English football has long been a target for rich investors looking to make a quick return on their money by chasing the Premier League dream.
At Leyton Orient, a club that was one penalty kick away from reaching the second tier of English football back in 2014, that dream could not be further away. The O’s, renowned as London’s oldest professional football club, are heading for non-league football for the first time in their history.
Their slide has been a cautionary tale. When the club was solid to enigmatic Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti for a princely £3.3 million by long term owner Barry Hearn in 2014, they were supposed to go to the next level. What they did not realise, however, was that the next level would consist of trips to Solihull, Fylde and Guiseley, rather than Sunderland, Fulham and Norwich City.
While Becchetti may have initially delivered on his promise to put money into the club, his time, devotion and care has been left somewhat wanting.
The club, as a result, has bounced from crisis to crisis. Players have been forced to loan money from the PFA, club staff have been left unpaid while the Leyton Orient Fans’ Trust (LOFT), have recently been asked by the FA to pay the wages of the club’s matchday medical staff prior to a recent game at home to Hartlepool United. To give money and fund the club at this dire stage would be to give validation to Becchetti’s model of ownership, an action that unsurprisingly does not sit well with the club’s legion of protesting supporters.
Now with a squad consisting almost entirely of youth players from the club’s academy, Leyton Orient are staring relegation and possible extinction square in the face. Only a last minute cash injection from Becchetti last month prevented Orient being wound up by HMRC, while players and staff have been replaced or left unpaid twice in the last two months. The club has also gone through eleven managers in three years, leaving this once bastion of stability to crash and burn in the now murky waters of energy entrepreneur Becchetti’s dodgy business dealings.
And what is perhaps the most galling part of the whole sorry saga is that these crimes are fresh. Becchetti and his mafia of meddling intermediaries have been sucking the life out of Orient. Leyton Orient represent the microcosm of the ownership model that engulfs perilous clubs in the bottom two tiers of English football. For Leyton Orient, see also Coventry City, Blackpool and to an extent, Charlton Athletic. This quartet of the Football League’s stellar names, three of whom are previous FA Cup winners, have suffered under absent owners and club custodians who have neglected not only the needs of the club themselves, but also the wishes of supporters – the true owners of any football club. These clubs are not the first and will not be the last to fall into the hands of unscrupulous businessmen, but it is surely time that the FA wake up and act to implement a proper ‘Fit and Proper Person’ test that is worth the paper it is written on.