But when you’re in the middle of a family holiday, 3,000 miles from home, the conversations around such an adventure can often be slightly more delicate. In the words of Joe Strummer: “Should I stay or should I go?”
When my family and I left the UK for Israel to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, little thought was given to the possibility that a 6,000 mile round trip in under 48 hours might be in order to witness sporting history being made in a tiny corner of east London.
A stone throw’s away from London’s Olympic Park and the stadium that once hosted the 2012 Opening Ceremony, sits the home of Leyton Orient, a football club playing in the fifth tier of English football. It is here, away from the bright lights and riches of the Premier League, that I fell in love with football. It’s a love that has lasted 30 years and shows no sign of stopping.
Since the age of five, Orient has been my obsession. But even in my head, as someone who has lived, breathed, written and dreamed Leyton Orient for the past 30 years, the prospect of making such a trip back home to witness a possible title triumph appeared rather extravagant.
Standing on the balcony overlooking the glistening Mediterranean Sea, the sun beating down in the heat of the day, the proposition began to sound even more ridiculous when spelled out in its entirety.
Here’s what it was going to entail: A five hour flight from Tel Aviv to London, a 40 minute drive to my relatives’ to eat dinner, a 15 minute drive home, sleep, wake up for an interview with the BBC at 6.50 a.m. followed by a quick snooze, a 30 minute drive to the stadium, a quick pre-match chat, watch the game, obviously win the title, celebrate pretty hard, go back to bed, wake up at 3.30am, drive back to airport, fly five hours back to Tel Aviv, get on the train, walk back to the apartment I was staying in, see the family, shout the word “champions” repeatedly at anyone who came within a five meter radius, and then, crash onto the bed before waking up and wondering if it was all a dream.
Even spelling it out was enough to give me a headache.
What added to the tension were the risky permutations involved. Orient required just a point from its final fixture against Braintree Town, a club that had already been demoted. Even a narrow defeat may have sufficed, though a big win for Salford City, a club bankrolled by Manchester United’s class of ’92 including Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, could see it leapfrog Orient to claim top spot.
The odds were firmly stacked in Orient’s favor, and only a catastrophic defeat would prevent the club from returning to the Football League after a two-year absence. The problem was that catastrophic defeats are something that tend to cling to Orient like a bad smell.
Add that to Orient’s recent awful misfortune, the slide from being within touching distance of the second tier of English football to freefalling into the fifth tier within three years and it becomes clear why fans were approaching Saturday’s game with trepidation.
But this season has been different. Under new ownership, Orient has produced some astonishing results to ensure a title challenge. A goalless draw at championship rival Solihull Moors on Easter Monday meant Orient would only require a tie to become champions and be promoted in its final game.
For me, there was no decision to be made. I was going. In fact, it was unaminous. The family said: “You’ve got to go.”
Flights were booked, calls were made, and on the day before the game it was time to fly 3,000 miles back to London.
Missing piece of furniture
For 30 years, week after week, I had followed Orient. I had seen them relegated, promoted, beaten in play-off finals, cause upsets against big clubs, and lose more games than I care to remember. I had laughed, I had cried, cried some more, and become part of a club that has community at its heart. In a world where so many of us crave somewhere to escape to, Orient had become my home.
But home, has been missing a piece of furniture in recent months. Grandpa, my grandpa.
It was his hand I held as a five-year-old while walking up those steps for the first time at Brisbane Road. It was his glasses that I used to watch the reflection of the game through. It was his pen and handwriting that is all over the match day programs, and it is him stamped on every single memory I have of following Leyton Orient for 30 years.
When he passed away at the age of 92 in September, it was the end of an era. He was not only my grandpa, he was my mentor, my role model, and my friend. The season and Orient’s success became personal. I wanted the team to do it for him.
And so, when the chance came to fly back to London, it was an easy decision to make. I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to be there along side his two sons, my uncles, and my aunt, for a game that would transform the fortunes of the club that Grandpa supported for the best part of 80 years.
I wanted to be there because Orient was part of his family, the club that made him smile, laugh and cry. It was the place where I began to write about football, the club that made me feel as if I belonged, and a set of supporters who know what it is to rise from the very bottom and hold dear each and every success that comes their way.
On Saturday, having made it back to London we made the same journey that we’ve made for years. Four of us packed into the small silver car, the body work decorated by a selection of scrapes, and drove past the incredible site of Tottenham’s new $1.3 billion stadium, before speeding around the North Circular road, and onto Leyton.
Even now, when I walk to the stadium, I can’t help but walk quickly. Grandpa used to try and rein me back, but I could never stop my feet from moving at twice their normal speed after glancing at the huge floodlights, and the stadium coming into sight. As a kid walking to Brisbane Road, my feet took on a mind of their own. They could not move quick enough. That hasn’t changed some 30 years later.
Packed into the stadium, along with over 8,000 other supporters, the players ran out to rapturous applause. This was it.
The game itself was largely forgettable. Orient controlled the contest, rarely looking like conceding while Braintree threatened only sporadically. With each passing second, Orient moved closer to the title. When the news began to filter through that Salford had fallen 3-1 behind at Hartlepool, Orient was virtually guaranteed the title.
That’s when the party began to start. Before I knew it I was on my feet.
Words that I had never chanted in my life, such as “Champions” began to come from my mouth. This had never happened before.
Only twice in the club’s history since it was formed in 1881, had Orient managed to win a league title. The traditional “Champeones” chant began to reverberate across the stadium, though one confused spectator was left asking why the supporters were singing about mushrooms.
As the seconds ticked down, the referee blew the whistle to end the game and start one of the biggest parties Leyton has seen for years. They poured onto the pitch, young and old alike, running arms aloft to greet their heroes and dance for joy. On the final day of Passover for many of the Jewish community outside of Israel, at last a sea of red.
On the same field where Orient fans had protested against the club’s former owner and the threat of extinction two years ago, fans embraced. This was the rebirth. Orient was back.
Somehow, without me even realising, my feet had taken me from my seat in the stand and onto the field with thousands of others. There were hugs, so many hugs, songs, chants and a feeling of sheer relief. Relief that we had done it. Relief that the journey had been worthwhile. I looked at the sky, fingers pointing up. I hope he saw it.
After the trophy was raised and the fans began to trickle out of the stadium, the reality of a 3.30am wake up call for the return flight to Tel Aviv became something of a concern. Emotionally exhausted, and with celebrations continuing late into the night, I fell on my bed and closed my eyes. Then came the beep. And another one. It was time to go.
Such an early alarm would usually prove unpopular, but it is incredible how easy it is to jump out of bed after winning the league title. After saying the word “champions” several times, something I’ll never get used to, it was back to the airport and off back to Israel.
Sleep came at last on the airplane. There has not been much that recently with the nerves and anxiety of a promotion race taking its toll. As a young boy, my mother said I would one day grow out of my infatuation with Leyton Orient. It is the first, and to this day, the last time I’ve ever known her to be wrong.
Once back in Tel Aviv there were hugs and laughter. The entire moment felt utterly surreal.
As various members of my family gathered round, I made my way over to the other side of the room.
Sat on the sofa was my grandma, the woman who had endured years of Grandpa’s Orient obsession.
“We did it for Grandpa, you know,” I said to her as we hugged.
She smiled. “I’m so happy, they deserve it. It’s incredible what the team has achieved.
“I just wish he could have been here to see it.”
Me too, Grandma. Me too.