A club immersed in history since its inception in 1881 has been on a rollercoaster of emotions in recent years. Sitting north of the River Thames and almost in the shadow of the London Stadium, Leyton Orient have an exciting future brewing and it’s mainly down to one man – Richie Wellens.
After being rejected by Salford City, Wellens used this as his motivation to prove the doubters wrong. The O’s took League Two by storm last season and lifted the title, ensuring they will be plying their trade in the third tier of English football for the first time since 2015.
It hasn’t always been pretty in East London however. Orient suffered relegation to the Vanarama National League in 2016/17 and they were unable to return at the first time of asking. In the following campaign, they finished top and returned to the Football League. Three seasons of mid-table finishes followed before Wellens worked his magic to secure the title in his first full season there.
In an interview with the Leyton Orient gaffer, he admitted that it was an incredible campaign, notwithstanding the fact that there are several high-spending teams in the division.
“When you are a club that hasn’t won a league title for 53 years, the season that we had and the special memories that we gave people, it will obviously live long in their memories,” said Wellens.
“It was a fantastic achievement in a difficult league – you are up against some big spenders and some really good teams so it will certainly live long in the memory.”
Following a stellar campaign, Wellens has already begun to prepare his side for League One football next season – this starts with recruitment.
Understandably, some of last season’s best performers have departed.
Lawrence Vigouroux has signed for Premier League newcomers Burnley, Paul Smyth swapped East for West London in a move to Queens Park Rangers, whilst Daniel Nkrumah joined Middlesbrough.
Several new faces have walked through the entrance doors at Brisbane Road as well.
Ex-Manchester United midfielder Ethan Galbraith signed, Daniel Agyei joined from Crewe Alexandra and Sam Howes has come in from Wealdstone. Also, Omar Beckles, Dan Happe and Rhys Bryne have put pen to paper on new deals at the club.
Wellens summarises their summer transfer activity so far.
“I think that we have kept the majority of the players that we wanted to keep. Omar (Beckles) and Dan (Happe) stayed and we have got Idris (El Mizouni) back.”
He also looks at the players they have lost, most notably Vigouroux and Smyth.
“We have lost two big players for us in Lawrence (Vigouroux) and Paul (Smyth) but we have got a couple of goalkeepers in, so that department is solid. We just need a wide man and a striker to complete what will hopefully be a competitive squad.”
He has been a revelation at Orient and despite only being at the club for a short time, he is very happy with what he has achieved so far.
“I have only been here for one and a bit seasons and the goal when I came in was to keep us up as we were in a relegation battle at the time. The second season was about trying to get into the playoffs, so to win the league probably exceeded everybody’s expectation.”
Wellens insists however that he doesn’t want his side to stop, he wants them to build upon their magical title-winning 2022/23 campaign.
“It doesn’t mean we want to stop there – we want to continue this upward curve that we are on and try to be competitive next season.”
Before his time with the O’s, Wellens was in the dugout at Salford City – a managerial task that many successful people in the game have tried and failed. Under the watchful eye of the ‘Class of 92’, Wellens was sacked in March 2021 after less than six months in charge.
To add salt to the wound, the 43-year-old was dismissed nine days after lifting the Papa John’s Trophy at Wembley Stadium with a penalty shootout victory over Portsmouth.
Wellens gave his take on why he left the Peninsula Stadium.
“I probably did feel pressure but when you are going into a job with the biggest budget in the league, it was all somebody else’s players. You never had time to put your stamp on it. I never got time to change the philosophy of the club.
“How would I reflect on my time there? I was there for three months – I took over in tenth. When I left, we were eighth and we beat Portsmouth in the Papa John’s Trophy final at Wembley. I never lost a home game as well.
“Was it a sackable offence? Maybe. We will see.”
The event that provoked Salford to be interested in Wellens in the first place was his work with Swindon Town. He had the credentials of success after topping the 2019/20 League Two table on Points-Per-Game (PPG) with the Robins.
Wellens, with a rapid response to the question, was quick to say that lifting the title was his highlight at the County Ground.
“Winning the league and playing really good football in the process. Very similar to Orient where I went in at Swindon and the average attendance was 5,500-6,500. By the time that I left, every single time we turned up to the ground, it was full.”
He goes on to compare the situation he had at Swindon and the one he was given when appointed as Orient boss.
“At Orient, 4,500-5,500 was the average crowd and in the final ten or fifteen games of last season, you couldn’t get a ticket.
“It feels good when you get a club that is disjointed from top to bottom and then you start to join the dots and it becomes united. There is that relationship between the board, players and staff and it is a special relationship.”
As a player, Wellens predominantly featured for Blackpool and Leicester City after coming through the ranks at Manchester United. He won several trophies across his playing career with several different clubs, but Wellens states where he enjoyed playing the most.
“I would probably say I played my best football in my first spell at Doncaster Rovers. I had two or three years where I felt I was one of the best players in the Championship.
“I would also say at Leicester, which is a huge club. I enjoyed them two. Where I played my best football? The Championship team I played in at Doncaster was very good.”
For Wellens, attention now turns to the forthcoming 2023/24 campaign as the O’s gear for their return to League One. He gives his view on what he wants to see from his side this season.
“I am not going to predict where we finish or anything like that, but I want to see a committed, energetic team that is aggressive and keeps clean sheets. The bedrock of our performances last season was clean sheets, so we want to try and continue that.
“We have kept the same back four, even though we have not kept Lawrence (Vigouroux) so we have got continuity there. Every single game we want to try and win and we will see where it takes us.”