“There were games during that period where we’d go out and we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know if we were going to build from the back or whether we were going to go long…”
That was the view from Darren Pratley as he spoke candidly to Leyton Orient’s matchday stream ‘Orient Live’ following March’s 2-0 victory over Barrow.
Coming from Kenny Jackett’s first signing and the man he entrusted with the captaincy, Pratley’s words were particularly scathing while also neatly summarising the malaise that had set in during the 16-game winless run that ultimately defined the club’s season.
Orient’s campaign had started with such optimism with the appointment of a proven promotion winner in Jackett – seemingly a no brainer with the former Millwall man given free rein to recruit an almost entirely new squad.
Expectations were understandably high in E10, none more so than from the O’s hierarchy with Principal Investor Kent Teague stating in September: “We’re going to do a lot in order to try and get promoted this year. We’ve brought in Kenny (Jackett) specifically for that purpose.”
The season started well for Leyton Orient, their record after 20 league fixtures reading eight wins, nine draws and three defeats as resounding home victories against Exeter, Sutton and Swindon showed that on their day the O’s were amongst the best in the division.
Summer signings Harry Smith and Aaron Drinan both reached double figures for the season in the December win against Swindon, a feat neither had previously managed in their career, and with that level of firepower Orient were understandably confident of being in the promotion mix come May.
However, that Swindon game proved to be the high point of the campaign as the following match against Crawley saw wing-back Tom James, a significant part of the supply chain to Smith and Drinan and arguably Orient’s Player of the Season up to that point, forced off with a serious injury.
Without a natural replacement, Jackett was forced into a re-shuffle that simply didn’t work – the 60-year-old’s alternate game plan seemed to bafflingly consist of funnelling the ball out wide in crossing positions to two centre-backs playing as makeshift full-backs.
And so began the three-month spell without a win…
A Covid enforced break hardly helped matters as Jackett’s side were then forced to wait over a month for their next league fixture.
On their return, Orient looked lethargic in a goalless Brisbane Road draw against Port Vale with many putting the display down to rustiness and expecting the side to kick on from there.
But in truth that was as good as it got for the next couple of months as the O’s managed just a solitary goal in their next eight games.
To add to their woes, midfield stalwart Craig Clay also picked up a season ending injury during the O’s FA Cup Third Round defeat to Stoke City while the end of January also saw a bizarre transfer deadline day.
Much to everyone’s surprise, talented creative midfielder Dan Kemp moved to MK Dons only to be replaced with loanees George Ray and Frank Nouble from fellow League Two clubs – who both flattered to deceive during their stints in E10.
By mid-February, the confidence had visibly drained from a side that looked so assured in the earlier stages of the season and the unthinkable of relegation back to non-league was now becoming a distinct possibility.
It was clear a change was necessary and after another lifeless display in a 2-0 home defeat to Bristol Rovers the Board pulled the trigger and put Jackett and assistant Joe Gallen out of their misery.
Former players Matt Harrold and Brian Saah came in to steady the ship and achieved a couple of morale boosting draws before the club settled on former Swindon manager Richie Wellens as Jackett’s successor.
Despite only having one full day on the training pitch, the impact was immediate – it may have only been a goalless draw at Hartlepool but you could see the confidence already flowing back into the side.
Instead of aimless punts forward, the O’s were now calm and composed in playing out from the back and, following an impressive 1-1 draw away to leaders Forest Green, they picked up their first win of the calendar year against Rochdale in mid-March.
A string of eye-catching victories came soon after as Paul Smyth seemingly embarked on his own personal goal of the season competition.
The Northern Irishman was Orient’s key summer signing but had missed much of the campaign through injury, but on his return his quality began to shine through, scoring worldie after worldie in front of the Brisbane Road faithful in the closing weeks of the season.
Any lingering relegation fears were eased by the ‘Richie Revolution’, and, although the campaign ended with a rather limp home defeat to Tranmere, there’s every reason for the O’s to be optimistic under their new gaffer heading into their fourth season back in the EFL.
Overall, it was a season of inconsistency and frustration for Orient and despite the thinking behind the appointment of Jackett being sound, for whatever reason the former Portsmouth manager failed to deliver on the hype.
Supporters will be wary of another false dawn but in Wellens the O’s seem to have found a more modern manager who is better attuned to working within their structure.
As always, summer recruitment will be crucial but with next season marking the seventh since the club last graced the third tier, Orient may be able to afford to dream of a return to League One with Wellens at the helm.
‘LONDON FOOTBALL UNITES FOR UKRAINE’
Liaising with the UK Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club (UKUSSC) and the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB), London Football Scene has launched ‘London Football Unites for Ukraine’ – a fundraising campaign to provide as much relief to those in need.
We are urging all the Capital’s clubs, players and fans to raise as much money as possible for British-Ukrainian Aid (registered charity No. 1164472).
Please visit our JustGiving Page to give as much as you can and look out for more events and fundraising activities over the coming few weeks.
London Football Unites for Ukraine: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/londonfootballunitesforukraine