04 October 2020

Leyton Orient 0 Cheltenham Town 2, 4/10/20

A game in which... the global scientific community discovered multiple new symptoms of Covid-19, including complete loss of positional sense, deterioration in the ability to understand the basic concepts of a game and – in the case of Sam Ling – an overwhelming compulsion to boot a football into his own net. So let me be clear: THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE FOR THIS PERFORMANCE. 

It is true that Leyton Orient were the first team in professional football history to ever play a competitive match while collectively suffering from a debilitating respiratory virus and without any training, tactical instruction or face time in the preceding fortnight – although that still left them better prepared than they ever were under Fabio Liverani, and even then they managed to win once or twice

I'm joking of course: let's cut the players some slack and acknowledge that we were always going to lose this under the circumstances. And by "circumstances" I mean fielding a team in which three of the four defenders were Joe Widdowson, James Brophy and the aforementioned Ling. 

Praise be... Now, technically Jobi McAnuff should have been the most debilitated by Covid-19 given that he's of the generation most at risk. In fact, McAnuff was head and shoulders Orient's most energetic and inspirational player, as he is every single week. Curious then, that he delegated set piece responsibilities to Josh Wright, the footballing equivalent of Mick Jagger inviting H from Steps on stage to sing Sympathy For The Devil for him.

Taxi for... Sam Ling divides fans' opinions. Some believe he is far from a League Two standard defender and is only in the team because we haven't signed anyone better. Other believe he is far from a League Two standard defender and is only in the team because his dad is Director of Football. The latter obviously isn't true because if Martin Ling did have any influence on team selection then Brian Saah and Ryan Jarvis would be playing every week. 

In the dug out... Ross Embleton seems to have something of a mental block around what constitutes his best team, rotating the squad so much it's little wonder they spent most of this game running around in circles to little effect. He actually has an embarrassment of riches for the front three slots – Johnson, Angol, Wilkinson, Maguire-Drew, Dennis, Dayton, Sotiriou – at the same time as having the opposite issue in defence, where currently no one seems up to the job. Meanwhile he hasn't answered the question as to who partners Cisse and McAnuff in midfield, flip-flopping between Clay and Wright almost as if the former wasn't much, much better than the latter. 

Meanwhile in the stadium... As we all know, games continue behind closed doors, which makes it curious that the volume of noise emanating from the West Stand has actually increased. (Albeit that largely consists of the entire coaching staff yelling "HE'S BEHIND YOU!" pantomime-style at James Brophy.) But, as we also know, outdoor theatre events are allowed to take place with socially-distant audiences, which has given me an idea: How about we simply rebrand Leyton Orient as an experimental repertory company? That way they could put on weekly 90-minute "shows" designed to artistically parody what an actual football match is like. This would allow an "audience" in and is also not that far from the truth. 

Meanwhile in the programme... Another fascinating insight into the life of one of the squad. "What do you like to do away from football?" asks the programme editor earnestly of Ouss Cissé, who answers bewilderingly, "I like to play FIFA. I like to watch football too." Next week: Jamie Turley on how he takes his mind off the game by watching replays of Orient matches from two weeks ago. 

And happy birthday to... self-proclaimed club historian Neilson Kaufman, whose tireless work in deleting any Wikipedia mentions of Orient books not written by himself should always be heralded. 

23 April 2020

The loyal family man: Sid Bishop (1934-2020)

This is an extract from my book Leyton Orient Greats 

If ever one needed evidence of how much football has changed, then it would be worth glancing at the career of Sidney Harold Bishop. Despite being courted by Manchester United and other big clubs, along with repeated calls for him to be included in the England squad, the inspirational centre-half chose to spend his entire professional football life at Leyton Orient. 

Were a player of Sid’s calibre to come through the ranks at Brisbane Road today he’d be off like a shot, racing towards Premier League glory in a Ferrari Maranello with only the slightest of glances in his rear-view mirror to check that his diamond earring was correctly adjusted.

For Sid, life was much simpler. His priority was the happiness of his family, and they found it in east London. ‘We were set up perfectly there, and I wouldn’t have wanted to see it all go up in smoke,’ he says. 

It meant that Orient supporters had the pleasure of seeing one of the finest centre-halfs of the time turning out at Brisbane Road for over 12 years. ‘Sid is by far the best defender we’ve ever had,’ says fan Mickey Kasler. ‘He never put a foot wrong, he was sheer class. He wasn’t tall but he could beat most people in the air. He had a fantastic tackle but he wasn’t crude. And he had tremendous pace. If the ball was played down the middle and the forward had a three-yard start on Sid you wouldn’t worry. He’d catch them up and get a sliding tackle in every time.’

In all, Sid made 323 first-team appearances for Orient, and formed part of a formidable half-back line with Malcolm Lucas and Cyril Lea that helped take the club into Division One in 1962. These days he lives alone in Harlow, Essex. Tragically, in February 2003, his beloved wife of 50 years Vera died after a hospital blunder during a routine operation. His son Warren, who works as an air-conditioning engineer, and daughter Denise, a former hairdresser, live nearby, and between them have given Sid four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. 

Sid is quite a character and spending time with him is an entertaining experience – his enthusiasm, warmth and humour make him great company. He smokes like a trooper – he has done since he was 20 years old – and is not shy of an opinion. Get him going on the state of football today (in summary: not good) and you’re in for a long afternoon. And he’s quick to point out that he’s still slightly upset by the fact that nearly 50 years ago Orient chairman Harry Zussman refused to sell him the club house that he and Vera were renting. But that aside, he has nothing but good memories of his time at Brisbane Road. ‘I couldn’t see how it could be any better,’ he says. 

Sid owes his very existence on this earth to football. His father, Harold, was involved in the day-to-day running of amateur club Tooting Town. His mother, Lou, volunteered at the nearby Mitcham Wanderers. When the two clubs merged in 1932 to form Athenian League outfit Tooting & Mitcham United the couple’s eyes met over a muddy field. The rest, as they say, is history: Sid arrived two years later, born on 8 April 1934 in Tooting. Harold worked as a foreman for Crittles, a heating and ventilation company; Lou volunteered at a local hospital. Sid has an elder sister, Betty, and a younger brother, Clive. 

His earliest memories, then, are of football shirts strewn around the house – Lou was the official team kit-washer – and regular trips to Sandy Lane, Tooting & Mitcham’s old home ground. It seems Sid had a destiny. ‘At times I scratch my head and think was my life set out like this,’ he says, while literally scratching his head.

Unsurprisingly, Sid took to sport – pretty much all of them. ‘I just loved being involved in anything active,’ he says. ‘I was hardly ever in the classroom. I was reasonable at table tennis. I used to do gymnastics on a Friday with the Boys’ Brigade. I won a ball-throwing contest in the playground. I tried ice-skating. I played cricket. I have an old school mate who still rings me up and says, “I remember you at cricket – I’d go home, have my tea, come back and you’d still be batting.”’

It was football where he really excelled, captaining his school team at Defoe Secondary Modern and representing South London Schoolboys. It was for the representative side that he first came up against future Fulham legends Johnny Haynes and Trevor ‘Tosh’ Chamberlain, both of whom featured in the North London Schoolboys team. 

Even at that young age Sid claims that he was never anything but a defender. ‘To get your name in the paper you had to be a forward, but I never craved that,’ he says. ‘I felt that I could talk to the lads as defender. And I enjoyed winning games, keeping clean sheets.’

At 15, after impressing in a trial, Sid began turning out for Chase of Chertsey Football Club, at the time Arsenal’s nursery side. A year later he travelled with the Chase of Chertsey team to a youth tournament in Sanremo, Italy, where they eventually lost 1–0 to Barcelona in the final. 

He returned to England to find that Chase of Chertsey had been taken over by Leyton Orient, which no doubt sent many of the youths involved scuttling for the safety of careers in plumbing and carpentry. Not Sid, though – upon leaving school he was one of the handful of players invited to join the ground staff at Brisbane Road. He says he was made to feel at home at Orient. He was also made to work hard. ‘I spent the morning cleaning the ground, sweeping the terraces, goodness knows what. In the afternoons we’d do some training – mainly ball control and head tennis.’

Sid continued to skipper Chase of Chertsey and began to turn out for Orient in the midweek league. In January 1952 he was offered a professional contract at £4 a week. ‘It spins a young person’s head around,’ he says of his first few months as a salaried footballer. ‘It’s a wonderful feeling. You sat there in the dressing room with your ears open and did what you were told.’

One player in particular stands out in Sid’s memory. ‘Tommy Brown!’ he exclaims. ‘He ruled the roost at Orient; a real character. In the mornings he’d come in, look at himself in the mirror, slap his face and say, “How do I look lads?” He’d been out all night.’

Sid began to turn out for the reserves, but his pathway to first team was blocked by two obstacles. One was the fact that just a few months after signing his contract he was due to do his National Service. The second was Stan Aldous. The former Bromley player had made the centre-half position his own at Orient since signing in 1950 and he wasn’t going to be dislodged easily. ‘I idolised Stan,’ says Sid. ‘He was a big, strong centre-half. Hard as nails, he was. Down on the ground he was lacking a bit, but he was very good in the air. His timing was perfect.’

Just after he turned 18, Sid began his two-year stint in the army, stationed in Aldershot, Hampshire. He was given the job of physical training instructor and played for his regiment’s football team alongside Ben Cook, then of Arsenal but later to sign for Orient. He also had an accommodating, sport-loving sergeant major, who saw to it that Sid didn’t have any duties on Saturdays so that he could continue to play in Orient reserve fixtures. He’d play midweek too on occasion. Sid recalls, ‘Sometimes I’d be put on a five-mile walk – or a run, jog and walk – at 10 in the morning, then I’d have to play for Orient in the afternoon. But I managed it. That really helped with my stamina.’

Fitness was to play a big part in Sid’s career – the 20 cigarettes a day notwithstanding – and it was something which he prided himself on. ‘It was always important to me, ever since I was at school,’ he says. ‘At Orient I would do a bit of extra training on my own to sharpen the edges. The physical training there was a joke. Later on Eddie Baily used to take it and he was hopeless. I just used to laugh.’ 

It was while he was on leave from the army that Sid met his wife-to-be, Vera, at Wimbledon Palais. As he was nearing the end of his national service, on 27 February 1954, he finally made his debut in the Orient first team, playing centre-half in place of the injured Stan Aldous in a 1–1 draw with Swindon at Brisbane Road. He went on to make a further seven appearances that season. Sid says that by then he was confident that he had the ability to play at that level, but that it wasn’t easy for a teenager. ‘I took a few bad knocks. One player said to me, “You’d better watch yourself, son. You haven’t been in the game long.”’

With his national service completed, Sid could devote all his time to football. Unfortunately in the 1954–55 season that meant reserve football – he didn’t make one single appearance for the first team. ‘I was disappointed but I knew in my mind that I still had things to learn,’ says Sid. ‘By then I was whacking a good ball, especially a dead ball, but I was struggling with my timing for jumping. I was only 5ft 10 and a half inches so I had to get it right. But I worked on it and in the end I had a good jump.’

That season, under the stewardship of Alec Stock, Orient came within a whisker of promotion, finishing second in Division Three South in the days when only one team was promoted. The next season of 1955–56, the team went one better and topped the table – and this time they did need to call on the services of Sid. He played a total of 16 games, mostly covering at right-back in place of Jimmy Lee. It was Sid who twice hooked the ball off the line in the 1–1 draw with Brighton in April that effectively sealed promotion to Division Two.

Sid describes the season as a battle and, in a game against Shrewsbury at Gay Meadow in December, he found himself under attack. ‘I’d gone in hard on the winger and ended up with my back against the terrace wall. Then suddenly: WHACK. An old lady hit me over the head with an umbrella.’

She wasn’t the only one unimpressed with Sid that day. ‘I’d given away a few fouls, which wasn’t like me,’ he says. ‘As I came off the pitch at half-time I walked past Alec Stock, and he said, “You dirty bastard”. That’s what he called me! It was one of his favourite swear words. And it was in ear shot of a few of Shrewsbury’s players and officials. I felt horrible. I thought, whose side is he on?’

This was symptomatic of Sid’s relationship – or lack of one – with his manager. ‘You didn’t see Stocky standing around having a laugh with the players,’ says Sid. ‘And he wasn’t afraid of giving a bollocking. He was a good motivator, but he didn’t do much coaching – that was at a minimum. And he seldom praised people. He never once said to me, well played, terrific.’ 

Sid recalls a time he invoked the ire of Stock during that 1955–56 season. ‘One afternoon Vic Groves and I went down to a sports shop on Fleet Street to buy a new pair of Adidas boots with the white stripes down the side. They were £4, which was the top price for boots in those days. We must have been two of the first players to wear them – they were like carpet slippers. The next day we went out to train with them on and Alec Stock said to us, “You flash bastards”. I said, “Oi! We paid for these ourselves.”’
Most galling for Sid was the way in which he received his medal for being part of the promotion-winning side of 1955–56. ‘I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t presented with the medal after the last game,’ he says. ‘But a couple of days later I was in the tunnel going towards the dressing room and I bumped into Alec Stock. He said, “Here you are” and this black box came floating in the air towards me. The medal flipped out and hit the bleedin’ concrete! There wasn’t a smile on his face.’
During that summer Sid proposed to Vera and they set a date for an October wedding. Alec Stock wasn’t impressed. ‘He said, “For Christ’s sake do it bloody right, young ‘un – get married before then,”’ Sid explains. ‘So we brought the wedding forward to the week before the first League game of the season, when we used to have the ‘possibles v probables’ match at the club between the first team and the reserve team. The goalkeeper Pat Welton was my best man, but Alec said that he’d have to play the first half of the game. So I went to the ground with the two hired morning suits, and when Pat came off at half-time we put them on. But at that time there was building work going on at the ground, so we had to climb over bleedin’ scaffold poles in our suits to get out.’

The wedding itself went off smoothly, though Sid didn’t have much time to enjoy a honeymoon. ‘I asked Mr Stock how long I got off and he told me I had to be back by Wednesday,’ says Sid. ‘So we had two nights at the Savoy Hotel in London then one night in the Grand Hotel in Brighton and then I was back in training.’

Disappointingly for Sid, his performances in the promotion-winning season were still not deemed good enough to warrant a permanent place in Orient’s starting XI, with Stan Aldous continuing as centre-half and Jack Gregory and Stan Willemse taking the full-back slots. Sid made just four appearances in that 1956–57 season. ‘It was frustrating but you took it on the chin,’ he says. ‘I did think that I deserved to be playing by then but I said this is part and parcel of the routine, this is what professional football is about – you have to fight for your place. And if you’re keen enough you know you’re going to make it in the end. And I was thinking to myself, Stan Aldous has to retire one day.’

It was actually the next season, after five years as a pro, that Sid finally made the centre-half spot his. ‘Stan Aldous was struggling in the end,’ he says. ‘He couldn’t keep the pace up.’

They were big boots to fill, for Aldous was much-loved by the Orient fans. But Sid didn’t feel any added pressure. ‘I was turning out performances in the reserves off the back of my hand,’ he says. ‘A lot of the fans thought the world of me for that. And once I got in the side I knew that if put in 100 percent every week and was consistent, I’d always be one of the first names on the team sheet.’

Sid quickly proved that he had the temperament and the skills to play regularly in Division Two and he helped Orient to a respectable 12th place finish. He also showed that, though young, he wasn’t to be messed with. ‘If I had someone giving me a dig I’d just have a word in their ear. I’d say to them, “Oi, I’ve given you a quiet game so far. You better start looking for me now.” And it used to affect them. There was one game where one guy kept nibbling me from behind and fouling me. I thought, right, I’ll sort him out. So I said to the referee, “Can I hit him in a minute?” And he replied, “Well don’t let me see you.” So that player got three-penneth – when I could get near him, that is. Because he knew I was after him.’
He also showed his versatility when, during a Challenge Cup game against Arsenal in December, he filled in for goalkeeper Pat Welton, who was injured after six minutes. The local Walthamstow Guardian reported that Sid gave, ‘an eye-opener of a display. He took everything any experienced league keeper might have been expected to stop – and was often better-than-most with his work in the air.’ 

Sid chuckles at the memory of his one and only game in between the sticks. ‘I thought it was terrific,’ he says. ‘I was clapped off of the field. I was quite proud of that. Les Gore said to me, “We’ve found your position after all!”’

Asked if he thinks he could have made it professionally as goalkeeper Sid replies emphatically, ‘Yes, I really think I could.’

That said, it was as a centre-half that he was really impressing, which must have made it a little galling that at the beginning of the 1958–59 season Alec Stock brought in Welsh amateur international Trefor Owen and stuck him straight in the first team in Sid’s place. ‘He was always getting other centre-halfs in, top amateurs and so forth,’ says Sid. ‘I thought, what’s this bloke trying to do to me? Am I not good enough? People used to stop me in the street and say, what’s he got him for? The boys in the reserves would say, what the hell are you doing here, Sid? It was ridiculous. I can count the number of times I had a bad game on one hand.’

Does he think that Alec Stock never quite trusted him? ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘But I think I must have registered in his head as a good player because he’d always pick me for the key games. I felt let down when he dropped me for Trefor but I just swallowed it, did my training and hoped my name was on the team sheet for the next week.’

Sid did force his way back into the side by mid-November and stayed there. Orient were struggling in the League that season and only managed a 17th place finish. It marked the end of Alec Stock’s rein at the club, leaving to manage Roma in February 1959. The coach Les Gore took over as manager. ‘Nothing too much changed, though there were a few less bollockings about the place,’ says Sid. ‘Les was a nice guy and things just rolled along.’
By now Sid and Vera were living in a club-owned house in Woodford – the same property previously occupied by Tommy Johnston and his wife Jean. He socialised with the likes of Frank George, Stan Charlton, Dave Dunmore, Ronnie Foster and Terry McDonald – all players who liked the occasional drink. Sid was partial to a pint of bitter but, ever mindful of his fitness, would always be in bed by 9pm from Wednesday onwards. He points to a good atmosphere at the club. ‘We had a terrific social side,’ he says. ‘There was good happy banter. If anyone wanted an argument they could sod off outside – there was no point in upsetting the dressing room.’

Sid’s pastime of choice outside of football was snooker and he’d spend many an afternoon at Jelks Snooker Hall on Leyton High Road. In the summers Sid would top up his salary by getting a part-time job. ‘I was being paid £12 a week in the winter and £10 in the summer,’ he explains. ‘So if I got a job for six or seven quid I’d be much better off. I used to do work on the stadium, or digging holes – anything really. A few of us did a bit of grass cutting at the City of London Cemetery.’

The 1959–60 season saw Orient’s fortunes improve slightly and the team managed a 10th place finish. Sid remembers in particular his battles with Middlesbrough’s Brian Clough. ‘He was never any trouble to me,’ he says. ‘You couldn’t take away the fact he got 40 goals a season, but the way I played him stopped him scoring. I didn’t kick him all over the place either. You had to be on the ball with him, and not let him turn. If you let him come at you he’d hardly get to you – Cloughie would shoot from anywhere.’

Unfortunately Orient couldn’t build upon their good work and the following season of 1960–61 saw them slogging it out in a relegation dogfight. ‘We had to dig in at the back, by Christ we did,’ says Sid.

Aside from holding the defence together, Sid also contributed to the cause with his first three goals for the club. (He was hardly prolific – he only scored four in his whole time at Orient.) One of them – against Bristol Rovers in February – was a full-blooded drive from near on 40 yards that surprised the opposition keeper and slipped through his legs. ‘I’m not too sure what happened,’ Sid laughs. ‘But I could clout a ball.’

It was a goal from a more likely source that secured Orient’s status as a Division Two club – Tommy Johnston’s winner against Norwich in the penultimate match of the season. They had avoided relegation and Sid has an insight into what may have given the players the extra resolve that was needed. ‘The chairman Harry Zussman promised us a holiday in Jersey if we stayed up – so we did,’ he says. 

The chairman was true to his word and the players got their holiday. Zussman even came out to visit and, intoxicated by the sea air – that or the potent Jersey ale – promised the team that if they got promoted the next season he’d take them all to Majorca. The promise of a holiday in a Spanish tourist resort proved to be all the incentive the players needed, for they went on to do exactly that. If Zussman had upped the offer to Tenerife they’d probably have won the FA Cup too. 
That famous season of 1961–62 began with two arrivals. The first was Sid and Vera’s first child, a boy they named Warren. The second was a new boss at Orient, the former Manchester United player and Everton manager Johnny Carey. ‘We were glad to have someone like that – a big name – at the helm,’ says Sid. ‘He had a good reputation as a manager and I think that inspired the players mentally. He wasn’t supernatural or anything, but I think he was the right guy to have at the time.’

Sid describes Johnny as a ‘pleasant enough bloke’ and says, ‘He always had a bleedin’ pipe in his mouth. And he had a quiet sense of humour. One time we’d just finished training and he turned to Les Gore and said, “Les, has Sid been out there training with us today?” I didn’t have a bead of sweat on me. I said, “What are you talking about, Guv? Of course I’ve been out there.” But that was just his sense of humour.’

Sid finds it difficult to pinpoint why Orient performed so heroically in 1961–62 when they’d almost been relegated the season before. But he singles out as significant the fifth League match of the season, a 5–1 win at Walsall. ‘There was nothing special about us but we steamed away and Walsall went for a burton,’ he says. ‘It was the hottest day I’ve ever played football. We came off the pitch at half-time and one or two of the boys were complaining about the heat and saying they were knackered. I said, “We’re knackered? How do you think they bleedin’ feel, they’re three goals down?” And then we went out and knocked in another couple. And to get off to a bang like that. It gave us a boost, and we had the feeling among us that we could win every game. We had a fantastic record up until Christmas.’

Sid also says that the strength of the team was built from the back, and the 1961–62 season was the first in which the half-back line of Sid, Malcolm Lucas and Cyril Lea really came to the fore – none of the three missed a single game of the entire campaign. ‘When Malcolm and Cyril first came to the club a couple of years before the other players were having long looks at one another as if to say, “Where have they got these two from?” But they worked hard, they did some afternoon training and they proved to be good players. I’d do all the calling and talking. Sometimes I’d say that I would be preoccupied with a certain striker so they would have to fill up the hole. In the end I didn’t have to talk because they knew what to expect. The defence had a good understanding; it moulded.’

It needed to, because in the second half of the season Orient’s goals dried up. Sid marks the turning point as the two fourth round FA cup ties against Burnley, in which Orient creditably held the First Division high flyers to a 1–1 draw at Turf Moor before unluckily losing 1–0 at Brisbane Road. ‘In the away game I got knocked out cold twice,’ Sid recalls. ‘They’d come on with the sponge and the smelling salts and I’d carry on playing.’

In the last 13 games of the season Orient conceded just eight goals. Their bid for promotion came down to the last day of the season, when the team needed to beat Bury at home and hope that Sunderland failed to beat Swansea at Vetch Field. ‘It was an interesting day,’ says Sid with a smile. ‘You couldn’t think about what was going on in Swansea, you just had to make sure you did the right thing at Brisbane Road. The all of a sudden Malcolm Graham decided to go and whack in two goals. Malcolm had a terrific left foot, but if he’d used his right foot as well he’d have got even more goals. I’d give him a bollocking sometimes, saying, “Use your right foot – and not just for standing on either!”’

As the final whistle went and the news that Swansea had held Sunderland to a 1–1 draw filtered through, Sid realised that all his hard work had paid off – Orient were promoted to Division One. ‘I was just elated,’ he says. ‘All the various people that volunteered at the club on match days were tearing around like headless chickens. You couldn’t get a sensible word out of anybody. Then we were in the bar celebrating afterwards and it wasn’t beer in our pint glasses, it was champagne. The director Leslie Grade got so carried away that he told us he would buy all of us a Jaguar if we got to the FA Cup Final the next year. That was a promise that would never have to be honoured.’
No matter, for the players did get to enjoy the reward of a trip to Majorca they’d been promised by Harry Zussman at the start of the season. ‘He had to keep his word,’ says Sid, ‘because if he didn’t he’d have had 11 wives on his back.’

Sid says that, with all the wives in tow, there wasn’t too much opportunity for mischief in Majorca. The team did manage an outing to a bullfight, though for Sid it was not the beginning of a Hemingway-esque love affair. ‘I didn’t think much of it, all that prancing about,’ he says dismissively. ‘The animal was half dead by the time they meet up with it for the final kill. I thought, sod this and left.’

Orient’s first game of the 1962–63 season in the top flight was a home fixture against Arsenal. Incredibly, Sid was nutmegged by striker Joe Baker. The memory still prickles 46 years later. ‘Lucky sod,’ Sid scoffs. ‘He was a good player but he didn’t give me what I’d call a hard time. I applauded him when he pushed the ball through my legs.’

Sid soon realised that Orient’s stay in Division One was going to be a short one. ‘The leap in quality was very noticeable,’ he says. ‘I felt straight away it was going to be too tough. The season before we’d fought a long, hard promotion battle, and the season before that was a long struggle against relegation. They took a lot out of certain players. We were well and truly knackered.’

He continues, ‘We’d lost a bit of that edge from the promotion season. It just drifted away. The players had a challenge in front of them: do they want to be a better players or don’t they? And what do they have to do to achieve it? I don’t think enough players took it into their heads to do that. In the end we were flogging a dead horse. We weren’t beating the teams we should have been.’

Even though Orient won four matches in September – including a famous victory over Manchester United – Sid still doubted the club could escape relegation. ‘I just couldn’t see it happening,’ he admits. 

Sid does have some happier memories of the season, such as his goal in the 2–1 victory over Liverpool in May. He recalls, ‘I took it up from the back and did a push and run with Malcolm Musgrove. I was just outside the box and the goalkeeper was staring at me. I just walloped it and in it went. We didn’t have many moments like that. It was a shame.’

He says that his own form remained good throughout the season, and one of his regrets is that he didn’t have the chance to play at the highest level again. ‘I was on a learning curve. It was my first season in Division One. I’ve often looked back on it and thought I’d like to have improved even more.’

But Sid’s performances were getting him noticed. He remembers a cryptic conversation he had with Johnny Carey on the way home from an away game. ‘The train was passing through Manchester and Johnny turned to me and said, “Would you like to live up here, Sid?” I replied, “No, not really. I’m quite happy at Woodford Green.”’

Sid made a connection between this and an earlier chat he’d had with the short-lived Orient player Don Gibson, who was Manchester United manager Matt Busby’s son-in-law. ‘He told me that Busby had had three looks at me over the past few weeks, and that he’d be looking again at the weekend,’ says Sid. ‘So linking this up with what Johnny Carey said I assume there was a bit of interest from Manchester United.’

Sid appears remarkably non-plussed by the fact that he was potentially being courted by a team containing names like Bobby Charlton and George Best. It comes back to the stability he craved for his family. ‘I was just settling into a house a Woodford Green so I didn’t want to be selfish and say to Vera, look, we’re moving. She was in glory land – her mother was just down the road at Hackney Wick and we had a good life. She worked as a dressmaker, even once the kiddies came along – our second child, Denise, was born in May 1963. So if I’d have gone to Manchester I might have regretted it. I’d pushed so hard to get where I did and set up a good life for the family.’

Sid does admit to occasionally wondering what might have been if he had ended up at the northern club – or one of the others that were rumoured to be interested in him – but says, ‘There’s no use in regretting anything. I might have regretted not going there if I had a bad time at the Orient, but I didn’t. People-wise, I was with a good club; a happy club.’

There were also calls for him to be included in the England squad. And while Sid was never convinced that the national selectors even knew there was actually a football club in Leyton, he believes he could have acquitted himself with three lions on his shirt. ‘Big Jack Charlton was playing for England and while he was good in the air he needed to sharpen himself up a bit on the floor. Then there was Bobby Moore. He was a great player and good at reading the game but when it came to hard graft I can’t remember seeing a lot of Bobby. I was being looked at and noticed and was getting top marks in the paper every week. I couldn’t get any more consistent. I think if I’d done another season in Division One, or if I’d been playing for one of the bigger clubs, I’d have been straight into the international set up.’

It doesn’t appear to trouble Sid too much that he wasn’t. ‘I was just happy trying to play a good consistent game,’ he says.

After relegation – the team managed just 21 points – Orient began the next season of 1963–64 back in Division Two and, surprisingly, Sid claims there were no big ideas about bouncing straight back to the top flight. ‘I don’t remember a single conversation about it,’ he says emphatically. ‘There was no chance. We didn’t have enough strength in depth.’

The fact that by then Johnny Carey had left to take over at Nottingham Forest and was replaced by ex-Colchester United boss Benny Fenton was also significant. ‘To me he was laughable,’ Sid scoffs. ‘I thought, what can he do to save this club? Early on he came up and put his arm around me, Cyril Lea and Malcolm Lucas and said, “The team is going to be built around you three. You’re the kingpins.” I replied, “Well, these two want transfers and I’m retiring.”’

It seems strange that Sid was already thinking of hanging up his boots. He was only 29, he was fit and his performances were as good as ever. Even Sid himself struggles to explain it. ‘I’m not exactly sure why, but I think I was getting anxious about how I was going to provide for Vera and our two children. I didn’t want to be travelling all over the country living out of a bleedin’ suitcase. I wanted something stable. I thought I’d done enough at Orient and that I was too old to go to a really big club.’

Though Sid did play the entire 1963–64 season – a pretty unmemorable one in which Orient finished 16th in Division Two – he was committed to leaving. What he wanted before he said his goodbyes, however, was the chance to buy the club-owned house he and Vera had lived in since 1958. Sid recalls, with some anger: ‘I went to Harry Zussman’s office in Shoreditch and said, look, you can you have a couple more years out of me, can you let me buy the house? But he refused. I was disgusted. After all the time I’d been at the club, and the consistency I’d given them. Surely they could have respected me and helped me out? It wasn’t as if I’d clawed money from Orient.’

Worse still, in Sid’s eyes, was the fact that although he was allowed him to go part-time, Orient retained his registration so he was unable to move to another League club. ‘It was all about money,’ he says. ‘They didn’t want someone to come in and take me on a free transfer. They wanted a fee for me. But I thought, that’s it, I’m digging my heels in now, sod it. I wasn’t going to move.’

Sid actually stayed at the club as the 1964–65 season kicked in, and he made four appearances. In January 1965, after the sacking of Benny Fenton, Chelsea coach Dave Sexton took over as manager. Once an Orient player, he was a former teammate of Sid’s and looked upon his situation favourably. Sid explains, ‘Dave said to me, “What’s all this about you packing up?” I said, “I’ve had enough, Dave. I’m worried about the wife and the two kids now. I love this place but I’ve got to go.” Then he told me that I was free to leave. Just like that.’

It was a sad ending to an Orient career that spanned over 13 years – and the club’s refusal to let Sid buy the house in Woodford Green still rankles with him today. 

Sid took a job as player-manager at Southern League outfit Hastings United but dismisses his year there as, ‘a ridiculous waste of time’. Boardroom politics – or ‘jiggery pokery’, as Sid puts it – sent him scuttling away to another non-league outfit, Guildford City. He remained there for 18 months, first as a player, then as caretaker-manager. 
It was Sid’s curtain call as a footballer, for in 1968 he left to manage a pub in Leigh Park, Hampshire. A year later he relocated to Harlow, Essex, and ran another pub for 18 months before becoming a storeman at various local factories, a job he retained until he retired at 60. Aside from a couple of charity games, Sid never played football again. ‘It wasn’t in me,’ he says. ‘I was working hard. I only used to have a day and a half off. So it was unfair to the family to have a day of football.’

He did manage to squeeze in the odd game of cricket, and continued to turn out for a local Over–50s side until he was past 60 – despite the cigarettes.

Sid remains in the same house in Harlow which, after the death of Vera, he shares with his dog, Belle. He still gets to Brisbane Road a few times a season and those in earshot will always be well aware of Sid’s opinions on the current state of the club, football in general, the country… and so on! 

Looking back, Sid is rightly proud of his playing career. ‘I think a brought a little bit of football at the back,’ he says. ‘Not just kick and bleedin’ rush stuff. People knew I liked to play a proper game.’

But over and above that it’s Sid’s family that most fills him with pride. ‘That was always the most important thing to me,’ he says. ‘And I’ve got a smashing family. I think that’s worth a lot of money. Being really happy.’

09 March 2020

Leyton Orient 2 Cambridge United 1, 7/3/20

A game in which... Orient did the footballing equivalent of a reformed 90s indie band who get a festival crowd going by playing all their early hits, then shoot themselves in the foot by announcing mid-set "Here's a new one we wrote..." thereby extinguishing all goodwill, before just about pulling it back again by finishing with one of the same early hits played for the second time.

Look, what I'm saying here in this tortuous analogy – obviously – is that the Os were so dominant in the first 63 minutes that to then concede and find themselves hanging on at the death was rather pointlessly self-destructive. That said, what an impressive 63 minutes it was, where it almost appeared that Orient were a coherent football team. Well done.

Moment of magic... Orient's out-of-character first goal, in which James Brophy – a left back who's never knowingly made a tackle – executed a crunching interception, then Craig Clay – a box-to-box midfielder who's never knowingly run box to box – took the ball the length of the pitch to lay it off to Jordan Maguire-Drew – a man who's never knowingly passed a mirror without stopping to conduct a three-hour personal grooming regime – who then actually scored.

Praise be... So many candidates for praise today but let's start with Jobi McAnuff for an explosive return to the pitch, where in the space of 15 minutes he covered more distance, completed more passes and took more shots than he did during the entirety of his Becchetti-era spell at the club.

Next: Craig Clay. Incredibly, he's raised his level from last season. His level is now mid-to-lower table League Two midfielder. Respect.

Next: Danny Johnson. Now, it may be true that the striker has had absolutely no discernible impact on any game of football he's ever played in, other than scoring tap ins, but by God if you need someone to not miss too many open goals from six inches out then he's your man.

Next Laurence Vigouroux, whose personal motto appears to be: "Why do something the easy way, if instead you can do it with a load of shithousery thrown in." Remember, this is a man who once paid a £50 fine with 5,000 1p pieces, a philosophy he brings admirably onto the football pitch.

In the dug out... Say what you like about Ross Embleton's formations, selection or tactics, but his philosophy of playing half the team out of position finally paid dividends today and for that I salute him. And moreover, he did that without Dean Brill – off sick – by his side with a clipboard which meant no one knew who they supposed to be marking at corners.

Meanwhile in the treatment room... 

Ross Embleton: Sorry to hear you're injured Wrighty – shame you'll have to sit this one out
Josh Wright: No, no gaffer – I can play, it's only my quad that's gone
RE: Do you know what your quad is Wrighty?
JW: Yep, it's the muscle that allows me to execute four varieties of sideways pass
RE: What are the four varieties?
JW: Short, quite short, very short and really short
RE: So if you can't do that, what else do you think you'll contribute to the game?
RE: You're back in next week

11 January 2020

Leyton Orient 1 Grimsby Town 1, 11/1/20

A game which... heralded the start of a bold new era for Leyton Orient, albeit one that differs from the previous era only by the fact Ross Embleton has blacked out the word "interim" on his business cards with a felt-tip pen.

So, same old, same old, with the new Orient paying homage to every single Orient team of the past by being mostly shit, then getting a bit of a head of steam up and nearly scoring, only to concede catastrophically before somehow rescuing a point.

But let's not be too harsh, hey, because even though the board have clearly given up on this season, the team haven't and put in a fair degree of effort for at least 20 minutes of the second half.

Converting pressure into goals might help, but Rome wasn't built in a day – indeed, if the Leyton Orient squad had been tasked with constructing the eternal city it would probably now resemble Stevenage.

Moment of magic... An outrageous bit of showboating by Conor Wilkinson in the second half when he weaved Lionel Messi-style in and out of probably at least 40 Grimsby players before collapsing to the ground in the penalty area dazzled by his own brilliance.

Jordan Maguire-Drew, of course, was hugely affronted by this blatant land grab for his title of Official Resident Showboater and immediately pulled off a defiant –if entirely pointless – succession of stepovers. Not to be outdone, James Brophy then attempted to dribble the width of the pitch – and I do mean width, not length – only to lose the ball, allowing Grimsby to score. Great work lads.

Taxi for... Josh Wright. Not because he was particularly bad – he never particularly is – but because he's in danger of joining the ranks of players such as Tom Newey, David Hunt, Tom Parkes and Andrew Cave-Brown who made numerous appearances for Orient with no discernible impact, good or bad. Let's call them The Forgettables. The type of players about whom, towards the end of a match, you wonder aloud as to their injury status, only to find they've been on the pitch for the entire 90 minutes.

In the dug out... A chance for head coach Ross Embleton to prove he was his own man and set himself apart from his predecessor interim head coach Ross Embleton. That meant leaving Lee Angol on his own up front trying to deliver flick ons to himself; Josh Coulson inexplicably returned to the side; and recent goal-scorer Ruel Soteriou without a part to play. As you were...

Meanwhile, in the director of football's office... "I'm 100% convinced Ross Embleton is the right man for the job," said director of football Martin Ling this week, which is why it only took him until January to appoint Ross even though he's been at the club for years. "Football is a results business," he went on, neatly explaining why he's backing a man whose record in League Two is played 23, lost 9, drew 8, won 6.

I jest, of course, and I'm hardly going to question Martin Ling's judgment just because in Steve Davis and Carl Fletcher he made the two worst appointments in managerial history, so to speak. Truth is, I'd also have given it to Ross who is the most decent bloke you're likely to come across in football and deserves a shot at this, even if the process by which we arrived there appeared to have the hidden hand of Alessandro Angelieri guiding it...

10 November 2019

FA Cup: Leyton Orient 1 Maldon & Tiptree 2, 10/11/19

A game which... answered the question as to whether it was possible for there to be a worse Orient manager than Alberto Cavasin. "Hold my beer" said Carl Fletcher as he somehow contrived to ensure his team lost to opponents four tiers beneath them in the pyramid – statistically the worst result in the club's history.

Except he didn't say "Hold my beer" did he? He said: "I've been working on passing my beer to someone all week, though if we knew why no one held it we'd all be millionaires wouldn't we?"

And it's not just that we lost. Shit happens. It's the fact that in the space of five games Fletcher appears to have rabbit-in-the-headlighted us from a team that seemed to be establishing themselves and holding their own in League Two to one catastrophically lacking in morale, motivation, organisation, tactics and ability. So to speak.

Moment of magic... All the moments of magic came from Maldon & Tiptree, who were superb and fully deserved their victory. And good luck to the Salty Jam Lads (I'm guessing that's their nickname, right?) in round two. Back to Orient, and curiously we did actually score a goal courtesy of substitute James Dayton who will now be fined his entire match fee for ignoring Fletcher's instruction to "stay in your own half Dayts, we've got Matty Harrold up front, he doesn't need any support".

Taxi for... Ooh, tough one this week. I'm going to go for... Carl Fletcher. It is possible that the new manager's first weeks at the club could have gone worse, but only if he inadvertently poisoned the entire squad with his welcome gift of homemade flapjacks; accidentally burnt the entire Breyer Group Stadium to the ground while frying an egg in the club kitchen; and re-signed Connor Essam.

Now, if I sift through all the clichés and nebulous blandisms in Fletcher's car-crash interviews I think what he's trying to say is that he wants to the team to play in a certain way and that'll take time to work. That certain way appears to be lumping the ball to an isolated lone striker and hoping for the best. That could indeed take time to work. All of time.

No one wants to return to the managerial merry-go-round of the Becchetti era, and I do hope that the Fletchmeister, as no one will ever call him, turns it round. But I'll say this: so far it appears the manager is so far out of his depth that there are as-yet-undiscovered species of marine life swimming past him wondering how he hasn't exploded under the 16,000 psi of pressure typically found in the Hadalpelagic Zone of the oceans. (Thanks Wikipedia.)

In the director's box... "Every time I looked at what we was looking for he ticked every box," said Martin Ling of his decision to hire Carl Fletcher. Which begs the question: what were the boxes? Was this perhaps the result of a catastrophic mix up of forms and in fact the former Bournemouth man was simply applying for a free ticket to the Plymouth game to scout Marvin Ekpiteta? Or perhaps an enthusiastic local teenager named Carl Flitcher had applied to be a ball boy and wires got crossed? Or perhaps the other 39 applicants were just really bad at ticking boxes and kept smudging the ink and stuff?

Meanwhile in the press room...

Media officer: Right Fletch, you ready for your post-match interview?
Fletch: Like I said, I've put in 110%.
Media officer: You didn't say that, but fine - you're ready?
Fletch: I take each interview as it comes. So to speak.
Media officer: Fletch, you know it might be better if you used fewer clichés...
Fletch: Like I said, a stitch in time saves nine.
Media officer: Ok. Just try answering the questions honestly Fletch...
Fletch: If we knew how to answer questions we'd all be millionaires and wouldn't be here.
Media officer: You're thinking of the TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Fletch, rather than a post-match interview.
Fletch: Depends how you look at it. So to speak.
Media officer: Just get out there and try not to embarrass us too much.
Fletch: Like I said, I'm just focused on the next interview.
Media officer: No Fletch, you haven't done this one yet...
Fletch: A good interview is better than a bad one, but a bad one is worse than an ok one.
Media officer: 😐

13 October 2019

Leyton Orient 3 Walsall 1, 12/10/19

A game in which... Joe Widdowson scored. Take that in for a moment and spare a thought for Eliud Kipchoge who, just hours earlier, became the first human to run a sub two-hour marathon only to find that by teatime his feat was only the second greatest sporting achievement of the day.

But wait, there's more: Joe Widdowson scored the goal – his first since 2009 BC – with his right foot. Remember, the defender is so left-footed that he rarely even bothers booting up his right, preferring to take to the field wearing a single novelty Spiderman slipper he received for Christmas a few years back. Occasionally he simply leaves his right foot with kit man Ada for safe keeping.

And so, in scoring a right-footed screamer, Widdowson's achievement transcends that of sporting endeavour and sits proudly alongside man's first landing on the moon; the mapping of the human genome; the development of vaccines; and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

From an Orient perspective the sheer euphoria of the goal propelled them to perhaps their most convincing 45 minutes of football this season, scoring twice more in the second half and cruising to victory. And there was only the one catastrophic defensive calamity too, which is progress.

Moment of magic... Widdowson aside there was also the fortifying sight of Matt Harrold scoring his first career goal that wasn't either a header or a tap-in during a last-minute scramble in the six-yard box. And thank the Lord that when Craig Clay was put through on goal by a Walsall mix up he had enough time to remember he couldn't shoot for toffee himself and therefore the good sense to square the ball to his ginger-headed team mate. Tidy finish it was too from Harrold, who is likely to lead the line for the next three games thanks to Conor Wilkinson's attempt at strangling an opponent to death.

Taxi for... James Alabi. And I mean that in the kindest and most literal sense: Alabi would have needed a taxi home after expending so much energy chasing down lost causes in his first three minutes on the pitch that he was subsequently unable to even drag one foot in front of the other. This was unfortunate as in his fourth minute on the pitch he was actually played through on goal and could do nothing more huff to a bewildered stand still. Which is a shame as he would almost definitely had scored had he made it anywhere near the goal. Right?

In the dug out... It's incredible to witness how simply removing the title "interim head coach" from Ross Embleton has liberated him into making sensible footballing decisions like not playing five at the back and dropping Sam Ling. Yes, yes I know he's injured, don't write in. Credit to Ross though, he seems to have got the team into something of a groove, just about in time for a new manager to come in and rip it all up again.

In the bars... On Friday night fans of the recently introduced O's Lager – all zero of them – were left shell-shocked when it was announced that the lukewarm dishwater was to be replaced in the bars around the stadium. By what, though? Well, the logic from CEO Danny Macklin appears to be that since it would be impossible to find a lager universally liked by all Orient fans it was safer to opt for two that are universally despised, namely Budweiser and Coors Light. The last word, however, went to the club's social media manager who cheekily chose to celebrate victory on the official Twitter feed with the off-brand message "If Carlsberg did second-halves..." I say "last word" because he's now been fired.

Meanwhile in the Director of Football's office... 

Kent Teague: Hi Martin, what's up?
Martin Ling: Not much
KT: Just wondering how the search for a new manager was coming on Martin
ML: It take time to read 40-plus application forms Kent
KT: Right, I estimate it would take about four or five hours. It's been three weeks
ML: I also have to cross-check them on Wikipedia
KT: Ok, but again that's probably another three or four hours' work...
ML: And I've been on the phone to Colin Calderwood
KT: Great! What about?
ML: Oh nothing, just saying hi really
KT: Martin...
ML: Yes?
KT: Have you lost the application forms?
KT: Martin?
ML: I think they're definitely somewhere... Sorry. I heard Ryan Jarvis has got his coaching badges. No?

30 September 2019

Leyton Orient 3 Port Vale 3, 28/9/19

A game which... began with a miracle right up there with feeding the five thousand, the raising of Lazarus and the 1848 apparition of the Lady of Lourdes: namely that Port Vale's defence appeared to be actually worse than ours. "Hold our beers" said the Orient back five as they set about undoing this celestial aberration by conceding two typically calamitous goals and ensuring the team went into the break 2-1 down.

Something was clearly said at half-time, that something being "Get in the shower Ekpiteta you donkey, you're off" and the Os reverted to 4-4-2 and some semblance of balance. Well, at least Port Vale weren't getting in behind our "wing backs" – and, yes I am making quotation marks in the air right now with a sarcastic look on my face – quite as often.

There was also a lot more attacking intent and impetus, which is nice to see – well done – not least because it's now clear that we're going to need to score at least three goals to even get a point in every game from here on...

Moment of magic... An absolute banger of a goal from Conor Wilkinson who I might have accidentally said had no end product last week. In fact the former Dagenham and Redbridge man is showing increasing evidence that he might actually be quite good, also setting up the O's opener with a delightfully-placed cross. He needs to be careful though: if he starts to put in a decent shift and score a lot of goals then a large proportion of Orient fans will demand that he is dropped, as is our quaint tradition.

Praise be... Did you see Josh Wright's attempted bicycle kick in the second half? Well, I say bicycle but perhaps broken scooter doused in petrol then set ablaze and thrown into a canal might better describe his affront to the art of acrobatic goal attempts. Aside from that a good day's work – two goals and a few telling interventions – from the Essex Exocet, as he's known to no one.

Taxi for... Craig Clay. And I obviously write this with great regret because I put my heart and soul into supporting that guy last season and didn't even slag him off once apart from one time at the start of the campaign when I made him the punchline of a cheap joke about Charlie Lee. So let's try to be calm and balanced about his display against Port Vale and simply say it was the worst performance by any sportsperson in any sport in all of time.

In the dugout... The crowd sung Ross Embleton's name at the conclusion of the game, which is some achievement since it's a name syllably-inconsistent with most traditional football chants. No matter: Ross deserves it for taking on a role he never aspired to at a time of great emotional distress for the club. He is a man of dignity, integrity and total professionalism and should continue to command the highest respect among our fans. That said, employing the failed 5-3-2 formation again – what a twat.

Are we going to be relegated? Well, let me put it this way: has a team that concedes at least two goals every game ever stayed up? I have literally no idea what the answer to that is so feel free to hit me up with some stats if you're Neilson Kaufman. I should say that there was enough in the second half to give me faith we'll avoid the drop: Conor Wilkinson's increasing influence; George Marsh's maturity in midfield; Jordan Maguire-Drew's peach of a cross for the last-minute equaliser; and Matt Harrold's all-round gingerness. It's going to be a bumpy ride though, isn't it?

Meanwhile on Soccer A.M.... 

Ross Embleton: Right lads, we're on You Know The Drill this week. We need two volunteers - first come first served. Who's up for showing what skilled players we have at the club?
Conor Wilkinson: I'm in gaffer!
RE: Nice one Sargent Wilko. Anyone else?
James Alabi: Me too gaffer!
RE: .... ... ... ... Anyone else?
JA: You said first come first served
RE: I think I said we'd draw names out of a hat
JA: No, you said first come first served gaffer. It was like three seconds ago.
RE: You know it's a shooting drill James?
JA: My speciality!
JA: I mean my speciality compared to say goalkeeping or embroidery
RE: Just try not to embarrass us James
JA: Message received and understood gaffer...

Watch what happened here: https://twitter.com/SoccerAM/status/1178248766626902022 

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