|Waiting to hail a Tijuana Taxi|
The pleasing familiar tune of Tijuana Taxi heralded the entry of the teams onto the pitch at Brisbane Road as I took my seat for last night's match between Leyton Orient and Preston North End. However, iconic crest on the East Stand aside, this was virtually the only feature which had persisted since my last visit to E10 over eighteen years ago towards the end of the 1995/96 season to see Preston win what even then was no longer called the fourth division title.
My return had once again seen North End on the up, and on current form the Os could well be headed back to the bottom division. Three quarters of the ground had been rebuilt and in my opinion the renovation is a great improvement, particularly by removing the two characterless open terraces at either end, replacing them with purpose built stands with a steep rake to ensure a decent view of the perennially excellent playing surface. The new West Stand, containing all the club facilities also looked impressive with the only real loss being the paddock which used to be in front of the stand opposite, which now housed the away fans in the south east corner.
However courtesy of a friend's season ticket I would once again be in the part of the ground where I had previously stood as an away fan, this time with the benefit of a plastic seat and a roof which wasn't needed thanks to the surprisingly clement weather. What essentially makes the ground though is the closed in close to the pitch feel, which resembles Brentford only better, the flats in the corner being unobtrusive as they are set back from the pitch but still do their job of making the ground feel wholly enclosed.
The two teams started as polar opposites in terms of form. Preston had won all of their last six league games whilst Orient had won none over the same span of matches. Thus it was no surprise that Preston took the initiative from the start, taking the lead when Callum Robinson finished Chris Humphrey's cross from the right wing in the nineteenth minute. It was almost 2-0 within a minute of the restart but Orient managed to smother the attack and from this point on created enough chances to go into the break ahead.
That they didn't do so was down to the inevitable law of the ex which saw Preston goalkeeper Jamie Jones do enough in the remainder of the first half to merit a man of the match award. Playing the more attractive football through the midfield, Orient created a number of chances only to be denied by Jones. First up was Jay Simpson who burst clear but was unable to convince Jones to go to ground before he shot for goal, Jones maintaining enough balance to flail a hand strong enough to divert the ball wide. Then from a corner Simpson had a shot blocked on the line by David Buchanan. Finally with half time in sight a Shane Lowry cross from the left found Gianvito Plasmati whose shot was stopped at close range by Jones, the loose ball running to the hapless Simpson who completed a hat trick of misses by striking the ball straight at the stricken Jones.
Thus a breathtaking half ended with Preston still in front, with both teams fully committed to their clubs' cause as shown by a minor melee early in the game following a series of full blooded tackles which saw Buchanan booked.
The second half revealed more about the character of the two sides and suggested their prospective fates this season. Preston showed excellent commitment to defend their lead increasing their defensive line to five to crowd out the Orient attack, North End seeking respite by pumping long balls down either flank with the aim of playing in Joe Garner to buy a foul in a handy position for a set piece free kick, the striker evidently a past master at getting under the skin of opposition defenders.
Orient were able to maintain periods of sustained pressure around the Preston penalty area, but were unable to manufacture a clear cut chance, new signing Gianvito Plasmati clearly a stranger to his team mates up front. The introduction of young midfielder Josh Wright added an injection of pace to Orient's endeavours but the three points were sealed when Preston doubled their lead with fifteen minutes remaining from inevitably a set piece.
Unsurprisingly it was Joe Garner who won the free kick which was swung in from the right by Neil Kilkenny. A trio of players from either team tumbled over like dominoes at the far post, but Tom Clarke remained on his feet to knock the ball back into the six yard box where Paul Huntington had returned to his feet to tap the ball into the empty net.
The final whistle saw the Preston players go over to thank their tremendous away support led at the front by a Sikh fan complete with bushy white beard and a turban in the same colour as the away shirt, who had the spent the whole game vigorously waving a North End flag. However even though they have now extended their league run to seven straight wins, Preston look hard to beat rather than unbeatable, with a stereotypically dour northern approach to the game which eschews quality for percentage football.
Leyton Orient though look to be in a sorry state, their performance carrying the air of a team able to lift their game for challenging opponents which may not be the case when they play the teams they need to take points from to preserve their third division status. Twenty years of good work by former chairman Barry Hearn, the stadium being testament to the benefit of his tenure, looks like it could be undone in a matter of weeks thanks to the Italian owner he decided to sell to. When I looked over to the home dugout last night I thought it was comedian John Bishop on the touchline rather than as it turned out temporary new manager Mauro Milanese. This would be an apt symbol of the tragi-comic series of events which saw manager Russell Slade leave Brisbane Road. The end of the relatively settled nature of Slade's reign has seen the end of the kind of stability which is too often undervalued by trigger happy owners keen to stamp their mark on a club.