Feelings of uncertainty were afoot during pre-season when a somewhat depleted Leyton Orient side jetted off to Portugal for a week-long training camp.
The Sky Bet League Two leaders have since turned their fortunes around, embarking on the best-ever start by a team to a fourth-tier campaign and showing no signs of slowing down
However, the team’s talisman Paul Smyth, who sat out both friendly fixtures which ended in defeat whilst nursing an injury, voiced his worries.
“We were quite nervous at the start of the season,” he admits. “In pre-season, we didn’t really go on a great run and I thought, ‘we’re in reasonable trouble here.’ We kickstarted our season with that first 2-0 win against Grimsby which put us in a great position and then just kicked on from there.”
At the beginning of the term, forward Smyth set himself a target to play at least 30 games after last year’s injury woes. With 20 games remaining, Orient’s leading marksman is just three shy of that target and on the brink of double figures.
It’s long been speculated that the Irishman only scores spectacular goals and he’s backed that up this season, but one strike in particular stands out to him. Smyth’s overhead kick against Doncaster Rovers back in October earned him a standing ovation from the opposition supporters and the divisional Goal of the Month award.
“When it hit the back of the net, I fell on the floor and turned around and looked at the ball in the corner of the net,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘I’ve just kicked it into the floor and shanked it into the bottom corner.’ The boys were saying it was unbelievable and after the game I ended up seeing it back. It was probably the best goal I’ve scored so far.
“It was funny because when it went into the net and we were celebrating and I did my backflip, the Doncaster fans were clapping, so it must have been good!”
His signature somersault made a reappearance – as it has nine times already this season – but he wasn’t always an acrobatic sensation. As with everything, practice makes perfect.
“When I was a kid, I was on the trampoline constantly,” he says. “I thought I needed to try it on the grass. There was a time I landed on my head showing off in front of people and I tried to walk off like I was fine, and I had to run home crying.
“When I scored my first goal, I did it, and if you see all the goals I’ve scored, it kept getting better – it started off really poor.”
The sight of Brisbane Road epitomises hope for Orient’s vice-captain Omar Beckles. The defender, who spent the best part of his career balancing an alternative career whilst playing non-league football. And on his way, he’d cycle past the home of his hometown team.
In the summer of 2021, last season’s PFA Community Player of the Year for League Two took a step down from League One to sign for the O’s and now, his dream has been realised, playing in front of a packed-out home end.
“I was still peddling my bike to work when I was working at a primary school,” he says. “I remember being able to ride past the stadium and it was always so close and made me think, ‘oh, wow.’
“You look at how grand it is and there’s you on your little bike going past thinking, ‘one day, I’m going to play in stadiums like these.’ Having that setback but knowing that Leyton Orient is a professional outfit, I thought to myself, ‘why not?’ I’ve come a long way, being a real late developer.
“I’m playing for my local team and it means something. To be able to have the support of my family and friends – it’s difficult when you’re so far away from home – I missed out on a lot of those moments. For me, it’s got a real family feel because of my connection to the local area.”
When Lawrence Vigouroux arrived at Orient in the 2020 January transfer window, it was an opportunity for a clean slate in more ways than one.
Two years on, he started his 100th consecutive league game in August in a 1-0 win over Crawley Town as the 2022/23 campaign got underway and the landscape has shifted for the goalkeeper.
“I was at a point in my career where one more mistake off the pitch or being late to training or something like that and I would be out of the game completely,” he admits. “When I came into Orient, I felt in my head it was my last chance to do something in the EFL. I thought if I failed at Orient then that would be me.
“I had nothing – I didn’t have any Clubs after me – and it was just a stroke of luck. Some things are meant to happen in football and coming here has saved me, so I owe this Club a lot.”
The keeper, who grew up in the presence of the likes of Hugo Lloris at Tottenham Hotspur as a teenager after shelving his aspirations to be an attacker instead, was reunited with his former boss Richie Wellens at Orient.
Taking the reins in March last year, with the East Londoners sitting in 20th place and still at risk of slipping into the drop zone, Wellens steered the ship to safety.
Vigouroux previously played under the O’s head coach during a spell at Swindon Town in the earlier stages of his career but the 42-year-old found the stopper to be different to the person he’d first encountered.
“I’ve had to work hard to change that perception of me,” Vigouroux reaffirms. “I just need to maintain the professionalism because that was the main thing that always hindered me when I was younger but now it’s something I’m proud of.
“If I had that mentality that I have now, I think I could’ve been even better than I am now. Instead of looking back and being in regret, I need to show I’m as good as I can be now to make up for the lost time.”
Smyth is another of several players who have flourished under manager Wellens.
“He gives the forward line a freedom to express themselves,” he explains. “As well as the other forwards, we know that we can try things in the opponent’s half and not get in trouble for it because that’s what he wants his forward men to do.”
So far, taking it on a game-by-game basis has worked for Wellens’ men which is how they’ll be seeing out the campaign.
“The manager was doing it by blocks and there are 10 games in each block, and the aim was to win as many games as possible in that period,” Smyth says. “That was the way we were going through it and if we were breaking records, it’s a bonus. Thankfully, come Christmastime, we were top of the tree. We’re all gelled and bonded together and those wins bond us even more.”
A Christmas get together in Manchester provided a rare opportunity for the squad to hold a tune together and sing their hearts out, according to Beckles, who remains tight-lipped with further details.
“It’s testament to the togetherness and the cohesion within the group,” Beckles continues. “It’s hard to get a level of cohesion.
“We’re all in it to win it. In order to do so, we’ve been really trying to embrace the moments. I’ve learnt over the years, being focused on the moment is what’s going to help us achieve that success.”
There might be no cause for mass celebrations in the changing rooms amongst the O’s players when they add another three points to the board, but there’s little need for an inquest if a game doesn’t go the way they want.
But, more often than not this season, things have swung in Orient’s favour. Wellens’ men took 28 points from their opening 10 games, flying out of the blocks in League Two.
“The one game that stands out for me so far this season is Stockport away; it was how we felt after that game,” Vigouroux says. “They were coming into the game in quite good form, and we knew it was going to be tough.
“We went 1-0 down early and changed formation and system and go 2-1 up and win. That was the game where I thought, ‘wow – there could be something special happening here.’
“It was one of those games where they played really, really well – and credit to them, they’re a top side in our league – so for us to go there and win was a good statement from us. On another day, we could’ve lost that game.”
Beckles adds: “In the build-up to the game, the gaffer wasn’t available to be present because he wasn’t feeling well. Everything you didn’t want to go well in the preparations did exactly that. To show the character to bounce back and not just get a draw but a win and for me to score the winning goal.”
As it stands, Vigouroux has registered the most shutouts of any keeper in League Two, and last weekend, the O’s equalled an EFL record with eight consecutive home clean sheets for the first time since 1923/24.
“I’d be lying if I said they were all down to me,” he notes. “A lot of credit has to go down to the front three because they’re the first line of the defence and that’s how we see it.
“That makes my life easier because I know for them to actually get into our half and get a chance at goal, they’ll have to work hard for it.”
That sentiment is reciprocated by his teammates, too.
“Especially as a defender, I want to create a clean sheet culture,” offers Beckles. “It’s one I’m proud to be a part of, that’s for sure. It’s credit to everyone. Everyone’s played their part. The defence has been solid, but the front line has led tremendously.
“Particular individuals haven’t been out as long as they were last season. Paul Smyth is a real talent and possesses a quality to help us edge out game that might be quite tight, and this season, he’s available, whereas last season, he wasn’t really. I can’t help but feel like everything’s falling into place.”
Both Smyth and Orient picked up where they left off at the tail end of last term and the striker believes that momentum has carried them through.
“We went on a good run the last 10 or 11 games when Richie came in,” he explains. “It was just him wanting to implement his philosophy, and that was playing from the back and giving us the trust to produce. We’ve kept so many clean sheets this season; Lawrence has the most clean sheets nearly in England in general.”
It was around this time last year that Smyth was facing another spell on the side-lines after suffering a collapsed lung in Orient’s league fixture away to Mansfield.
The 25-year-old withdrew at the interval with what he suspected might be a broken rib and it wasn’t until he returned home that evening that he discovered the gravity of his injury.
“It happened about 30 minutes into the game, so I got through to the half time whistle,” he recalls. “I went into the changing room and it kept getting worse and I was struggling to breathe. I got to my car but on my travels, I had to call my missus who called the doctor and told me to go to hospital.
“They told me my lug was completely deflated and there was no air in it at all. That’s when the seriousness of it came and I realised I could’ve passed out driving and caused an accident. It was a big wake up call. It was probably the worst year I’ve had in football.”
This season, the aim is simple: to win promotion. And they’ve certainly put themselves in a good position heading into the second half of the season.
Vigouroux adds: “We’ve got some experienced professionals that have been promoted; I’m probably the only one that’s older than the rest and played a lot of games in my career that hasn’t ever been promoted. I can lean on them and they know what it takes.
“It helps us keep our heads on the ground and not getting too carried away checking the league table every second.”
But he appreciates it won’t be an easy feat.
“That’s how ruthless games are in the EFL, in my opinion,” he states. “With the start we’ve had, complacency is something that can happen, but I can’t see that happening. Everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet and that’s something I’ve never really been a part of in my career.
“Hopefully, we can continue this phenomenal start. Points wise, we’re in a good place. We feel it’s something we can achieve and we’re going to go all out for it.”
It’s first versus second in League Two this weekend with a trip to Stevenage up next for Orient.
The O’s are five points clear of Boro at the summit as the battle for the automatic promotion spots heats up.
“The run we went on at the start of the season until Christmas was proof in the pudding that we actually could do it,” Smyth continues. “Stevenage are doing brilliantly as well so that’ll be a good test for us.
“This is a massive Club, and it needs to be where it wants to be and that’s in League One or higher. The boys believe and we have the trust to push forward and progress even more.”
In-form Orient come into the clash on the back of a goalless draw with Barrow, recording one defeat in their last nine outings.
Wellens talks of the “consistent execution of brilliant basics” to his players in the dressing room and that’s the way they plan to see the season out.
Beckles says: “We see the way some of the teams that have got a half decent result against us have celebrated. It’s a big day out coming to us being top of the table and it’s more often than not a full house.
“We need to have a level of grit and that bit between our teeth is what will continue to make us want it.”
Now, the Orient Express is full steam ahead and the O’s could be dismounting in Sky Bet League One come the end of the campaign.