2 points from a possible 18, 2 goals scored only one of which was by an Orient player, 6 new players in with 1 leaving for pastures new higher up the league, and 4 matches postponed. That in a nutshell is how Orient’s record reads over the last 2 months since that stunning and largely unexpected win over Swindon Town.
While it has been fairly tortuous to watch for the most part, it has been more like death by a thousand cuts rather than a complete and utter implosion. Week by week we have gradually slipped down the table while the points gap between us and the other aspiring (genuine?) play-off contenders has slowly grown. Going into the Crawley match, ie the Saturday after the thumping of Swindon, we were sitting pretty in 9th place just 2 points behind Exeter, Sutton and Swindon who occupied places 5, 6 and 7, and just 4 points behind Port Vale in the final automatic promotion slot.
After Tuesday night’s draw at Bradford, in which it was in no way surprising that we once again took the lead early on only to be pegged back by a late and seemingly avoidable equalizer, the gap to the playoff places is now 10 points, albeit that we do have a game in hand. Who is sitting in 7th right now? Yep, you guessed it, the very same Swindon Town team that we demolished in our last performance of note!
Last week I questioned why things just didn’t seem to be working out for Orient (Orient Nerd Weekly Ramblings: Why is it just not working for the Orient?) after a frustrating return to action following an impromptu 5-week league hiatus, and also suggested that it would be something of a big ask to expect too much from trips to Mansfield and Bradford. So, it was to prove being beaten by a better side in Mansfield, a team lest we forget who achieved a club record of 8 consecutive wins when they humbled us at Field Mill. Quite what Nigel Clough has done to transform a team that were in 20th place when we played them at Brisbane Road and employed anything within their power to try to prevent us from playing, is beyond me. They are however a very good side now and I for one would be massively surprised if they weren’t in the play-off mix come May.
Bradford however was a different proposition altogether, going into the match at Valley Parade just 4 points separated the two sides and with Orient having played 2 games less. Surprisingly Bradford had actually drawn more than we had (nope I didn’t believe it either until I read it in the excellent City Gent fanzine and then looked it up!), although they had also managed an additional victory. No games in this attritional division should ever be taken for granted of course, especially away from home, but if ever there was an opportunity to make a statement win with regard to our ambitions for the rest of the season, then this was it.
In fairness to KJ on Tuesday night he ditched the much-maligned, recently at least, 3-4-1-2 system which we have been deploying since the early weeks of the season in favour of a more orthodox 4-3-3. Far be it from me to try and second guess a highly experienced and successful manager, but I should imagine the intention was to get more width into our attacking play. With Archie and Aaron Drinan flanking H, we attacked with more intent than we have seen in quite some time. Perhaps Dan Kemp’s departure has freed up our attacking options without the need to shoehorn Theo in at left wing-back? Although one suspects that Dan Happe at left back may not be something we see out the rest of the season with.
Skipper Darren Pratley’s goal was more than merited from the way we largely controlled the game, the fact that it came with just over 20 minutes to go, should have seen us home and hosed with our first 3 points in the bag since early December. Once again however game management seemed to be the issue and to concede an equalizer late on was another difficult one to take.
Going into the January transfer window, Nigel infamously promised that: “We are going to be fairly aggressive in this transfer window- the board has approved some extra funds… [and] that LOFC are committed to this season’s promotion push and will be adding to the squad.” Well, we certainly can’t argue with the quantity of players coming in, 6 is a significant number of players coming through the door midway through the season, even if many O’s fans felt we were short of numbers from the start of the campaign. The key question however is whether it will be enough for a concerted tilt at promotion?
Speaking on Wednesday evening’s Q&A, our chairman went on to suggest that while some of the recruitment was to replace the 3 players we have lost to long-term injury, namely: Tom James, Craig Clay and now Paul Smyth after his punctured lung at Mansfield (has there ever been a more unlucky/jinxed player?); the signings of Khan, Brown and Coleman were geared towards improving us for the future as well as helping us this season.
Later in the interview Nigel then suggested that he, the board and KJ still believed we had a chance of making the play-offs. With 20 league matches still to play it is still of course mathematically possible, despite the fact that recent form has made it look like much more of a challenge.
The biggest worry for me, as I am sure it is for the majority of the Orient faithful, is that even when we were performing at a better level earlier in the season, we still won only 7 matches out of our opening 21, not exactly the form of promotion hopefuls, let alone favourites.
To stand any chance of achieving what the owners, board, manager, staff, players and all of us hope we can this season we need to start winning games and fast. Sticking a few/a lot more in the back of the net would help as well! Next up are our old friends Colchester who currently sit down in 21st place, a solid performance and victory in that one should be the least we can expect, another failure however and the mumblings amongst the fanbase will only continue to grow.
After Saturday is another tough-looking away trip, this time to Exeter, followed by games against teams that lie just ahead of us in the table in the form of: Salford, Harrogate and Bristol Rovers before we host 22nd place Carlisle. If by the end of the month we find ourselves in and around the play-off conversation then we might all start to believe again, if not it may well be time to start planning for next year, as our cousins across the pond say when a team’s season has run its course.
Up the O’s!