It’s a few days shy of a year since Leyton Orient were celebrating a glorious, cathartic promotion back to the Football League. April 27, 2019, the Brisbane Road pitch was overrun with joyously cavorting fans, players lofted shoulder high and carried off like the heroes they were.
After years of turmoil and embarrassment under the ownership of Francesco Becchetti, and the sheer-drop decline of going from a penalty shoot-out away from the Championship in 2014, to relegation into the National League three years later, this should have been the first big leap back towards respectability. It was a day of uncomplicated joy, of hope and optimism, being a football club again rather than a rolling clown show. With the universally loved and popular Justin Edinburgh in charge, their entire future stretched out before them.
Instead, these last 12 months have been…well, it’s hard to come up with a word other than strange. Edinburgh’s sudden passing in June threw the club into disarray, and also meant that the club was the last thing anyone wanted to think about. The succession was fudged, Edinburgh’s assistant Ross Embleton initially put in charge before being replaced by Carl Fletcher in October, only for Fletcher to be sacked just five games later and Embleton put back in charge.
Half a season of understandable inconsistency followed, before a little form was found from the end of January, four wins and two draws from eight games easing them away from relegation trouble and into some momentum.
Then coronavirus hit and everything stopped. A weirder, more frustrating and tragic year is difficult to imagine.
Particularly for Jobi McAnuff. Last season’s captain was in many ways a symbol of Orient’s revival, initially released in 2014 but who returned after Nigel Travis had completed his takeover in 2017, McAnuff was one of the driving forces behind promotion last season and hoped to be the same this term. But then Edinburgh passed away, something that hit McAnuff hard, having been close to the manager, and he struggled to recover from a groin injury that had troubled him last season.
So much so that he was kept out for months and could only return to action in March, getting 25 solid minutes under his belt in the 2-1 win over Cambridge United. Which was of course the last game before football was halted. A triple layer of frustration for someone who, a year ago, was picturing leading Orient back into Football League respectability.
We don't want his passing not to amount to anything.
“A year in football is a very, very long time at the best of times,” McAnuff says. “Having to deal with the highs and the lows that we’ve had to deal with – the high of getting promoted and everything that went into that, was as high as I’ve been in my career and I know it’s the same for the majority of people at the football club during that time.
“We were in a state of euphoria, I suppose. Everything around you is good. You’re looking forwards. You’re obviously satisfied with the work you’ve done. So you’re in a really good place.
“And then obviously to be so quickly brought to the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The season following on from that has been very, very strange, very up and down. It’s been a difficult one to get to grips with. But we’ve tried our best and tried to make the best of the situation that we find ourselves in.”
That includes trying to harness the grief that swept through the club for something positive, something that Edinburgh might have been proud of.
“I like to think I’ve got a similar way of viewing my work as Justin, in terms of giving everything you can every day. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t wait for things to happen – try to make them happen.
“I think it just probably brings everything into a bit of a sharper sort of focus when something like that happens. It has to. Especially the younger lads – probably when you are 21, 22, 23 and you look at it your whole career in front of you and you think, ‘I can do that next year or maybe I won’t do that little bit extra this year because I’ve got time to do it.’
“You just never know what can happen. Never know what’s round the corner. You never know when you’re going to get that opportunity to do it again. Especially in our industry where it can be a tackle, it can be a lack of a contract offer or it can be something as simple as that, that means you don’t get the opportunity to do it again.
“We’ve tried to use the sadness and the pain, I suppose, and try and take some lessons into how to get through a difficult situation to start with, but also how to be as a club, I suppose. They’re hard lessons, but from our point of view, they’re things that we hope will stand us in good stead.
“We don’t want his passing not to amount to anything. He gave us so much and we need to use those things to help the club move forward because he was such a big part of what is going to be big progress for Leyton Orient.”
We've tried to use the sadness and the pain.
McAnuff would be forgiven for feeling pretty bitter about what could have been a brilliant coda to his career. He’s 38 now, and a season consolidating Orient back in League Two might have been a great way to bow out. The injury and everything else has robbed him of that, but he seems pretty sanguine, all told.
“There were times this year I never thought I would get back if I’m being totally honest,” he says, expressing some frustration that the current situation has curtailed his comeback but being careful to emphasise that football generally and his status specifically, are not priorities in the grander scheme of things.
What now? Until we know if this season is going to finish, and if it does when that will be, it’s difficult to plan for anything. And impossible to plan for next season, given that we don’t know when that will be or what form it will take.
“That was all up in the air,” he says, when asked if he did have any plans for next season. “I’ve been really, really lucky. I’m still playing 38, which is great. [I wanted to see if] I could get through games, and if I could get through them at a level where I can still be effective. I don’t want to go through the motions.
“I’m not really about that. I’ve had a great run up till now. And if I got back and didn’t feel I was at the level I needed to be, I would have no problems at all hanging up the boots and cracking on with whatever’s next. I’m fortunate – it would have been a lot worse if I was 26, 27, out of contract in the summer with all of this going on – a lot of lads are in that boat. So I’ll just take it as it comes and see where we go.”
This hasn’t been the year that Orient or McAnuff expected. It hasn’t been the season they deserved. But in these curious times when everyone is essentially waiting to see what happens next, you get the sense that the hope of a year ago remains.
You can listen to more of this interview on the Totally Football League Show which will come out later on Wednesday: subscribe here so you don’t miss it. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.