When I started watching Welcome to Wrexham earlier this year, I had a bit of a deja vu experience of with struggling English football clubs. Some 40 years ago on my first journey to the British Isles during a vacation (it turned into a work-vacation), I attended three matches – an England vs. Germany friendly at Wembley, and two lower division contests. One was Orient FC (known better known as Leyton Orient) in the old Third Division and Wimbledon (which eventually moved to Milton Keynes in 2003) in the old fourth division. I wound writing two stories about those clubs for Soccer America. The stories talked about the trials and tribulations of lower division clubs. Today, I would like to share with you these two stories from 40 years ago.

Both stories were used with permission from Soccer America. You can visit the online publication at www.SoccerAmerica.com.

Many US soccer fans know about Kevin Keegan, Wembley Stadium and the FA Cup. But there’s another side to English soccer – a side that is struggling to survive. It usually doesn’t receive headlines of the Fleet Street newspapers or international recognition. It’s the backbone of English soccer, the third and fourth divisions.

Today Soccer America contributing Editor Michael Lewis begins a two-part series about the lower rungs of English soccer, which in many ways are not unlike professional soccer in the United States. He profiles the Orient Football Club, a team that fought demotion to the Fourth Division last season, after a dismal 20th-place finish in a 15-22-9 record.

By Michael Lewis

LONDON – When Bill Truman dies, he wants his ashes to be spread over the field at Leighton Stadium on Brisbane Road.

Truman has cherished the glory days of the Orient Football Club. He also has seen through the gloomy days. These definitely are the gloomy days of Orient.

Last season, Orient was mired at the bottom of the Third Division, close to relegation to the Fourth. It’s a far cry from the First Division years of the mid-sixties. Former North American Soccer League Commissioner Phil Woosnam once started for the O’s. But those days seem to be long gone.

Despite losses piling up during the 1982-83 season, the 52-year-old Truman attended every game, standing at the midfield stands, rooting his team on. Well, trying to root his team on. It’s difficult, when your team is getting thrashed 5-1 at home. It’s difficult when some of the fans are chanting, “We’re so bad, it’s unbelievable.” And it’s difficult when some fans staged a postgame protest outside the stadium.

Still, Truman, a heating engineer, keeps coming back. “This is part of my life,” he said. “It’s also the companionship here. It’s good bunch of people here.”

When people show up. Attendance has dropped drastically. At one game last season, 1,846 fans showed up – the lowest since the war. In England, that’s known as the Second World War.

Orient averaged 2,718 per game last year, down 1m701 per game from the year before. In an effort to increase crowds. The team’s management offered special rates for unemployed workers (down from L2.50 to L1.50, Or from $4 to 2.40).

“We are victims of a financial recession,” Orient manager Ken Knighton said. “Two thousand attendance and like that. We can’t rely on the transfer market [for new players] and different diseases.”

In Orient, the official matchday magazine of the club, Knighton criticized the team’s performance in a 3-0 loss. Knighton said. “Had there been any way I could have stopped their money I would have done so.

“Here we were facing opponents, bottom of the table and distinctively apprehensive about meeting us yet and only once did we manage a shot on goal or begin to test them. Never have I felt so humiliated after a game.

“To any player not prepared to give his utmost for Orient Football Club, I repeat my invitation of last Monday morning. You can come and see me come in and see me and we will deal and he will be allowed to go on his way.”

Knighton’s club also experienced other problems. He was forced to use apprentice players for five consecutive games because of a series of injuries to striker Keith Houghton (back) and David Peet (strained knee ligaments), who is 30, is the veteran of two Cup finals (with Southampton) and is one of the most experienced players on the team.

Because of the sorry financial condition of the team, Knighton could not bring in new players. “It’s very tight at the moment,” Knighton said. “It all goes down to fans. In the second division are guaranteed big attendances. Here, you play in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people.

“Football clubs spend money for players. I know for a fact I can’t spend money for players. I have to sell one of our better players and bring two or three other players to strengthen the side.”

He sold Joe Mov to Cambridge before the season for about $125,000.

“That keeps the club afloat,” he said.

May be an image of 3 people and people playing football

Knighton, who once coached at Sunderland in a second division said is rebuilding of Orient would not happen overnight. He had sold many of his over 30 players.

“I want the majority of our team to be youngsters,” he said. “I’m in the process of changing the club’s image. It takes time.”

Time was something Knighton apparently didn’t have. Though he was in the second year of a four-year contract, he was sacked by the board of directors and replaced by Frank Clark.

“I told them it would take at least three years to turn in parentheses to turn around the club,” Knighton said before he was removed. “At the moment things are not going well. People are disappointed. I expect it to happen. It’s going to take some time ….”

Knighton’s goals were to “hopefully establish ourselves in the third division and move on from there. I want to get back into the second division as quickly as possible.”

Not the way Orient was paying at the beginning of last season.

Take the game of Oct. 16, 1982, for instance. The O’s were drubbed at home by Newport County, never considered world class competition. Newport scored in the 29th minute for a 1-0 halftime lead.

Meanwhile in the stands, Truman was standing. waiting for his beloved Orient club to turn things around early in the second half. During an interlude in the game, Truman was asked what his most memorable moment was.

“When we were losing two-nil to Chelsea and Dave Wigg, who used to play with us,” Truman said. “He gave the old sign to the directors box. When we came back to win 3-2, we gave it back to him.”

The lowest moment?

“When Pete Angel died in 1979,” Truman said. “He was an old player trying to coach the training session. But he had a heart attack and died.”

The second half began, and Tommy Tynan came down and scored in the opening minute. A 2-0 Newport lead.

“Now that’s the lowest moment when he scored,” Truman said moments later.

John Aldridge scored for a 3-0 lead. “Now that’s the lowest moment,” Truman jokingly said.

When your team is losing, it helps to have a sense of humor.

Not all the fans were as loyal or as enthusiastic as Truman. They began chanting, ‘We’re so bad, it’s unbelievable.”

The final score 5-1.

Some sports writers waited almost an hour for the manager to show in the press room, but Knighton never did. He reportedly was in conference with the board of directors. Perhaps that was the safest place for him.

Outside of the stadium at main entrance, a number of fans demonstrated and had to be cleared away by the local weeks.

These are not happy days for Orient.