The 2019 Race for the Football League – Tradition vs. Entrepreneurship

IMG_7711The race for winning promotion to the Football League is entering its final stage, and my son Thomas and I have the perfect opportunity to compare two of the leading contenders – Leyton Orient and Salford City – as they both play at home on our last trip to the UK this season.

Whereas Leyton Orient is one of the oldest London clubs, and had continually been members of the Football League from 1905 until their relegation two seasons ago, Salford City have never played in the Football League, and their current status as a National League club is their best ever position. And this position has been achieved by winning promotion in three of the four seasons since the six former Manchester United players – Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers – each bought 10 percent of the club. The race for the football league seems to be a battle between footballing tradition and footballing entrepreneurship.

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It is not that Salford City is a brand new club. According to the club website, it was formed in 1940 as Salford Central. It doesn’t tell about the circumstances, although it would be quite interesting to know the story of a football club being formed in the very year that the phoney war turned into the Battle of Britain. On the other hand, Leyton Orient did not adopt the name Leyton Orient until the end of WW2, having previously been named Orient and later Clapton Orient – after originally playing as Eagle Cricket Club’s football team. To add to the confusion, they took over their current ground from Leyton F.C. in 1937, after which they changed their name from Clapton Orient to Leyton Orient. And for a 21 year long spell from 1966, the club reverted to the short version of the name – “Orient”.

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In fact, Leyton Orient have had a quite turbulent history, which is reflected in their ground. You can start with the name of it. When Leyton F.C. played here, it was called Osborne Road. Clapton Orient renamed the ground Brisbane Road after moving in – before changing the club’s name to Leyton Orient. Then, when boxing-promoter Ben Hearn bought the club for £5 in 1995, he renamed the ground after his company “The Matchroom Stadium”. And currently, the Breyer Group has a 2-year deal for the naming rights.

But – with this blog focusing on football and material culture – it is the ground itself that is really fascinating. When Leyton Orient won promotion to the second tier of English League football in 1956, they invested in a new main stand. Or rather- they bought it from the Mitcham stadium. A stadium built just a couple of years before Leyton’s move to Brisbane Road by the housing entrepreneur Sydney Parker. He figured out that the many people moving into the newly built semi-detached houses of the area, would need some sort of entertainment. He build a stadium with a capacity of somewhere between 30.000 and 60.000 – and experimented with rugby, greyhound racing, baseball and football. According to an excellent article by Totts on http://www.gandermonium.com/2018/10/mitcham-stadium-mysteries.html,  Parker almost persuaded Clapton Orient to move into his ground just before they decided to go to Leyton in 1937; and apparently, he was also in talks with the Fulham F.C. owner to move to Mitcham, so Craven Cottage could be converted to housing. In the end, Mitcham Stadium didn’t find a viable concept, and the ground folded in 1955. So what Leyton Orient did, was to buy up one of the stands from Mitcham and move it to Brisbane Road.

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Oddly enough, Leyton Orient only put up 3/4 of the newly acquired stand in 1956. It was not until Orient won promotion to the top tier of English football in 1962, that the stand was completed.  And even more oddly, the distinctive white roof gable with the club name is not positioned at the centre. According to Simon Inglis’ authoritative “Football Ground’s of Britain”, this second oddity is a consequence of the first. They put the gable in the centre of the firstly erected 3/4; so when the stand was extended towards the south, the gable lost its central position. However, Tott’s excellent article on Mitcham Stadium features a photo that shows, that the gable at Mitcham was similarly off-centre. But Inglis do point out that the gable is said to have housed the steward’s box for the dog racing at Mitcham. That seems to be the explanation – that the gable was at the finishing line of the racing track at Mitcham stadium –  which was not at the centre.

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The gable apparently runs all through the roof of the stand, as it can be seen from the outside as well. But inside the stand, you can actually see that the two gables do not quite fit. The one towards the street has probably housed a staircase to get up to a gantry walk, leading to the steward´s box in the gable towards the ground.

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I discover another oddity, as I take my seat in the old main stand. Under my left foot I have wooden floor, under my right foot I have concrete floor. In other old stands, it is fairly common to find a mix of wooden and concrete floor, as concrete was used in the standing paddocks at the front, and wooden floor in the seated area at the back. And you can find the odd stand, where part of the original stand with wooden floor has burned down and been rebuilt in concrete.

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Although Inglis points out that the East Stand nearly burned down on it’s opening day in 1956, there may be another explanation for this oddity. Looking at photos back from the 1970’s, there seems to have been a segregation of the section of the stand under the gable, starting right at the column immediately in front of me. I guess that the stand came from Mitcham Stadium with wooden floor for the section around the finishing line of the racecourse, as this section would be the most attractive and exclusive. The cheaper seats after the finishing line got concreted floor. Inglis points out that the embankment around the ground was built up and concreted by Leyton Orient from 1949-1962. This part was probably done, when the main stand was erected in 1956. But if any Leyton Orient fans reading this has the explanation, please let me know.

IMG_7617I had been in two minds whether we should buy tickets for the new West (Main) Stand, so we would have the pleasure of looking at the old East Stand with the gable during the match, or whether we should go for the “traditional” old stand experience. In the end, I decide for experiencing the old stand rather than looking at it. I am glad I did. I like the quirkiness of it. The East Stand used to contain offices, dressing room, club shop etc. Or rather – small buildings containing such facilities have been attached to the stand  from Mitcham Stadium. A big black O with the club crest in the middle between the words “Leyton Orient” and “Football Club Ltd” make up the decorations on the rather drab grey cladding, along with red and white attached buildings.

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The East Stand is located in Brisbane Road – which is linked to High Road Leyton by the terraced housing of Osborne Road. The community of Leyton is on this eastern side of the ground, whereas there used to be a water works and an isolation hospital between the western side and the railway. Now, you find mainly allotments here. It has a sense of ‘back-yard’ to it. No wonder the prestigious new main stand was put in Brisbane Road to the East.

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We have definitely made the right choice by going for the East Stand. This is a proper old school stand. I love the wooden floor. It gives a completely different soundscape to modern concrete stands. I love the column obstructing my view, making me have to move from one side to the other with the flow of the game. And I love the irregular concourse underneath the stand where I find the “Leyton Lunch” (although the Pukka Chicken Balti pie, I have, is not properly heated).

IMG_7644IMG_7645IMG_7649Our choice of stand may have cost us the sight of the iconic gable as a lovely bacground scenery for the match, but in its own way, the new West Stand is just as fascinating to watch. Above the ordinary rows of seats is a gallery with seats for the visitors to the executive boxes. And at the top of the stand, there is a spectacular gallery for the press. It really looks impressive, when the lights are turned on.

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All the four stands are hemmed in by residential blocks with flats in the corners of the ground. The corners were sold off in order to finance the building of the West and the North Stands. The houses have balconies overlooking the pitch. It must really be exciting to be the estate agent showing the flats to potential residents. Who will get the thrill of their life when they see the view? And who will walk out in protest? I would certainly love to live there – but I am pretty sure my wife would be horrified by the thought.

IMG_7670IMG_7691Anyway, the onlooking residents on the balconies somehow rounds off the press gallery at the top of the West Stand with their silhouets matching the journalists. A fascinating effect – I wonder if it was intended.

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The South, West and North stands were completed in 2000, 2005 and 2007 respectively, after a grand plan to completely rebuilt the site, turning the pitch 90 degrees, had been abandoned. The selling off of land to help finance the rebuilding sums up the struggle to keep up with the stadium transformations after the Taylor Report. Much to my surprise, I really like the presence of the residential blocks. In Parken in Copenhagen, I find the offices in one of the stands highly distracting in the overall impression. But somehow, it works here. In fact, further residential blocks have been built behind the South as well as the North Stand, but you can only see the blocks in the South Stand from the inside of the stadium.

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The entrances to the South and North Stands are located in the residential blocks. It looks like a modern day version of the Oak Road End entrance through a terraced house at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road – and the now gone Filbert Street at Leicester City. And it is fascinating in the same sort of way – the ground and the surroundings growing together organically. In the same way, the statue of one of Leyton Orient’s greatest ever players, Laurie Cunningham, is not at the ground but in the Coronation Gardens next to the residential blocks.

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The new West Stand not only contains club shop and offices and a supporters’ bar. There is also room for parking facilities, a pharmacy and a policlinic. Mainly due to the bar, it is quite lively – and once again gives this impression of the ground having grown together organically with the community.

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In fact, right from the moment we got off the tube at Leyton, we have got this feeling of being in a vibrant, busy  community with people in the streets. It may have something to do with the time of day – Tuesday at 6.30 – but it is a stark contrast, when we take the bus to Salford City’s Peninsula Stadium at Moor Lane Saturday morning at 11. There is hardly anybody in the streets. The ground is in a residential area but not very heavily populated. Opposite the ground is a church and Kersal Moor.

IMG_8059.JPGAnd arriving at the ground, the contrast is even starker. Salford City has been playing here for 40 years, but until the Class of 92′ owners took over five years ago, it was a very basic football ground with a perimeter fence around a Sunday League pitch – with the addition of two small stands opposite each other by the centre line. The capacity was just over 1.000. But as part of the project of taking Salford City into the football league by 2020, the new owners have built a brand new stadium around the pitch. It was all done in 10 months – raising the capacity of the ground to just over 5.000.

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The four stands – standing terraces behind the goals and seated stands along the length of the pitch – are integrated in a bowl-like design. It gives the impression of being a proper ground. An amazing transformation over such a short time.

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There are no concreted embankments here – and no wooden floor either. It is all metal. Some 15 years ago, I organized an annual tournament of knights at the Danish Military Museum. The stands remind me of the temporary seated stands that we erected for these 10-day events. It looks like a temporary stepping stone on the way to the top tier of English Football – and I have, indeed, heard rumours that they will have to play their matches in another ground, if they do win promotion to the Football League.

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A sign tells fans no to bang on the rear panels. The odd dent in the panels tell the reason why.

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You sense that the ground was really built in a hurry. Near the away end, it seems that they suddenly became aware that the number of seats between the aisles didn’t add up, and an additional aisle has been thrown in somewhat randomly.

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There are some executive facilities in the main stand along Moor Lane (where my mate spots Gary Neville), but otherwise the stands are too small to contain facilities. They have all been places in containers behind the stands – toilets, kiosks, souvenir shop. And it seems that the dressing rooms are not much different.

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Although it is quite cold, the sun is fortunately shining, and it makes it a pleasant area to enjoy halftime refreshments. And, in fact. it is not unlike some old school grounds like Griffin Park in Brentford, where you also have to spend half time in the open air.

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The most distinctive feature of the ground, though, is the pitch. It doesn’t seem as though it was relaid as part of the rebuilding project. It must be sloping more than a yard from Moor Lane towards Neville Road. Standing behind the goal, looking down the other end of the pitch, it is really striking when you follow the lines of the roof and the crush barriers.

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In fact, the pitch look more like the one where my super veteran team Dynamo Birkerod plays every Sunday than a football league pitch. We see groundsman sprinkling the pitch with a garden hose;  although later it is revealed that a couple of sprinklers have been built into the pitch – so some pitch work has been done.

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Whereas the ground at Leyton Orient oozes tradition, history and community, the Salford City ground is underpinned by sporting ambition. This is a necessary stepping stone to becoming a league club – and probably to getting all the way to the top. There is not much history around, but statements about intent like this one of the staircase: “There is no elevator to success; You have to take the stairs”. But Salford City seems to be jumping rather than walking up the stairs.

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Or “You don’t just support a team. You belong to it”. This statement, however, would perhaps be more appropriate at Leyton Orient. It is not just the stadium buildings that differ; the atmosphere in the two grounds differ as well. It is not just that the crowd at Salford is just under half the 5,200 at Leyton Orient. There doesn’t seem to be the same passion around the ground. Maybe it is because the club by many Manchester United fans are seen as a sort reserve team. Plenty of people go to the match wearing their Manchester United colors, and will probably be on their way to Old Trafford for United’s match against West Ham later in the day. Just like we are.

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There is a group of Salford fans standing behind the goal with banners, doing some singing and chanting. But the response to Salford City taking a rather undeserved lead some 10 minutes into the match is quite muted, where we are sitting. Maybe because everybody just expects Salford to record a routine win; maybe because people don’t quite belong yet. In fact, it is the away fans from Maidenhead United, who are having a great day out. They are all dressed up. Superheroes, ghosts and ghostbusters, pirates, wizards, you name it. My favourite is a guy sitting on the shoulders of president Trump.

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That is, there is a group of 15 Maidenhead fans who – with the exception of one – hasn’t dressed up. The one exception really stands out with his bare arms and legs, especially considering that it is bitterly cold. Reminds me of the Bridget Jones’ Diary: “Where are all the other tarts and vicars?”. But, the dressedup guys seems to enjoy himself.

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It is, though, a far cry from the atmosphere at Brisbane Road. The crowd there is really passionate, living every single tackle. It is ooohss and ahhhs and plenty of chanting from all stands of the ground. A cracking atmosphere, much better than at some Premiership and Championship grounds. I guess it has to do with the tradition. Losing their league status has been a completely devastating blow to the Leyton Orient supporters; it is absolutely essential for them to get back now. Whereas the vast majority of Salford City fans seems more laid back. Feeling confident, perhaps even knowing, that with the backing of the Class of ’92, it is just a matter of time, before they will be in the big time. If they go up this year, they will even be ahead of schedule.

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Maybe the actual games influence this impression. Leyton Orient go down to a brillant early goal from Eastleigh. But spurred on by the crowd, they equalize, only for Eastleigh to retake the lead with another spectacular goal. You begin to sense the frustration. But in the second half, the fans rally again, and Leyton grab two goals within five minutes to take the lead. It is a pulsating game – and the quality is surprisingly high. My son and I are both impressed with the technical ability and some of the flowing football displayed by both teams, if fact.

IMG_8161The match at Salford is the opposite. It is quite scrappy, littered with technical mistakes and plenty of long balls just being whacked forward. Maybe the pitch doesn’t help. Salford capitalize on two technical mistakes by Maidenhead to break and score within the first half hour. Still, they don’t play very well. But on the stroke of halftime they go 3-0 up from a penalty after some chaotic defending of a corner.  Nothing much happens in the second half. There is nothing for the fans to get excited about, except some pushing and showing at set-pieces.

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There is something exciting about new clubs suddenly making headway through the league system. For instance, Bournemouth’s rise to the Premiership has been exciting to watch. But I must admit that my favorites in the race for League football are Leyton Orient. It is one of those little gems like Grimsby Town that just win me over with their passion and their tradition. And really good football on top of it. I know that they tried to move to the Olympic Stadium before West Ham United beat them to it. I think that they are fortunate that they didn’t get it. Brisbane Road is a brilliant place to go – I will certainly recommend to anybody going to London wanting to have a proper match day experience. As I am writing this, both Leyton Orient and Salford City are ahead in their matches – with another two matches remaining. Leyton Orient are two points ahead. What an exciting race for football league.

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One comment on “The 2019 Race for the Football League – Tradition vs. Entrepreneurship
  1. Dennis barefield says:

    What a cracking write up, got me all emotional! Picks out the difference between the Orient and Salford and why Leyton Orient must get back in the football league, coyos you can do it.

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