This express threatens the Orient

By Bernard Josephs, January 31, 2011
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It is crisis time at Leyton Orient FC (the Os). Chairman Barry Hearn has spelt it out. If West Ham or Tottenham Hotspur take over the Olympic Stadium in Stratford - situated barely a training run from the Os' Brisbane Road ground - grave times lie ahead. His remarks bring back memories of the 1950s and '60s, when the club was forced to beg fans to throw loose change into buckets so that the players could be paid.

Hearn has brought financial stability to the Orient, building three new stands and converting the renamed Matchroom Stadium into an all-seater ground. But now, with the Tottenham v West Ham financial juggernaut moving in on the Olympic stadium, the Brisbane Road club - where average gates hover around the 4,000 mark - faces the prospect of having Premiership football on its doorstep and this threatens its existence.

For a section of East London's soccer-loving Jewish community, including many who have moved away but whose hearts remain there, the demise of Orient would be a sad loss. For me, an Orient supporter for more than 50 years, it would be a catastrophe.

The Os have always been a heimishe club. Even the legions of Jewish fans who support Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham admit to keeping an eye on their results. My son for instance, who has sadly become a "gooner", never fails to call me to commiserate or celebrate the latest doings in E10. He even allows his son to wear "I Love Orient" pyjamas.

I have mixed memories of being introduced to the club by my grandfather. He could have taken me to Tottenham or to the Hammers but once I entered the Os' somewhat scruffy field of dreams, my fate was sealed. He would lift me over the ancient turnstiles while the gatekeeper turned a blind eye.

Considering its uninspiring record, you might think I would have tired of supporting London's Cinderella club but, by the time I was 18, I had become an ever-present member of "kosher corner" - a section of the West Stand where Jewish fans engaged in emotional outbursts ranging from gallows humour to ecstasy. Every own goal or mistimed tackle was greeted with cries of "oi vey," while a goal for the Os would give rise to an impromptu hora.

In particular, we would issue friendly Yiddish curses to the club's Jewish players. There was no hiding place for the likes of Mark Lazarus and Barry Silkman - unless of course they were playing a blinder. Today, alas, kosher corner no longer exists but the club has kept its links to the Jewish community and Jewish fans still populate Brisbane Road on match days.

Leyton Orient is that rarity - a community based club. It has invested in youth programmes and community projects in one of London's most impoverished areas and is a leading force in the Kick it Out campaign to eradicate racism from football.

As its statement says : "It is tragic to think that the true legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games could be the death of one of football's most-established community clubs." Such an outcome would be a sad day not just for Os fans but for the game as a whole. It must not be allowed to happen.

Bernard Josephs is a former JC political editor

    Last updated: 12:50pm, January 31 2011