This Saturday will see the return to football-obsessive normality for Mrs Football Nerd and me as we slip back into the familiar and reassuringly comfortable matchday routine and head off to Brisbane Road for Orient’s first game back in the Football League. During pre-season we had a day out at Harlow (https://football-nerd.org/2019/07/11/an-emotional-but-reassuring-day-at-harlow/) and also warmed up for the return to competitive action by spending last Saturday afternoon watching Orient eventually overcome a Norwich XI thanks to second half goals from two new signings: Lee Angol and Josh Wright.
In that final formal pre-season game, the O’s looked sharp right from the outset, there was a crispness about their passing and movement and real bite in their pressing and tackling, an encouraging sign going into the new campaign.
Obviously a cloud of sadness will hang over our entire season as we look to honour Justin’s legacy and strive to push onwards and upwards now that we are back in the League, but the return to proper football action on Saturday afternoon also allows us to focus our thoughts on the football itself.
A recent Twitter poll I saw was asking where O’s fans thought we would finish this season, the options being: automatic promotion, the play-offs, mid-table or battling relegation? After all that we have been through over the last few years, I am sure that most of us would happily settle for 22nd place and survival for another season, but should we actually be setting our sights a little bit higher than that?
Two of Orient’s recent promotion predecessors have made short work of the fourth tier: Lincoln City passing through in just two seasons and Tranmere Rovers having secured back-to-back promotions last season.
However in a division that sees a significant churn season by season with a quarter of the teams being new arrivals, the early money often sits with those having been relegated from the division above. Certainly the names being mentioned amongst the promotion favourites this time around include: Bradford, Scunthorpe and Plymouth, with the latter having rather cynically / opportunistically, (depending on your point of view!), acquired a significant proportion of a proven promotion-winning management team squad by bringing in manager Ryan Lowe, his backroom staff and five players from cash-strapped promotion winners Bury. The other relegated side, Walsall, seem to be considered to be in the reckoning for a tilt at the play-offs if not automatic promotion.
Mansfield Town having been in the frame for potential promotion all the way through before stalling right at the end last time out, Forest Green Rovers and Newport County, eliminated in the play-off semi-final and final respectively would probably all be expected to be in the mix as well.
Our old friends and media darlings, Salford City, seem to have drawn the media spotlight away from Orient with significant column inches and coverage dedicated to the ‘Class of 92’s’ money-driven (albeit Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim’s money!) tilt at a fifth promotion in six seasons. Unsurprisingly it is they who have been selected for the first televised match of the season when they host Stevenage this Saturday lunchtime. A game that we will no doubt watch in the Star before our match, supporting Stevenage of course!
Despite Justin’s passing and the loss of our two key attacking players in Macauley Bonne and Josh Koroma, there seems to have been little coverage of how Orient are shaping up or indeed our prospects for the new season. That may however, in a roundabout way, favour us, by allowing us to operate under the radar and give Ross and the squad room to breathe, as we prepare for the challenge of the new season.
Pre-season has allowed the establishment of a seemingly preferred starting line-up. Assuming he has recovered fully from the back/ shoulder injuries that prevented him from participating in the early friendlies, Dean Brill will continue as first choice between the sticks providing a calm and steady presence behind the backline and keeping those in front of him on their toes with his seemingly unceasing barracking.
Despite rumours and worries to the contrary both Big Marv and Dan Happe remain at the club, the latter having been announced as having signed a deal through to 2021 this week. They along with newly appointed captain, Josh Coulson, form a formidable rear-guard.
Joe Widdowson has established himself as first choice at left wing back and something of a fan favourite, at least with Mrs Football Nerd(!), he offers a decent option going forward and may even this season add to his one career goal to date scored a decade ago. If one or both of Sam Ling and Myles Judd can stay fit that will be an improvement on the rotating cast that filled in on the right at the tail end of last season.
Josh Wright was Justin’s last signing for the club and may well prove to be the ideal partner for last season’s deserved player of the year, Craig Clay. The evidence from last Saturday’s game was that Wright likes to sit that bit deeper of the two central midfielders although as we saw also offers a goal threat.
Despite injury, some of the flashes of pure talent we saw from January signing Jordan Maguire-Drew last season, in the second half at Wembley in particular, were both exciting and encouraging, and he will look to make the number 10 role his own this term.
The evidence of the pre-season programme suggests that we will start the season proper with a front two. Lee Angol found the net on a regular basis in preseason, scoring a total of four goals, and while the level of the opposition faced might be questioned, the early indications are that his goal contribution might be similar to the departed Bonne’s. Wilkinson hasn’t found himself on the scoresheet with the same regularity but has offered a presence up front that we have largely lacked other than when we introduced solid ‘Plan B’ option Matt Harrold from the bench.
Of course a mere matter of hours after initially drafting these words the club announced another new signing that of forward Louis Dennis from Portsmouth. Dennis can apparently operate as a winger or a forward. With the current system not really allowing the deployment of traditional wingers might we see Dennis slot in as part of a front two with Angol, in what could be regarded as a replacement of, or even upgrade on, Bonne and Koroma?
While it is of course difficult to predict with any certainty how we will fare at this higher level, retaining the vast majority of the last year’s season’s first choice line-up and assuming Angol, Dennis and Wilkinson score the goals we need, we have every reason to think that a top half finish and possible play-off push is realistic. Trips to Mansfield and Salford before August is out, however, might provide a more realistic barometer on how our campaign might go.