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'All I did was throw a c-bomb into the mix but if your face doesn’t fit you're cast out'

John Sitton was the star of cult documentary ‘Leyton Orient: Club for a Fiver’. After it aired, he was shunned by the football world, sank into a depression, and retrained as a taxi driver.

John Sitton and co-manager Chris Turner look on during Leyton Orient's 1995 clash with Oxford United.
John Sitton and co-manager Chris Turner look on during Leyton Orient's 1995 clash with Oxford United.
Image: EMPICS Sport

“MAN HANDS ON misery to man”, wrote Philip Larkin…and then television came along to shovel industrial loads of it. Then came the internet, which did the trick of preserving it.

Type ‘manager rant’ into YouTube and two of the top three results gaze on the same man: John Sitton.

Both are clips of him unleashing great sound and fury upon his players during a half-time break, and both are plucked from a 1995 fly-on-the-wall documentary, Leyton Orient: Club for a Fiver.

It charts Leyton Orient’s dysfunctional 94/95 season, during which the club languished in the relegation zone of the second division. The chaos stemmed from owner Tony Wood losing his coffee business amid the Rwandan civil war, meaning the club was losing £10,000 a week.

The hemorrhaging of money led the club to cut the first-team squad to 13 senior players whose wages were paid by the PFA, and numbers couldn’t be buttressed with loan players as Orient were slapped with an eight-month transfer embargo. Wood telling the media that he would take a fiver to get the club off his hands gave a sprawling farce its pithy title.

While the film earned cult status; the excerpts went viral.

Together, they’ve been viewed more than a million times, and the second furnished the half-time sacking of one player and a fairly iconic bit of profanity toward another two.

So you, you little c*** when I tell you to do something and you, you fucking big c*** – when I tell you to do something, do it. And if you fucking come back at me, we’ll have a fucking right sort out in here.‘ And you can pair up if you like. And you can fucking pick someone else to help you, and you can bring your fucking dinner. Because, by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll fucking need it. Do you fucking hear what I’m saying or not?

Source: pndundas/YouTube

Having played for Orient between 1985 and 1991, this was Sitton’s first senior management job in football…and his last.

He has since spent 16 years driving a black taxi cab around London, having been “shunned” by the world of football after the airing of the documentary on Channel 4.

Subsequent job applications went unacknowledged, up to the point he was told by one former colleague to “reinvent yourself somewhere else”.

“When I didn’t get the courtesy of a reply, I knew football had stuck its two proverbials at me”, Sitton tells The42.

I decided to do the same to football. I then had to find my own way of making a living, so I picked my topographical knowledge of London. I had no money, I was too proud to sign on the dole, but I eventually had to. I was sacked in February 1995, and didn’t sign on until September. I sold off a lot of personal belongings and some furniture to feed three young kids. The aftermath was like a bereavement. Anger, denial, and acceptance. You can throw into the mix embarrassment, as I know I’m better than that. It made me look like a foul-mouthed thug. I’m like anyone else. I’ve been known to have a temper, but at the end of the day, all I asked of a coach was ‘are they honest and can they improve me?’ I believe I was both of those things. For quite a while after I was depressed; after 25 years in a football environment you suddenly become useless. I could barely come down stairs; could barely make a cup of tea. My wife had to go back to work to keep us afloat. 

Sitton is the prism through which the club’s dysfunctions are explored, with his bouts of rage accompanied by the visible hardening of his heart.

He followed through on his half-time promise to sack defender Terry Howard, a former team-mate of his. “I may have lost a friend, but tomorrow I’ll have recovered”, ruminates Sitton in the film. He talks of the lucrative opportunities he spurned in favour of Orient, and ends the film sacked, having won seven games in all competitions. 

“You start off with the best of intentions, and you start off trying to be a good human being, but there’s no doubt about it the game has got the uncanny knack of making you very cynical,” are his final words in the film.

Sitton will turn 60 this year, and the skin that clung tightly to his cheekbones in the documentary is now sunken and contoured; a black beard, tinged with grey, crawls across his face. The character, however, is as coruscating as ever.

He sees himself as having “a rough Cockney accent, pugnacious looks and gregarious nature”, and defines himself as a “Conservative with a conscience” (he donated proceeds from his book, A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing, to charity).

He initially supported the idea of filming a behind-the-scenes documentary on Orient, with a view to promoting the club in a densely-populated part of London. West Ham, Arsenal, Spurs, Charlton, and Millwall all cast shadows of various lengths across the club. “I said it might help raise the profile of the club. But instead of it being a documentary about the football club struggling to survive, it ended up being a documentary about me”.

Sitton harbours regrets.

“I openly admit now that I was blinded by arrogance and ambition, and I didn’t do enough detailed research into the precarious state of the football club. I ended up working with four chairmen in 10 months, doing six different jobs, and saving the club from administration and ultimately liquidation”. 

The film is an accurate version of how I was at the time. I wasn’t aware enough. I was 34 years old, it was my first job – and my last job – at first team level and I wasn’t bothered about the cameras, so I was a bit kamikaze”. I made a massive mistake thinking the players – the few that we had – would approach training and games the same way I did, which was over my dead body. We had two goalkeepers, and one was nursing a double hernia, so we only really had one. I let another go, and to give you a clue, his nickname was ‘Tubby’. I told him ‘you’re a physical disgrace’, and let him go. As a consequence I became very, very frustrated, and that’s how it came out. I articulated things drastically wrong, and I regret it. With a bit more experience I’d have handled things differently. If truth be told, any mature manager who wasn’t desperate to pay the mortgage wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the job. I should have stayed with the youth team and I might still be working in football. No manager in their right mind would have gone near that job.

The regrets do not swallow all of the anger, however.

Others around him stayed in football – Barry Hearn, who bought the club and then sacked Sitton, has found further fortune in darts and boxing while his co-manager Chris Turner has since coached Hartlepool, Sheffield Wednesday and Stockport County, along with serving as CEO of Chesterfield and Port Vale’s sales and marketing manager.

Sitton was the fall-guy.

“All over something, to quote Teddy Sheringham when I bumped into him at the gym, ‘Sitts, it has happened a thousand times before in football and it has happened a thousand times since’. You’ve got Fergie kicking a boot at David Beckham, giving everyone the hairdryer treatment; Alan Pardew headbutting a player on the touchline.

“What did I do? I threw a few f-bombs and the dreaded c-bomb into the mix. Then a few weeks later, on the same channel, you had a new series called The Sopranos, where it happens in every episode. What’s the big deal? Like it doesn’t go on. Shock, horror, a bit of blue-collar industrial language in a working-class game.

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“But if your face doesn’t fit; if you’re radical, innovative and outspoken like I was, you’re ostracised and cast out as a leper, a pariah”. 

Sitton is happy with his reinvention and is eager to clarify that his experience of the game “pales into insignificance” compared to the suffering endured by others, but disenchantment lingers. And it’s not just limited to football.

“The Orient physio told me in 1985 that football is a reflection of society. He couldn’t be more on the money”.

He bemoans the state of the NHS, citing examples in which “I pick up a nurse after an 18-hour shift because she is too tired to get public transport” and he voted for Brexit as he became fed up with the EU from a “historical perspective”.

“I know it might be overly-simplistic, but my main issue is that you have the people who kicked off the trouble in Europe, twice – ergo the Germans – and we gave them a slap, twice, yet they seem to have conquered us economically and to be dictating policy”.

Sitton still watches football, and despite his experience at Orient, hasn’t entirely swerved the recent profusion of further fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

“I watched Sunderland til’ I die on Netflix, and saw a lot of parallels. Basically the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. You had a rudderless ship, and nonsensical running of the football club.

[Chris] Coleman looked clueless to me and the other one, Simon Grayson? He came across as a bumbling idiot on a wing and a prayer. I learned it too late, but you need to place demands on the people above you. Otherwise, they give you a pint of milk, a packet of teabags and two pounds of sugar and tell you to win the European Cup with it”.

The world of football hasn’t deserted him entirely. 

“I’ve had Pardew in the back [of his taxi], trying to patronise me by saying he remembers me from our days with the FA. Mourinho was good as gold. When I told him who I was, we had a great conversation. A nicer guy you couldn’t meet…and he’s a great tipper”. 

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Gavin Cooney

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