Leyton Orient triumphantly returned to the football league after winning the Vanarama National League at only the second time of asking. This was no mean feat given that the club was on its knees with only nine professionals on its books in 2017.
Following a season of consolidation in 2018 fans were hungry to enjoy some success having seen their club fall from the brink of Championship football in 2014 to non-league football in three painful years. The novelty of the first season in the National League was over and a place in the play-offs was the minimum expectation. But new chairman Nigel Travis is more than delighted and in no small way inspired the club to pick themselves up again.
The first game of the campaign was one of the toughest away to Salford, and was played in front of BT’s cameras. After falling behind early in the second half the O’s deservedly got an equaliser late in the 86th minute. On reflection they were a little unlucky not to grab all three points. However, the match helped set up Orient’s stall for the season: a team that was difficult to score against, a team that was difficult to beat, a team that was resilient and a team that got late goals.
It was not until the fourth game that Orient got their first victory with a 2-1 win at Maidstone, but then the trend was set and following a sequence of 13 unbeaten games, the O’s first defeat came as a surprise against Sutton at home. However, the test of champions is the ability to react positively and Justin Edinburgh’s men bounced back with a solid 2-0 victory away to Maidenhead. It would be another nine matches before Orient suffered defeat again with a narrow 1-0 loss at Boreham Wood.
By the end of the year Leyton Orient were on top of the National League with 54 points, putting them one point above Wrexham who had a game in hand. But Justin Edinburgh had to juggle his options as injuries to key players depleted the squad. Yet somehow they managed to grind out results whilst staying in the FA Trophy with an impressive win away to title rivals Wrexham.
With ex-Orient striker Jay Simpson re-signing for the club together with new recruits Jordan Maguire-Drew and Jamie Turley, the O’s were able to maintain their position at the top before going into a two-legged FA Trophy Semi Final against Telford which they won 3-1 on aggregate. That meant when returning to league duty against Fylde on 26th March, they were still in first position with two games in hand. Two early goals saw the O’s move a further two points clear. But the teams around them closed the gap after Orient could only draw away to Barnet and then lose away 2-1 against Bromley in April.
There was more disappointment to come in the next game at home against Halifax which they could only draw and they were knocked off the top of the table. It was a Matt Harold goal in stoppage time that rescued the point, demonstrating their resilience.
The home game on Tuesday 9th April against Eastleigh was the first of two crucial matches in the promotion drive. Having to come back from behind twice in a 3-2 thriller saw Edinburgh’s men return to the top of the table with a two point cushion. The second game saw a hard-fought 2-1 victory against Sutton but not before James Dayton was sent off for throwing his boot towards the referee as he was carried off on a stretcher with a suspected broken leg – some achievement!
The penultimate game of the season was against promotion-chasing rivals Solihull Moors once again in front of BT’s cameras – it was encouraging to see Orient televised from time to time. A hard fought goal-less draw was enough to increase the gap at the top to three points as Salford lost at Fylde. That meant a draw was all that was needed at home against Braintree on 27th April and a scoreless draw was greeted by delirious celebrations as over 6000 Orient fans celebrated promotion and a return to the football league. Scenes not witnessed at Brisbane Road for many years.
Sadly the final of the FA trophy was beyond their grasp. On reflection the three-week break had not helped Orient’s preparations and they were rusty for the opening half. A much improved second half saw the O’s hitting the woodwork three times and having a shot cleared off the line, but it wasn’t to be – no record breaking double.
Leyton Orient can reflect on a brilliant season where they won a league title for the first time since 1970 and will go back into the football league after only a two year absence. Credit to Martin Ling, Matthew Porter, Justin Edinburgh and the players for bringing joy back to E15. Memories of the nine managers in three years can be deleted and Nigel Travis will be dunkin’ his doughnuts with even greater enthusiasm. He aims to be at the ground for at least another eight games this season as he flies back and forth from Texas.