LEYTON ORIENT are on the brink of returning to the Football League – but a thrilling National League title race will still go to the final day.
Justin Edinburgh’s O’s are three points clear of both Salford, who lost for the first time in ten games at home to Fylde, and Solihull Moors.
They hold a better goal difference of plus 5 and plus 8 respectively and know they need just a point at home to Braintree on Saturday to absolutely guarantee it. Never say never in football but it would take a remarkable turn of events to spoil the party at home to already relegated Braintree.
While the Orient fans sang in the Solihull sun, Edinburgh isn’t going to pop the champagne yet.
“We’re very close but we have our most important game of the season,” Edinburgh said. “This was an incredible point, we had to work so, so hard to get it. But we can’t take our eye off it, we’ve got to go and secure a point to be champions and that’s what everyone is working towards.
“The group wouldn’t allow us to approach it any differently. They manage themselves. They’re a good group – the captain (Jobi McAnuff), Charlie Lee, Matt Harrold, Josh Coulson won’t allow these young players to rest so we’ll get back in Wednesday and fully prepare exactly as we would.”
It’s two years to the day that Leyton Orient dropped out of the Football League. Mis-managed by a rogue ownership that put the club close to extinction, the National League has been like two years of rehab.
But, as many will say, the road back into the League is not tarmacked. It’s bumpy and at times energy-sapping.
Five years ago this weekend the O’s were playing Wolves in League One. Now they’re in a three-way title race with two teams many of their fans, with respect, may not have expected to be battling it out with.
Salford City’s rise up the ladder has, literally, been well documented, whereas Solihull Moors’ has perhaps caught more people off guard.
That Tim Flowers’ side can still win the division with one game to go – albeit with a huge goal swing – is quite something and deserves huge credit.
But the former England international has a squad packed with experience, quality, nous and, crucially, experience of getting out of this division. They also know their jobs inside out and Flowers has a formula that wins games. This point guaranteed a top three finish at the very least.
“It always makes me laugh when people go, ‘Well they’re good at what they do,” said Flowers, who congratulated Orient on all but getting over the line.
“Well what’s that then? Take you apart at times? Some of the sublime reverse passes we’ve put through to Lee Vaughan on the outside, between bodies, some of the quality diagonals – they’re top quality in any division.
“It was funny when Liverpool made two changes against Southampton the other day and people said it was good because they could pass forward – you can’t score if you don’t pass forward. Whether it’s over 50 yards or ten yards, you’ve got to break lines and pass the ball.
“When you look at our front players and Jamey Osborne, Darren Carter, they can cut you to ribbons with passes.
“We’ve been wonderful but we’ve got to go to Dagenham and finish the season. That won’t be easy. We’ll reflect, pick a team and go down there to try and win the game.”
Fans of all three contenders had been pouring over the permutations before kick-off. An Orient win combined with Salford dropping points at home to Fylde would have seen Edinburgh’s side crowned champions.
Soon after the half-hour mark, news filtered through at Damson Park that Fylde had taken a lead at Salford. Orient fans were on their feet, but on the pitch Moors were having the better chances.
Adi Yussuf escaping behind but unable to get enough on his touch past Dean Brill, Lee Vaughan flashed wide and Jamey Osborne’s curling free-kick was well saved by Brill at full stretch.
After Osborne had shot wide, Orient had two openings early in the second half – a James Brophy cross causing problems in the Moors box where Bonne couldn’t quite direct his header before Josh Koroma went close with his head from Craig Clay’s cross.
The game was opening up. Marvin Ekpiteta made a crucial intervention when Moors striker Danny Wright sent a low ball into the box and, at the other end, Jamie Turley couldn’t get enough of a touch with his head from a corner.
Edinburgh changed it up from the bench, introducing Matt Harrold and Charlie Lee for Josh Koroma and captain Jobi McAnuff.
The game was swinging back and forth. A brilliant Ryan Boot save kept out Bonne’s fierce low shot and there were Orient hearts in mouths when Brill had to scoop a loose ball off the line after staying big to keep out Jermaine Hylton, who had arrived onto Vaughan’s dangerous centre.
O’s hearts probably stopped altogether in time added on when Darren Carter clipped a free-kick to the back post where the unmarked Kyle Storer headed wide.
Edinburgh’s first game in charge of Orient was at this very ground and it ended in defeat. Now his team have picked up one of their most significant points.
“Standing here when I first took over, I didn’t sleep well that Saturday if I’m honest,” Edinburgh said. “It was worrying. I thought the club could be heading in one way and that was relegation.
“But I was backed from Martin Ling and the board. We evaluated the squad quickly and got some players in. For me, the end to the season was the catalyst to this season.
“I saw in this group that they drove themselves rather than let the season peter out. That convinced me there was a good camaraderie and they were self-motivated. They’ve got very close to that finish line now.”
— The Non-League Paper (@NonLeaguePaper) April 22, 2019
Matt Badcock / Photo: PA Images
Solihull Moors (3-5-2): Boot; Williams, Daly, Gudger; Vaughan, Carter, Storer, Osborne, Reckord; Yussuf (Hylton 70), Wright (Blissett 73)
Subs not used: Carline, Hawkridge, Sbarra
Leyton Orient (3-4-1-2): Brill; Ekpiteta, Coulson, Happe; Turley (Maguire-Drew 80), Clay, McAnuff (Lee 64), Widdowson; Brophy; Koroma (Harrold 64) Bonne
Subs not used: Sargeant, Simpson
Solhull Moors v Leyton Orient – Match stats
Shots on: 3/5
Shots off: 2/1
Fouls conceded: 12/14
Yellow cards: 1/2
Red cards: 0/0