On the face of it a draw away at mid-table Hartlepool is a creditable result, but such is the nature of the arm wrestle at the top of the National League, that any dropped points whatsoever spark anxious scanning of the table and hasty calculations to try to understand the implications.
It had all got off to a promising enough start last Saturday when captain fantastic Jobi McAnuff, celebrating passing 700 club appearances, opened the scoring midway through the first half. However the league leaders were pegged back in added time before the break when Kabamba equalized for The Pools, seizing onto a loose ball in the area and sliding it home.
Early in the second half Orient had to again be thankful for a Dean Brill penalty save that ensured things didn’t get even worse. Late on a low drive from McAnuff and then a snapshot from Widdowson forced saves from Loach in the Hartlepool net, but in the end Justin Ediburgh’s men had to be content with a point.
A shock defeat for Salford away at bottom-of-the-table Braintree and a draw for Fylde at Maidstone kept Orient top of the table, but Solihull Moors’ victory at Ebbsfleet worryingly brought them within a point. The West Midlanders then won away at Aldershot on Tuesday evening to displace the O’s from top spot and establish a two point lead, albeit having played a game more.
So what does this all mean for Orient and our hopes of a return to the cherished land of the Football League? On the face of it, having set the pace for such a long period should we now be worried that things are going awry at precisely the wrong moment?
Back in the autumn it was plain sailing on the good ship Orient, with just one defeat in the opening twenty three matches, then came the winter wobbles as the squad seemed to tire, the demands of this so very attritional league very evidently taking their toll the first choice players. Since the 2-0 victory over Gateshead at the beginning of December, the O’s have won just three of their nine league matches, eschewing a total of sixteen of the available twenty seven points.
Instead of taking control of the race for the solitary guaranteed promotion slot, Orient now look like facing a battle with at least four other clubs, possibly more if Sutton and Harrogate win their games in hand. On a positive note their fate is still in their own hands with games still to play against all of the other top seven teams bar Salford. The trip to Solihill in particular at the end of April looks like it could be absolutely pivotal.
However in recent weeks defensive fragility, probably due in no small part to the injury-provoked absences of Coulson and Ekpiteta, and a dulling of the sharpness in front of goal have been increasingly evident. The signing of Turley and the hopefully prompt return of Marvin and/ or Josh should steady things up at the back, while the re-signing of former O’s favourite Jay Simpson will hopefully sharpen things up in attack, along with the highly anticipated return of Josh Koroma.
With fourteen games to go there is still plenty of time for Orient to re-establish a lead on the chasing pack but the team are going to need to re-find that consistency of results that they displayed across the first half of the campaign. Given previous experience of play-off finals, especially the still raw memories of five years ago, no Orient supporter would relish the prospect of trying to secure promotion by the secondary route. Especially given that perhaps the most likely opponent is the Class of 92 funded media darlings, Salford City.
There will more than likely still be twists and turns along the way, so for now all Orient can do is focus on Saturday and the visit of Maidenhead United, three points from that one would be a welcome tonic to the twitchiness the O’s faithful is starting to feel.