Richie Wellens has big ambitions for League Two leaders Leyton Orient

Big ambitions for ‘little old Leyton Orient’: Richie Wellens on changing mindsets, emulating Brentford and learning from Alex Ferguson’s ‘aura’ as his O’s side storm towards promotion from League Two

  • Orient have a five-point lead at the top of League Two as they aim to go up
  • Head coach Richie Wellens took over in March last year amid a relegation fight
  • The 42-year-old said the first thing he had to do was change the club’s mindset
  • Wellens sees no reason why the club can’t follow the example of Brentford
  •  Bees have risen from League One to the Premier League and have new home 
  • Wellens was speaking as part of the EFL’s Week of Action initiative

Even when Richie Wellens arrived at Leyton Orient last March, with the club just four points above the League Two relegation zone, he could see a grand vision forming.

All that was required was a change of mindset. Wellens had to banish the ‘little old Orient’ complex he felt was holding back the east London club.

10 months on and that process is going very well. Orient hold a five-point advantage at the top of League Two, having lost just three times in 26 games.

Richie Wellens has guided Leyton Orient to top spot in League Two as they bid for promotion

Orient are enjoying a storming season with Wellens transforming fortunes in just 10 months

But promotion into League One, where the O’s last played in 2015, is just the beginning for Wellens.

In the long-term, he sees no reason why they can’t emulate another London club who have become very comfortable mixing it with the big boys.

‘Straight away, in the first training session, I couldn’t believe with this squad of players we were down there,’ Wellens tells Sportsmail.

‘You go in and try and put smiles on people’s faces, try and make them enjoy their football again. You try to make them defensively solid and allow the attacking players freedom to go and express themselves.

‘But the biggest thing was changing people’s mindsets: “Oh, it’s only little old Orient, we always fail, it’s always tough.”

‘Every club up and down the country says that. It’s important you change the players’ mindset and then when you see you’re achieving things in training sessions and games, it’s about changing the supporters’ mindset as well.

The O’s make the trip to nearest challengers Stevenage on Saturday as they look to pull clear

Wellens has ambitions to take Leyton Orient into League One and beyond in the years ahead

‘We can say there are a lot of big clubs around us but if you draw a five-mile radius around Leyton Orient, there are probably four or five million people.

‘The fanbase is there – we have apartments literally going up with 10,000 people moving into Leyton in the next few months.

‘So there is a market and each of our last 10 home games has been sold out. The vision for the club now needs to be a new stadium or to extend Brisbane Road because we want to be a Championship club.

‘If you put us is League One now, our attendances would be in the top 10-12 but you want to keep going and get better like Brighton and Brentford did.

‘Brentford are a fantastic example – on the other side of London, Griffin Park run down, going nowhere. All of a sudden, they start doing well on the pitch, a new owner takes over, they get a new stadium and look at them now.

‘So why can’t we dream? We are in a fantastic location and if you start putting a product on the pitch, people will want to go and watch your football.’

Brentford have shown how clubs can rise from League One to the Premier League 

The Bees look very much at home in the top-flight and recently beat Liverpool (pictured)

In the 2013-14 season, Brentford and Orient tussled at the top of League One. While the Bees took the second automatic promotion spot, Orient chucked away a two-goal lead in the play-off final to lose on penalties to Rotherham at Wembley.

It proved a sliding doors moment. Amid ownership strife and financial troubles, Orient were relegated into League Two a year later and dropped into non-league football in 2017.

Their 13th place finish in the National League in 2017-18 was the lowest in the club’s history.

Fortunately, things improved from there. New owner Nigel Travis steadied the ship and the much-missed Justin Edinburgh steered them back into the EFL in 2019.

Under Wellens – who arrived after brief and mostly unhappy spells with Salford City and Doncaster Rovers – Orient are playing their best football in years.

They stormed out of the blocks in August, winning nine and drawing one of their opening 10 games, and have recovered from any setback with a run of positive results.

EFL Week of Action 

Wellens visited one of Orient’s Coping Through Football sessions on Monday as part of the EFL’s Week of Action.

The aim is to help those struggling with their mental health, with 77 per cent of participants on EFL club community projects achieving positive outcomes.

During the 2021-22 season, 260,596 people attended EFL sessions or events designed to impact positively on mental health.

Wellens on the ball during the Leyton Orient Coping Through Football event last week

Wellens said: ‘Orient is a fantastic club that does a lot in the community. It was a mental heath day – I knew suicide was high in young men but I didn’t know that between the ages of 19 and 40, it is the biggest killer of men. 

‘It is a frightening stat because it is so avoidable. So anything the club can do, anything I can do, anything football can do, they should be pulling together and helping these young men because I think everyone in all aspects of life can suffer mentally. 

‘So anything we can do to help them through it, to keep the mind active, is only to the benefit of everybody.’

The Orient manager described suicide rates among young men as ‘frightening’

With a 15-point cushion inside League Two’s three automatic promotion places, they look a safe bet to go up but Wellens believes there’s more to come.

‘I would have said we were aiming for the top seven and if you’d offered us seventh, I’d have snapped your hand off,’ he says.

‘So to win nine and draw one of your first 10 games is fantastic in any league and there are only teams like Manchester City and Liverpool, Arsenal this year, that have done that.

‘But whoever you are in that league table, you’re going to have spells where you don’t play so well, you don’t pick up results, a couple of defeats. Every time we have been beaten, we’ve bounced back.

‘But if I have a vision in my head of how we want to play, we’re not quite there yet.

Theo Archibald (left) celebrates after scoring Orient’s winning goal against Doncaster Rovers

‘We’ve only had one transfer window but I take my hat off to the players because they are adaptable, they can win in different ways and although we are not as smooth as I would like at times, the spirit in the camp, the willingness to dig in, fight and defend the box has been outstanding this year.’

Wellens began his playing career at Manchester United but he made just one senior appearance – a League Cup defeat at Aston Villa just a few months after their 1999 Treble.

Although he was a kid at the time trying to get game time and make his way, Wellens absorbed something of Sir Alex Ferguson’s way of doing things before developing his own coaching style during a career that took him to Leicester, Blackpool and Doncaster.

Fergie was last in touch with a message of congratulations when Wellens led Salford City to victory in the 2020 Papa Johns Trophy final at Wembley.

Sir Alex Ferguson sent a message of congratulation when Salford won the Papa Johns Trophy

‘What you do try and take from Ferguson is his aura, the way he holds himself in a changing room, within a club,’ Wellens says.

‘A big thing for me is his honesty, his brutal honesty at times. You can’t get to that level and not be ruthless. The amount of quality players, world class players, he worked with throughout the years but as soon as he knew it was time for them to go, he got rid.

‘He evolved teams. A lot of managers have one or two great teams. Alex Ferguson, for the amount of time he was at United, probably produced six or seven great teams and that is a testament to him.

‘Pep Guardiola is pretty similar – he wins a league title and then he lets [Gabriel] Jesus and [Oleksandr] Zinchenko go to Arsenal and he’s constantly trying to improve the squad.

‘When you work for managers, you take a little bit from each of them. I played for Nigel Pearson, Sean O’Driscoll, Sven-Goran Eriksson… real good managers in their own way. Paulo Sousa was an unbelievable quality coach.

Wellens (left) in action for Leicester City against Nottingham Forest during his playing days

‘You take little bits from each one but then you have to find your own way and be you.

‘The biggest piece of advice I’ve taken on board is as long as you’re authentic, as long as a manager is true to themselves, the players can see that.

‘As soon as you try to be something you’re not, players can see through it.’

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