Midweek Muse: Orient Express – How Leyton Orient found unpredictable momentum for promotion glory in 1988-89

Crisis club Leyton Orient have the unwanted distinction of being the only club in the English football league not to win a single point in 2017 so far. The Os have gone from being within touching distance of the Championship in 2014 to now occupying one of the relegation places in League Two, amid a chaotic backdrop that would probably be thrown out of a daytime soap’s storyboard meeting for stretching credibility. Tom Simmonds looks back to a time when Orient were cast in the right role of a similarly unbelievable story, 29 years after it happened.

Football-wise, the 1988-89 season is mainly remembered for the most improbable winning of a league title in history. Forget Sergio Aguero in 2013 and Michael Thomas’s last minute dink over a prone Bruce Grobbelaar at the Anfield Road end which ensured Arsenal pipped Liverpool to the crown on goals scored.

However, it was events at a few miles down the road at Brisbane Road that season, which made for a tale almost as remarkable as Arsenal’s. The fact that an Arsenal youngster, who we would come to see a lot more of, was one of its chief protagonists lend them a neat symmetry.

Even without the twist at the end of 1988-89, Orient fans would’ve questioned what they were seeing for large parts of this campaign. They won once in their first seven games, a narrow 1-0 win over a Darlington side and they looked doomed from the off to be anchored to the bottom all season. You might think this shows a pretty obvious pattern for the sort of season a team will have when they’re third bottom and has only scored three goals in those seven games. League starts hardly get worse than that.

Then something didn’t just flicker, a brief spike of form so out of keeping with what had gone on before arrived in incongruous fashion. Orient hammered York 4-0 at home in their eighth game of the season, before claiming a very creditable goaless draw at play-off bound Scarborough and then equalled their club-record victory by battering Colchester 8-0 in front of 3,421 stunned souls. Seven different players scored in that game, with Alan Hull helping himself to a hat-trick. The fact that this team had several players capable of contributing to the goals tally was to prove instrumental in what was to come.

Frank Clark’s men began to settle into a rhythm after that, and a good run of form throughout the Christmas period, in which the supremely talented winger Alan Comfort started to find the net regularly, dragged them firmly into mid-table security. Clark was also acquiring new pieces to his jigsaw, and getting one of his most important tools back. All-action midfielder Steve Castle, recently voted Orient’s greatest ever captain, missed the first four months of the season through injury. His return in mid-January gave Orient back both his rare dynamism and goalscoring threat. Six goals in the 25 league games he played that season was a ratio roughly in keeping with his total of 55 goals in the 255 games he played for Orient between 1984 and 1992.

In December 1988, Clark make another big decision in replacing goalkeeper Peter Wells with 20-year-old Yorkshireman Paul Heald. Heald made his debut in a 2-2 draw at Grimsby in mid-December and stayed put, keeping 10 clean sheets in the league and two in the play-offs. Heald added a layer of security behind an already settled defence containing captain John Sitton, Keith Day, Terry Howard and full-backs Kevin Hales and Kevin Dickenson. Sitton, Orient’s captain that season, is unequivocal about Heald’s centrality to Orient’s success, describing him as “the best keeper I ever played with by a country mile”.

The signing of two strikers was also to prove pivotal. Mark Cooper, who arrived from Gillingham in late January, was to later prove himself to be a man for the big occasion, but it was a young man who temporarily swapped N5 for E10 who really lit the touch paper.

Kevin Campbell made his Orient debut on 21 January, scoring in a 2-1 defeat at Crewe, who would go on to be promoted in second place. Orient’s next game, against eventual champions Rotherham, took place on Campbell’s 19th birthday. It was a memorable one; he scored twice in a 3-1 win which lifted Orient up to 14th.

Tranmere manager John King famously talked of his Tranmere side – who went up automatically from the Fourth Division this same season – being a deadly submarine. That description suited this Orient side to a tee, given what they did from February onwards. They won 11 of their last 16 games, scoring 35 goals in the process and not just relying on Comfort and Campbell to get them. Castle, Lee Harvey, Howard and Hales all made big contributions too and Cooper was about to step up, big time.

This run, which culminated in a 4-1 thrashing of fourth-placed Scunthorpe enabled by a Cooper hat-trick, resulted in Orient finishing sixth and in irresistible form going into the semi-final with Scarborough. A 2-0 win in the first leg in London, courtesy of a Cooper brace, proved enough as they restricted Scarborough to a 1-0 win at the McCain to progress to what would be one of the last two-legged play-off finals ever, against Wrexham.

That sturdy defence held firm in the first leg at the Racecourse, securing a goaless draw which set up a winner-takes-all shootout at Brisbane Road on 30 May 1989. Heald made the first decisive move of the match, producing a brilliant full-stretch save to tip Ollie Kearns’s overhead kick away. Comfort was on the rampage for the Os, no doubt mindful of the fact he was due to get married that day and had a helicopter waiting to take him to the venue on the whistle. He set up Hales for a long range blast that went wide and his perfect cross for Cooper had the striker bringing the best out of Mick Salmon in the Wrexham goal.

The deadlock was broken just before half time. A loose ball broke to Harvey on the right edge of the penalty area and after an unorthodox chest-trap, he belted an angled half-volley into the top corner. That didn’t prove to be the catalyst for Orient to run away with things as Jon Bowden equalised, nodding unmarked into an empty net from close range after Steve Buxton’s knock-back took out Heald and his defence.

Wrexham were now in front with an away goal, meaning Orient had to score again. Harvey’s cross found Cooper on the penalty spot after 82 minutes, and he used the pace on the cross to divert a languid shot beyond Salmon’s grasp. A promotion that looked like a distant prospect nine months earlier had become a reality. Sitton puts this down to a talented group of players also being “all top boys (with) backbone”.

The immediate future was kind to Orient as they established themselves in the third tier, missing out on a play-off place on goal difference in 1992-93. You can always tell a good side by what its component parts go on to do, and this one had a lot of successful alumni. Clark went on to manage Nottingham Forest, getting them promoted to the Premier League in 1993-94 and finishing third in the top flight the following season – achievements which would get him onto the FA’s shortlist to succeed Graham Taylor. Campbell played 499 professional games in his career, scoring 148 goals for the clubs including Arsenal, Forest and Everton. Comfort signed for Middlesbrough in 1989 and saw his career cruelly curtailed by a knee injury, which led him into an early adoption of what he always stated was going to be his post-football career, the clergy. The Reverend Alan Comfort is now the Rector of a church in Standon, Hertfordshire.

After staying with the Os until 1995, Heald also went on to play in the Premier League for Wimbledon. The likes of Howard, Day, Sitton, Castle and Hales stayed for varying amounts of time after Orient’s promotion to form the nucleus of a team, augmented in places by the transient and bright talents of Ricky Otto and Chris Bart-Williams. This gave the Os faithful a good few years before Chairman Tony Wood lost his coffee business in the Rwandan civil war – an event which led Orient into administration and near extinction in 1995.

As football fans, we must all hope that Orient can come through their current crisis to once again be a canvas for teams as special as this one – and their one of 2013-14 – was.

Orient fans: Can you see any green shoots in your current situation?

Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth

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