I think it’s fair to say when Dad and I first went to the Orient it was purely as an escape. Not fancying a boring afternoon with relatives in nearby Leytonstone, Dad gave the signal and we sneaked off to Brisbane Road.
In the 1970s, things looked bright for the O’s. They had successfully maintained their place in the second tier of the Football League and had surprised everyone by reaching the FA Cup semi-final of 1978 before Arsenal put pay to their Wembley dreams.
Although seen by many as East London’s second team behind West Ham, Orient were at that time a fairly useful Division Two club boasting quite a few good players. But as the calendar turned into the 1980s and our visits became more frequent, Orient embarked on a journey into abject mediocrity from which they are yet to fully recover.
Ok, so perhaps it’s my fault. Orient going along swimmingly, I start going…. well you get the picture. But football is football. When I was a kid, it didn’t matter to me that the O’s weren’t that good, if there was a match to watch I wanted to be there; and to this day that philosophy hasn’t changed! I remember hassling Dad to take me during Orient’s final season in the Second Division when they played Shrewsbury Town.
In truth I don’t think Dad really fancied going to the match. Orient were struggling towards the foot of the table and it was hardly the most attractive of fixtures. We went through the turnstiles. “Two quid” said the man on the gate. “What? For a kid?” Dad replied. “Bloody hell, I’m not paying that, it’s only 75 pence at Southend!” And then he saw the disappointed look on my face. Realising the alternative was a dull afternoon in Leytonstone and a sulking son, he reluctantly paid the money. We stood behind the goal and witnessed two Kevin Godfrey goals give Orient the points.
During those early visits to Orient there were a few players who stood out. Winger Peter Taylor, whom my great uncle Jack Hinton (chairman/manager of Canvey Island) had sold to Southend for a mere £100. Then there was John Chiedozie, another pacey wide man who seemed destined for the big time but strangely ended up moving to unfashionable Notts County.
My favourite Orient player was Stan Bowles. Stan had both a chequered life and career. During his heyday with Queens Park Rangers and England, Bowles had developed a gambling habit. There was a rumour at Orient that he would deliberately go down injured so the physio could come on and tell him the racing results while pretending to treat his imaginary injury!
Brisbane Road became a fairly regular outing for us during the 80s, particularly as they would be playing Southend on a more regular basis. Orient had been relegated to the Third Division and very soon looked like they might tumble straight into the Fourth, but still, O’s had some good players. The likes of Mervyn Day had played in goal for West Ham during the successful FA Cup run of 1975, and striker Keith Houchen would go on to make national headlines (sadly not for Orient) firstly by scoring a last minute penalty for York City that sent mighty Arsenal crashing out of the FA Cup. He then dumped on the other half of North London by spectacularly heading in one of unfancied Coventry City’s goals as they beat Spurs in the 1987 final at Wembley.
Despite the emerging rivalry between Orient and Southend I have to admit that I’m quite fond of the O’s. Rumour has it that the proximity of the clubs could have been considerably greater. During the 1960s Orient considered moving away from Brisbane Road to Basildon in a bid to attract support from the vast number of East Londoners who had settled in the new town. Now Clapton or Leyton Orient I could put up with, but BASILDON ORIENT? Somehow I don’t think so.
Although the club never embarked on a move to Basildon, Orient can still boast a proud and rich history, particularly during the Clapton Orient era. Shortly before the Great War, Clapton Orient had a fantastic team. Big crowds would flock to Millfields as the club pushed to get into the First Division. When the world’s fragile political state landed Great Britain in a bloody war, the players and staff of Clapton Orient led the way, eagerly signing up to the aptly named ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ (Middlesex Regiment) for front line duties. The scale of recruitment from Orient was far greater than from any other club in the English League. Sadly, bravery tends to lead to tragedy. Several players never came home and dozens more were unable to return to football due to the nature of their injuries.
Almost a century later and now under the title LEYTON ORIENT, many supporters of the club still travel to Northern France during November to honour and celebrate the lives of William Jonas, George Scott and Richard McFadden. Their story has been wonderfully recreated by O’s fan Steve Jenkins whose book They took the lead gives lasting testament to the sacrifice these and many other men made during the dark times of 1914-1918.
The war had a big effect on Orient. The loss of so many players saw the club slip behind London rivals West Ham and Tottenham. On top of that In 1913 Woolwich Arsenal had controversially moved from South to North London, much to the disapproval of Orient and Tottenham, who believed the move would affect their support. The move unquestionably affected Orient more than the bigger teams – it took several decades for the club to reach those pre-war highs again, but in 1962 and against the odds, Orient reached the First Division. The club’s stay in the top flight lasted only one season. However, they produced some notable performances, which included victories over Manchester United, Liverpool and local rivals West Ham.
But back into the 80s, the likes of Manchester United and Everton had not visited for some time. Brisbane Road now played host to the likes of Lincoln City and Gillingham. The big teams had gone and so had the crowds, with many matches now watched by just 3,000 hardcore supporters. Although the club struggled, they still had a cult hero. Striker Peter Kitchen looked nothing like a professional footballer, however, he continued to hit the net on a regular basis. His exploits are remembered to this very day, the club having named a tea bar after him!
It was around this period that I watched Orient quite a bit. Although the team rarely threatened the top end of the table I did manage to see some memorable matches. Bolton Wanderers came to Brisbane Road and built up a 3-1 lead, however, a wonderful three goal performance from that man Kevin Godfrey saw Orient home 4-3. I also witnessed an early sign of the Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’s’ intentions as they won a Third Division encounter 6-2 in East London. There was also a fairly uneventful 1-1 draw with Lincoln City during which O’s Barry Silkman missed a penalty by just about the widest margin I’ve ever seen!
On Boxing Day 1985 I was given a dilemma. Southend were strangely without a festive fixture so I searched for an alternative. A quick check on Ceefax gave me the answer I was looking for. Orient v Hereford United, perfect. Well, almost perfect. With no trains or buses running I would need some form of transport from Southend to East London. I asked Dad if he fancied driving to the match but he had already made prior arrangements to visit the Old Southend Stadium (former home of Southend United) for the final Greyhound meeting to take place before the ground was demolished.
As Christmas Day fizzled out it was looking increasingly likely that I would have to trade football for the dogs, but then like a bolt out of the blue the phone rang. It was a chap by the name of Rowland Lyons.
Rowland was an Orient supporter but had a few friends at Southend. He had even turned out in one or two Southend United Supporters Club football matches. He asked me if I wanted a lift to the Boxing Day game, and I quickly agreed. It was a great gesture of him to offer. He lived in Taunton, Somerset and he would have to make a 500 mile round trip to include picking me up and dropping me home after the match!
The plan was for Rowland to pick me up at 1pm, this giving us two hours to reach East London for the match. But as the time passed 2 o’clock there was still no sign of him. At about quarter past two and with the rain falling in sheets he pulled up. He was driving an old battered mini. We sped off up the A127. As we reached Basildon I felt a strange sensation in my feet. Looking down I noticed a huge hole in the floor, the water was pouring in and my shoes were by now soaked. As I looked up, the car narrowly avoided a lorry, stopping only a few feet from carnage. “That’s lucky,” said Rowland. “The brakes don’t usually work that well,” he added. I was starting to think that on this particular occasion greyhound racing might have been the better option!
For the rest of the journey I sat in what can only be described as the ‘crash position’ but we arrived at Brisbane Road with minutes to spare. Despite the awful weather conditions Orient and Hereford played out a thrilling 2-2 draw in front of a crowd of 2,700.
The journey home was fairly uneventful but we managed to avoid crashing and I’d got my fix of football. As for dad’s day at the dogs, the electric hare broke down half way through one of the early races and the meeting was abandoned!
Of course what with travelling from Somerset I should not have been surprised that my chauffeur was late picking me up, however, twenty-three years later while researching this story I discovered that he was in fact looking after his parents’ house in Wickford, Essex. He still hasn’t given me an excuse for leaving me standing in the pouring rain for over an hour!
Although I don’t mind Orient, for some strange reason my beloved Southend United have a phobia for them. Not only do the Shrimpers very rarely beat them but we have a habit of scoring for them too! I doubt any team has scored more own goals against one single opponent as Southend have for Orient. One particular match sticks in the mind more than most. When Southend arrived at Brisbane Road for a League 2 fixture in 2004, both teams were struggling in the lower reaches of the division. The game had largely been one way traffic, Southend had taken the lead, missed a penalty and hit the woodwork more times than I care to remember.
With about twenty minutes to go the Shrimpers’ strike force ended an apparent inability to hit the proverbial cow’s arse with a banjo. Sadly nobody could have told Messrs Bramble and Broughton that we were now kicking the other way. The 2000 or so travelling supporters looked on in disbelief as two thundering headers secured another bemusing afternoon on the terraces. If that was not bad enough, spare a thought for my good friend Ed, whose large frame proved too much for the narrow turnstiles. The air turned blue as he struggled to free himself before being let through a side gate!
Today I still try to get along to the Orient a couple of times a season. Brisbane Road, like numerous other grounds, has changed greatly since those early visits in the 1980s. But some things never change. The Orient supporters’ club bar has always offered my family and me a friendly welcome. Steve Jenkins has even been known to buy me a beer! The team’s form continues to baffle their faithful supporters. I guess they’re not too different from Southend, Colchester and Walsall in that respect.