Leyton Orient’s hopes of playing at Wembley this season might have ended in pretty emphatic style at the Emirates on Wednesday night, but while Arsenal move on to a quarter-final meeting with Manchester United in a week’s time there might yet be a way for the Os to reach Old Trafford this season too. The venue for the League One and League Two play-off finals at the end of May has been switched from London to Manchester, and although Orient currently lie eight points behind sixth-placed MK Dons they have lost just twice in the league since November and their extended FA Cup run has left them with games in hand over all their rivals.
As a growing number of people are becoming aware, however, Leyton Orient’s most important battles are likely to be fought off the pitch in the coming months.
Hours before their FA Cup fifth round replay against the Gunners it emerged that, pending the bid’s political approval this week, Orient were planning to sue the various bodies involved in the decision-making process involved in West Ham’s proposal to play their home games at the redesigned Olympic Stadium from the beginning of the 2013/14 season. After what must have been a busy day of letter-writing for Orient’s owner, Barry Hearn, he confirmed that West Ham, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), City Hall, the government, and the Premier League had all been threatened with legal action.
On Thursday West Ham’s wishes were indeed given the formal backing of the government and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and so the outrage felt by the Premier League club’s east London neighbours at the Olympic Stadium decision looks set to see the matter settled in court.
The severe reservations that Leyton Orient have about West Ham playing in the Stratford area of the city revolve around the Olympic site being only about a mile from Orient’s Brisbane Road ground and the fact that the Hammers are planning to lower their ticket prices once they move in so as to be able to fill as many of the 60,000 seats as possible. Brisbane Road’s average attendance is less than one tenth that which West Ham will be hoping to attract from 2013, but Orient’s big fear is that their already relatively modest support will dwindle by as much as 30 per cent in the face of such close competition.
The possible outcome is a bit like that Simpsons episode, “Bart of Darkness,” in which Lisa is enjoying the popularity with her classmates that comes from having a swimming pool in her back garden only for Martin Prince to build a bigger and better one down the road. As her pool empties of friends, the water level falls to the floor. The allegory here, for Leyton Orient, seems simple enough: with fewer fans, the life could drain out of the club.
By raising legal objections to West Ham’s move, Orient will be seeking to take the Premier League to task over the body’s own rules regarding club relocations. In section 6.5 of rule 1, the League purports to oppose any ground move that would have a negative effect on any team already playing in the area.
Perhaps some people might claim that Orient are overreacting, as was claimed in this article on FFC last month, because West Ham’s present Upton Park ground is already fairly near to Brisbane Road and the Premier League outfit will only be a couple of miles closer than they currently are. However, given that the proposal for West Ham to move into the Olympic Stadium was actually a joint bid between the club and Newham council – who will also have access to the stadium and in particular its retained athletics track – and the fact that the £95m it will cost to turn the structure into a permanent football stadium after the Games includes £40m of public money in the form of a loan from the council to West Ham to carry out the work, Orient have a right to be curious as to how and why the decision to back the Hammers’ bid was reached.
The distance involved in West Ham’s move might seem small, but a couple of miles can make a huge difference in a conurbation such as London where there are so many clubs competing for support. References abound at the moment to the casual fans that Orient fear they could lose with West Ham right on their doorstep and, while this might be an uncomfortable reminder that many of the 9,000 fans that Orient took to the Emirates on Wednesday were not Brisbane Road regulars, such fair-weather supporters have the potential to become seasoned followers over time should their affection for the club be allowed to blossom.
The chances of Orient attracting more fans in the future thanks to a season as successful as this one is shaping up to be will be greatly reduced should those living in their particular east London catchment area take their support (and their money) elsewhere. The club’s fortunes – on and off the pitch – would only suffer.
Geographically speaking, West Ham’s relocation might not be in the league of Wimbledon’s switch to Milton Keynes in 2003, or Arsenal’s move from south to north London in 1913, or even the distance involved had Spurs moved to the Olympic Stadium, but the grounds for lending a side public money in order to fund a new home that they will struggle to fill without an aggressive ticketing strategy – all to the clear detriment of another club – need a lot of explaining.
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