The future of Leyton Orient
With the opening of the North Stand, Leyton Orient at last has returned to playing in a four-sided ground again, and the final chapter is seemingly closed on the saga of the multi-million pound redevelopment of the West and North Stands.
Looking back, there have been recriminations and accusations among Orient supporters about how the redevelopment proceeded, and it's not difficult to see why. The plan that was presented was a rosy one; sell off land on the corners, and use the money to pay for replacing the decrepit old West Stand and crumbling North Terrace, while at the same time open up income streams to the club through office space rental in the West Stand undercroft.
But, as has been well documented here on the LOFT website and elsewhere, the plan hit the financial buffers; two EGMs, a sell-off of even more land and a complete sell-off of the office space later, has left the club with the stadium it wanted but without the office space income stream. LOFT fielded various local press enquiries about the redevelopment - indeed, two of the committee were asked to appear (see below) on the front page of the local Yellow Advertiser when the revised North Stand plan was passed by the local council - but questions remain as to the long-term future viability of the club.
With more flats to be built behind the North and South Stands, Brisbane Road now appears to have very little scope for expansion should its current capacity prove insufficient. LOFT specifically asked Barry Hearn at the last EGM if South Stand expansion would be prevented by the eventual flats in and of themselves, and we were told that would not be the case. Whether that proves to be the case or not (and it has already had doubt cast on it) only time will tell - and there is an argument that, realistically, 9,300-odd would be more than enough capacity anyway for Orient supporters even if the club reached the Championship. The Olympic Stadium has been talked of as a potential move post-2012, but there are many questions - both financial and practical - about that option that need to be resolved first.
And what of the financial future? Without the the office space income stream that was lauded as a boon of the re-development, how will a club the size of Orient compete and survive at the level it wants to be and is capable of being? What happens to the club when the current chairman decides it's time to call it a day?
These are the big questions that face Leyton Orient, and LOFT calls upon the club to communicate much better with supporters over these issues than it did with the re-development.
The club should be rightfully proud of its history and heritage, as evidenced by the unveiling earlier in the year of plaques at the club's current and former grounds (organised by Supporters Club deputy chairman Steve Jenkins and attended by LOFT's chair Doug Harper - some of Doug's pictures below).
Whether the club draws its future support mainly from the local community - and LOFT supports any genuine attempts to generate a larger supporter base from the local community - or wider in London and its surroundings, it has to get the basics right first. This means:
- Consulting properly with its customers. The North Stand suddenly became the Family Stand in the summer, with family discounts removed from the East Stand North. There was no direct consultation on this, either with supporters in general or with LOFT, which led to a number of complaints being voiced from supporters at being forced to move to behind the goal. LOFT welcomed the survey of supporters in July 2006, and the survey of Gallery members in the close season, but the results of those surveys have not been published. We call on the club to do so in full.
- Making the North Stand as family-friendly as possible. Is it unreasonable to expect baby-changing facilities in a family stand, let alone toilets with properly-fitted seats?
- Getting the food and drink right. LOFT has already heard from supporters - and made clear to the club - that the standards of food and drink in parts of the ground were unacceptable at the start of the season. LOFT complained, and improvements have already been seen, which is welcome, but problems like these shouldn't happen in the first place. To be blunt, running catering facilities efficiently once a fortnight isn't rocket science. If you want your customers to spend their money eating and drinking at the ground, then the standards have to at least match these of competing facilities, if not exceed them. At the moment, this simply isn't the case on a consistent basis.
LOFT has asked the club many times to consider this organisation as a resource. We have always tried to communicate effectively and constructively with the club, and have never wanted to create problems and raise issues where none exist. However, some of the issues which have troubled fans in recent years could easily have been predicted by a consultation with a democratic and representative fans' organisation. We'd rather be offering constructive suggestions at the outset than writing with criticisms once an inadequately thought-out proposal has been implemented.
Above all, the key word for the club is communication; the more supporters are communicated with effectively - and effectively means two-way - the better.