Oh Mr Porter

Posted: February 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

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An interview with Leyton Orient’s chief executive from #200 of Leyton Orientear September 2009

In a short series of articles commemorating two hundred editions of your super, soar away ‘Orientear’, ‘Captain scarlet’ gets to grips with the current state of the club by way of a chat with O’s Chief executive Matt Porter.

Since the ‘Orientear’ hit the mean streets of Leyton back in the autumn of 1986 the mag has held regular chats with the great and the good at the club (Peter Eustace excepted and he wouldn’t come in the category of either great or good I may add). Some of these interviews have made great listening/reading, while others have been pretty hard work (hello T.T and Paul Brush) in all honesty. However, it’s no secret that that Matt Porter cut his journalistic teeth producing the type of magazine that you are perusing right now, so I had the feeling that our chat would be a pretty worthwhile article.
I met up with Matt just before the game versus Exeter City and over a coffee we kicked off our interview in the relatively new surroundings of his office in the West stand. Seeing as matt has been in the hot seat of “Chief Executive” for three years I asked what had he changed for the better and what had counted as his biggest disappointment?
M.P: “ The family stand (North stand) is working really well, it was under construction when I took over but we didn’t quite know what to do with it (Hearn had originally said it would go to away supporters back in 2006). The stadium itself has improved in the way it looks, whether you like the design or not, it just generally has been brought up to a level whereupon people can get what they want on a match day and in no part of the ground have people got to put up with horrendous outdated facilities (you can even get a beer in the east stand)”.
The overall running of the club has improved as people involved in the day to day administration of Orient are better trained for specific tasks that are commonplace in a 21st century business. Matt emphasises’ that this wasn’t having a dig at the people who did the jobs beforehand but the days of ‘putting square pegs into round holes’ were over when it came to running a smooth admin side. The club has re-launched the restaurant this season as a carvery and the club shop has offered better quality merchandise for quite a while now. The club operates more efficiently nowadays, simply because it has to in these tough economic times.
We then arrived at the subject of our CEO’s biggest disappointment (and many of you reading this articles biggest gripe), namely not having enough people available to answer the phones in the office.
M.P; “Probably the biggest single complaint I get is that people don’t answer the phone. No one is sitting there watching the phone ring, it’s just that they are busy dealing with someone else. We’ve only got two or three people who deal with ticket enquiries and we haven’t got a call centre or somewhere to outsource ticket enquiries (can you imagine the complaints if Orient did?) so we have to keep it in house. It’s only those six or seven times a year when we get big games come up when it becomes a problem, but we can’t ignore it.” Basically, it comes down to finance. If there was money available to employ a few more people in the office I should think that Matt would do it tomorrow.
Coming on the back of moaning (come on, this is the Orientear after all) another well worn beef over the decades has been a perceived ‘lack of communication’ between the club and its supporters. I thought it would be a good time to bring up last season’s F.A Cup tie v Sheffield United, which was called off at a very late stage and left a fair few people pretty miffed in the process. Despite me and a fair few others checking the Leyton Orient website as late as 12.30pm that day, we arrived at Brisbane road to find the tie called off. Here’s Matt’s take on it….
M.P: “It should not have been called off. We didn’t feel the need to alert people to the situation because we didn’t think for one minute that the game would be called off. We know our own pitch and we knew that that section of pitch that the referee said was frozen (the edge of the penalty area and the south stand) would have defrosted in more than enough time. But Sheffield United’s people came down and went straight up to the referee (a ref that the O’s have had past issues with) and said ‘You’ll have no complaints from us if you call this off ref’ and that was it. We argued with him but he said that he had to make the call then and there and that was it”.
SHOW ME THE MONEY……………………
I seem to recall that the postponement of that match was the start of three chaotic weeks at the club. We lost a manager, Barry Hearn bought the ground and the club was almost sold to Terry Byrne. All in all a very confusing and worrying time for all O’s fans and this has led to a debate on the current standing of ‘Matchroom sports’ at the O’s and where do we go from here. I put it to Matt that the O’s were ‘at the crossroads’ (what, again? You cry)
M.P; “At the moment there are no interested parties in relation to buying Leyton Orient football club (not even Terry Byrne, who was still on good terms with Barry Hearn after his first attempt was rejected), the money that Barry Hearn bought the ground with is in the bank, but it’s not there to just buy a centre forward with, it’s there to help run the club for the next five years. We are working hard to get the losses down.” (Orient recently hired out the ground to a promoter who organized the Ghana v Zambia international here last September. This all goes to make money for the club as did the cash from an advert featuring Michael Ballack that was being filmed at the O’s later that week). Stories relating to the playing budget being cut are slightly off the mark. Last season we were working off a £1.7 million playing staff budget. This season it was earmarked at £1.6 but with any transfer monies received going back into the playing budget ‘pot’. Hartlepool very kindly paid us £80k for Adam Boyd, so this season our playing budget is £1,680,000 million quid. However, the powers that be are looking to bring the wage structure more into line to what Orient can afford, that doesn’t necessarily mean slashing the wage bill or amount of players but in the past Orient have overpaid some of the men who have worn the colours so this could mean that contract offers may not be so generous as they have been in the past.
Matt also thought that accusations made regarding Hearn ‘pocketing all the money’ or ‘asset stripping’ the club were just not true, but for my money BH has protected himself in sewing up the asset he has developed here over the past 15 years. There is nothing illegal in it but, in the long term, the deal has ultimately hamstrung the O’s in that the club could be priced out of its own stadium. People have also held up the scenario at Crystal Palace that occurred over decade ago when that club was sold but the previous chairman (Ron Noads) held the club over a ‘financial barrel’ by owning both ground and training facility. No one can be sure what the future holds exactly.
On the back of that answer I thought it would be pertinent to raise the subject of the O’s youth system, seeing as we are going to become ever more reliant on it in relation to bringing players through to our first team and keeping on budget.
M.P; “It’s going well. Our Football league monitor is none other than Denis Rofe (Cue all O’s fans over 55 to start dreaming of ‘the good old days’) and he’s down here all the time and very praising of what we do. Ross Embleton should get a special mention because he’s excellent. Ross is only a young guy and is doing really well at the centre of excellence. We’ve had a couple of relatively barren years after being spoiled with the likes of Jabbo and Zakuani , Efe and Brain Saah and it’s been a little more sparse lately but we are confident regarding the kids (under 14-16’s) coming through and we think in a couple of years time we’ll start reaping the dividends from the current system”.
Seeing as the subject of poaching already contracted young players had hit the headlines of late I’d wondered if clubs such as Orient had trouble with this sort of illegal approach. Well, it does go on (and has done for years) but the big clubs will use this type of tactic just so they don’t miss out on the next big thing. There is enough money in the game for a big premiership outfit to tap up a kid at a very early age knowing full well that if the youngster doesn’t make the grade it’s no big loss. On the other hand, if the smaller club gets an offer of compensation it could well be in their interests to accept as there is no guarantee that the lad on their books will fulfil his early promise, so it could make better financial sense to cash in then and there. Let’s be honest, there’s not many parents out there who would tell Manchester city, Chelsea or Arsenal to ‘get lost’ if they came calling for little Johnny’s football talents one afternoon, just so he could stay at the mighty O’s for a season or two. I suppose it’s every schoolboys dream to play in a big stadium full of people for their favourite team (actually, mine was to share a hot shower with Debbie Harry, which is why I am so utterly useless at football and suffer with appalling eyesight).
Not long after this interview had taken place, the club announced that it was looking for O’s fans to act as ‘scouts’ for young footballing talent across the east end and Essex. This is to be applauded, but I can’t help feeling that this is long overdue and the fact that Orient do not hold open trials in the summer (in a bid to unearth some young players from the locality) has resulted in a, the club disconnecting itself from its locality and b, Orient missing out on potential recruits that could do a job here. I know that money (lack of)is probably behind this stance, but (to be blunt) if Orient were prepared to offer a talented waster like Dean Morgan a generous deal then surely a well publicised opportunity to sign up with a professional football club would be worth a comparatively small outlay?
YOUR SUPPORT IS F******* S%$*!…….
Speaking of stadiums full of people, that’s one topic that has become an increasing concern at the club, namely, the poor attendances since we were promoted back in 2006. I put it to Matt that there is probably more than one single reason for this.
M.P; “I think that it is more difficult to get new people to watch football at this level, the ones that have been brought up on SKY, call it the ‘Sky generation’ if you like. They have been brought up on a diet of Premier league over the years, but it’s not even that now, its ‘top four’ and Champions league. You can’t sell Fulham v Bolton, or Portsmouth v Sunderland. If you can’t sell those games how do you sell Leyton Orient v Exeter City? So you appeal to people’s sense of community but it’s more difficult around here because there’s not a sense of belonging to the area. The 700 fans of Exeter will still be enjoying two back to back promotions and even the people who live in the town and support Man u (BOO!) would have a passing interest in their local club. We recently drew up a postcode map in relation to where Orient draws its support from and if you picture the M25, M11 and A12 it mostly emanates from that triangle there. It’s easy to criticise the club for not getting people in from the local community. It’s really difficult especially as we haven’t got a 10 grand marketing budget to go and throw at it”.
Season ticket sales have held up for this campaign and we have 2,900 punters signed up for this season’s larks (although no more than 2,100 of these poor souls ever seem to show up for games at any one time). Season ticket sales dipped under 3,000 for the first time in years for the 2008/9 fixtures and Matt could well understand why. Fans have come a bit more selective in relation to the games they choose to watch and (what’s probably more pertinent in all this) the undeniable truth is that Leyton Orient’s on field performances here have been pretty abysmal for over two years. I would also venture a guess at Barry Hearn’s ‘if you don’t like it, p*ss off’ stance down the years has also had some limited effect on our gates. Matt made the point that if Orient had the best food, drink, matchday programme, friendliest stewards and shortest ticket queues but still lost home games, our support would bemoaning forevermore. If the reverse was the case, but the team were winning regularly, we would probably put up with it more readily. Orient logic, perhaps?
I also enquired as to the general feeling around clubs at league one/ two level regarding the overall well being of the game? Well it seems that the powers that be are worried over the prospects of falling crowds and only now the football league have put the spiralling costs at football club sufficiently highly on its agenda. Even the much heralded ‘Salary cap’ is not compulsory in league one, although it’s mandatory to adhere to it and report it in league two. As for the championship it’s voluntary to adhere and report it. You may feel that it’s pointless having this in place, but if you take the example of Nottingham Forest’s demotion to league one a few years back they had no option but to virtually ignore the cap because they were contractually obliged to pay their players the amounts they had previously agreed when they were a championship outfit. There will always be club who will ‘cheat’ but the bare truth is, that in all probability, players will be earning less in 5 years time than they are now.

HARLOW GOODBYE?
The unease over the possible move away from Leyton is still with us. I asked matt to give us the latest on this saga.
M.P; “ We had three years of talks with the people involved with the Olympic stadium, we saw all the plans and met with the top people and we were genuine contenders in their eyes. In our eyes, it never worked. The stadium and facilities were fine, but that whopping big track along the edge just killed it, we would have been involved with a rugby club (Saracens), but they (the ODA, one presumes) couldn’t see the problem we’d have with the running track. It’s sad really, that such a major opportunity like that all came down to a provision of an athletic track that would only host a small number of events per year. As for Harlow, there’s nothing happening on that score. We would never rule out relocation though. We had also earmarked two other potential sites near the Olympic park that we thought could work for us but were told ‘No’! One was the hockey stadium and the other was a new site”. Matt repeated what Barry Hearn had mentioned at the AGM earlier in the year regarding the possible site put forward at near the Stansted airport borders . Basically, the land wasn’t even owned by the council and in my view the local authority took a bit of a ‘flyer’ on this.
This saga seems destined to roll on and on, but there are rumblings that when the Tories win the next election that a football club will be recruited to occupy the Olympic stadium. One thing Matt did underline was the fact that the Olympic plans, and indeed, personnel involved appear to change with alarming regularity. I wonder if the Olympic stadium issue will rear its ugly head yet again at some point in the future? Although if it did, I’m sure that West Ham (if they are still in business) will be the only serious option in this respect. As for the Hockey venue, stories have surfaced that the site at Eton Manor will be a temporary construction in a bid to ease costs, but it appears as if the chances of a move to any sort of an Olympic venue is pretty remote indeed.
SHUT IT YOU SLAGS!
Next up on the agenda the small matter of the club messageboard article that Matt penned in the programme for the Charlton match back in August. I asked him what was that all about?
M.P; “I was getting a few emails from fans who were basically being nasty to each other – it was that which brought it to my attention really, although some of them seemed to miss the irony of the comments they’d made about the club and certain people at it. I’d knew most of these people from their usernames and they had more or less spent the last two years saying the same things about Barry, me, the players and the staff here at the club. But they didn’t like it when it happened to them in the article (or, indeed, when Matt phoned some of the messagboarders at home and spoke with them person to person). It did bring it to a head and I felt that ‘you know what, let’s bring it out into the open’. We’re open to be criticised, that isn’t a problem because we welcome it, most of the time we can deal with it. We have changed various bits of our policies based on constructive criticism
from our supporters and will continue to do so, but you can’t just go round abusing people It’s just not really on. I’m not threatening anyone with anything, but I’d just like to know what’s behind it? The message board is so ingrained at this club anyway it would be a futile exercise to take it off and anyway it would only be seen as censorship. It’s not really a problem and just rather people didn’t make mindless accusations from time to time.”
Funnily enough one of mine, and many others, major gripes had been addressed just two weeks later in that two extra turnstiles had been installed in the West Stand after years of ridiculous queues. These normally cost over ten grand each, but the club had set up a good deal and these were nearly ready to be installed at the time of our chat. Constructive ‘moaning’ can work at the O’s so well done everyone. Now, where’s the two bloody £500,000 forwards Porter, for God’s sake?

WHERE DO YOU THE O’S BEING IN FIVE YEARS TIME?
I always like to put this type of question to the great and the good and today was no exception.
M.P: “Hopefully, we’ll have done something that had led to our home crowd going up by 1000, on average. If I’m honest I’d say we’d probably be in league one, but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t have had a go at being in the championship. I would hope that we wouldn’t have been relegated because our number one objective at the moment is not to get relegated. We cannot even contemplate replacing Leeds, Norwich, Charlton and Southampton with Accrington, Morecambe, Darlington and Hereford. League one will survive this year because of all the big teams within its make-up. League two has serious issues and in my opinion it will go part time within a decade. I would support regionalisation with some sort of extravagant play-off system in the future. As for this season, in the short term I’d like us to arrest the slump in current form, but further down the line a really good cup run, where we give it a real go and come up against some bigger teams than Fulham or Charlton. Two years ago we lost to Bristol Rovers on penalties, where the referee virtually gave them the game and they got to the quarter-finals. Rovers were no better than us back then and with the right draws we could emulate them. I’d like to see Orient up around mid table and then put a few wins together to push us towards the top eight so we can get a bit excited. Realistically, steering clear of the bottom eight teams would be great.”
WINDING DOWN
Seeing as my old tape recorder was beginning to do replicate a very passable impression of a dead badger we started to wind down our chat. Matt reminded me that the ‘fans cup’ that was held last summer will be run next year, and that despite a few teething troubles was a great all round success. This despite the winners turning up on SKY’s ‘Soccer AM’ programme a few months later and resulting in Helen Chamberlain having to change her undercrackers when her eyes met Ben Boatman’s. So, all those out there who fancy a run out on the hallowed E10 turf get your mates together and training schedules ready for a real stab of Orient related glory. I also had to enquire (I don’t know why either) about Mr. Porter’s favourite airport, with the answer being ; ‘London City, for the 15 minute check in’. So, that was more or less it. As usual there were a few questions that I should have asked looking back a few weeks down the line as I type this. One’s like ‘is Nick Levene kipping on your couch until the heat’s off?’ and ‘is Andrew Bunocore being released from prison soon’? I guess we’ll have to wait until the AGM next March to find out folks.
As interviews go, I found Matt Porter pretty open and as honest as he could be given his position at the club. He’d be the first to admit that things will never be 100% perfect here, but at least I got the feeling that he would be more receptive to suggestions/ constructive criticism
Than some of the people who have preceded him down the years. However, there’s no getting away from the morbid sensation that Leyton Orient F.C are going to find themselves increasingly ‘up against it’ in the coming years, which I suppose is one of the main attractions of the club in a way. There seemingly is no end to the amount of serious issues lining up to put the O’s present position under threat be it purely financial or the simple subject of stadium where Orient will be playing it’s home fixtures. I suppose that this club has gone through this sort of uncertainty for the most part of its 128 year existence and we’ve always lived to fight another day. Unfortunately, one does get the uncomfortable impression that if ‘Orientear’ #300 ever reaches publication in around 2019 it won’t be being sold in Leyton and that we’ll be selling the mag at the entrance of a local playing field with a very different set up to the one we’ve enjoyed for so long to report about.

Captain scarlet

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