In 1995 FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
As it turned out, this series comes at a time when crowds in London have been forbidden due to the discovery of a mutated strain of COVID-19. FrontRowSoccer.com already had planned to re-post this series as it comes on the 25th anniversary of this trip in December 2020 (Dec. 22).
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – Several times a month Brian Barnes and Chris Cowell make a 100-mile road trip from their Colchester home to watch their favorite soccer team – Leyton Orient of the English third division.
Orient, which hasn’t performed in the first division (now Premier League) since the 1962-63 season, is far from being one of England’s glamour teams. It would be easier for them to support a larger and more popular team, let’s Tottenham or Arsenal. Or they would watch another third division club, Colchester.
Orient is in their blood.
They were at Leyton Stadium on Brisbane Road in east London on the rainy night of Dec. 22 to watch Orient play Rochdale.
Cowell’s father was a policeman in the Leyton section of the city and brought him to the ground when he was four years old. He got hooked.
“I’ve never supported anyone else,” said Cowell, a management director for a bank.
Barnes, who brings his sons to the games, is also a professional, a project manager for British Telephone. “It’s the hope of getting some sort of success,” Barnes said, explaining why he has supported Orient. “It would be very easy to work and support a big club.”
In a city that has a dozen or so soccer teams, that Orient has been able to survive is a minor miracle. The team has a small, yet loyal following, averaging 5,157 fans a game.
How small is the club? The press room is actually the training room. Ray Balding, another lifelong fan who is the press steward on match day, hands out lineups and programs to the media onl a couple of feet from exercise bikes and weights.
The writers and photographers apparently didn’t mind the equipment.
For Balding, being the press steward is a chance to be close to the team he loves.
“It’s like a love affair,” said the 43-year-old Balding, a warehouse van driver who has been an Orient fan for 37 years. “Once you’re in it, you’re stuck. You always think something good will come around the corner. I’m an optimist.”
Even through the best and worst of times.
In 1978, Orient played Arsenal in an FA Cup semifinal, the club’s furthest advancement in the competition.
This past October, Orient was the subject of a television program named, “Yours For a Fiver,” named after the attempts of former Tony Wood, who tried to sell the then financially ailing franchise for £5 late in 1994.
“It was very embarrassing,” Balding said of the attempted sale.
Wood eventually had a taker – Barry Hearn, who made his reputation promoting other sports – boxing and snooker (billiards). He paid more than £5. Hearn has tried to pump new life into the team. He has rolled back children’s season tickets only £10 apiece ($16 a season) to attract younger fans.
Thanks to the more reasonable prices, Cowell is able to take his two sons – David (8) and Paul (5) to games, making his family a third-generation Orient family.
David said that he enjoys the soccer. “They’re a nice football club,” he said.
Paul, however, hasn’t appreciated what’s happening on the field. What does he like most about going to the games? “Dad brings me to the shop,” he said of buying souvenirs.
Orient started out the season strong at 6-2-4 but has fallen on lean times recently, entering the match with a 1-8-1 streak. It had only won once in the league since Sept. 30, a 3-1 victory over Cambridge United Nov. 18.
On this rainy night before an encouraging crowd of 5,399, when most fans would rather stay home or do some last-minute Christmas shopping, Orient managed a 2-0 victory over Rochdale, relying on the long-ball game.
“The start was pleasing,” team manager Pat Holland said. “We should have been three-nil up in the first 20 minutes.
“I still think we have to rebuild. I will not get carried away with the win. I will be banging on the chairman’s door.”
And people like Chris Cowell will keep returning, walking through the doors at Brisbane Road.
“Anything’s possible,” he said. “If you lose hope, then there’s no sense trying it.”
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