03 August 2017

GUEST BLOG! James Masters: "At our lowest ebb, we were there together"

Orient lost every single game journalist and lifelong fan James Masters attended last season. Here he writes about how close we came to losing much more than football matches – and the renewed hope he has for the club's future... 

By the end, I was numb.

Try as hard as I might, I could not feel a thing.

What I longed for was some sense of anger, of frustration. What I got was silence.

What I yearned for was the rage of burning injustice to ignite and spark off a reaction inside the empty chasm which I had become.

But there was nothing. What I had held so dear for so long had been taken from me.

In a world where there is so much horror and tragedy, it seems trivial to lose oneself over one man's unerring quest to decimate a football club and raze it to the ground.

Perhaps it is churlish, when you consider the brutality of the world in which we live, to consider the desperate plight of one's football club in such grandiose terms.

And yet, perhaps it is precisely because we live in a world where there is such a constant source of upheaval and doubt, that the opportunity to escape from the toil of daily life, is so important.

For some that solace comes through prayer or meditation. For others it may be exercise, reading, or travel.

I make no secret of the fact that for many years now, Orient has been the source of my escapism

Orient allowed me to forget. It washed over my fears of social awkwardness, my own foibles, and provided the opportunity to cast my worries aside and instead focus on the most important of the world’s trivialities, Orient.

And yet, for the past three years, that has been so very difficult both in terms of results, and in terms of losing that one place where you can lose yourself. I lost my happy place.

Even now, some 30 years on from my first ever visit, I can still remember the spark of excitement in the pit of my stomach which rose upon the sight of Brisbane Road. Never did I imagine a time where that spark would be extinguished.

But I do not want to dwell on the past few years. We’ve spoken about it, dissected every minute detail and replayed it over and over in our minds. There is little we can do to change it now. 

Instead, it is time to look forward, gathering the lessons of the disastrous era and ensuring they are never forgotten. For while the past may be painful to look back upon, to commit the same mistakes once again would be folly. Now, there is only way to look and that is forward.

What this season will bring is beyond any of our wisdom. From a logical point of view, it would take something remarkable for a team full of new players with barely a few weeks of pre-season under their belt to achieve promotion this year. 

I do not doubt the quality or spirit of the squad, nor the expertise of the management, but factors such as continuity and time are crucial to long-term success, two luxuries we have not been able to enjoy. Let us not run before we can walk.

That aside, a season of stability bordering on the boring dare I say, would be rather welcome. For all the unrest and upheaval of the past three years, an opportunity to start again, to gather ourselves and re-establish the club should not be dismissed lightly. 

Of course, promotion and an instant return to the Football League would be wonderful, a dream, something all of us are working towards. But there must also be a level of realisation of the situation we find ourselves in. 

The new owners have already pledged they are here for the long term, the return of Martin Ling and Matthew Porter are two pieces of business which although simple, underline their understanding of this club.

Over 3,500 season tickets have been sold, a remarkable number given Orient’s dreadful past few years and the fact this will be their first season in non-league football for 112 years. But the drop into non-league football was never likely to deter those who hold Orient so dear for it has never been about the football, has it?

It’s about having our club back. It’s about looking forward to your weekends again, making new memories, sharing laughs with friends, travelling around the country in hope rather than resignation. 

It’s about the singing, the last minute winners, the grotesque burger vans which have you checking your armpits as the smell wafts through the air. It’s about being where you want to be, reclaiming your pride and valuing that sense of belonging.

Now, more than ever, that sense of belonging is crucial. It is crucial because we lost it. It was taken from us, right in front of our very noses and at the time it seemed there was little that we could do about it. And yet, at our lowest ebb, we were there, together. The small club with a big heart – the heart which belongs to all of us – the fans – got going once again.

I will never be able to express my gratitude to LOFT for all the work they have done. To those who organised the protests, the fundraising, the social media campaigns and the constant television and radio interviews, this is because of you. 

To the football fans from hundreds of other clubs across the world who gave us their support in our time of need to the journalists who helped spread our story, this is all because of you. 

It is because of those staff members who stayed even when they were not being paid because they believed that something good would come of all this. Even when some staff members were forced to leave their homes because they couldn’t afford the rent, they left only out of desperation and with a sadness in their stomachs. 

The staff and the supporters refused to give in to a man who was so hell bent on destruction, he could not see what was right in front of him – a group who never gives up.

Forget the team from 2013 – it’s our slogan now. We’re the group who never gives up. Every single supporter knows how close we came to losing our club, we will not let a day go by where we do not appreciate what we have.

And so if you take anything from the past few years, take this thought. For however chastening the past few years have been, however many times you have felt helpless, bewildered and disenfranchised, we won out. 

It was not the way we wanted it. Nobody would have wanted relegation from the Football League unless it meant the end of Becchetti. That the two coincided was more his doing than ours. But we’re still here, and he’s not.

It’s our club. It will always be our club. It belongs to every single one of us who were ever fortunate enough to be introduced to Leyton Orient. We may never be as big as Arsenal or Tottenham, nor as successful as Manchester United, but being a Leyton Orient fan has never been about the football alone. It’s about belonging, having a club we can each call our own.

When we return to Brisbane Road on Tuesday night for our first home game in the National League, we will come back together at the start of the next chapter. It’s in our hands now and the future is what we make of it. It is ours to shape. 

So, when you take your seat, say hello to the person who sits next to you, take your time to soak in the atmosphere and the new season feel. And then, take a breath, and perhaps allow yourself to realise just how lucky we are to have our Orient back, or any Orient at all.
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