Cup magic is in the numbers for Orient
Nothing sums up the contrasting emotions of anyone connected with Leyton Orient at the moment better than the two back-to-back press conferences that were held at their Brisbane Road home on Wednesday.
One minute, charismatic Orient chairman Barry Hearn was kissing the FA Cup trophy and admitting he was "giddy" about the prospect of the League One side's fifth-round tie against Arsenal on Sunday. The next, he was glumly talking about the "grave implications" for the future of his club if, as now seems likely, West Ham move into the Olympic Stadium a few yards up the road after the 2012 Games.
It's not hard to see why Hearn, a trained accountant who admits he "loves a spreadsheet" is so excited about the former and agitated by the latter because, if you wanted to, you could boil both issues down into what they mean in hard cash.
Hearn gets to grips with the FA Cup ahead of the visit of Arsenal. Photo: Getty
First, the good news for O's fans - the televised visit of the Gunners to E10 will help the club to break even for the first time since Hearn took over in 1995. Heady days indeed, especially with the club on a remarkable run of just one defeat in their last 20 games that has taken them from a relegation scrap to the edge of the play-offs. But yes, there is trouble ahead too.
If Hearn is right about the implications of the (altogether more permanent) arrival of the Hammers into the neighbouring postcode of E15, then a flood of discounted tickets will steal floating fans and the next generation of Orient's support, delivering a very serious squeeze to their finances.
"The fact they are going to swamp the market, that's what kills us," said Hearn. "We are talking about the future of a 130-year-old club. Choosing my words extremely carefully, this is a very, very difficult time for Leyton Orient."
Even without the potential threat posed by West Ham, Orient face an annual balancing act just to survive. Average gates of around 5,000 only go so far towards sustaining a League One squad and the O's usually post yearly losses of between £600,000 and £1m, which are covered, for now, by cash reserves raised by the sale of the ground to Hearn a couple of years ago.
That pot of money won't last forever, though, which is all the more reason a rare and money-spinning Cup run is so welcome. Not only are Orient in the last 16 for the first time since 1982, in Arsenal they have finally got the big draw they wanted too.
I have always preferred to look at the FA Cup from an emotional rather than an economic perspective but, given the recent revelations over the dire financial state of most English professional clubs, it seems foolish to ignore the financial aspect of the world's oldest knockout competition. As I found at Orient, there is magic in the numbers too, for smaller clubs at least.
The club's chief executive Matt Porter, a lifelong O's fan, can see it from both points of view. He was in a restaurant with his wife and family when he heard they would play Arsenal, and could not contain himself. "I shouted 'yes' and stood up and ran out," Porter told me. "I had to call (manager) Russell Slade and Barry straight away. It is the sort of thing you think will never happen to us."
It has certainly been a while. All 9,311 tickets for Sunday have gone, the first time Orient have hosted a sell-out fixture since they beat Hull in the second leg of a League Two play-off semi-final in May 2001, when I was covering the O's for the local newspaper (I can still picture Matt Lockwood spanking the winner into the top corner from 30 yards). This is their biggest Cup game since they hosted Tottenham in the third round earlier that same season, and lost to a last-minute goal.
Smith celebrates his winner against Norwich in the third round. Photo: Getty
Significantly, that will help offset an annual wage bill of £1.7m, which makes up around 60% of the club's £3m turnover, and it frees up cash for them to sort out the little jobs as well, like the improvements to the ground's PA system which were being made on Wednesday.
It's all part of the fun of running a club where every penny counts. Orient's gates are actually down on last season, and they must do without the income from three clubs who brought big followings in the previous campaign, Leeds, Norwich and Millwall, who were all promoted.
Their fragile finances were further hit when three successive Saturday home games were postponed in December because of the weather, including the traditionally well-attended Boxing Day fixture. Evening gates are always lower and there are less commercial opportunities then too, so the club loses an estimated £15,000 each time a weekend fixture has to be rescheduled in midweek. Small change to your average Premier League player, but enough to worry Porter - until the fifth-round draw was made anyway.
"What does this Cup money mean? It buys us a year," added Porter, who was the club's press officer before becoming the youngest chief executive in Football League history in 2006 at the age of 26. "By breaking even, we start next year having had a free season that hasn't cost us anything.
"We usually run at a loss but it's a manageable loss, one that we know we are going to make" he explained. "So, it's not a surprise and it is not bad management - it is a planned loss. Ok, it isn't fantastic but it is realistic. If we halved our wage bill we would break even and finish bottom of League One - so where do you want to be?"
Remaining in existence is probably the answer most fans would give to that question at the moment, given how seriously Hearn is taking the Olympic Stadium situation, but they can take heart from the extraordinary manner of Orient's Cup run so far.
So far, their exploits have included scoring six goals in extra-time of their second round replay win over Droylsden, and two away wins against the odds over Championship high-flyers Norwich and Swansea.
The Gunners, fresh from their Champions League win over Barcelona, are a different prospect but the typically bullish Hearn sees that battle as winnable, and fancies upsetting the big boys himself over the Olympic arena issue too.
"Once Sunday is over we are back to normal and I'm dealing with a huge problem here," he said. "This could be the end of Leyton Orient so, just as I expect my team to give 100% effort on the field against Arsenal, I have assured everyone on my board, in the supporter groups and the local community that I will give 100% effort to make sure we stay in business ourselves."
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