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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive

Nobes considers the scenario facing clubs like League One strugglers Leyton Orient - is simply surviving in a higher division always preferable to playing at a lower level?

All smiles - but Orient boss Russell Slade's ambitions are limited

"Nothing else mattered - only the results mattered," declared Russell Slade after guiding Leyton Orient to League One safety last May.

You get the feeling, should he keep the struggling O's up again this term, he could read from the same script again next spring.

Orient, now in their fifth successive year in the third tier, are a club for whom a season finishing just above the dotted line cannot be qualified as anything other than a success.

It was certainly the case last season when the East London outfit turned to Slade to keep them up with just half a dozen games to go.

Three wins in his first five matches, including defeating Champions Norwich, ensured it was mission accomplished for the 50-year-old who had performed a similar great escape at Brighton 12 months previously.

At the same time Slade was performing his rescue mission on the South Coast, his predecessor at Brisbane Road, Geraint Williams, had successfully overseen Orient's own relegation battle.

Saturday's victory at Tranmere saw them move up to 16th in this term's table but, in a congested bottom half, they're still just a couple of points above the relegation zone. Another fight against the drop has ensued in the Capital City.

At this level, it's just the way things are for Orient. In their first season back in League One, they ended up 21st - just four points clear of relegated Chesterfield - and two 14th place finishes represent their zenith.

As with so many sides in the Premier League who begin the campaign with nothing but survival on their mind, the same now applies to clubs like Leyton Orient and others across the Football League.

It sounds unambitious but, with rules like the transfer window seeming to favour the sides with bigger budgets who can carry the size of squad able to deal with injuries and suspensions, it's really just reality hitting home.

The be-all and end-all is to ensure you collect enough points to retain your place in a higher division. Relegation, presumably, heralding something between the world stopping rotating and full-scale Armageddon.

Here's a thought though - would relegation really be that bad for Leyton Orient and other clubs in a similar situation?

Yes, you did read that correctly. Are those end of season pitch invasions - a cocktail of joy and sheer relief at beating the drop - actually misplaced? Or, indeed, perhaps they should be performed when your side actually does go down?

It goes against all popular thought to suggest that playing at a lower level is actually desirable. You should always be striving to perform at the highest echelon and take on the best that you can.

In Orient's case, maintaining their League One status is paramount. However, it strikes me as somewhat depressing when the only thing you have to look forward to during nine months of toil and anguish is the prospect of doing it all over again.

Why put yourself through that every year? Why, too, is it such a cause for celebration? After all, where's the fun in simply making up the numbers?

The fun? Getting to go to grounds like Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton. Going into matches as the underdog - looking to cause a surprise. Going into a season where expectations are so low almost everything is a bonus.

Does staying up in League One really give Orient that much celebrate about?

Is it just me though, or does that sound like the sort of rhetoric usually associated with Cup football? Where the experience - allied to the financial benefit - almost takes on greater importance than the result itself.

Instead, do we get so worked up over the prestige - of playing as high up as we can - that we allow it to blind ourselves in whether we're really enjoying supporting our team?

Losing games regularly? No matter, we're losing in League One. No prospect of achieving anything other than survival? Doesn't matter as long as we're a League One club. Playing dull football just to ensure you beat the drop? If we do, we'll be in League One.

It's the kind of positive spinning that would have ensured a high-up job in the last Labour Government. In reality though, divisional status only serves to mask a pretty miserable sounding existence.

Yet it's the situation Orient and many others find themselves in. Survival will only ever be the target for Scunthorpe in the Championship, ditto for the likes of Barnet and Accrington in League Two.

Contrast that, though, with life in a lower division. What if Slade and his charges fail to beat the drop this time around? Would life back in the basement division really be so bad for Orient?

Some would argue that they would be financially worse off. However, this season's average attendance of just over 4,200 is lower than the usual gates the O's were getting in 2005/6 when they won promotion.

The truth is, if Orient were winning more matches in a lower division then they would get bigger gates. As phoenix club Chester FC have discovered - fans will pay to watch winning football whatever level you are at.

Although there may be a reduction in away fans as smaller clubs make the trip to the East End, better form on the pitch would counterbalance this.

Surely too, life would be more exciting in a division where fans know their team could be competitive? Although challenging for promotion and the top seven can be equally stressful for supporters, it's the kind of anxiety you want.

They would go into a season full of hope and daring to dream. They could also expect to enjoy that winning feeling more often than they currently do.

With the right manager, they may even see a more enterprising style of play - as they go into matches looking to win rather than just stifling and stopping their opposition from playing.

They would also revert from being a small fish in a big pond - as the O's are in the third tier - to being a club of greater stature in their division.

That can be a bonus when trying to attract players, who could join a team they expect to be challenging at the right end as opposed to battling relegation.

Suddenly, life in a lower division doesn't sound so bad. The prospect of losing a relegation battle - as painful in the short term as it may be - does not have to be the beginning of a desperate time for a club.

Which if, after the dust has settled on another campaign, your club has been relegated may just be worth remembering. Results do matter, the division not so much.

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