As a result of indulging one of my other great sporting loves and going to Manchester to watch St Helens win the Rugby League Grand Final a couple of weeks back, as well as the way the O’s fixtures fell in October, myself and Mrs. Football Nerd hadn’t been to Brisbane Road for a whole month. Our absence coincided not only with an upturn in form, (well for the most part anyway ignoring the trip to Plymouth!), and the appointment of a new permanent Head Coach. As a result it was with a sense of anticipation that we headed first to the Leyton Star for the usual pre-match preparations and then to take up our usual seats in the East Stand last Saturday for the visit of Carlisle.
First and foremost, now that Carl Fletcher has been confirmed in post and has taken charge of his first couple of matches, it is important to appreciate the job that Ross did for the club in the most unprecedented, sad and difficult circumstances. Justin’s passing is not something that could be prepared or planned for, instead we all had to pull together and try to find our way through the sadness and the grief towards some sort of normality once again. Ross despite having lost his boss, his mentor and friend felt that he needed step up and in his own words: “step forward and take responsibility…trying to find stability for the football club again.”
While there is no denying that despite the emotional opening day victory at home over Cheltenham, the players and staff found the adjustment to playing at a higher level tough to adjust to at first, especially having lost their two main goal-scorers from the National League title-winning campaign; even through the difficult early results there was the feeling that things weren’t that far away from coming good. In a twist of irony, Ross’ decision and announcement that he was going to step down as Interim Head Coach and revert to his substantive post seemed to serve to release the pressure and more encouraging results started to follow.
A draw at home to Port Vale, then wins at Northampton and Grimsby bookending a 3-1 home win over Walsall, in which even Joe Widdowson scored(!), saw the O’s pull away from the drop-zone and start to establish a points cushion for themselves. That defeat at Plymouth may have been something of a reality check against a team that will undoubtedly be in the promotion mix come the end of the season, but on the whole there is a lot more reason for optimism (I know, I know, we’re Orient and being optimistic goes against our very nature!) around the club than there had been in the preceding months.
In many ways the fact that we perhaps feel a bit disappointed at having let a 1-0 lead slip against a team who are five points behind us in the League says a lot about just how far Orient have come since those early season frustrations. We probably all felt we could and should have scored more, especially in the first half when we were very much on top, but for all our dominance of possession we struggled to create too many meaningful chances. In actual fact Carlisle created almost twice as many chances as we did (11 to our 6 according to the match report on the Orient website).
Earlier in the season the biggest concern was our defensive fragility, the sheer number of sloppy, and for the most part avoidable, goals that we were conceding, having shored things up at the back to an extent we are now missing our two main attacking threats as a result of Lee Angol’s injury and Conor Wilkinson’s recent suspension. The latter of the two should be available again for selection for the trip to Morecambe this weekend, although we are likely to have to wait a while longer for Angol’s return.
Some of the football the O’s played on Saturday, especially in the first half, with some slick passing and fluid movement should provide further encouragement for us going forward. All of a sudden we are beginning to see the balance of the team improve. The reversion to a back four seems to have helped to tighten things up a bit as it allows an extra man in midfield and provides greater protection ahead of the rearguard. Although it will be interesting to see if Big Marv makes way if/ when we ever have a consistently fit right back.
From seemingly being pedestrian and lacking mobility Josh Wright is beginning to show what attracted Justin to bring him back to the club as his last signing, he dictates the game, has an impressive range of passing and has chipped in with six goals already, making him our leading goal-scorer two ahead of Wilkinson.
After Saturday’s draw we sit in 16th place in the table and encouragingly closer to the play-off places than the relegation spot. Looking ahead to November we start the month with a trip to bottom of the League Morecambe this weekend and then entertain 22nd placed Scunthorpe before one of the teams favoured for promotion, Forest Green, come to Brisbane Road; six or seven points from those three fixtures would no doubt continue the good momentum we have now established.
However if we are truly to have aspirations at the tilt at the top half of the table, or even making the play-offs, we will need to find more goals from our attacking players, the imminent return of Conor Wilkinson and hopefully that of Lee Angol in the not too distant future will no doubt help; but we should also perhaps expect more from our wide players with messrs Brophy, Dennis and Maguire-Drew having contributed a total of just five goals between them and James Dayton only just back from injury. It really does feel like things are settling down and we are starting to find our feet at this level, here’s hoping the good form and momentum continues!