Well, that was a bit more like it! After the capitulation of the much-altered team at Boundary Park last week, the O’s got themselves very much back on track last weekend by securing a win at Walsall with 2 goals in the opening 15 minutes. In the process leapfrogging the Saddlers, as well as Harrogate and Bradford, and moving into fourteenth place.
Where we had been off the pace, lacking effort and impetus against Oldham, last Saturday at the Bescot Stadium we looked very much like the team that had beaten Rochdale, Harrogate and Barrow in consecutive games. The result serving to rekindle the positivity, dare I say optimism even, into the fanbase.
Most impressive, for me at least, were the performances of Otis Khan and Darren Pratley (yes you read that right!) in the midfield engine room. Khan is a highly talented player (though definitely not a full back for me!) and was obviously extra-motivated against his most recent former club, but the performance of the club skipper was a revelation. Who’d have thought that playing him in his most-suited position would bring the best out of him? KJ, I hope you have belatedly taken note!
Cards on the table time here, when Jackett was dismissed, I genuinely wondered where that would leave Pratley. If I am reading the situation at the start of the season correctly, it seemed that having worked with him previously, Jackett saw the new skipper as a much-needed experienced leader to blend together a whole host of new arrivals into a cohesive squad. Presumably it was as much about what he could bring off the field as well as on it. Whether he intended to utilise Pratley in every match is a matter for debate, but the seeming marginalisation of Craig Clay in the early part of the season as essentially a back-up right back, suggested that might have been the previous manager’s thinking.
Clay’s performances when called upon in midfield however seemed to force a rethink, to such an extent that he became one of the first names on the team sheet. Of course, in January when it was announced that Clay needed an operation, we were once again left with little option but to turn to Pratley to provide the experience in central midfield, although the results after that were far from inspiring. The only time that Pratley even hinted that he was still the player we thought we had signed was away at Bradford when he was deployed in a more advanced role with Ethan Coleman fulfilling the holding role in a midfield three, a game in which he scored his only goal for the club to date.
When Richie took the reins, it was hard to see a future for Pratley at the club going forward. However rather than being side-lined the skipper seemed to gain a new lease of life under our new gaffer, helped in no small part by the switch to the 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 system that suits him so much more. Speaking after the 3-0 win at Harrogate in which Pratley played a similar role to that at Bradford, Wellens was clear in his praise for Pratley suggesting: “I’ve played against Prats, that’s his best position, for me he’s not a sitter, he’s too energetic”.
Even more intriguingly, the player himself talking to Ollie and Andrew on Orient TV after the win at home to Barrow, suggested that the biggest thing the new boss has done is to give us a structure and a way of playing that gets the best out of the individual players. In particular he seemed quite scathing about the long ball approach we seemed to default to after losing to Harrogate at Brisbane Road back at the end of August. Now it seems that rather than being a player that most of us would have happily seen the back of, there is a conversation to be had about a possible extension to Prats’ contract for next season. If that were to be the case, a midfield three of: Pratley, Khan and the tenacious Craig Clay is an interesting prospect indeed.
With just 6 games remaining and survival all but mathematically secured, from what Richie has said we can now start planning for next season. First up is a trip to our old friends from the National League Sutton United, who have been something of a revelation this season. The U’s sit in 11th place with 61 points (12 points ahead of us) and are coming off the back of a trip to Wembley in which they ran League 1 promotion-chasing Rotherham United fairly close in the EFL Trophy Final and will therefore pose a significant challenge if we are to get anything at all out of the match.
For Orient though, beyond the result, it is about building on what we have done under Wellens so far, with the obvious exception of Oldham away, putting in another good performance and continuing to build the foundations on which to base a much more positive campaign in 2022/23.
Adopting an uber-optimistic perspective just for a second, the highest we can finish this season is probably 12th and while that may be slightly disappointing given our hopes back in the summer, considering where we found ourselves at the end of February it has to be seen as a sign of recent progress. Here’s hoping our upward trend continues for what is left of this season and into the next.
Up the O’s