John Sitton, the Rwandan genocide and the fabled Leyton Orient documentary
Tuesday, 7 February 1995, half-time: Leyton Orient 0 Blackpool 1. Home Dressing Room.
“What did I say to you about good players wanting to be good players all the time? Do you not know how profound that is? Have you not examined the fucking words? Coz you’ve had two good performances, and you think I’m fucking Bertie Big Bollocks tonight and I’ll play how I fucking like. But you won’t play how you like… because if I’m going to take abuse from a bunch of cockroaches behind me, I’ll take abuse by doing it my way. And that is fucking conformity, not fucking non conformity. So you, you little cunt, when I tell you to do something and you, you big cunt, when I tell you to do something, do it. And if you come back at me, we’ll have a right sort out in here. And you can pair up if you like… and you can bring your fucking dinner coz by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll fucking need it. Do you fucking hear me or not?”
The Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V it is not, but the 34-year-old Orient co-manager John Sitton has just delivered what will become the gold standard of managerial meltdowns. Immediately before detonating this bomb, he’d sacked one of his starting XI. Terry Howard, a former teammate of Sitton’s and a player soon eligible for a testimonial, received two weeks’ notice before he’d even had the chance to change out of his sweaty kit.
The clip, from Orient: Club For A Fiver, broadcast on Channel 4 in October 1995, has been viewed on YouTube nearly 700,000 times. The film chronicles a catastrophic 1994-95 campaign in which Leyton Orient fell apart on the pitch and imploded off it.
The opening day of the season gave few clues of the horrors to come. A tanned Sitton, wearing gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, sat on the sun-drenched Brisbane Road bench, alongside joint-manager Chris Turner as Orient dispatched highly-fancied Birmingham City 2-1. Birmingham would end the season promoted from League 2 (then the third tier of English football) as Champions; Orient would exit at the bottom, 24 points adrift, after just six wins and 32 losses. They went eight consecutive games without scoring, suffered the ignominy of going two years since their previous league away win and rounded off the season with nine straight defeats.
Almost unbelievably, the seeds of this footballing disaster were sown in an atrocity that unfolded 6,000 miles away in Rwanda.
Walthamstow boy Tony Wood watched his first Leyton Orient match in 1937. It was to be the start of a life-long passion. In 1968 Wood followed the path less travelled from East London to East Africa working for Rwandex Chillington. According to Wood, the firm traded in hosepipes, wheelbarrows and coffee.
Rwanda proved incredibly lucrative for Wood. Significantly, he once told the journalist Linda Melvern “if a handkerchief drops on the ground it’s washed and laundered before you can turn around.”
Wood lived in a sprawling compound in Kigali, where he hosted parties to celebrate the Queen’s birthday and kept three grey parrots, trained to regale the visiting British ambassador Snodgrass with a chorus of “Snodgrass, Snodgrass, silly old arse”. Tony Wood was awarded an OBE in 1985 in recognition of his work in Africa. Britain had no embassy in Rwanda, so Wood had also been appointed to the position of Honorary Consul, making him the Foreign Office’s point man in the country. This would be highly significant for the bloodshed to come, which appeared to take Wood – and therefore, the British government of John Major – by surprise.
But Wood still followed Orient, travelling back to Brisbane Road a few times a season. By 1986 the club had slumped to the fourth tier for the first time in its history. Like many cash-starved clubs in the lower reaches of the English professional game, Orient faced an existential crisis. The manager Frank Clark, a former European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, recalls having to operate on an annual budget of L20,000, with directors regularly making up the shortfall. Clark says the club was a week away from receivership, “when suddenly a guardian angel turned up. His name was Tony Wood.” Wood gifted the chairman Neville Ovenden L10,000 to keep Orient afloat – but the club needed more, much more. In desperation, Ovenden begged Wood to buy a controlling stake and assume the role of Chairman. Wood agreed, on the condition that he could be an absentee owner. Frank Clark would oversee the day to day running of the club, while Wood picked up the bills.
Secured by this patronage, Orient’s results improved. In January 1989, the Arsenal forward Kevin Campbell arrived on loan. Campbell’s goals, combined with the sterling defending of the granite-jawed club captain John Sitton, lifted Orient to the play-offs. With a 2-1 aggregate victory over Wrexham in the final, the club was restored to Division 3.
There Orient remained in mid-table comfort for four seasons. Wood pitched in L200,000 a year. During the 1990-91 season, he appointed Clark as Orient’s managing director, with Peter Eustace taking responsibility for the first team.
The Os appeared to be enjoying a rare period of stability. But it was to prove illusory.
Towards the end of a campaign that saw Orient finish 13th, Eustace fell out spectacularly with Sitton after a run of poor results. Ahead of their game against Huddersfield, Sitton, affording a glimpse of his own future management style, took to Leyton Orient’s ClubCall – a premium rate phone service providing fans ‘news’ from their club – and let rip. Teammates were branded cowards, unfit to wear the shirt. In the days before performance departments and player analytics databases, ClubCall could provide useful insights for the opposition. The Huddersfield manager Eoin Hand had called the line to get the inside track on any Orient injuries. After hearing Sitton’s broadside, he tipped off his counterpart Eustace that he should listen to the recording. Sitton was stripped of the captaincy and released by Orient soon thereafter.
More significantly, at the end of the inaugural Premier League campaign in 1993, relegated Nottingham Forest appointed Clark as Brian Clough’s successor. Forest’s gain was Orient and Tony Wood’s loss. Wood was unwilling to dedicate more time to the club and in the power vacuum created by Clark’s departure, Orient began to spiral.
Near the end of the 1993-94 season, Orient travelled to Cambridge in search of a first win in six. This run of form had sucked them into a relegation battle. According to Sitton, restored to Orient as the youth team coach, relations between Eustace and his players had reached breaking point. As Sitton recounts in his autobiography, at half-time of the Cambridge match an argument culminated with Eustace hitting the Orient defender Kevin Austin. Eustace quickly departed. Sitton and the veteran goalkeeper Chris Turner were asked to take charge of the five remaining fixtures.
From Rwanda, Tony Wood would telephone Orient’s commercial director Frank Woolf during matches for score updates. Woolf recalls hearing gunfire down the line.
Three days before Sitton and Turner took charge of their first match, an aeroplane carrying the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it approached Kigali. This was the trigger for the genocide of the Tutsi in which more than one million people were murdered. Tony Wood was forced to flee the country. As he explains in the documentary, “I lost three people who worked for me at my house out there for over 20 years… all killed.” Contemporary reports of Wood’s dramatic escape, with the help of French forces, focused on his work as a coffee trader and honorary consul. What they failed to pick up on was that Rwandex Chillington, the company through which Wood made a fortune enabling him to inject around L2million into Leyton Orient, also traded in machetes, the weapon of choice for the genocidal militia.
Back in League 2, Sitton/Turner secured one win and a draw. Orient avoided relegation by four points.
Jo Treharne, a Plymouth fan, was a regular attendee at Brisbane Road having completed a Media degree at the University of East London. Recognising the upcoming 1994-95 campaign would be a tumultuous one, the enterprising Treharne approached the club about making a documentary. A meeting was quickly arranged with Sitton and Turner. In the malaise around Brisbane Road, the duo had been asked to lead Orient into the new season. Sitton would remain on his existing youth-team coach contract and salary. After warning the 24-year-old Treharne that she might “hear some choice language”, the pair gave their blessing.
As Treharne explained in an interview with the Orientear fanzine, hers was a onewoman operation, “It wasn’t a film crew; it was just me.”
Following the opening-day victory over Birmingham, Orient went on a run of just one win in 13. It became clear that Tony Wood could no longer prop up the club, which was losing L10,000 a week and was reliant on the PFA paying the players’ wages. A memorable scene from the documentary shows Sitton being informed that the local coach company Angel Motors will no longer transport the team to away matches without payment in advance. Even the milk bill went unpaid.
In this climate, Wood gave an interview to ClubCall explaining that things were so dire he’d sell Orient “for a fiver”. Treharne had a name for her film.
A white knight briefly appeared on the scene in the shape of Phil Wallace, another boyhood fan-made-good as the managing director of an Essex food business. Before his proposed takeover, Wallace instructed Orient that costs must be slashed. Exactly how was unclear. The first-team squad consisted of just 16 players, some of whom were on week-to- week contracts.
Wallace’s directive precipitated another of Sitton’s ‘inspirational’ half-time team talks at 3-0 down to Brentford. “What this geezer wants [is any of] you who are on 35 grand a year – you’ve all got to go … But who’s gonna take you on that performance? He’s thinking about offering you settlements and I’ll hold my hands up – I’m beginning to think the geezer’s right.”
Wallace later thought better of buying Orient and pulled out of the deal. Then came the Blackpool fixture during which Sitton sacked Howard and uttered the immortal “bring your dinner” line. It would effectively make him a pariah in the professional game.
Before the end of the season, the snooker and boxing promoter Barry Hearn gave Tony Wood his fiver and became Leyton Orient’s new chairman. With relegation confirmed, Sitton and Turner were out.
Orient: Club for a Fiver was broadcast at an inopportune time for Sitton. The day before its premiere, England produced a particularly turgid 0-0 draw against Norway. The national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in the USA was still fresh in public memory and questions about what was wrong with the English game dominated football discourse. The very day after Channel 4 introduced Sitton to the nation, thumping his chest while screaming “fuck the tactical shit”, the BBC aired a documentary called Dreaming of Ajax. Gary Lineker, in his new presenting career, explored what the 1995 Champions League winners, a team of youth academy products, were getting so right and England so wrong. Sitton seemed to personify all the ills of the English game.
In the Observer, Will Buckley commented, “There were eight-year-olds at Ajax who talked about the game more intelligently than John Sitton. There were eight-year-olds at Ajax more comfortable on the ball than players who have been awarded England caps.” The Daily Express’s David Emery condemned Sitton as “a pitiable ogre”.
It was to prove personally devastating. Sitton never got a second chance, even at youth team level; clubs feared that parents would remember the documentary and take their promising boys elsewhere. After a period of unemployment and battle with depression, Sitton retrained as a taxi driver. Perhaps he’d been naive to allow cameras into the dressing room and more naive still to think his combustions would not become the documentary’s headline attraction.
The Orient experience was scarring for Jo Treharne too, despite the critical acclaim and enduring popularity of Orient: Club For A Fiver. She is not keen to talk about the documentary and has not pursued a career in filmmaking. While rebuffing Sitton’s accusations that the film was unbalanced, she acknowledges, “I badly overestimated the ability of some viewers to look past the swearing and shouting to examine the humanity and desperation of the situation.”
Perhaps if the game’s authorities had heeded the documentary’s warnings about the hardships faced by clubs in the lower leagues, the gulf between the haves and have nots in English football would not have accelerated to the point of no return. Where are they now? Terry Howard, sacked by Sitton at half-time, would quickly be signed by Wycombe. When he eventually retired from football, Howard took a job at Billingsgate fish market. The Blackpool manager that night, Sam Allardyce, would go on to manage England, albeit briefly.
Following the genocide, Tony Wood returned to live in Rwanda where he died in 2002.
During a near 20-year reign as chairman, Barry Hearn proved far more successful at promoting snooker and boxing than bringing success to a football club. He sold Leyton Orient to Francesco Becchetti in 2014. The Italian presided over relegation from the Football League, the first in the club’s history, and saw Orient issued with a High Court winding-up order before a takeover headed up by a lifelong fan saved them.