A moment when football can be the greater game…


OVF editor Rob Fielding was privileged to see a play called the Greater Game about the Footballers Regiment and the sacrifice undertaken by Leyton Orient players.

Rob Fielding writes…

On Saturday I took advantage of a Port Vale-free Saturday to visit Leyton Orient. Part of the day was to see Orient take on (and lose to) Portsmouth but by far the more important element of the visit was to take in a unique play called the Greater Game.

Fans have taken part in visits to the Somme battlefield to pay tribute at the graves of three Orient players who fell in service to their country…

What is immediately obvious when you enter the Leyton Orient supporters bar is the high regard and attention they give to the club’s rich history. The memorabilia includes a wall decorated to mark a notable moment during World War One when 41 players and staff of the club (then called Clacton Orient) volunteered en masse to fight in the newly formed Footballers Battalion.

But Orient’s tributes stretch further than wall decorations in the supporters bars. Fans have taken part in visits to the Somme battlefield to pay tribute at the graves of three Orient players who fell in service to their country, a memorial to the O’s has been unveiled in France and a meticulously  researched book “They took the lead” published. This month even saw the release of a play “the Greater Game.”

After the final whistle, four of us set off to the Southwark playhouse to meet up with several dozen other Orient fans to see the play. Two and a bit hours later I left with much to ponder.

The play is powerful as it recounts the story of the camaraderie of the successful Orient side which continues even when the players are plunged into the horrors of the Somme. Friends, families and individual’s lives are changed forever after three players lose their lives and several others injured. It was a deeply moving experience and it brought home to me the sacrifice that the soldiers such as those in the Footballers Battalion generation had to endure.

The play has possibly suffered from bad press reviews but I actually think it may have been poorly received because the play isn’t really for journalists. I think you need to be a football fan or have an appreciation of football support to understand it.

This play shows just what sort of sacrifice a relatively unsung club like Orient endured…

After all the bad press the game gets, this play shows just what sort of sacrifice a relatively unsung club like Orient endured.

I do hope that events like this can remind fans that we are all part of one football family. But for geography, family and a myriad of coincidences and circumstances, we may be wearing Orient scarves. Whatever the colours people wear, we are all football fans and some of the idiots who scream abuse at the opposition for the mere temerity of not supporting the Valiants should remember that.  We should be respecting fellow football fans not shouting  obscenities at them. It takes as much loyalty to support a club like Orient in the shadow of the likes of West Ham as it does to keep faith in Port Vale with rich neighbours Stoke City just up the road. Those loyal and dedicated fans should be celebrated and welcomed, not abused.

The three players who lost their lives on the front all came from the North East. But they have been taken in, embraced and mourned by the fans and the club. To Orient fans geography, nationality and footballing talent doesn’t come into it – the three are simply heroes to be remembered. And that is surely the right approach.

At moments like this, football really can be the greater game…

It is also sobering to realise that while some things are obviously more important than football – the football fans who continue to remember Orient’s proud history really can make a difference.

You can only admire Leyton Orient supporters, fellow football fans, for what they have achieved and how they make sure their proud history is not forgotten. Appropriately enough, considering the play’s title, I came away with thoughts of how at moments like this, football really can be the greater game.

More information

If you are staying in the London area after the Milton Keynes game consider catching the play at the Southwark Playhouse. Details are here

If you would like a copy of the book “They took the lead” on which the play is based. Details are here

Print