It had to be Orient didn’t it? If any EFL squad was going to have a significant number of their players test positive for Covid-19, causing the cancellation of a glamour League Cup tie against Premier League opponents and the postponement of their third league game of the season, you would have got short odds with the bookies on it being our beloved O’s. Assuming of course bookmakers do take bets on the potential calling-off of fixtures as a result of the virus in the “new normal” (makes mental note to pop down to Ladbrokes to check the odds on the trip to Barrow on Saturday not going ahead given that a local lockdown in the far North West of England is apparently only “a matter of time”).
Of course, given the surging infection rates across the country, it feels pretty much inevitable that while Orient have been the first team to be affected (infected?), they most certainly won’t be the only ones or indeed the last. Last weekend saw the very late decision to postpone Oxford United’s game against Crewe Alexandra after a visiting player tested positive for the virus on the morning of the match, which followed an earlier announcement that Grimsby’s trip to Cheltenham had been called off after a Mariners’ player had tested positive earlier in the week. It feels as if postponements might be yet another thing we have to get used to in these depressingly surreal times. Quite how these may affect the season’s progress as the situation worsens is anyone’s guess. Being slightly pessimistic, the completion of the entire season’s programme may be no more than a distant pipedream.
The interruption, just two weeks into the league campaign, came at just the wrong time for Orient. While our boys hadn’t necessarily got off to the proverbial flyer, the signs were somewhat encouraging: the cup victories at Forest Green and at home to against League One Plymouth built momentum for the squad, while in the League the resilience shown to snatch a late victory away at Oldham thanks to DJ’s late winner, and then to come back from two goals down at home to Mansfield hinted at a more successful start to this season than last. The squad itself was looking in decent shape with the much-vaunted two players for each position seeming a reality, even if neither the coaching staff or us fans were quite settled on our first-choice team or system. Then it all came to a stuttering halt.
Being completely churlish, we might wonder what might have happened if we had simply declined Tottenham’s offer of testing our squad before the League Cup match, just as others including Hull City and Brentford had done? While taking the tests and finding out that we had players infected with the virus was the right thing to do, it led to us missing out on the £125K that Sky were due to pay for screening the match, a sum that wouldn’t have solved our income problems by any means, but would have proved more than a useful boost to our finances during the continued lockout of fans.
A further impact of the positive tests was that the entire squad having to self-isolate for 10 days, a period of quarantine that ended on the Friday before the next home game against Cheltenham. Going into that match with a number of players still recovering from the effects of this hideous respiratory virus, without being able to train together or even have face-to-face team briefings was always going to be a major ask, especially against a team who had a full fortnight’s preparation thanks to their match the previous weekend being called off but with their players able to train normally. It was little wonder that the O’s looked rusty from the start of the game. The team selection itself, with five changes from the game against Mansfield, suggested that some of the likely starters were simply not ready.
The fact that we found ourselves two goals down with just half an hour played simply gave us too much of a mountain to climb, even as we started to find our rhythm once again. If DJ hadn’t been frustratingly flagged offside after prodding the ball home before the break, or if we had made the most of the impetus brought by the introduction of Lee Angol, JMD and Ruel Sotiriou in an adventurous triple substitution midway through the second half, we may have been reflecting on another hard-fought point, or possibly even better.
The much-maligned EFL Trophy, and believe me I fully get the #BTeamBoycott even if Mrs Football Nerd and I are way too football/ Orient obsessed to not watch the competition, game against AFC Wimbledon proved a useful opportunity to get some more minutes into the squad, a kind of ‘early season/ post-isolation friendly’ if you will. The O’s looked much more like the side they were before having to put their start to the season on hold. A 2-0 victory over League One opposition should never be sniffed at, even if our opponents were much-changed from their usual line-up, and with qualification secured and a home tie for topping the group in the next round likely, barring a battering at the Valley, it has to be considered a solid night’s work.
Now for the trip to Barrow, assuming no more nasty surprises, followed by the rearranged trip to Walsall. Two away games in quick succession is likely to be a challenge, and while it is difficult to predict the outcome of those games based on form thus far, a decent points return from a team that sits two points below and another that sits just one point ahead might serve to get us moving forward again. At least until the next interruption that is.