The following article on the history and current status of LOFT appeared recently in the Pandamonium fanzine, and is reprinted below with their kind permission:
Leyton Orient Fans' Trust (LOFT) has been active since 2001. Membership numbers bump up and down a bit, depending on any burning concerns about the long-term wellbeing of Orient, but generally it's around the 10% mark of regular fans: pretty much the norm for most Trusts except when clubs reach crisis point and face immediate oblivion.
After observing the worrying direction football was taking - top clubs creaming off and wasting the increasingly skyrocketing income, plus dodgy owners killing clubs in both the lower and non leagues (including our local amateur outfits like Walthamstow Avenue and Leytonstone, who fell prey to developers asset stripping their grounds) - some fans wanted to ensure Orient fans' voices were heard.
The Supporters Club, with whom we retain close links, runs the excellent bar and other social activities and hands over surpluses to the club every year. However, it was, and is, constitutionally barred from getting involved in "political" issues so a new vehicle was required, and the nascent Supporters Direct movement showed us the way.
It all started 12 years ago, during the 99/00 season, when there were some minor protests at the ground about the direction the club was heading, and communications between club and supporters were at a low point (including the labelling of some fans as "mindless morons"). Frustrated that the Supporters Club couldn't be used as a campaigning vehicle, a group of fans - including early LOFT committee members Dave Prowse, Ian Ochiltree, Jess Slack and Doug Harper - contacted Supporters Direct who advised us on setting up one of the first Trusts with the aim of increasing fan influence on the club.
So what has LOFT actually achieved in this time? Obviously, when the team you support is owned and controlled by a chairman who has described himself as a "benevolent dictator", it's unlikely that you'll get a deciding vote as often as you'd like when you question his plans.
Having said that, the relations with the club owner and officers have mostly been reasonable and at least there have for the most part been open communication channels, especially since O's fan Matt Porter took up the reins as CEO as part of his Matchroom Sports job. It's fair to say that since Matt's appointment, the communication between the club and fans in general, as well as with LOFT, has markedly improved.
Here's a quick recap of some major interventions:
After the early razzmatazz of celebrity walk-ons did nothing to improve gates or the awful Division 4 football we had to put up with, and the promised nirvana of ITV Digital television income collapsed; Hearn had to look at different ways to keep the club afloat and redevelop the crumbling terrace/stands whilst not depleting any more of his own savings. He decided to do this by initially selling off the corners of the stadium land for flats. LOFT supported this innovative strategy, and wrote to the planning authority to say so. Some felt that LOFT should have opposed the redevelopment, but the promise of non-football rental income streams from the redevelopment of the West Stand was the key to our support.
When this cunning plan went wrong due to spectacular cost overruns, LOFT took the time to explain to all supporters what was happening via its website and leafleting at grounds, as what was coming out of the club was often factual without much explanation and aimed solely at shareholders. We consulted with members for their views and at the first EGM (Extraordinary General Meeting) called by the club, LOFT voted against the sell-off of West Stand space to Mr Hearn and his consortium because of the reduction of possible future income streams. LOFT was the only shareholder to vote against and, while purely symbolic due to the overwhelming majority of shares held by Mr Hearn, it did show that an independent supporters' group could vote against the club while keeping a working relationship.
LOFT did vote in favour at the second EGM of selling land behind the South and North stands to fund the building of the North Stand; this was on the direct assurance from Mr Hearn, when asked by LOFT’s representative, that the building of flats behind the South Stand would not in and of itself prevent future expansion of that stand.
Alarm bells really started ringing when Hearn proposed the offloading of the final piece of family silver to himself: selling the remaining undeveloped East Stand and pitch area for £6million. It certainly solved the short term funding and cleared Hearn's existing loans, but meant Orient no longer "owned" its ground, which has generally proved a disaster for many other clubs. LOFT opposed this plan, and voted its small shareholding against the proposal. LOFT also publicised the sale when, once again, the club was providing the minimum of information even to shareholders, let alone the wider supporter base, without even an EGM to discuss it in the open.
What LOFT and Mr Hearn could agree wholeheartedly on was to oppose the handing of the Olympic Stadium legacy tenancy to a "big" football club. With both Spurs and West Ham seriously submitting bids, we saw the possibility of Orient been squeezed out and future casual/new fans being drawn to Premier League games just over a mile away from Brisbane Road, with the West Ham bid invoking particular concern because of their stated aim of selling heavily subsidised tickets, or even giving them away en masse, to fill the white elephant.
We also supported the club's attempts to look at a local move to the Eton Manor site, as with the right mix of funding and development, it could have saved the club's position in East London.
What LOFT remains implacably opposed to is a move well away from our traditional area to some god-forsaken out of town stadium along the A11, A12 or A13 corridors, a possibility which raises its head from time to time. If you can't muster a few thousand extra fans when based in a metropolis of 8 million, what's the chance of doing it by replicating Col U's awful new ground in the middle of nowhere?
LOFT has long supported the option of a terrace for those fans who prefer to stand, and also as means to offering lower-priced ticketing options to those who feel priced out of modern football. At the very least, re-instating the old East Stand enclosures remains our preferred option. Safe standing has been proven to work in Europe, even at grounds that have held Euro and World Cup matches. Back in 2002, LOFT members handed the club a detailed study of safe standing options, which was basically ignored. But we've persisted with highlighting the campaign that seems only popular with fan-owned clubs like Exeter and Brentford, although a recent shift in the general sentiment finds the idea in favour again with some politicians and bigger British clubs.
LOFT has always been active in opposing the racist, sexist and homophobic views sometimes encountered at football stadiums - including the early anti-racist Kick It Out days at Orient: leafleting the ground and producing United Colours of Orient t-shirts. Happily, this is one area where both the club and the football authorities have become much more proactive over the years, but we remain steadfast in supporting their ongoing efforts to stamp out the unwanted and divisive behaviour of a remaining handful of anti-social bigots.
LOFT has a history of sponsoring initiatives that promote getting youngsters and the local community involved with Orient. In the earlier days that included sponsoring the Orient Ladies team, AC Leyton U17 team, and continues now via our long-standing sponsorship of Theo's Gang and supporting the Leyton Orient Advanced Soccer School (LOASS).
We also strongly support the idea of cheap tickets to attract youths and local residents (we'd rather see longer term ticket schemes and community posters/promotion than one-off freebies except for local school and youth groups) and remain on standby to discuss and help the club with any new initiatives to achieve this.
LOFT remains very much involved in the Dale Jacobs Trophy and related fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. A LOFT team has taken part in each of the annual matches versus the Orientear, which we have won on all 4 occasions, so far.
LOFT has regularly held the club to account for anything likely to seriously lessen fans' enjoyment (except on the field – like all Supporters' Trusts we steer well clear of playing performance issues!) including stewarding and ticketing. Conversely, we've been quick to praise the club when its got it right, such as the excellent handling of the Arsenal cup-tie last season.
Obviously we are closely watching developments with the Olympic Stadium/West Ham, the club's generally rapidly dwindling bank balance, and any new plans for re-location.
Our mission remains to maximise fans' influence in the running of the club, for many of whom Orient is a key part of their lives. Ideally we'd like that to include extending ownership to the fans via a Trust-vehicle, or at the very least having a democratically-elected supporters' representative on the club's board. But we have to realistically concede that we have neither the finances nor the network of support to even consider ownership of the club as a likely scenario, and it's a scenario that looks unlikely to be required whilst Barry Hearn commits to keeping us afloat by hook or by crook. We’ve always said that our major ownership concern is what happens when Hearn steps aside, so that we don't completely hit the buffers like other clubs both big (Portsmouth) and small (Wrexham, Chester), where dubious or deluded owners have failed the fans in their stewardship.
Yet we can only achieve LOFT's basic aims and have our combined voice heard by maximising members' subscriptions and involvement, which are further amplifed countrywide via umbrella groups like Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters' Federation to which we are affiliated. Or to put it simply, the more members we have, the better our ability to represent all supporters. So if you're not currently signed up (it's only a quid minimum per annum, but more is welcome), now's a very good time to take the plunge. You can find out more from our website www.leytonorientfanstrust.com
James Cassidy - LOFT committee
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