One of the unexpected factors of being exiled outside the Football League is entry into the FA Trophy, basically the non-league equivalent of the League Cup which features a total of 295 teams drawn from steps 1 to 4 of the English football pyramid. Given entry at the First Round Proper, the teams from the top of the National League are by definition the strongest in the competition.
Last season Orient managed to fluff their lines completely in their maiden appearance in the competition, spectacularly squandering a 3-0 lead at home to Gateshead in just twenty-two painfully surreal minutes, and then losing the replay in the North East. This season O’s have faced Beaconsfield Town, fellow National League ‘big guns’ Wrexham, and this last weekend Blyth Spartans the “most famous non-league football club in the world”; as described by former FA Secretary, Ted Croker, back in 1978 when the Spartans attracted 42,000 supporters (with a further 15,000 reportedly locked out!) to a FA Cup Fifth Round replay against Wrexham.
Interestingly given the recent remembrance activities involving Orient to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, Blyth Spartans were the first club of former Clapton Orient star, Richie McFadden, whose life is immortalised in the incredibly moving ‘The Greater Game’ stage production.
Orient were eliminated from the FA Cup back in October away at Maidstone before the First Round proper had even begun (https://football-nerd.org/2018/10/26/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-back-into-the-swing-of-football-watching-part-1-another-orient-away-day/); sparking some significant debate amongst O’s supporters as to whether this was a blessing in disguise to allow all efforts to focus on the promotion push, or whether in fact it was a wasted opportunity given how cup runs tend to lift the supporter base?
Suffice to say if the FA Cup could be seen as an unwelcome distraction, then this secondary cup competition certainly can. A fact reflected in the decision by the club to open only the West Stand for home supporters, allocating the North Stand to the hardy travelling support. The seemingly unappealing nature of the fixture was further driven home to us when purchasing our tickets and having pretty much free pick of where to sit. Given the marketing nous and savvy displayed by Nigel, Kent and Danny to date, we couldn’t help but wonder whether some incentives for families to come and enjoy the day to boost the attendance may have been possible?
As a result of the seeming lack of interest this match, the Leyton Star was relatively quiet as we watched the Premier League’s early kick-off while snacking on the now traditional pre-match fare of chips in beer cheese sauce (what more could you want from a pub snack?), save for a small clutch of Geordies here to watch Blyth, but with no less passion about watching Newcastle take on Spurs at Wembley on the big screen. In conversation with some of our new friends visiting from the North East, once the initial language barrier had been overcome, it transpired that their departure on the coach had been at 7:00am and it had taken them 6 hours to get here. Once again we were amazed at the dedication (or frankly obsession!) that football at this level can inspire.
As we headed down to the ground, the lack of the usual crowds while having to head across to the unfamiliar West Stand made the experience feel somewhat surreal. Even the missus, who takes all Orient games in the utmost seriousness, reluctantly agreed that even if O’s made a mess of this and were knocked out it may not be the worst thing in the world. Deep down we both knew she didn’t actually mean it; victory and progression to the next round being the only truly acceptable outcome from any Orient cup match in her eyes!
It was very noticeable over the festive period and the start to the year that the side has needed a bit of freshening after having operated through most of the season to date, save for the odd cup match, with a predictable first choice eleven. Seizing the opportunity Justin Edinburgh made significant changes to the line-up that had bounced back to form again Maidstone with only: Brill, Maguire-Drew, Happe and Turley being retained, although Matt Harrold who replaced the injured Koroma the previous week kept his place up front.
Whether it was the sheer number of changes being made, or indeed the rumoured conspiracy theory that spread around the home support that the O’s were deliberately trying to throw the match to allow them to focus on the league, the performance for the most part was scratchy to say the least.
Chances were very much at a premium as neither side really established themselves, although Alabi wasted a glorious opportunity to send Orient in at the break with the lead, but after getting up well to meet Maguire-Drew’s set-piece he inexcusably failed to get his header on target from close range.
Things barely improved in the second half with little in the way of goal-mouth action to entertain the 1,842 of us (including the 289 from Blyth) who could think of no better way to spend a winter Saturday afternoon; until Turley crept in at the back post to meet Gorman’s free kick and to finally put the O’s in the lead with just over five minutes remaining. Brill was called into action just before the end but at the final whistle ‘Rockin’ all Over the World,’ rang out and it was Orient through to the next round.
Monday’s quarter final draw kept apart the four biggest teams remaining: Orient, Salford, AFC Fylde and Solihull Moors; who along with Wrexham make up the National League top five. For the O’s it is a trip to holders Brackley and perhaps more importantly the league game against Fylde now having to be moved. Time will tell if progression in the Trophy proves to be a distraction from the primary objective of promotion; however if progress continues and we find ourselves just a two-legged semi-final away from Wembley, will it be worth taking more seriously?