Orient's Great Start Is No Fluke
Bruce Halling gives his thoughts on Leyton Orient's stunning start to the season, stating his belief that Orient's emergence at the top of the League One table is anything but a fluke.
Last weekend, Leyton Orient were held to a 1-1 draw by Walsall, a result which would bring to an end the last remaining 100% record in the Football League. Russell Slade's men however remain unbeaten, and sit atop the nPower League One table, three points ahead of expected promotion contenders Wolverhampton Wanderers and Peterborough United. For a team which in recent years have tended to start very slowly before picking up the pace in the middle and latter parts of the season, this is a very welcome change to the normal order in business, but not one which surprises me a great deal.
For a club like Leyton Orient, putting a competitive squad together can often be a difficult task. Players will often go where they are likely to either earn more money or challenge for promotion. These two factors will, in most cases, rule Orient out of the reckoning for a number of players likely to be heading to clubs in League One. I don't mean that to be disrespectful in the slightest, but Orient are a club who can't compete with the bigger spenders in League One and aren't a club that are generally considered one of the bigger clubs in the league, meaning it can be difficult for them to recruit players of genuine quality and, more significantly, keep hold of the ones they do have.
If you look at their current squad, you will soon begin to understand why Orient are faring better than they have done in recent time - many of the integral first team players at the club have been there for at least one season. In previous seasons, Orient's poor starts can be attributed to either the new arrivals needing time to gel or quite simply, the arrivals that were needing never happening and Slade having to turn to the loan market for reinforcements. While the latter point is probably still true - I suspect over the course of the season Orient will utilise the loan market to bolster what is still a fairly small squad compared to many in the league, the former point no longer stands. The majority of the squad have been together for a while now- a process that Slade has slowly been putting into place during his time in charge.
This allows the process of getting to where the manager wants his team to be to happen a lot more quickly. The understanding of what the manager wants from his players and how he wants them to play is a process that will take only days rather than weeks in pre-season, as the players just need to re-familiarise themselves with what they were doing before, rather than having to go through the adjustment period that is typically associated with players joining a new club. This means that the more intricate details of general game plans, set pieces and other small tactical details that can make all the difference in any given day can be introduced much earlier in the process and, in combination with pre-season friendlies, allows the team to be a lot more prepared for the start of the season that if the manager is having to start again with a new group of players -something which often happens in the lower divisions.
Another thing to take note of is the manager himself, his relationship with the chairman and with his players. Russell Slade is now into his fourth full season in charge, making him one of the Football League's longest serving managers. Of the clubs in the top four tiers, only Mark Yates, Chris Wilder, Paul Tisdale and Arsene Wenger have been at their clubs longer. Slade has recently penned a two-year contract extension (meaning Slade is contracted to the club for the next three seasons, including this one) which in itself says a lot about the faith that Orient chairman Barry Hearn has in Slade's ability to do his job. Three years in football management is an absolute eternity - on average a manager only lasts approximately 1.9 seasons in the modern game (statistic courtesy of the League Managers Association website) and I can't imagine that Hearn would be the type of man to commit to that contract unless he had complete faith in the manager's ability to do the job for the next three years.
On the point with his players, Slade is held in very high regard and this is obviously a win-win situation for the club. It helps the players feel valued as people as well as footballers and this clearly will mean that the club will get the best out of them because they feel confident about what they are doing because they believe in their manager and their manager believes in them. It also means that the players are potentially more likely to commit their future to the club because they are enjoying their time at the club, which in turn creates stability and helps to drive the club forwards.
I also feel that another factor may well have been the disappointments of last season. The club came very close to taking a playoff place, finishing just three points outside the top six after a good run of form at the end of the season, whilst also just missing out on a trip to Wembley after being beaten by a last-gasp winner in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Southern Section final by Southend, and I believe that these near misses have galvanised the squad and motivated them even more to push on and to try to achieve bigger and better things this time around.
Some will question whether Orient will be able to maintain the pace at the top of the table for the whole season, and I have to admit it may be difficult for them because I see three other very strong teams - Wolves, Peterborough and Preston - who will also be right in the mix for the automatic promotion places. However, I believe that Orient will continue to go from strength to strength and will undoubtedly be a team that will be worth watching for the remainder of the season.