Continuing my look at sides that we might face next season, and I’m looking at the bottom of League Two now. Two sides look all-but doomed, and when you delve into their respective seasons it is probably little surprise.
Firstly the facts: Newport won just one of their opening 16 competitive matches, resulting in Warren Feeney losing his job. They opted to bring in former Peterborough manager Graham Westley, but after winning four of his first six games in charge he went on to win just one in 20. The itchy trigger finger went again, Westley was sacked and in came former Gillingham man Michael Flynn. He is now staring down the barrel of the gun, Newport are six points from safety with seven games remaining. Of those seven games, three are against sides battling it out for promotion, namely Plymouth, Exeter and Carlisle. It is no easy run in for 2013 Blue Square Premier Play Off winners, and their campaign this season has been nothing short of a disaster.
Many point to the appointment of the bullish and controversial figure of Graham Westley as manager, but I’ll come to him in a moment. One of the main problems facing the Exiles has been the appalling state of their Rodney Parade pitch. They share the ground with Newport Gwent Dragons and Newport RFC, and the three way share has taken its toll on the playing surface. Last season there were 55 matches across the three clubs played there, and the turf has become nothing short of a quagmire. They lost three games in the winter, one postponed against Stevenage and two abandoned at half time against Barnet and Morecambe. Newport were leading Morecambe 1-0, but the replay ended in a 1-1 draw. How costly could that be?
That leads us on to the second of their three managers this season, Graham Westley. He was incredibly vocal about the state of the pitch, branding it a ‘disgrace’ that you could only play ‘dinosaur football’ on. The stadium’s owner then blasted Westley for speaking out on the subject, encouraging him to focus on his teams performances instead. The ill-feeling and war of words wasn’t helping anyone, not least a football team that is unloved in its home town.
Newport is a rugby town, with Newport Gwent Dragons attracting twice as many fans as their footballing counterparts. When you’re in a relegation battle you need fans and the team to be in alignment, and in Newport they are not. The only real option to improve the state of the pitch is a hybrid surface like the one shared by Ospreys and Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Premiership Swansea can afford the £1m price tag though, soon-to-be non league Newport cannot.
Westley’s sacking was controversial too. After being thrashed 4-0 at home by relegation haunted Leyton Orient, Westley claimed he’d been given two games to save his job. We saw first hand how that went for Jackie McNamara at York this season, but Westley didn’t even get the chance to save his skin. In January he brought in 14 new players, but by early March he was unemployed, dismissed before the supposed two game deadline had even kicked off. The board claimed he had been given no such opportunity to save his job, and he was out on his ear. Players he had exiled returned to the club and one, Mark Randall, hit out at the previous manager stating he had been treated unfairly. When Westley left the club they were eleven points adrift of safety. Now that gap is just six points, but games are running out. They may have lost just two games in their last five, but no wins in three has seriously damaged their hopes of staying in the Football League. Michael Flynn has picked up a poisoned chalice, and he needs something to go for him if he’s to overhaul the six point gap between them and Cheltenham.
There is no doubt Newport are a club in turmoil. They were the second team to be automatically relegated from the Football League after us in 1988, they have no suitable permanent home and once again they look likely to fall into the non-league pyramid. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the team we replaced in 1988 were also the team we replaced in 2017?
Orient have a long and proud Football League tradition, and not so long ago they were in the hunt for promotion to the Championship. So how is it that now just a couple of seasons later they find themselves seven points adrift of safety with seven games left to play?
I said in my earlier blog I felt for the fans of Coventry City, and I feel exactly the same about Leyton Orient. Thanks to an erratic and unpredictable owner they’ve plummeted to the bottom of the pile in League Two, and they are highly unlikely to see anything other than National League football next season. With promotion chasing Blackpool, Luton, Colchester and Cambridge all still to play, and a massive relegation six-pointer with Hartlepool coming up they have an incredibly tough run-in.
Mind you, any run in is tough when you’ve picked up just seven points in fifteen games, and their collapse isn’t dissimilar to our own fall from grace six years ago. They’ve suffered humiliating defeats against Accrington (5-0), Doncaster (4-1), Grimsby (3-0) and Crawley (3-0), and that is in the last four games. Manager Danny Webb resigned today after just two months in charge, and in doing so became the fourth manager to leave the club this season. Already Andy Hessenthaler has left (September 2016), as did Alberto Cavasin (November 2016) just a short while after. Next up was Andy Edwards who at least saw out Christmas before departing in January to be replaced by former Imps striker Webb, who had previously only been the youth team coach. Now it appears Webb has had enough of owner intervention in team selection, and his resignation gives Omar Riza the impossible task of trying to find as many points in seven games as they managed all year.
It isn’t only the instability on the pitch though, the root of the issues lay off it and in the board room. Francesco Becchetti took over the club in 2014, and his tenure has been nothing short of a disaster. He may have knocked through five managers this season, but since taking over he has seen 11 different people at the helm of the club. If that has contributed in part to their demise, then so has the winding up order served on the club earlier in the season. They may be dangling precariously over the edge of the National League precipice, but financially the club remain in “mortal danger”, according to the legal adviser to their fans’ trust.
Becchetti has been given until 12th of June to pay off debts or sell the club after the winding up order was brought by HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid taxes. Even though those debts have since been paid, other creditors are circling, looking for their slice of owed money. Becchetti has promised to invest £1m to save the club, but their latest set of accounts showed debts of £5,512,449 – more than the value of the club’s assets of £5.5m. They have no saleable assets as previous owner Barry Hearn hung on to the ground, and none of their players are attracting interest given their appalling form. Leyton Orient are nose diving and nothing looks like it is going to be able to stop the inevitable crash through the trap door.
In May of 2014 Orient and Rotherham clashed at Wembley for a place in the second tier of English football, but Mathieu Baudry and Chris Dagnall’s missed penalties cost them their promotion. Relegation followed the following season and now, two seasons further on they are looking doomed and destined for trips to AFC Fylde and Maidenhead next season. To add insult to injury Dagnall has netted seven in seven for Crewe to pull them away from relegation, and Baudry scored recently for top of the table Doncaster Rovers against his old club. Their fans have been sold up the river by a rash and unpredictable owner, and they’ve gone from the brink of elation to the brink of despair in the blink of an eye.
Between them Orient and Newport have had eight managers this season alone. They’ve conceded 134 goals between them too, and neither look to have the nous nor the strength to pull themselves away from the drop zone. Were it not for their terrible form Cheltenham could be the first team to be relegated, win the National League and be relegated again the season after, but that looks unlikely. The Robins have 39 points, and realistically they’ll probably be safe with two more wins on 45 points.
We thought our relegation was bad, but we didn’t share our ground with two other sports teams, we didn’t have more managers than we had cup games and we were still in with a fighting chance entering the final match of the season. With Orient’s money woes and Newport’s ground troubles, you wouldn’t put money on either side bouncing straight back. Frankly relegation could spell the end for one, or both sides and it may not be all that long before an ‘Orient 1881’ is formed, or before yet another incarnation of Newport County have to start climbing the leagues.
Remember that next time we’re moaning about drawing 1-1 away at Sutton United. We might have been through the toughest five years in our history, but things could be much, much worse.