Memory Match: Leyton Orient 2-3 Imps

27 years ago, City travelled to Leyton Orient with slim mathematical hopes of achieving a play-off place. When looking for matches to cover this week, given I’m otherwise indisposed, I thought this would be a good one.

Disclaimer – I’m writing this on March 1st, so we’re currently eight points outside of the top six, and by the time you’re reading this we’ll almost certainly be out of the hunt for a top-six spot (cue ‘this aged well’ comments). Still, that’s how John Beck’s Imps felt with a late-season trip to Orient. The game isn’t as notable as the first fixture between the two – that was the opening day of the season, when Beck was arrested!

This table shows you how slim those play-off chances were – six points was the gap, but Cardiff had games in hand. We had to keep winning games but came into the game on the back of a 1-1 draw with Northampton after they levelled through a 92nd-minute penalty. that draw meant we’d won twice in ten outings, the sort of form that costs you a top-seven space. Ultimately, it did cost us, but more on that shortly.

Orient were out of the promotion race and still had a lingering threat of the drop. City hadn’t won at Brisbane Road since 1960, and they went there with a depleted side. Jon Whitney, Mark Hone and Stuart Bimson all missed out. Colin Alcide picked up an injury early, and Terry Fleming wasn’t fully fit. A bumper travelling support went, believing it could be Gareth Ainsworth’s last game amid interest from Wigan Athletic. None of it felt like it would help us push up the table.

However, this was Beck’s Lincoln, renowned for disappointing at home but delivering away. City lined up Richardson, Barnett, Holmes, Dennis, Brown (G), Austin, Ainsworth, Fleming, Stant, Sterling and Alcide, with Brown (S), Robertson and Martin on the bench.

Within three minutes, Ainsworth had delivered, albeit from the spot. Dave Morrison hacked at Alcide in the area, and the big striker went down. Match referee Mr Bates pointed to the spot, and from that same spot, Sir Gareth smashed the ball home. That was the upside – the downside was Alcide going off 11 minutes later, replaced by the eager Steve Brown who had just completed a short loan spell with Dover.

The home side were still the better prospect, with Andy Arnott testing Richardson from range in the first half. Carl Griffiths, formerly of Manchester City, headed two effoorts over the bar as the Imps struggled to cling on to their lead. Still, cling on, they did, until eight minutes after the break. Scott McGleish caught a cross firmly with a header, but it bounced back off the post, and Arnott reacted quickest. Those play-off hopes faded a little more.

The goal fired the Imps into life – Phil Stant put an overhead kick wide before a long Fleming throw caused a bit of chaos. The calmest man in the box was Brown, who wriggled free to poke the ball in from 12 yards to restore City’s 2-1 lead. That was the catalyst for another shift in momentum, with Orients coming back at us. Austin and Barnett are singled out in Brian Halford’s Echo report for huge praise – one was Man of the Match, the other had home fans wondering why he’d ever been allowed to leave.

Orient did break the resistance with just nine minutes left. Richardson saved Justin Channing’s 20-yard drive, but only by being tipped onto the bar. It fell back into the area, and Chris Timmons reacted quickest to poke home. It looked like the Imps would be getting a point, which probably wouldn’t be enough. Little did they know (because of the lack of mobile phones with internet) but seven of the ten clubs in with a play-off shout were dropping points – that included Cardiff going down 2-0 to bottom side Brighton.

Within four minutes, the game was over. Firstly, Steve Brown fired over from 12 yards, a moment which felt like that ‘last chance’, but City came back again. Tony Dennis whipped in a corner which Orient struggled to clear. Stant lurked menacingly, powering a shot through a crowd, through the keeper’s legs and into the net. From being pegged back on 81 minutes, City sealed all three points with five minutes to spare.

A week later, City lost 2-1 at home to Torquay, a side below them in the table, and that ultimately cost us a play-off place. Even four wins from the next five, including a 4-0 hammering of Swansea, and a 3-1 win at play-off hopefuls Cambridge, didn’t help. We also beat fellow play-off chasers Scarborough and Scunthorpe 2-0, and Stant managed seven goals in five games. In the end, despite the poor run of form through February and March, it was all in our hands on the final day. Beat Rochdale at home, and we’d be in the play-offs.

We lost 2-0.