The owner of Leyton Orient F.C met the club’s support after two controversial years. This is how it went and I must stress that this is a strictly personal view of the night’s events.
The following article is due to be published in the latest edition of ‘Leyton Orientear’ which will be on sale this coming Tuesday.
So, two years after Francesco Becchetti held his joint press conference with Barry Hearn announcing his take over at Leyton Orient F.C we were back in the Olympic gallery suite for his first ever face to face meeting with the clubs’ rank and file support.
To say that the club has experienced some rocky times since the Italian take over at the O’s would be generously labelled an understatement. Since 2014 the team has lost it’s league one status, gone through eight head coaches along with numerous office and backroom staff leaving, recorded record financial losses, filed late accounts leading to a transfer embargo from the football league, had a T.V company hold a competition to unearth some young Italian players only for the winners to disappear off the face of the earth, had players banished to a hotel for a week after a televised defeat, a coach kicked up the backside by the president after a game, the team bus being invaded by irate supporters and the star man awards decending into acrimony with drunk players and supporters coming to blows at the end of it. So you could say that there were some interesting questions and hopefully answers awaiting the hundred or so O’s fans assembled on a warm July evening.
The actual reality of the encounter was that (in my opinion at any rate) we witnessed a pretty underwhelming spectacle all round as the evening never really got going at any stage in regards to getting Becchetti to expand on much of what’s happened here since he took over or put follow up questions to some of the answers that he gave out on the night.
Now it has to be pointed out that the pre-conditions laid down by the president (or the people who work for him) just to make this meeting possible played a part in this. Questions had to be pre-submitted and to be honest many of those that were chosen became repetitive in my view, and as the evening wore on more questioners began their pre-prepared question with ‘This has been covered/answered earlier’. Ironically it was later revealed by two people sitting near the front of the audience that Becchetti had the look of someone who hadn’t even seen the list of questions before he entered the room and if that really was the case you have to ask who put the final list of questions together and what was the point of pre- submitting in the first place? I’m not pointing fingers here inferring some great conspiracy but there doesn’t seem much logic in regard to the way this event was put together, although from a perspective of just getting him to meet supporters face to face some leeway was required I suppose. Tickets for this event were doled out via ballot and there was a strict no social media in the room policy which is understandable, but in some peoples eyes this just led to more suspicion in regard to the way things are done at this club. In fairness to Francesco I have been at AGM’s held under the Hearn regime in days gone by and an order regarding the non recording of the meeting in progress went out in the same fashion. Not that it ever stopped me turning my tape recorder on in any case and writing the whole thing up further on down the line.
On to business….
The evening got off to a late start due to FB and his enterage getting stuck in traffic. This led to the evenings first question from Mr. D Henderson of St Albans which went along the lines of ‘What time do you call this’? Or not as the case maybe.
In reality Becchetti soon arrived along with Angelieri, miceli and Gagliardi and after the hosts, Andy Gilson and Matt (Ok, I can’t spell his surname) from the E10 mess podcast, had done the introductions and asked for respect from the audience we got going. First up a couple of easy ones How much time does FB spend running the club and will coaches be laid on for important away games. Angelieri assured us that they spend a lot of time at the presidents house discussing the club and how to improve things while the free coaches could well re surface at some point. I think that the original question was a thinly disguised dig at the farce involving the on line ticketing system that hasn’t worked all summer and is anyone at the top of the club bothered by this? Later on in the evening Angelieri confirmed that this could indeed be down to cost cutting at the club as the contract with old company that we used before was expensive and in fact ended this year. The upshot is that new software is being installed and the system should be on line again by the end of the month. Despite this we have sold 3,000 season tickets in any case.
Things started to get interesting in the room until the microphones started to cut out and for a few moments it seemed that we were holding a gathering of the ‘Norman collier appreciation society’ circa 1977. The president was asked ‘what are your ambitions for the club this season’? A clear answer: ‘League one. No play-off’s’, an response that drew applause in the room. Then long standing supporter, Henry Tiller, enquired about the mistakes the president had made?
From what I could fathom from my seat (at some points during the meeting Becchetti was barely audible and his broken English made it difficult at times to follow what he was saying)the president admitted that there had been 2 years of mistakes. FB had actually bought the club before the play-off final and had put up money for new players such as Henderson and co with the goal of getting into the championship. After a poor start he was looking for improvement. Slade was negotiating with Cardiff after/around the time of the infamous ultimatum and FB had realised that the club was at a level not as high as he’d thought when he bought it. Another questioner followed this up with; ‘what would you have done differently’?
Again, the president took us back to that day at Wembley in 2014 and mentioned that Moses transfer being forced through by Hearn- a deal that almost scuppered the take over according to FB- and that many of the players at the club were not sold afterwards so maybe that there weren’t that good after all. Becchetti then told the assembled fans in the present what he was doing now- Over the past 6 months he has sent out six or seven scouts all over the country to look at seasoned league 1 players that can move us the right way in the next year or so. I think this was a sort of side ways dig at Slade for recruiting the ageing expensive players from two years back and Hendon for bringing in a group of players that were barely conference standard last summer on the basis that he’d worked with them before. Of course we never got to question the president on who’s idea it was to sign ageing players such as Dossena and Plasmati and there wasn’t a single mention of the court case involving the club and Milanese that produced some breath taking revelations last May.
Peter Brown asked; ‘will there be more stability or will Hessenthaler get the welcome he got last boxing day?’
After the laughter had died down the president insisted that he backs every manager and employee and his house is always open for people who want to speak to him. However he added if people make mistakes and continue to make mistakes it’s ‘A problem for me and you change your approach to meet important targets’. Then the language took in interesting turn. lots of use of the term ‘I’. ‘I suggest a lot of the young players (reels off the names of Samedo, Pollock, Sergeant), I decide, I select and take these decisions. This is what I change. I’m happy the players come from the academy. I invest, we give the club an asset for the future, more Moses’s for the future. This increases the value of the club. I suggest to the manager. It’s not my right but an obligation’.
That was probably the most revealing part of the whole evening. As for The boxing day spat with Hessenthaler our president tried to spin it as him ‘standing up for the crowd’ as Hendon argued with a few punters in the second half.”Don’t question the support! I pretended to kick him”, brought a smile to Francesco’s face as he said it and laughter from the parts of the audience who’s minuscule I.Q’s actually bought that answer. The F.A didn’t find this explanation so convincing either as the £40,000 fine and 6 match stadium ban imposed on our leader shortly afterwards demonstrated.
A lengthy question from Nigel Lovell that virtually accused our president ripping the guts out of the club and the discarding of Matt Porter as CEO being a massive mistake was was read out by Andy Gilson . FB (quite lamely in my view) gave a glib reply says it’s quite normal after a takeover for changes to be made,although Porter thought he’d be at the club to help with the transition for a good while longer and he’s departure came shortly after he made some comments criticising the departure of Russel Slade from the club.
Stability and communication were two words that cropped up throughout the evening. Andy Hessenthaler’s position at the club brought plenty of questions and yet another answer which comes under the heading ‘ as precarious as everyone else’s’. Asked whether FB was going to give Hess’ time and was the one year deal a ‘stop gap’? The reply was; ‘The one year is not a problem for me, I prefer it, if you have more stress you work better’. The president visits the training ground every Friday so I guess a few cosy chats are on the cards for Hess and co in the coming weeks.
The players were not consulted over the appointment but they have a great relationship with him. He is ‘a good father for the family’. Cue Marlon Brando impressions and the strains of a solitary trumpet in the background. As for managers in general Becchetti’s view is that, “like girlfriends you have to go through a few before you find the right one”. It was revealed that we almost appointed Paul Tisdale from Exeter City last year (Darren Furguson was in the frame along with a mysterious looking scotsman who’s name Becchetti couldn’t remember) but there was a sticking point over money – a sum of 80k was mentioned at this point although I wasn’t sure if that was being offered or demanded- and the deal fell through.
Towards the end of last season Hessenthaler was making noises that he wasn’t interested in the job of manager but something has obviously changed since then and we can only speculate that he must have had an improved salary upgrade to sway his mind along with the other members of the coaching staff that have been promoted in that time. Quite frankly they know what they are getting into and If it does go tits up Hess and co can’t say that they hadn’t an inkling of what was likely to happen here.
Called to account…
A lot has been made about the way the football club is funded by Becchetti and the late filing of the accounts since his arrival. Mr Arnup had an interesting conversation with the president and Angelieri regarding our accounts. Why haven’t the accounts been presented at companies house? AA: ‘They have been presented’. Arnup: ‘No they haven’t’. Becchetti; ‘Takes time in Italy, are you sure 100% they are late? You can have a meeting with our advisors if you want’.
I’m no expert in this so I’ll just say that we ended up no more enlightened than before the meeting started on that topic.
The club is funded by loans and contributions from the owner and/or directors or loans from companies owned by the owner as far as I could tell from the answers Becchetti and Angelieri offered up on these issues. Again, without seeing the balance sheets for ourselves there’s little way of disputing or confirming what the club are saying here.
All this talk about money brought forth some interesting comments from the top table if nothing else. As the evening wore on we did begin to see the mindset of Becchetti in regards to a plan here. I think he is serious about getting us up to the championship/premiership . He mentioned throughout the meeting that he invested a lot of money the wrong way and he feels that he is going in the right direction now. He was adamant that he should be judged in 4 years and not the two that have gone past and that the goal is the premiership because -and this was telling to my perspective- “This is the game-the money is at the top”. Another phrase was; ‘take the investment when we are successful’ along with – ‘when I have a project I hit my targets’. He also questioned the mind set of the O’s support which was basically are you happy to be a league one team for evermore like under Hearn or dare to dream of the top flight? FB underlined the need to increase the investment in the club as we improve as he is doing with the youth academy and it’s an incentive to move faster. Of course from what has gone on here over the past two years some would say that Becchetti has had one too many peroni’s here, but if Bournemouth can achieve Premiership football then any club can.
Of course if you want to become a big club you are going to need a big stadium and these don’t come cheap. Becchetti confirmed that he has no plans to purchase the Brisbane Road site from Barry Hearn and then proceeded to return to a familiar theme from meet the chairman meetings of days gone by. Yep, a warm welcome back to our old friend the Olympic stadium. Becchetti said he didn’t like what had happened with the Olympic stadium and he will fight to play there if it came down to it. We intend to fight and win according to our leader.
Legal action would be expensive and apparently we have- or will in the future- submitted a European writ to get a chance to play there in some capacity. After following this saga for over 10 years I would say the chances of this happening are virtually zero, even more so after the brexit vote last June which is just the sort of interference that West ham would be holding up as the type of meddling the country voted against in the first place.
Other points of interest….
A few quick points before we wrap up.
1. Dean cox. Not rushing on a new contract but we have a good relationship. They will take it step by step depending on fitness. The team doesn’t depend on one player and we have to support everybody.
2. Do we suffer from low morale due to the high turnover of staff? According to the president he has only ever sacked two managers (Liverani had a relegation clause in his contract and that’s why he left last year) and most of the office staff that have left have gone on to better jobs. There is no code of secrecy at the club (this was followed by an appeal to people in the room to stop tweeting from the meeting) and his door is always open. There was also a little – not major- dig at LOFT (fans trust) when chairman Doug Harper asked a question regarding communication between the club and it’s supporters; “You were against me” which was said half in jest -only half ,though- and came on the back of the poorly supported ‘7 minute’ protest that followed Nolan’s demotion before the Dagenham match last April.
3. The way that Vito Miceli -briefly-was talking we voted for the change in the EFL trophy format that allows premier league B sides into the competition. This was on the grounds of player development and finance. Utter crap in my opinion and zero benefit to anyone. By the way, Becchetti immediately ordered Miceli in front of everyone in the room to arrange an open day for supporters to meet the players after Vito explained to a questioner why we couldn’t have one due to fixture pressure pre-season. In a way it was a prime example of the way things are done here in that a decision (albeit the right one) was made on the immediate say so of the owner when the person who has been delegated to do it in the first place decided against it.
4. Alan Dunne. officially still training with the club according to Miceli- Becchetti grins and says nobody is telling the truth, which could be down to no one wanting to play him after his horror shows last year in an O’s shirt.
5. Simpson. Everything can be sold and there are somethings you want to keep. We’ve not received the right offer and He hopes jay continues to score goals for us.
6. For those desperate for Brisbane road to have a scoreboard in place. We ain’t getting one.
I think that Becchetti came out of this better than he came in it with some supporters and in fact there were even a few occasions during the encounter that had a touch of the ‘Barry Hearn’ jokey patter that we had gotten used to over the previous twenty years. In his own way he tried to underline that he is serious about moving the club on and investing in it and appealed to the clubs supporters to believe in him and what he’s attempting to achieve. Of course the downside of this is that the stability that is needed to create a successful football club depends on how the president views events here. For all the money he has pumped into the club (and according to him it’s £10 million and rising) Becchetti is known for being a loose cannon who makes the sort of knee jerk decisions/reactions usually associated with the supporter in the stand. You can rightly argue that on more than one occasion they have had the effect of making things worse afterwards. We are also living in times where ownership in football is changing and the way presidents/owners from overseas run their clubs are very different to what we have been used to in England. In some countries changing coaches/managers on a rapid basis is looked upon no differently than changing your socks and even if Becchetti sold up tomorrow we may just end up with an owner with a similar outlook.
The meeting was all the poorer for lack of any sort of questioning relating to Hendon’s, Harrsion’s or Nolan’s dismissals or more importantly the reasoning behind them, or nobody coming straight out and saying ‘do you pick the team or tactics then’? Although that would probably have come under the answer; ‘I make suggestions’. Follow up questions weren’t being asked, although I got the impression that Becchetti hadn’t any major problems in following what was being said on the night and was more than capable of answering them if asked. Which is a shame because I think the evening would have been better for it from everyone’s perspective. Nevertheless, supporters have been asking for this encounter for nigh on two years and tonight they got it. Whether either side have learned much from it , or that any trust between the president the Orient support has been enhanced, remains to be seen.