I have to say that an insipid goalless draw and a lacklustre defeat thanks to a late winner from the opposition, aren’t exactly the type of performances and results I was hoping for when I suggested last week that: “if we are serious about rekindling our promotion tilt then we are going to need to be back at our top-level right from the off.” While it has been great to finally be back into the swing of regular football watching once again, Orient have struggled badly.
It was always likely that we were going to be somewhat rusty being without league matches for 5 weeks, from what I gather we very much looked like a team short of competitive game time at Stoke, but at the same time what we dished up on Saturday against Port Vale was well short of the level that KJ no doubt expects and demands from the players. The fact that the two most memorable moments of the entire afternoon were the fox that ran onto the pitch and dashed up the wing quicker than any O’s player managed, and the flock of parakeets that circled above the pitch and afforded E10 a surreally exotic feel, says all we need to about the goalless draw we had to endure. Neither team looked especially great, offering a clear explanation of recent poor form from both.
While there was actually some football played on Tuesday evening, at least in the first half anyway, the defeat to a goal which came five minutes from time, raised more questions about why things just aren’t working for Orient at the moment and a real fear that even qualification for the play-offs may be beyond us this season.
These two matches marked the start of a run of 7 games in 3 weeks that will most likely shape the rest of our season. Picking up just 1 point from the 6 available at home was humbling to say the very least. As a result, we have fallen to 14th in the table, 9 points off 7th and the final play-off spot. The remaining 5 games in this intense run include trips to Mansfield, Bradford and Exeter all of whom sit above us in the league, and home games against Salford in 9th and Colchester in 22nd, so a significant points haul looks a big ask, especially given how poor we have been since that stunning and unexpected win against Swindon back at the start of December.
Over the last few days, since the disappointment of Tuesday night, I have found myself mulling over what is going wrong with our beloved O’s, and try as I might, I just can’t seem to come up with an explanation. Kenny’s track record makes it impossible to suggest that he isn’t a capable and vastly experienced manager. Three promotions and over 900 games in charge of clubs, many at a higher level than League 2, attest to that. Most fans agreed that we were lucky to attract him to our club in the summer, were we wrong all along? Surely not.
It also cannot be argued that the ownership and board haven’t backed the manager. While we needed to essentially rebuild the squad in the summer with so many players being released or moving on, they have evidently allowed Martin Ling and KJ to go out and get the players they deemed appropriate. For me the new squad has always been a bit light in terms of numbers, especially with the impact of injuries: Paul Smyth and Callum Reilly having hardly been available in the first half of the season, and then losing Tom James and Craig Clay for the rest of the campaign specifically, but for me at least there is a significant improvement in quality over those we had under Ross and Jobi. Over the last two weeks we have also seen the arrival of 4 new players to address problem areas within the squad at right wing-back and in midfield.
It is the performances on the pitch that are causing the biggest concern. Some of the early season performances, most certainly at home if not on our travels, suggested promising times ahead, we seemed to have a nice balance between being defensively solid while still attacking with real intent and an attractive fluidity based on crisp passing and slick movement. So where has it all gone wrong?
Speaking after the Newport match, Kenny called it a frustrating night and suggested that in recent performances we haven’t been testing the opposition keepers enough. You don’t need to be a master tactician to reach a similar conclusion, anyone who has watched us recently will have seen how slow and ponderous we are in progressing the ball up the field. Not having registered a goal from one of our own players in more than 6 hours of football suggests that our attack is at best sterile. Yet we have 2 strikers that have scored 13 goals each in the first half of the season in all competitions, so we know what they are capable of if only we can get them the service they need, not aimlessly lumping the ball in their general direction.
Our record just past the halfway mark of the league campaign shows a mere 7 wins in 24 games and while we have only lost 6 (only Forest Green and Exeter have lost fewer) it is, and I am fully aware that I find myself writing this far too often, the 11 draws that are the major issue. Sharing the spoils too frequently stymies a team’s momentum before it can really get going.
Looking in a bit more depth at our league form, it is telling to report that there has been just a solitary occasion when we have enjoyed back-to-back league wins, that was when we battered Oldham at home and then followed that up with a 3-1 win over Bristol Rovers back in the middle of September. Even then I bet it won’t surprise many/any of you that we followed that with 5 draws and a defeat in our next 6 games. The very definition of stuttering form.
Despite all that I still, strangely, feel somewhat optimistic for the remainder of the season. Yes, the last two performances and results have been disappointing, if not downright infuriating, but we have seen enough so far to know that when this team clicks it is capable of matching any side in the division. The key issue for KJ and his staff it is to get it clicking on a much more regular basis. Maybe it will take a change of system, or one of the new recruits giving us something different, or Paul Smyth managing to stay fit and showing us the player that he has hinted at being in his sporadic appearances so far. Maybe it will be a combination of all three. Two tough-looking away games would be the ideal place to start. Here’s hoping anyway!
Up the O’s!