Rover the hill?

The game: Leyton Orient v. Doncaster Rovers.
The ground: Brisbane Road.
The conditions: warmer than my pre-match ciabatta toastie.

The last time I visited Brisbane Road was on an unforgiving evening in the middle of February. That night, hunched beneath my Barbour, surrounded by a mass of red-and-white knit caps, I spent the entire game shivering uncontrollably in the bitter, bitter wind. It would be fair to say that the weather was much improved for my latest Orient outing. Leyton high street was all shorts and T-shirts, the Coronation Gardens were full of disposable barbecues and countless four packs of Żubr lager while, in the stadium itself, the private verandas of the inbuilt flats were packed with blokes wearing novelty sunglasses and sipping on Coronas. I could only admire the advent of the great British summer. In April.

The O’s had themselves improved since February; while they had languished second-bottom of the table before, they were now out of the relegation places – albeit only on goal difference. Naturally, Orient’s match up with Doncaster Rovers was still a crucial one. Three points for the home side against mid-table Donny would allow them to shake off the desperate, clinging clubs in the drop zone. Anything less might see those clubs clamber to safety above them.

Orient certainly started the brighter. There were no clear-cut chances until just after the twenty-minute mark, yet the O’s took control of possession early on and repeatedly menaced Donny’s flanks with prompt attacks. Chris Dagnall and Andrea Dossena combined well on the left, while Jobi McAnuff made himself a constant nuisance on the same wing; in the fourteenth minute, having robbed Reece Wabara out on the touchline, McAnuff rollicked into the area and went down under pressure from centre back Rob Jones – play was rightly waved on, yet the danger he posed to Doncaster was quite apparent.

Just over five minutes later, the O’s had a great chance to open the scoring. Orient’s on-loan Swansea forward Ryan Hedges hurtled down the right flank before cutting the ball back to Scott Cuthbert; the defender thumped a cross to the far post where Dossena was waiting in a perfect position five yards out. From there, the Italian winger side-footed an effort back across goal. Unfortunately for him, his shot rolled past the upright. He should really have tucked it away.

Another brilliant opportunity went begging not long after that. In the twenty-sixth, after Mathieu Baudry had cut out Donny striker Curtis Main with a superb last-ditch tackle, Marvin Bartley was the next O’s player to set off on a strong run down the right. He smashed a cross in to the near post for striker Darius Henderson, who scuffed a shot at goal from point-blank range; this was kept out by a stunning reflex save from Donny keeper Stephen Bywater. So close.

Though the South stand was now rocking with barking cries of ‘Orient! Orient!’, there was a palpable air of nervousness at the failure of the home side to convert. The fans’ nerves were not helped by the mistakes which had begun to creep into the O’s game. In the thirty-third minute, Hedges slalomed past two away defenders and into the box; he then chose to pass to the double-marked Henderson rather than shoot from ten yards – the ball was cleared. Soon enough, an otherwise-stifled Doncaster started to make opportunities of their own. Midfielder Harry Middleton sliced through the middle of the pitch before seeing a vicious goalbound effort blocked five yards out. James Coppinger was next to catch Orient cold, bursting past two markers on the right before teeing up Main in the middle; the striker’s looping shot was well saved by Orient stopper Alex Cisak.

Main had Donny’s best first-half chance in the forty-second minute, receiving a sweet pass from the tricky Kyle Bennett before sweeping a shot over the crossbar from just outside the box. In the end, neither side could break the deadlock before the break. Still, the warning signs were there for Orient. Their sunny start had faded somewhat. Come the restart, they had to be bright once more.

This they were not. Doncaster were revitalised at the resumption of play; it only took four minutes for them to register a shot on target, Bennett jinking his way to the edge of the area before sending a curling effort toward the top right – Cisak acrobatically pushed this to safety. Orient laboured, yet Donny – Bennett especially – had newfound flair; Rovers’ number twenty-three drew a foul from Orient’s Josh Wright in the fifty-third minute before quickly chipping the free kick to Main in the box – his deft nod was blocked on the line by the scrambling Cuthbert.

In the fifty-sixth minute, the deadlock was broken. Bennett won the free kick out on the right. Sending in another accurate delivery, he found Rob Jones towering above everybody; the defender’s header traced its way into the bottom corner of the net. One-nil to the visitors, and a joyful chorus of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (with the word ‘Gold’ imaginatively replaced by ‘Jones’) from the away section. The Orient fans were understandably crestfallen. Time for the O’s to try to salvage a result.

Though Doncaster could have doubled their lead in the sixty-fifth when sinewy substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris muscled past Baudry and drove low at goal – Cisak got down well to save – Orient did fashion something of a rally late on. After Henderson had won the home side a corner in the seventy-third, a great delivery fell for defender Shane Lowry; his downward header looked sure to go in, only for Bywater to pull off another astounding stop. A few minutes later, Josh Wright collected a good pass on the edge of the box before turning on his heel and slapping a shot toward the top right. Bywater was equal to this too, diving to his left to tip it over the bar.

The O’s had total possession after this, yet couldn’t use it to good effect; aimless long ball after aimless long ball was pumped up the pitch, only to be cleared by Rovers’ solid centre backs. One punt forward did fall for Orient substitute Jay Simpson, but his attempt was easy for the magnificent Bywater. Five minutes of added time were punctuated only by more long balls and one final away effort from Bennett; Cisak saved the angled shot with his fingertips, and the whistle went.

There were cries of rage in the stands at the finish; the O’s hadn’t lived up to their initial promise, while Donny had capitalised when it counted. Results elsewhere meant that Orient were still clear of the dreaded drop at full time. It remains to be seen for how much longer that’s the case.

Result: Leyton Orient 0 Doncaster Rovers 1.
My MoM: a special mention for Donny goalkeeper Stephen Bywater, but fullest praise to Kyle Bennett; increasingly creative, elegant on the ball and poised at the set piece – hence the goal.
Best fans: the away fans had the best song (‘Jones! Jones! Always believe in Rob Jo-ones!’), yet the O’s were the best fans; suffering, supporting, suffering, supporting.

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Rover the hill?

The Bantam menace

The game: Leyton Orient v. Bradford City.
The ground: Brisbane Road.
The conditions: crisper than a packet of lightly sea-salted Tyrrells.

On Wednesday evening, with a pinching wind propelling me down Leyton High Street, I scampered my way toward Brisbane Road and my first ever match in League One. Joining a crowd of O’s fans on the way, walking beside a couple of blokes arguing about jellied eels – not a crude caricature, that actually happened – it felt like I was getting the proper Orient experience well before I reached the stadium; swept along, huddled amongst the red-and-white bobble hats, I was as ready as anyone for the midweek visit of Bradford City’s battling Bantams.

Orient and Bradford came into the game on the back of very different seasons. While the home side, struggling badly under recently-appointed boss Fabio Liverani, languished second-bottom of the third tier prior to the start of play, the away side were looking to promotion via the play offs; complimented by a stunning cup run and tussling victories against the luxury of Chelsea and Sunderland, the Bantams’ league campaign was shaping up to be another Phil Parkinson masterclass. Nevertheless, the home fans were far from deterred by the formidable opposition. Brisbane Road was filled to the residential flats with supporters, while strident cries of ‘East, East, East London!’ met the 644-strong travelling contingent at the gate.

For the first twenty minutes of the match, it was hard to figure out how Orient were a team teetering on the brink of relegation; sharp football saw them take the game to Bradford. Though the away side showed their hunger at the set piece early on – a few menacing free kicks just cleared by the O’s – it only took seven minutes for the home side to register a decent shot at goal; from their own free kick, the ball fell to Dean Cox on the edge of the box; his arcing shot was saved and held by Bantams’ stopper Jordan Pickford.

In the fifteenth minute, after some open football from both teams, a flowing attack came exceptionally close to yielding up an O’s goal. Pinging the ball up the pitch, Orient bore down on Pickford’s net; a lofted ball to the left side of the box then found both Chris Dagnall and the magnificently-bearded Romain Vincelot rushing forward. The latter struck it first, smashing his shot off the underside of the crossbar – but not over the line. On the rebound, striker David Mooney fired low from five yards; his effort was desperately blocked by Bantams’ defender James Meredith, before the resulting corner was cleared.

The O’s must have found it hard to believe that they hadn’t gone one up at this point; little wonder, then, that they seemed positively stunned when they conceded just over five minutes later. A perfect long ball by Bradford midfielder Mark Yeates found a gaping hole between the Orient centre backs, into which burst Bantams’ forward James Hanson. Volleying from eighteen yards, his strike also thundered off the underside of the crossbar – and into the back of the net.

To a roaring verse of ‘He used to work in the Co-op!’ (Hanson did, indeed, once work in the Co-op), the away side suddenly took control of the game; the goal had come against the run of play yet they capitalised on it with purpose. Though Vincelot went close again in the twenty-fourth minute, an Orient corner landing him with a free header – saved by Pickford – Bradford were generally keener all over the pitch; winning a multitude of corners and free kicks (much to the home fans’ frustration), their set-piece menace was repeatedly made apparent.

Regrettably for the O’s, this didn’t stop them succumbing to it. In the thirty-first minute, Felipe Morais floated a left-sided free kick into the Orient area; Hanson, completely unmarked, headed in his second goal at the near post. The O’s fans were practically hissing with rage at the non-existent defending, while the Bantams launched into another Co-op chorus and a roaring chant of ‘Parkinson is the special one’; a match that had started so well for the home side had rapidly become a bit of a disaster.

Orient did cling on until half time without conceding again, despite another good chance for Hanson and a storming long-range effort from Morais. By the sound of their groans at the break the O’s supporters found it all rather predictable, yet I was a little surprised with how the first half had gone; either way, I went off to buy a hot beverage in a polystyrene cup, then briefly got lost in the South Stand’s maze-like system of urinals.

Thankfully, I did emerge just in time for the resumption of play. The second half started slowly; though Orient seemed to have regrouped somewhat, Bradford shrewdly broke up any positive home moves. Then, in the fifty-second minute, the away side had a chance to finish the game as a contest. After a swift counterattack, substitute striker Francois Zoko – on for Hanson – was put through on goal; racing into the box, his scuffed shot was saved by O’s goalie Alex Cisak. The loose ball was struck well by Bantams’ midfielder Billy Clarke, but his shot was palmed up into the air by Cisak and eventually cleared. The keeper had kept Orient in it.

Nonetheless, they couldn’t exploit this reprieve. Though the home side showed bursts of attacking potential, they failed to pressurise Bradford for anything more than a few minutes; Bradley Pritchard shot high and wide from a good position in the sixty-sixth minute, Dagnall nodded a free header well wide just afterward, but nothing really came off. Meanwhile, the Orient back four were always vulnerable; in the seventy-fifth, Bradford’s Andy Halliday ran the entire length of the right wing before cutting inside his marker with ease and blasting at goal; Cisak kept him out, but this didn’t exempt the defence from the fans’ wrath.

Orient’s last chance came in the eighty-second minute, Shane Lowry thumping a free kick on target only to see Pickford save at full stretch. After that, a string of half chances for Bradford closed out the match; bellowing out songs for both the BBC and Wembley until the very end, the away fans were clearly pretty happy with the performance.

The South Stand boos gave quite the opposite impression; bright start aside, the O’s had been well beaten. The Bantams can keep on aspiring to Wembley, but Orient need to aspire first and foremost to League One’s twentieth spot; two very different seasons roll onward.

Result: Leyton Orient 0 Bradford City 2.
My MoM: James Hanson. He used to work in the Co-op.
Best fans: the Bantams. Suitably grateful to the Co-op.

The Bantam menace