BY WILL MAGEE
When it comes to bad ownership in English football, some situations appear practically irretrievable. There are some owners, like Roland Duchâtelet at Charlton Athletic or Sisu at Coventry City, whose relationship with the support has become so toxic that it’s almost impossible to imagine that anything could thrive in the hostile environment of their perishing football clubs. Having allowed their playing squads to decline to the point of disaster, having allowed their club infrastructure to languish, having proved themselves both unaccountable and almost entirely unsympathetic, these owners have inspired increasingly organised protest movements against them, and further compounded ill feeling in their responses. Now, large numbers of Charlton and Coventry fans are at the point of marches, boycotts and matchday disruption, so livid are they with their general treatment. This is not quite the case at Leyton Orient, even if their situation is not too dissimilar.
Orient’s struggles over the past couple of years seem to have flown under the radar somewhat, perhaps eclipsed by the drastic problems facing clubs higher up the football league pyramid. Nonetheless, it has been a traumatic time for the East London side, who have gone from near victory in the League One play-off final to the wrong end of League Two in just over two seasons. In an approach that will feel remarkably familiar for fans of clubs owned by erratic individuals – think Charlton, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest – Orient have gone through eight managers since that fateful game, in which they blew a two-goal lead in the second half and ended up losing on penalties to Rotherham. Two months later, then-chairman Barry Hearn sold his stake in the club, ushering in the troubled stewardship of Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti.
In terms of his personal background in business, Becchetti’s CV reads like a parody of the madcap modern football club owner. The whole thing would be entirely unbelievable, were it not unfortunately true. Having made his millions in waste management and recycling, Becchetti founded the Italo-Albanian television station Agon Channel, which ceased to air in 2015 after the Albanian government seized his assets. The Albanian authorities attempted to have him extradited soon afterwards, so that he could face charges of fraud, forgery and money laundering pertaining to a failed hydro-electric scheme which allegedly cost Albania tens of millions of euros.
While the extradition case was dismissed in court earlier this year, with Becchetti’s lawyers claiming the charges were “politically motivated,” it’s hardly the sort of thing that breeds confidence in the owner of a football club. Neither does the fact that, when Agon Channel was still active, it aired a football talent show in the mould of the X-Factor in which young players from Italy competed for a professional contract at Orient, regularly playing trial games on the first-team pitch at Brisbane Road. While Becchetti called the show “a great success” for the club owing to the apparent exposure they were getting, many supporters were less than pleased with their team being made a convenient vehicle for ratings. At the time, representatives of the Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust (LOFT) criticised the show in various media outlets, with the general consensus being that it was something between needless gimmick and total farce.
Despite having no previous experience of owning a football club, Becchetti’s approach to running Orient could be fairly described as hyperactive. He has replaced longstanding servants to the club at backroom and board level, often with Italian associates and people he already knows. Under his reign, three of Orient’s managers have been Italian, which wouldn’t be an issue were they not woefully lacking in lower-league experience and, in some cases, barely able to speak a word of English. There are comparisons to be drawn with Duchâtelet at Charlton, who constantly resorts to recruiting people from within his own personal business network. These owners give the impression of looking first to cronies, interlopers and their entourage of ‘yes’ men, often to the detriment of the resident footballing community on which their clubs have so long relied.
The current situation at Orient bears many of the other hallmarks of problematic ownership, from talk of Becchetti meddling in team selection and micromanaging his coaching staff to minimal communication with the fans. It’s little wonder that LOFT have found their membership growing considerably in recent months, with disillusionment driving supporters to rally behind the Trust in a way not seen before. Tom Davies, a spokesperson for LOFT and longstanding member of the Trust, explains: “When Becchetti took over two and a half years ago, the club had experienced its highest league finish in 32 years. Everything seemed quite stable, and he’d promised this huge investment, so great. Since then, it’s all been pretty opaque really, and we’ve seen him undercut that stability which previously underpinned the club.”
Asked how bad the fans’ relationship with Becchetti has become, Tom said: “Part of the problem is that we’ve never really had a relationship with him. Ever since he took over, the Trust has written to him and approached him, asking for a general meeting so that he can lay out his long-term plans for the club. He’s never responded, or at least not directly. Still, we’re trying to keep that avenue open so that we can seek dialogue, even if we’re not exactly hopeful of getting anything back.”
In the end, as with the vast majority of disenchanted fan groups, the most pressing problem is the team’s precarious league position and poor performances over an extended period. There is a feeling that the club is in a permanent tailspin, and that Becchetti has few ideas on how to turn the situation around. Despite having one of the biggest budgets in League Two, Orient are currently 22nd, above only Cheltenham and Newport and out of the relegation zone by sole grace of goal difference. There is evidently a serious possibility of relegation this season and, should things continue as they are, a side which was on the cusp of the Championship not so long ago could be playing non-league football soon.
While the situation on the pitch is undeniably dire, the matter of the budget is of equal significance. Things might have gone south since Becchetti took over at Orient but, on a superficial level, few fans could criticise him for the extent of the investment he’s made. This is what partially differentiates Becchetti from hated owners like Duchâtelet and Sisu, who are perceived to be running their football clubs entirely for their own financial benefit. Unlike at Charlton and Coventry, there has been no scrimping on the playing squad at Orient, even if the club’s cash has been spent in what the fans might consider to be an inadvisable way.
Since he first bought the club, Becchetti has invested upwards of £6m in a combination of equity and loans, bringing in some high-profile players in the process. Orient have seen the likes of Jobi McAnuff, Andrea Dossena, Shane Lowry and Darius Henderson arrive at the club – all are relatively big names at that level – with each of them dropping down the leagues to play at Brisbane Road. Having been relegated from League One at the end of the 2014/15 season, those players are long gone at this point. Nonetheless, on paper, Orient’s current squad is still one of the most talented in the fourth tier. Alongside some well-known lower-league stalwarts, they have Jordan Bowery, Nicky Hunt and Jay Simpson on the books, all of whom have Premier League experience and the latter of whom was second-top scorer in League Two last term.
That is perhaps part of the reason that Orient fans are disunited on their plan of action going forwards. Becchetti has spent money, he has invested in the squad, even if fans aren’t sure what proportion of that investment has been loaned to the club, and how much of it he might be willing to write off. That said, the investment hasn’t got him anywhere, and the money clearly hasn’t been used too wisely. “The Trust are also worried about the losses that the club is making,” Tom adds. “It isn’t really sustainable, as far as we’re concerned. The accounts for 2014/15 alone show a £4.4m loss.”
Part of that outlay is down to the club’s flawed transfer policy, with their high-wage players underperforming to boot. The profligacy of their wage structure was especially apparent during the brief reign of Mauro Milanese as sporting director and then manager, which ended when he was dismissed for gross misconduct over an incident involving an unlicensed agent. During Milanese’s tenure, Orient handed out bumper contracts to McAnuff, Dossena and Lowry among others, eating into much of the capital Becchetti was providing. Those players proceeded to sleepwalk their way to relegation, with Milanese’s unseemly dismissal making the whole thing appear like even more of a mess.
So the fans find themselves angered by Becchetti’s appointments and frustrated at his ineffective decision making. At the same time, they find themselves conflicted, in that he has at least attempted to invest in the club and, perhaps more importantly, is the creditor to their loans. “There’s a section of fans who worry that, if we push Becchetti too hard, he’ll walk away, pull the plug completely and leave us totally in the shit,” Tom laughs. With the capital Becchetti has invested hanging over Orient and the losses accrued from his various failed hirings, it’s not as simple as just severing ties. On the mood of the support in general, then, Tom says: “There are people who are apprehensive about going against Becchetti, and people who are really, really angry with him.” In other words, there’s a rift down the middle of the fanbase, and LOFT now have to bridge the divide.
The sense of internal conflict was abundantly obvious when I went to Brisbane Road ahead of Orient’s recent match with Exeter, with their opponents rock bottom of League Two prior to kick off. By the end of the match, Exeter had leapfrogged the home side with a win, having capitalised on a performance so terrible that it left the stadium echoing with groans. Not long afterwards, the inevitable happened, and the sacking of manager Alberto Cavasin was announced. Despite the fact that he’d only had 10 games in East London, Orient’s showing against Exeter was so miserable that the decision was probably warranted, just about.
While almost every passage of play was punctuated by gravelly East London roars of frustration, spectators seemed undecided on the target of their wrath, which flitted between players and manager, owner, club hierarchy and fellow fans. Indeed, there was significant internecine strife in the stands, with heated arguments breaking out habitually. It all seemed majorly out of character for supporters who, on previous experience, are as good-natured as they come.
In the hour before the start of the game, I met up with the hosts of the popular Orient Outlook podcast, Paul Levy and Steve Nussbaum, to get their opinions on the situation at the club. They seemed to epitomise the fanbase somewhat, in that they were divided on what should be done. Ahead of Orient’s previous match against Blackpool, there was a joint protest outside the stadium, which by all accounts was fairly well attended. While Paul was all for the demonstration, Steve had his reservations, even if both of them agreed that the club is in a disastrous state and that something has to give.
“On paper, Becchetti has gone out and put his money where his mouth is,” says Steve. “He can never, ever, ever be faulted for not putting the money up.” Still, there’s consensus between Steve and his co-host that, while Becchetti has been anything but parsimonious, his controlling attitude towards much of the club means that, money or no money, it’s difficult for a manager to bring success. That, combined with the owner’s lack of engagement and his insistence on bringing in inexperienced outsiders, is what has alienated so many of the club’s staunchest devotees.
“Many supporters feel completely isolated,” Paul says. “For instance, Becchetti has been here two and a half years and has only done one ‘Meet The Chairman’ night. It wasn’t very good, there wasn’t the best atmosphere and he clearly didn’t want to be there. The level of communication between club and fans has been very low. There’s really not much going on there. Were he to speak to us more often and tell us what his aims were, people would probably be a lot more understanding. Unfortunately, he’s not been willing to do that.”
When it comes to the game itself, nobody is particularly understanding of Orient’s woeful performance against Exeter. With the final whistle mere minutes away, a handful of fans in the South Stand unveil a banner in protest at Becchetti’s ownership, with perhaps two dozen joining in sporadic chants of ‘Becchetti Out’. They are met with vocal disapproval from another group of supporters, however, and a spirited debate breaks out. ‘Spirited debate’ is a euphemism for swearing match, in this case. The banner is soon folded back up, and the protesting supporters file grumbling out of the ground.
Having spoken to Muzakir Ahmed, a supporter who reached out over social media in the days leading up to the match, I should probably have been prepared for the fractious atmosphere off the pitch. While he was deeply unhappy with various aspects of Becchetti’s tenure, one of the things he highlighted as most upsetting was the infighting he had witnessed during games. “The mood is despondent, we hate the football, and people often get irritated in the crowd,” he said. “The atmosphere is pretty rotten at the moment, if I’m honest. It kind of makes me dread Saturdays in some instances, which is sad.”
It’s clear that, when it comes to Becchetti, not everyone at Orient is ready for revolution. There are many who appreciate the money he’s put into the club, whether or not that investment could come with serious consequences down the line. While there are a few firebrands here and there, just as there are a few anti-protest sceptics, the majority of the fanbase seem to be reluctant rebels. They are angry and exasperated at the running of the club, but they would rather the current crisis resolved itself without turning Brisbane Road into a full-blown battleground.
If there’s something that absolutely everyone can agree on, it’s that Orient’s current league position is hugely perilous, and their decline over the past couple of years has been devastating to the club’s cohesion. Through a combination of misguided managerial appointments, imprudent acquisitions and a seeming unwillingness to reach out to those who know the club best, Francesco Becchetti has contributed to a situation which could easily see Orient drop out of the Football League. To escape that eventuality, the latest manager, Andy Edwards, must be given the time and the space to impose his own vision on the club. Then, once the season is over, it will be up to supporters to implement a strong, collective plan of action, and hope that Becchetti either heeds their concerns or hands the club over to someone who will.