Never One to Sitton The Fence

You may know the name John Sitton. You may not know he was Leyton Orient manager and you certainly may not know the club was being offered for the princely sum of five pounds.  But the documentary “Club For A Fiver” became notorious in the nineties and had a profound effect on some of those involved, and for John his life would never be the same again.

Nowadays fly on the wall documentaries are two-a-penny, with seemingly every conceivable industry being exposed on our screens as we discover what it is like to walk, or work, in someone else’s shoes for a moment. The ingredients necessary appear to be friction and/or a meltdown. The insight into Graham Taylor’s time as England manager in the early 90’s broke new ground. Suddenly we were allowed a front row seat alongside a man given the role of top job in the country and gradually falling apart as the national side slid from disaster to eventual oblivion on the road to US ’94. Absent was the PR machine of The FA as we were entertained by the disturbing echoes of Phil Neal and the macabre mutterings of Lawrie McMenemy. That was 1994. A year later another doc hit our screens, this time shadowing the exploits of Leyton Orient who were then in the third tier of English football. What we watched was a club teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and extinction, a management double act desperately trying to mend a bus they were eventually thrown under without adequate tools to be anywhere near effective, and a battle against relegation they were nowhere near equipped to take part in.

Sitton’s fate was sealed in a director’s studio as much of the material has been shown in many a documentary since. But he was never allowed to forget it, eventually having to re-train as a London cabbie to earn a living having been cast aside by a profession content to tolerate more toxic and morally bankrupt behaviour than his. It’s of little surprise to find he is bitter about it. He’s written a book about his experiences in football in a career which began in the First Division (now Premier League) with Chelsea and never matched those heights. It’s a terrific read and one I’d thoroughly recommend

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing – which he has published at his own expense and is available from his website.

What the Sitton episode tells us is a story of a down-to-earth honest pro who just does not play the corporate game and through failing to make friends with the right people is left to fight his own corner when many have moved to different venues. This programme also demonstrates how incidents which occurred when there were only four channels to watch have a greater notoriety and infamy all these years later when other more shocking and crass moments just get lost in the mire of multi-channel media these days.

So what was Sitton’s crime? He swore at some of his players during a half-time team talk when they’d put in yet another abject display during a season where they were staring relegation full in the face. Yet these weren’t really his players as he’d been asked to step up from Youth Team coach when the club finally dispensed with Peter Eustace’s services after three years.  His hands were tied with the club’s finances being so disastrous. At one point he has to pay the club’s milk bill, and in another he asks some mates to help out with paying for a coach to take the team to away games as the company they’d been using wanted payment first. The FA had imposed a transfer ban. He had a squad of just fifteen players to work with all season, including two who were on week-by-week contracts.

John Edmund Sitton was born in Hackney, London on 21st October 1959. He was a professional footballer whose career began at Chelsea in 1977. He was approached by Malcolm Allison to sign for his Crystal Palace side who won the Youth Cup in successive seasons during the mid-seventies, but decided to stay at Chelsea. At seventeen he was captain of the youth team. He didn’t break through into the first team until February 1979 when he made his debut at Stamford Bridge in a First Division match against Coventry City. Sitton came on as sub for Ron Harris to play alongside Peter Bonetti, Ray Wilkins, Eamonn Bannon and Tommy Langley. Chelsea lost 1-3. Injury to Harris meant Sitton was in the starting line-up for the midweek trip to Bolton when Peter Osgood and Clive Walker also came into the team. Chelsea lost again, 1-2. At the time the club was second from bottom and ended up relegated finishing last, eleven points from safety. By September he was one of eight players put on the transfer list by Caretaker Manager, Geoff Hurst, when Osgood was sacked from the club.

If you think Chelsea shipping managers is a new phenomenon then consider that Sitton had seven in six years. Dave Sexton, Ken Shellito, Eddie McCreadie, Ron Suet, Danny Blanchflower, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Gould. He moved to East London to play for Millwall, who were then in the Third Division (now League One). He made his debut at Exeter in the beginning of February 1980. By September 1981 he was on the move again, this time to Gillingham. He spent four seasons at Priestfield, who were managed by ex-Charlton player, Keith Peacock. The closest they came to promotion was Sitton’s final season at Gillingham before he moved down a division on a free transfer to Leyton Orient. Frank Clark, who won a European Cup winners medal with Nottingham Forest, was manager at Brisbane Road and he eventually made Sitton his captain in 1988-89 season when they won promotion to Third Division by beating Wrexham in the play-offs.

Sitton was what was probably termed as a no-nonsense centre back. A traditional ‘stopper’. His playing career eventually ended in May 1991 and he turned to coaching. Whilst working for Orient’s School of Excellence he also turned out for Slough Town in the Conference, which meant his playing career had seen him play in all top five divisions in English football.

April 1995, Leyton Orient came calling again. Peter Eustace had been sacked as manager leaving the club battling against relegation with just four games to go. Sitton was brought in, along with his assistant Chris Turner, tasked with keeping them in the Third Division (Division Two as it was known then). They picked up four points which was enough to keep them up. This earned Sitton a full-time contract for the following season, having been managing under his youth contract on a much lower wage.

One event then occurred which would change Sitton’s life forever. Orient’s Chairman, Tony Wood, had a coffee manufacturing business in Rwanda which had suffered due to the vicious civil war in the country. Wood was so keen to sell up that he made a ‘tongue in cheek’ offer to sell the club ‘for a fiver’. Channel Four got wind of the story and thought it would be a great idea for a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. They’d had great success with the Graham Taylor “Do I Not Like That” documentary about the England job and so thought they were onto a real winner.

I remember watching the documentary when it came out, as it gave you an insight into the running of a club at the lower levels. What we were watching was complete gold as far as television is concerned. What you have to remember is these sorts of documentaries were extremely rare back then, whereas today there are very few professions which haven’t had their privacy invaded. These days there’s always an element of someone acting up for the cameras being fully aware of the impact this can have. But the cast of this particular programme had no comprehension of the fall out to come.

The two main protagonists were Sitton and his Assistant Manager, Chris Turner.  Turner had a successful career as goalkeeper with Sheffield Wednesday, enjoying two spells either side of seven years with Sunderland and three with Manchester United. His playing career, like Sitton’s ended at Leyton Orient.

Unbeknown to Sitton, Turner had been advised it might not be a good idea to spend too much time in front of the camera during the filming of the documentary. Sitton, ever the honest pro, did as was asked and made himself as available as possible. It is ironic that Turner is often in the background and is heard giving the players an earful but as a result of him being advised to say very little, it falls on Sitton to give the lion’s share of the feedback, coaching and motivation. He would spend the rest of his life regretting it. Who knows whether the team suffered because of this, but if you were an O’s fan would you feel a bit cheated if you found out one of the managers was not giving his all during a stressful season as he was worried how this might be perceived in the media?

The 1994-95 season saw Orient with a transfer embargo slapped on them by The FA for their precarious financial situation.  As often happens on these occasions the current management ends up paying for the failure of the previous regime. Numerous short-sighted decisions had been taken which resulted in a rather laughable situation of some players on a sort of day-by-day contract, where the club wanted them to find an alternative employer but the players appearing quite happy to continue taking their wage packet in no hurry to change. One of these players, Terry Howard, would play a huge part, indirectly in the myth and legend of the resulting documentary.

When looking after the youth team Sitts got a call one night from the Chairman informing him Eustace had punched Kevin Austin in the dressing room at half-time during a match at Cambridge United. The board had ‘lost confidence’ in him and so he resigned, although he continued to be paid his salary for a further fifteen months. Administratively the club was a mess with too many people with far too little desire to change things. The finances were shot, so much so that four players were not paid their signing-on fees and were therefore considered free transfers. Two others, Terry Howard and Danny Carter were on seven-day renewable contracts with the view they would find themselves alternative employers. Sitton has later admitted he should’ve pushed for a more valuable contract as Turner was on three times his wages.

In his book Carter and Howard are mentioned frequently. This is the beginning of players realising the power they had over football clubs. Carter and Howard rarely seemed to take anything seriously, especially their own physical wellbeing. Howard appeared to be at the dogs three or four times a week. Both players sniggered when they were left out for the opening match of the season suggesting Sitton would be “lucky to win with the side you’ve chosen”, which hardly engendered a strong team morale. After a heavy defeat in the second game of the season they were heard on the bench boasting how they’d need to “clean up our boots as we’ll be playing soon”. They were indeed picked in the next match to little effect on the overall performance.

The season began well with a 2-1 win at home to Birmingham City. Future Blues defender, Darren Purse, then a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old, scored as did Ian Bogie. But they were brought quickly down to earth with a bump when a Dougie Freedman-inspired Barnet, thumped them 0-4 in the League Cup. They then lost three of their next four league matches and didn’t win another match till mid-September when former Southampton midfielder, Glenn Cockerill, and Colin West, who’d made his name with Sunderland in the early eighties, scored twice from the spot to see off Bournemouth.  The pair scored again to beat Chester City at home in mid-October for their third win of the season but already they’d played twelve matches, losing seven, and sitting in twentieth.

By the time they lost to Stockport at the end of October they had slipped to twenty-second and were now in a real fight to stay up. West scored his fifth of the season when they lost up at Blackpool in the second week of November, their tenth defeat, and it would be their last goal for eight matches.  When he was given the job, Sitton quickly identified goals as being one of the key deficiencies of the squad and December just seemed to drive this home most painfully.

The documentary begins with a trip to mid-table Peterborough who were coming off three straight wins. Sitton is seen giving a typically robust motivational team talk trying to give his charges the belief they were better than their opponents. A goalless draw undermined this but in an interview afterwards Sitton is crushingly honest about the position the club is in and the effect on his managerial pedigree. Sitton doesn’t do flannel.

For some reason the documentary shows coverage of the FA Cup First Round trip to the South West and Tiverton as if the game came after the Peterborough match. It didn’t, it was two weeks before.  A 3-1 win is not greeted with much glee from Sitts and Turner and we are given our first glimpse of how a disappointed Sitts addresses his players when he calls them ‘naive’. He also warns them if they think they can play how they want and mess with his career then they’ll be replaced. His book reveals how unlikely a proposition that was, but nonetheless it’s a distinctly sombre dressing room as we see Sitts warn one player his place is in jeopardy if performances like that continue. We’re not sure whether this is Howard or not, but it would fit with what happened later.

Enter Chairman, Tony Wood. He gives an interview explaining how the Rwanda experienced had left him visibly drained, tired and resigned to having to sell the club. He admits his assertion of accepting as little as five pounds for the club was with tongue firmly in cheek. Local businessman, Phil Wallace, emerged as a potential purchaser as Christmas came and went.

Boxing Day saw them make the short distance to Brentford, who were coming off the back of a 7-0 win over Plymouth. Brentford had eyes for the play-offs and were far too good for The O’s as they were three goals up at the break. The dressing room rant from Sitts begins to give us an insight into how things are beginning to stack up. He has a threadbare team with no permission to sign replacements and now he has a potential owner who is considering binning the high earners to bring in a load of players on around two hundred pounds a week. A familiar bugbear of Sitton’s is where he has worked on aspects during training and yet players do not replicate this on match days, which Sitts takes as a deliberate attempt to plough their own furrow rather than his. One thing Sitts cannot bear is players not trying. A man who never gave up as a player, considered hard work to be a given requirement for any professional wanting to make a living in the game.

Despite the lack of goals in the league Colin West had scored four goals in two matches against Fulham, who were then down in the fourth tier of the league, in the Auto Windscreens Cup. But any dream of a run in the FA Cup ended at home when Bristol Rovers won 2-0.

The goalless run ended when Ian Bogie converted a penalty at Wrexham but four goals at the other end did little to lift the mood. The eleven game search for a win finally came to an abrupt end with a much needed 4-1 win at home to Peterborough when Mark Warren scored a hat-trick. The club had gone more than a year since their last win away, October 1993, to be exact.

Sitton’s book reveals an inner strength of a man who through sheer will and determination made a career for himself where he worked extremely hard for every club he played for, and perhaps didn’t understand why that wasn’t really enough for some. I think he also suffered from being in the right place at the wrong time. Football was changing and players were being offered bigger and bigger contracts and gaining more and more power, yet poor Sitts method of motivation was probably about ten to fifteen years out of date. He focussed on the effect players performance would have on his career, the future of the club and the general demeanour of an owner or chairman, when in reality players were giving less and less of a chuff about all that. Maybe a fault of his was being too open with the players about the ongoing situation with the club, believing they would take pride in all working together to improve things. In the end too many players just couldn’t care less, knowing they would always have a job somewhere if things went pear-shaped. Many players were also on longer contracts than Sitts and Turner and this didn’t help matters.

Wallace decided not to buy the club. It was later alleged he didn’t have the funds and so the search for a suitor went on. The precariousness of the financial situation was laid bare on the film as Sitton is told on the phone that Angel Coaches will not permit the use of any of their vehicles unless they pay up front. His secretary, Maureen, is asked by Turner on what she thinks will happen to the club and after a deep breath she says depressingly, “liquidation”.

All this going on in the background cannot have helped the general demeanour of the two young managers. The club had five directors, all of whom were being paid by the club but only Tony Wood was putting money in. Directors would walk around the club openly declaring their love for Terry Howard, yet in board meetings were desperate for Sitton to find an alternative employer for him. Sitton used his own money to pay some of the bills, despite taking less from the club than many of those above him.

After the relief and joy of the Peterborough victory, three days later they welcomed Blackpool to Brisbane Road, managed by a young Sam Allardyce in his first full managerial role. Andy Watson had given Blackpool a lead at the break and little did he, and everyone else know that what followed in the fifteen minute break would affect Sitton for the rest of his life.

There have been many iconic speeches down the years and some are repeated for generations. For some managers their words are thrown back at them, often by people who haven’t been anywhere near a dressing room, let alone experienced the pressure and stress of a relegation battle. What follows has gone down in legend amongst things managers have said. There was even a programme called “When Managers Go Mad” which had this incident as number three in the maddest things any manager has ever done.

Turner is heard telling the players to “pull your socks up cos they’re gonna beat us, if we go out the second half like that. That is a typical performance we’ve had too often here”.

Enter Sitton. Most of the expletives have been removed but you can imagine them in every four or five words.

“Ain’t gonna happen too much more”. He then proceeds to educate one of his players in how they should defend for a red shirt, as well as telling him not to “come back at me when I’m shouting at you, above the crowd and the next bench.”

“Cos I’ll run this football club until I’m told otherwise by the circus upstairs. If you come back at me you’ll be off the field and you’ll be following Terry down the road”. He then turns his attention to Howard who has been winding him up more and more with every waking hour.

“You come and see me tomorrow, you got a fortnight’s notice. Cos that performance was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And that will not be tolerated in this dressing room whilst I’m in charge with Chris Turner. That is the straw that broke the camel’s back and that is typical Leyton Orient.  Sitts you’re too intense, you’re this you’re that, no one can talk to you.  I never followed two good games with a game like that.  The reason I was intense is cos I wanted to play well again.  And I’m wasting me breath on some of yer. I’m wasting me breath on some of yer.”

“What did I say to yer about good players? Good players want to be good players all the time. Don’t you know how profound that is if you haven’t examined the words. Cos you’ve had two good performances and you think you’re Bertie big b******s tonight. I’ll play how I like. But you won’t play as you like. Cos if you play as you like I’ll stick the youth team in. Cos if I’m gonna take abuse from the cockroaches behind me, I’ll take abuse doing it my way. And that is conformity. Not non-conformity.”

“So you, you little c*** when I tell yer to do summink, and you, you big c***, when I tell yer to do summink, do it. And if you come back at me, we’ll ‘ave a right sort aht in ‘ere. Alright?”
“And you can pair up if yer like. And you can pick someone else to help yer. And you can bring your dinner. Cos by the time I’m finished with yer, you’ll need it. Do you hear what I’m saying or not?”
He then points to Howard “come and see me in the morning”.

The film then cuts to Sitton sat in his office contemplating what’s just gone on. He is still angry at the performance of the players so soon after a valuable win, and in particular Terry Howard. You need to read his book to get the full picture but Howard has been grinding his gears for a long while. Sitton cannot sign any new players and the club can hardly afford Howard’s wages, but for some reason he’s been allowed to keep collecting them whilst attempting to find a new club for himself. It doesn’t take a genius to work out Sitton doesn’t believe Howard’s tried anywhere near hard enough, both in looking for a new employer and working for his present one. Howard has lately claimed there were plenty of suitors keen for his services but not one club put in an offer.

Chillingly as he reflects on the effect of his latest decision he says of Howard, an ex-team mate of his and ‘good company on a night out. But as a manager and a coach, he’s not what I’m looking for’.

“I may have lost a friend. By tomorrow, I would’ve recovered”

The ‘speech’ has gone down in folklore. It is often referred to when people want to illustrate how the job of management can affect someone. It’s one of those stories which gets passed down the generations and even those who have never seen the footage just have the opinion Sitts is mad.

“You can’t talk to people like that”, they’ll say.  “I wouldn’t play for him if he acted like that”, others add. But that’s looking back using today’s language, values and understanding. But this is 1995 and motivational talks are very much based on the club and the manager having the balance of power. Brian Clough’s whole persona was based on fear. Alex Ferguson’s methods were similarly routed in such tactics. But the huge plus on their side was the success they were able to point to which largely gave them licence to abuse.

None of the matches where we are shown footage from the dressing room at half-time, ended with an Orient win. Although the second half of each match doesn’t get any worse, but it is easy to develop an opinion he is de-motivating his players rather than the opposite. But we never get to see what happens after a win, except the Tiverton FA Cup game. Sitts has said recently that during that season he ‘blew up about four times, three of which were caught on camera’. Naïve is how he’s described his performance whilst the cameras were around the club. So much of the work he did around the place just wasn’t picked up on camera as it wouldn’t have made sensational television.

Leyton Orient won just one more match that season, beating Shrewsbury 2-1 at home at the end of March. They won just six league matches all season, picking up just two points away from home. Twenty goals from forty six matches was clearly going to send them down and they ended rock bottom of the table. They amassed a paltry twenty six points yet they needed double that to escape the drop. Colin West was the top scorer with nine goals, but he didn’t appear in any of their last nine matches and consequently the team failed to find the net in any of their final six.

The financial position improved towards the end of the season as Barry Hearn took the option to buy Tony Wood’s shares in the club. The snooker and darts supremo immediately put the club back onto an even keel financially, although no money was given to the management for the purchase of new players.

15th April and goals from Steve Torpey and Colin Pascoe give Swansea City a 2-0 win against The O’s and this confirms relegation for Orient. It was the nineteenth defeat away from home for the club. On the Monday they were beaten at home by Brentford, who were then top of the table.

We get to see developments during this game. The building up of the players before they go out and the reaction after the defeat. Sitton and Turner are called to a meeting with Hearn and are told their contracts are not to be renewed. Both men are then seen informing the players of the news and thanking them for their efforts.

One feels sorry for Sitts as he explains ten days earlier Hearn gives him a build-up explaining how he will work with him to improve his managerial technique and also his media handling.  He says if things haven’t improved in eighteen months they would part company. Sitts responds if things haven’t improved in that time he’d fall on his sword anyway. Ten days later he’s now told he wasn’t good enough to try and get the club back out of League Three, as it was referred to then.

Sitton’s book begins with a catalogue of incidents which illustrate the hypocrisy in how he was judged. Managers who fiddled expenses, one who went on pre-season tour and spent the entire team’s allowance on prostitutes and had to send back a request for more money. Scouts who spent the money their clubs paid them on studying various female form rather than potential signings. At Orient there were directors who would use the club’s money simply for their own enjoyment. One flew his much younger female companion out to accompany him on a pre-season tour, putting her up in a hotel separate to the rest of the squad, all paid for by a club struggling to pay its own staff. Away from his own club there are people in football who have been alcoholics, taken bungs, engaged in under-age sex, even taken a life through drink driving, yet have all been welcomed back to the game. His crime was being caught on camera uttering the sort of language heard in nearly every changing room in every club up and down the country. Language which is common in most football grounds every Saturday. Yet his crime was viewed as so far over the line he was considered goods so damaged they were beyond repair. After the Orient chapter, Sitts found it difficult to gain employment within the game. He was a proven youth coach yet some clubs had told him they were happy to employ him but “as soon as parents find out you’re in charge of their kids, they will take them elsewhere”.

Sitton never worked in professional football again. He had coaching jobs at Enfield and Leyton FC. At the latter he had two spells there when the players asked him to come back after a disastrous period under former Tottenham manager, Peter Shreeves.

But why weren’t others judged on these principles? Think about how Sitton got the top job at Orient in the first place. The previous incumbent, Peter Eustace hit one of the players at half time during a match at Cambridge. Sitton has been ridiculed for ‘sacking’ Terry Howard at half-time against Brentford yet how would the punch-up have been considered if viewed on camera?

Take Graham Rix, for example. In March 1999 he was sentenced to twelve months in prison for under age sex with a fifteen year old. Yet as soon as he served his time he was back in his old job at Chelsea. Granted he cannot work with players under sixteen and is on the Sex Offenders Register for the rest of his life, but he’s had managerial jobs at Portsmouth, Oxford United and Hearts. George Graham admitted receiving a ‘bonus’ £425,000 from an agent and served a nine month ban from the game. He returned to high profile jobs at Leeds United and then Tottenham Hotspur. This episode is almost viewed as ‘unlucky to get caught’ or ‘good on you’ by many supporters who gloss over his misdemeanour and prefer to focus on the trophies he won. Ron Atkinson was caught on commentary insulting Marcel Desailly in possibly the worst way for a white man to refer to a black man. But he’s had plenty of media and football work since. David Pleat was sacked by Tottenham in 1987 after it emerged he’d been cautioned three times by the police for kerb-crawling. Pleat had other managerial jobs after that, including a return to White Hart Lane, and continues to work in media and has been involved in the development of young English players.

Sitts was never viewed on this basis. No one mentions his coaching ability, they prefer to simply call him ‘mad’. It appears his biggest mistake was one of honesty and not being friendly enough with the right people.

Sitts has now been a London cabbie for the past ten years. He has gradually worked to put his side of the story across and through various outlets online and on radio. He may be unfortunate for the time the documentary came out and given the lack of content around then as his is one of the few things to remember. Graham Taylor never managed to shake off the grilling he got for allowing cameras and microphones into the backroom efforts when he was England manager. None of us know whether many who came after him said equally crass things, but as it wasn’t caught on tape then we aren’t able to recall it ad nauseum.

Turner never received such criticism. He is completely devoid of any connection with the events of 1995. When he left Orient he got the job of reserve team coach at Leicester City, who had just been relegated from the Premier League and were managed by Mark McGhee.  His first solo managerial position came at Hartlepool in 1999. He saved them from relegation and four years later set them on the road to a promotion, although he had left for Sheffield Wednesday before they achieved the feat.

Listening to Sitts and reading his words you soon realise football-wise, he is a very intelligent man. He has some very sound ideas about the game today, how players should handle their career. His subsequent treatment by clubs and supporters brings an interesting point into question about how we treat people after they’ve been on television. It is a form of belittling synonymous with Victorian circus acts. He didn’t ask for any of this, he didn’t court the media or look to try and enhance his own career by putting his face around. As a result of his ostracisation he has suffered depression and had to make the choice to earn a living away from a game which refuses to tolerate him judging his crime to be far worse than many others, even those illegal practices. Many are quite happy to label him mad or a lunatic without any concern as to the effect it leaves on the individual, or his family as if he should deserve it, as if he has earned the right based on something said over twenty two years ago. He wasn’t racist, homophobic, sexist or discriminatory in any way. Now his style of management would not suit a dressing room these days but then it wasn’t out of place back in the mid-nineties. For how long must a man pay a penalty for something which wasn’t illegal or sackable? He was under immense pressure in his first real shot at a management job. He had one shot yet he took the bullet and was never allowed a second chance. Ultimately he was trying to do the best for a club and a set of players and felt frustrated neither was doing the best they could for supporters who turned up week in, week out. A young man not given the backing his position deserved by those who were more than happy to give him the responsibility

As I said earlier I would recommend the book as you get to hear his side of things, the background, and the before and after. What you won’t get is a line-by-line examination of what was said and why during the filming, as he is fairly matter-of-fact about it all. But it does go to illustrate how for some people the label they’re given sticks, with little desire from a watching public for its removal. Yet for others they are given the opportunity to rise above it and maybe put things right.

Sitts the player, by his own admission was probably born a year or two too late as by the time he was reaching maturity the game was changing regarding how central defenders were viewed. If you had pace as well as defensive ability then you were snapped up by the top clubs, but just having defensive nous alone was not enough anymore. You could argue his management style may well have been slightly out of date too with the emergence of player power, yet this was something he could’ve done something about. He was just never given the chance.