 2012, the club lost £1,420,180 before tax and incurred another £372,000 in losses for legal costs from challenging the LLDC’s decision. Despite being in good form at the moment, the club need extended runs in the FA and League Cups to increase revenue, with hopes that doing so will also increase gate receipts. Whereas many Premier League sides can simply write-off a poor season or a lemon of a transfer purchase, Orient’s survival hinges on the smallest of variables. As players shift sides for record transfer fees and absurd wages are doled out to placate world-class talents, in the shadows, there is a club that is fighting to survive, and the imminent doom on the horizon is one more shadow than Leyton Orient Football Club can sustain.