On Sunday 11 April, Leyton Orient Women contested a historic FA Cup Third Round tie against Chichester and Selsey Ladies at the Breyer Group Stadium. Despite losing 2-1, it was the first time the side had reached the third round of the competition, five years after they had merged with Leyton Orient.
Yet just over two weeks later, Leyton Orient had announced their decision to part ways with the existing set-up in favour of creating a new academy and new senior side who would play at Tier 6, two tiers below the level where the original team compete.
“I was very proud to tell people I played for Leyton Orient,” says Lauren Heria, one of the players who has effectively been let go by the club. “I was very proud to put the shirt on.
“Only two weeks ago, we played at the Breyer Group Stadium. I really thought from there, that was an opportunity to kick on and build a relationship with Leyton Orient. Only two weeks later, to hear this news...it definitely shocked me.”
The relationship between Leyton Orient and their women’s side had predominantly been in name only since they became part of the club in 2016. Financial support was patchy, with nothing received over the past season. Despite this, the club continued to be successful, winning a league and cup double in 2015/16 and the Isthmian Cup in 2018/19.
The women’s team were told just 11 days after their FA Cup match that they would no longer be a part of Leyton Orient, giving them a week and a half to meet the FA’s 1 May deadline for re-registering as a new side.
The decision also meant that Leyton Orient were unable to make an application for promotion. Given their limited league and cup performances over the past two seasons, the side were hopeful that they might have had an opportunity to become a Tier 3 side as part of the FA’s application process. Now, forced to find a new identity at short notice, that plan has been scuppered.
“We believe Leyton Orient have known this is the kind of route they want to take for quite a long time now, potentially even a year,” says Heria. “But we found out last week and there’s this really tight deadline on it.
“So for us as players, it’s been very stressful, and even more so for our coaching staff.”
The reliance of women’s teams on men’s teams has been fraught throughout the history of women’s football. Back in 2007, Charlton scrapped their women’s team, at the time one of the most successful in the country, when their men’s side were relegated from the Premier League. More recently, London City Lionesses decided to split from Millwall due to feeling like the association was more of a hindrance than a help.
Often women’s sides can end up as afterthoughts to the planning of the men’s team. The ‘one club’ ethos that is supposedly espoused tends to turn out to be little more than a front, as Birmingham City have shown.
These sides have lots to gain and little to lose. As Heria points out, the success of the Leyton Orient Women’s side has given the club as a whole a good reputation. With the decision to let the original club go, and start afresh, they will still hold on to that.
“[Leyton Orient] are selling it as a great thing for women’s football,” says Heria. “And I don’t want any more girls and women to come into the club with the expectation that they’re going to experience the brand that we’ve built up in women’s football.
“Or that they’re going to experience a level of support or investment they deserve, when I really can’t see that materialising.”
When asked what level of investment girls and women coming into the club could expect going forward, Danny Macklin, CEO of Leyton Orient, said: “We invest in all areas where we can be doing something in our community. There is a [financial] commitment but in terms of what that figure is, it wouldn’t be right to give that at the moment.”
The club were also offered the opportunity to take on the existing Tier 4 license if they wanted to run the team internally. The existing management were happy to step back if necessary. However, this was rejected by Leyton Orient. Macklin claims that “if [meetings] had taken place earlier, there may have been able to be a different conversation regarding that.”
There is some concern that the FA are not going far enough to protect women’s teams from being subject to the whims of their parent club.
“I think the FA need to look at this seriously and bring in stronger legislation to stop women’s teams being used in this way and dropped in this way,” says Heria. “There’s so much of this happening but I don’t really see much movement from the FA.”
In a statement, the FA said: “We are currently working with both parties to ensure that next steps comply with the Women’s Football Pyramid Regulations in relation to entry of a new club in the women’s pyramid and a name change for the women’s club.
“Support is being provided to the current women’s team in their change of name application and we have given them an extension to ensure they have time to submit the information required.
“In relation to any new club entering the pyramid, a club can only enter at Tier 7 and only to the County League of their Parent County Association. A club may only enter higher up the pyramid if exceptional circumstances apply.”
Moving forward, Heria is confident that the club will continue to grow, despite no longer having the association with Leyton Orient.
“In terms of what it looks like to be a footballer at our club, nothing’s going to change,” she said.
“We still have that commitment to women’s football and us, as players, we want to achieve more than ever on the pitch next year.”