Everton have had two. Manchester United, three. Arsenal as many as four. And Leyton Orient, east-end outfit synonymous with Tijuana Taxi and the youngest Wright sibling to grace TOWIE, has had no fewer than six name changes in its nearly 140-year history.
Is the essence of a football club bound up in its name? Perhaps more than most, you could forgive fans of ‘the O’s’ for grappling with the deeper questions of life.
It all began with a game of cricket.
In 1881, a bunch of former students gathered on an unkempt pitch within a stone’s throw of the Lower River Lea and the grassland of Hackney Marshes. They had first met at Homerton College, tucked away just around the corner on Glyn Road. Together they formed Glyn Road Cricket Club; a means to keep in touch, reminisce about the old days, and while away the summer months.
Three years later, the College packed up and left for Cambridge. Sensing a need to reinvent their team, the group of friends donned their thinking hats and, cue Name Change One, settled on ‘Eagle Cricket Club’.
Every year winter would show face and curtail the cricket season. Eventually, the committee of Eagle Cricket Club came up with a solution. Football. They joined, perhaps unwittingly, a number of cricket teams around the country who were testing the waters with this sport (one of them, hailing from St Mark’s Church in West Gorton would come to be known as Manchester City).
Back in Hackney, members christened their new club ‘Orient FC’. Name Change Two was a nod to the Orient Steam Navigation Company, an east London shipping business running the ‘Orient Line’ to various parts of the Empire. Committeeman Jack Dearing was an employee and chief instigator of the team name.
Industries at the time were bound up in their local communities. Formed either as official ‘works teams’ or by employees themselves, a number of teams in today’s Premier League once bore the names of nearby industries (Thames Ironworks, Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway FC and Dial Square to name a few).
In 1890, Orient moved to their new ground close-by in Clapton. Millfields Road was an expansive site, originally built for whippet racing and capable of holding up to several thousand spectators. The rent wasn’t cheap. Clocking that Clapton was a fairly affluent area, the club underwent their first rebrand as a football club with Name Change Three in 1898. ‘Clapton Orient’ was a bold claim to the footballing allegiances (and pockets) of local residents.
Under their new title, Orient’s fortunes got off to a dream start. Having been declared a fully professional team in 1903, the team secured entry into England’s Second Division two years later alongside Chelsea, Leeds City and Stockport County.
After play resumed following the First World War, Orient hit a tricky patch. The squad narrowly missed relegation from the League on three separate occasions between 1926 and 1928 before their luck finally ran out. In 1929, a poor run of results saw the club back in the realm of regional football after 24 years at the top.
The following year, Orient were kicked out of Millfields Road to make way for greyhounds. And then the money dried up. In 1933, the Football League suspended the club for failing to meet payments, and warned that future delays would result in their membership being revoked altogether.
But Orient had friends in high places. The Prince of Wales, who had become the first member of the royal family to attend a football match when he watched Orient at home in 1922, donated a significant sum to help keep the club afloat.
By 1937, Orient could afford a move away from the dilapidated pitch on Lea Bridge Road they had been forced onto. And, although barely more than a mile away in Leyton, it felt like a different world altogether.
The ground was in good condition, and the board quickly set about establishing the area as Orient’s new home. Not ones for subtlety, they rebranded the team ‘Leyton Orient’ in 1946 (we’re up to Name Change Four, by the way), opened their new ground as ‘Leyton Stadium’, and even incorporated the borough’s coat of arms into the club badge. Orient were here to stay.
The image change heralded an important first in Orient history when, in 1962, the club won promotion to the top tier of English football. Orient had made it.
But the fairytale didn’t last. True to their tendency for extreme lurches in form, Orient were sent crashing down a league the following season. By 1965, they were back languishing in Division Three South.
The club were still scratching their heads in disbelief when, in 1966, reports from the Local Government Commission were published. Designed to investigate the organisation of local authorities across the country, they were hardly the most enthralling news item that year (all eyes seemed to be on Wembley for some reason). Nonetheless, they sent Orient into a tailspin.
The Commission stripped Leyton of its borough status and subsumed the area into the wider administration of Waltham Forest. Confused and disorientated, the club’s board grasped for the familiar. Name Change Five reverted back to the old ‘Orient FC’.
It was a barren time. Bereft of their sense of place, the team was beset by on-pitch disappointment and further financial crises. In 1985, Orient sunk to the depths of Division Four.
Fans had reached breaking point. The ‘Leyton Orientear’ fanzine was established as an alternative voice to the club and, in 1987, mounted a successful campaign to reinstate ‘Leyton’ back into its official title. Name Change Six reaffirmed Orient’s 50 year deep-rooted connection with its local area. Before long, the rejuvenated team had climbed back into Division Three.
2020 marks 33 unbroken years for the club as ‘Leyton Orient’. And yet it could have been a different story altogether.
In 2012, Chairman Barry Hearn unveiled his plans to reinvent the club as ‘London Orient’ and launch a bid for ownership of the Olympic Stadium. It was part of his self-styled ‘dramatic’ attempt to broaden the club’s appeal to a wider audience and stave off competition from neighbouring football heavyweights.
Supporters’ reactions were, to say the least, mixed. After West Ham was awarded sole occupancy of the Stadium, the ‘Save Leyton Orient Campaign’ breathed a sigh of relief in 2013 when it was announced that all rebranding attempts were off the table.
Of course, radical as they may have seemed, Hearne’s plans would have been entirely in keeping with the trajectory of Orient over time.
And yet, given the anxieties faced in 2012 and since, fans of the O’s have a much more immediate sense of Orient’s history.
They’ve had to fight more than most for their club. Following Hearne, Orient went through some of its darkest days under then-owner Francesco Becchetti. Between 2014 and 2017, serious mismanagement and struggles to pay tax bills and staff wages left the club in grave danger of going under.
Fans mobilised. There were petitions, demonstrations, drafts of emergency plans, the lot. The 2016-17 season went from bad to worse and, before anyone knew it, Orient was staring down the barrel of relegation after 112 years in the Football League. Matters came to a head at the final home tie in April 2017.
With 85 minutes on the clock, Orient fans rose from their seats, filed onto the pitch, and refused to move. Chants of “Becchetti out!” and “Sit down for the Orient!” filled the ground for around 40 minutes before supporters were ejected and play resumed behind closed doors.
But it worked. By June, Becchetti was gone. He was replaced by a fan-led consortium and the project to rebuild the O’s began.
Fast forward two years. The final whistle of season 2018-19 reverberated around Brisbane Road and, once again, the stands emptied past hapless stewards.
This time, however, there was cause to celebrate. Orient had held on in the face of extinction, battled hard, and finally earned their place back in the ranks of the professional leagues. It was the ultimate fan-sponsored redemption. (Tragically, no-one could have predicted that supporters would return just a few months later to mourn the sudden loss of manager Justin Edinburgh, key orchestrator behind Orient’s miraculous turnaround in form).
Orient has been through the mill. And yet, after many years of change and instability, the O’s faithful now exude confidence in the club’s current state and a readiness to defend it at all costs.
Perceptions of what exactly makes up Orient’s identity will differ from fan to fan but, having fought hard for its survival, supporters now possess a unique sense of ownership over their club.
Is Name Change Seven on the horizon? History would teach us to never say never. Whatever pressures and opportunities present themselves, rebrands or otherwise, the Orient board surely owes supporters their say in any future decision-making process. After all, perhaps more than ever, it is the fans themselves that constitute what Orient means as a football club.